The Artist’s Hand – When Dematerialization Becomes Form
Notes on the Early Work of Gyula Konkoly
László Beke once said: „we can consider conceptual art as anti-painterly, or, anti-traditionalist art. For this reason, everyone, especially painters with a good perspective, had to decide for their own how to handle this. […] The same problem occurred again at the beginning of the 80s when the same artists, who had become conceptual, had to decide whether to begin to paint again. […] This can be described as the great conflict between traditional and conceptual art in general.” This conflict that I would call La querelle des conceptuels et traditionnels is presented in this paper through the work of the Hungarian artist Gyula Konkoly and his twofold, controversial relation to the tradition of painting and to conceptual thinking. Konkoly, a classically-trained painter, who is mainly known as a pop art artist and as one of the earliest protagonists of object art in Hungary (and, unfortunately, he is lesser known for his conceptual works from the late 60s and early 70s), with his Manifesto from 1971/72, has ceased every kind of “grand art” activity for almost two decades, until the End of the ‘80s, when he has returned to painting.
In most of his works from the 60s, it was the episteme of painting that he was dealing with. On the one hand, he quoted the great masters of art history in many of his paintings, using their works in a pop art context, pairing them with abstract, hard-edge surfaces. On the other hand, however, as a skilled painter he was inserted in using resin imprints of his own hand on the canvases that represented the notion of craftsmanship and also the idea of the ready-made. So it was this motif, the skilled hand of the artist that had to be destroyed when he got involved in conceptual art and in anti-art activities. At the legendary first Iparterv exhibition he presented his seminal work Cage, An Academic Study (1968), the gigantic hand of the artist himself breaking free from the cage of the conservative academic institution. In an unrealized project for a solo exhibition in the Foksal Gallery, Warsaw it was also the artist’s hand that he planned to bury. In the same year, in 1972, in the Cité-des-Arts, Paris he exhibited the works of two other artists in the framework of his own solo exhibition. By the deconstruction of the artist’s personality and by the symbolic destruction of the artist’s hand, the symbol of the mastery of his métier, Konkoly came to the conclusion that this process, the total dematerialization of art and art object has reached its end making every kind of artistic activity pointless. Following this, in 1972 he published a Manifesto in which he proclaimed: “Art will disappear in the month of December of this year, whoever wants to make art after this date must know that it is no longer valid.”
The great paradigm shift of conceptual art thus led in Konkoly’s career also to a major turning point, to an almost two-decade long pause in his work. When returning to painting at the End of the 80s, it was again, through his skilled artist’s hand with which he resumed his meditation on medium and métier, on colours and forms, and on the episteme of painting in general. Thus the thesis of this paper is that Konkoly’s work may be seen as a continuous and – almost – lifelong meditation on painting, on its basic structures, its relationship to its tradition and to the reality it expresses, and its epistemological value when compared with other, more abstract and philosophical, conceptual modes of art making.