The Radiator Man
Croatian artist Julije Knifer spent the best part of 45 years painting endless variations on the theme of the meander. But did he ever intend so many of his meanders to be exhibited in the same gallery all at once?
Croatian artist Julije Knifer (1924-2004) spent the best part of 45 years painting endless variations on the theme of the meander, a snaking abstract form almost always rendered in stark black and white. But did he ever intend so many of his meanders to be exhibited in the same gallery all at once?
It’s a question well worth posing when confronted by Julije Knifer: Uncompromising at Zagreb’s Contemporary Art Museum (MSU), a career-spanning retrospective that brings together a huge number of Knifer works, many of which have never before been seen in public.
Spread over two floors, the display includes big meanders, small meanders, acrylic meanders, pencil-drawn meanders, meanders that concertina themselves into the corners of the display halls, and meanders that roam millipede-like across the pages of limited-edition art books. This tour-de-force of meandering around will either transport you into abstract-art nirvana, or leave you wishing never to see another of Knifer’s bendy pictures ever again.
Knifer may not have minded either way. The Osijek-born, Zagreb-educated artist became obsessed with the meander motif in his late thirties and spent the rest of his life exploring its possibilities, as if on a quest to discover a form that would express everything that he wanted to say about painting, life, the universe and everything. As Knifer himself explained (in one of the many artist’s statements scattered throughout the exhibition), “in the space of a few months I arrived at what you might call the end… at the meander, a point beyond which you quite simply cannot go.”
Ana Knifer, the artist’s daughter and one of the curators of the current exhibition, recently recalled in print that when she asked her father what the meander meant, he answered simply ‘it is life’. In many ways he was seeking to channel the same energies as Russian suprematist Kazimir Malevich, who famously unleashed his epoch-defining Black Square on the St Petersburg public in 1915.
Knifer’s meander became one of the defining symbols of Zagreb’s famously avant-garde art scene from the Sixties onwards. He was always somewhere near the heart of the action, co-founding the Gorgona anti-art group in 1959, and exhibiting in the ground-breaking series of New Tendencies exhibitions that turned the Croatian capital into a centre for constructivist art, op-art, and computer art.
Despite such iconic status Knifer never made a great deal of money from his art, at least not to begin with. He spent the most productive, middle part of his career living in a small flat in the Črnomerec district, looking after his daughter during the daytime and painting meander pictures on the kitchen table at night. By the 1980s Parisian galleries were enthusiastically promoting Knifer’s work, and these French contacts enabled Knifer to move first to Nice, then Paris, where he lived from 1994 until his death.
It was Parisian painter Francois Morletti who described Knifer as the man who ‘paints radiators’, an image that’s hard to shake out of your mind once you’ve seen some of his larger canvases. That Knifer is more than just a radiator man is, however, the main message of this exhibition. Indeed such is the variety of meander shapes on display that one can’t help admiring Knifer’s single-minded search for the perfect set of curves. Pencil drawings on sheets of A4 paper, taken from different periods throughout his career, show the artist working his way through all possible permutations of the meander, rarely failing to come up with results that were both supremely decorative and sublimely meditative at the same time. A display case filled with his worn-down pencils serves as a reminder that many of his later large-scale pictures consisted of dense layers of pencil shading rather than paint, producing surfaces that were louder, thicker, blacker than anything that could have been achieved with acrylics.
There is engrossing film of the 1975 peformance Arbeitsprozess, when Knifer hung a 30-metre-high canvas from the cliff wall of a quarry just outside Tübingen. It makes strangely hypnotic viewing; the painting flapping in the breeze like the logo of some new corporate religion.
One genuine revelation comes from Knifer’s diaries, their daily entries written up in the form of interlocking meanders, each in a different-coloured felt-tipped pen.
There are certainly few art museums better suited to showing Knifer’s work than the MSU, a building that is itself almost a three-dimensional interpretation of a Knifer work. Not only in the meander-profile of its façade, but also in the way the interior spaces are linked, with staircases leading to different bits of different floors in what seems like an interactive game of snakes and ladders.
What state you are in by the time you tumble out at the finish largely depends on how ready you are to enter Knifer’s hermetic world of minimalism and repetition. As the artist might have ventured to suggest himself, Without Compromise is not so much an exhibition as a state of mind.
© Jonathan Bousfield
This article was first published in September 2014 to coincide with the Julije Knifer: Uncompromising exhibition held at Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art from September 20 to December 6 2014.