”Art is the highest form of hope”
#1 At the exhibition Six Macedonian Artists, opened in 1985 in Zagreb1F, which can be considered a milestone that marked the end of the developing phase of the Macedonian modernism and announced its tendencies towards the contemporary post-modern artistic practices, Dragan Petković for the first time showed his new cycle of works The Joy of Life (1985/1987), named after Henry Matisse’s work Le bonheur de vivre and composed of groups of outstandingly vivid and brightly painted cardboards with sharp edges, cut in the form of indefinite associative figures and compositions that bounce in a wild rhythm all over the gallery walls, as if being aroused and carried by a thrilling and passionate dance. Judging by the features like the use of quotations, the ambivalence between the figurative and abstract character of the forms and their ecstatic color and spatial expression, these works of Petković could be defined as close to some of the basic postulates that were in a vigorous and euphoric gust brought about by the post-modern “New Image Painting”.
#2 This general title covers the numerous painting occurrences encompassed basically with the terms “neo-expressionism” and “trans-avant-garde”, whose common output was the idea of returning to the painting or, as the American critic Thomas McEvilley has put it, “the exile’s return”.2F Following the crisis years of 1970s, when the rigid formalism of the high Modernism, the closed structures of the iconoclastic minimalism and the radical rejection of the art object in the conceptualism resulted in a block of ideas and when “Another kind of cultural impasse seemed to be approaching in which culture would symbolically destroy itself through its auto-critique”,3F the reaction in the art at the beginning of the 1980s first came through painting, through the return of some of its suppressed values: subjectivity, expression, narration, return of the figure, decorativeness, media and style pastiche, or the mere pleasure in the act and in the matter of painting. However, that revived painting did not find its landscape in nature but only and exclusively in itself, in its own modern art history and in the media of the popular culture.
“As if to offset its former elitism and puritanism, it returned in a costume of rags collected from everywhere. It returned as a Conceptual painting and found a variety of new uses for the medium.”4F In the years that followed, in the nomadic decade of the 1980s and soon after that, painting underwent a wide range of metamorphoses, returning as a broken film flashback of fragments of its own modern history, deconstructing and reconstructing it in the attempts to once again adapt and define the objectives and means, and finally, the meaning of its existence in a different, post-historic age.
#3 The work of Dragan Petković develops and corresponds to this critical period for the art of painting. The beginning of his painting career was under the strong influence of his studies at the Art Academy in Ljubljana in the mid 1970s which rendered a generation of artists who supported and developed the practical and theoretical postulates of the tradition of the American abstract art.5F In the works he made in the years after his graduation in 1977, which he exhibited several years later at his solo exhibitions in Skopje, first at the Journalists’ Club in 1981 and a year later, in a larger scope at the Gallery of the Youth Center, Petković showed a series of works which were an actual compendium of different forms and idioms of the American abstract painting, set one next to the other: from works in the spirit of the Abstract Expressionism and the sublime painting to those close to the post-painterly abstraction, the color-field painting, hard-edge painting and minimalism. Neglecting entirely the modalities of the style and overcoming the conceptual and theoretical differences of each of these abstract idioms, Petković restricted his interest to their formal aspects of reducing the painting to its basic elements: color, drawing and space.
#4 Most of the titles of his works from that period are an exact description of the applied artistic methods or topics. So, for example, in a group of paintings which tackles the complementariness of the colors, like in Complementary Games 2 (1978, plate 7) or Games of Simultaneity 2 (1978, pl. 5), the chromatic opposition of two colors, treated as two layered surfaces, emerges as a kind of engraved notches which compose a drawing by means of sharp and short strokes which have no expressive but plastic role, creating a grid, a porous membrane in the game of planes and spaces amidst the colored fields. The spatiality of color and the network structure of the drawing are also included in an impressive group of red monochromes, where his typical short, broken, non-expressive strokes (Obsessive Red 3, 1977, p. 3; Dynamic Surface on Red, 1977/78, pl. 4) become denser from one painting to another, turning into a powerful chromatic intensity that visually has the tendency to expand beyond the painting frame (Obsessive Red 2, 1977, pl. 10); an opposite direction from this extensive spatiality is to be seen in a particular group of monochrome works (Structures on Yellow, 1978/80, pl. 6, Structures on Red, 1978/80, pl. 8) where by means of layered textures of the painting matter he achieves a dense structure wherein the space is forced out, while the corporeality of the painted field is emphasized.
#5 Although in all of these works he mostly uses the vocabulary and the formal models of the Abstract Expressionism, Petković actually does not show that its expressive contents is particularly close to him; there is not a hint of the existential gesture, the mythical connotation, the tendency towards the metaphysics of the sublime and the transcendental. On the contrary, the analytical, distanced and expressively reduced approach is guided by the logic of the modeling structure and the process of rendering the artwork. It is interesting to note that it is an utterly deliberately chosen approach since his student days and Petković had cherished it all through his career. In his final exam in 1977 he says “I intend to exclude sensitivity from painting since I don’t want to flirt with the plot”, and he adds “The seeming bloodlessness which the viewer – and I am aware of that – sees in my paintings is actually due to my tendency to harmonize the idea and the execution. The drawing becomes schematic and the paintings posses a pervading symmetry. However, the ‘bloodlessness’ is deliberate because I would not like to lean on any kind of a chance or to put emphasize on any particular object, any direction or color.”
#6 The closest to this program of harmonization of the idea and the execution, which equalizes the tautological consideration of the painting with the means of the very act of painting, Petković approaches with his last paintings from the period of his second solo exhibition at the Gallery of the Youth Center in 1982 (of which only three have survived, due to the extremely self-critical attitude of the artist and his usual practice of frequently re-painting his older canvases: Quivering, Endlessly Red, pl. 13 and Endlessly Blue, pl. 14, all from 1979) and especially with a group of watercolors made from 1980 to 1984. So, in Pulsating from 1981 and Flow from 1980/81 (reproductions 15 and 16), the former grid of gesture strokes is replaced by a texture of evenly and monotonously repeated, almost identical movements of the brush until the moment the background becomes a solidly structured two-dimensional surface, a self-aware pictorial pulsating organism. With a tautological repetition of the strokes, which includes a process of employment of the dimension of time as a replacement of the color in the composition and the drawing in the construction of the artwork, Petković approaches to some extent to the art of the post-minimalism from the 1970s and its sub-variants: the analytical or primary painting which tends to reach the so called “zero point” in the semantic decomposition of the artistic elements. But, unlike these tendencies which rely upon or function as theoretical models of the post-structuralism, Petković’s watercolors are made under the influence, or even better, in a concurrence with the minimalist and ambient music of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Brian Eno and what seemed to be especially significant for him, the work of Steve Reich6F Music for 18 Musicians, in the obsessive sound pulsating of which7F Petković finds an ideal background for the continuous monotone rhythm of his almost meditative strokes which render an utterly rich surface structures.
1. Šest makedonskih umjetnika: Od čudotvornosti livade do radosti življenja (Six Macedonian Artists: From the Miracle of the Meadow to the Joy of Living), Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1985. The exhibition was also shown in Belgrade, Skopje and Kavadarci. This exhibition is important because it was the fist topic or curatorial project. Curator of that exhibition was Sonja Abadjieva, and along with Dragan Petković it was also participated by: Aneta Svetieva, Gligor Stefanov, Petre Nikoloski, Simon Šemov and Dimitar Manev.
2. According to the title of the book: Thomas McEvilley, The Exile’s Return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
3. Ibid., p. 6.
4. Ibid., p. 7.
5. Igor Zabel, Disclosed Images: Selected Slovene Works of Art of Eighties, Moderna galerija, Ljubljana 1989. “The turning point to which led the appearance of these young authors was related to the introduction of the American abstract art tradition (…) This tradition was a sort of novelty in Slovene visual arts, not because artists did not have knowledge of it, but because they were not particularly interested in it in the “heroic” fifties, or even later, in the sixties and seventies.”
6. “Now I usually listen to experimental, avant-garde music. Sometimes it inspires me with its rhythm; sometimes it helps me approach with greater concentration to what I’m working on. Music and painting complement each other. Both intermediate through the inner structure and immediately in the so called integral works. In the music we are listening right now (Steve Reich – V. V.) there is a structure which exists in a picture: dark-light contrast, combinations of elements connected into a logical string, possibility for infinite duration given in a time frame.” Interview with Valentina Velevska, “Ova e period na istražuvanja”(This is a Period of Experimenting), Mlad borec, Skopje, 10.04.1985.
7. “Rhythmically there are two basically different kinds of time occurring simultaneously in “Music for 18 Musicians”. The first is that of a regular rhythmic pulse in the pianos and mallet instruments that continues throughout the piece. The second is the rhythm of the human breath in the voices and wind instruments. The entire opening and closing sections plus part of all sections in between contain pulses by the voices and winds. They take a full breath and sing or play pulses of particular notes for as long as their breath will comfortably sustain them. The breath is the measure of the duration of their pulsing.” Steve Reich in the liner notes on the back cover of the LP record: Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, ECM Records, 1978