Galeria Plan B is pleased to announce the solo exhibition of Ion Bitzan, to open on Friday, the 28th of September 2018, on the occasion of Art Berlin.
Ion Bitzan (1924-1997) is considered one of the most important names among the Romanian visual artists, who asserted themselves between 1960 and 1970. He was a subtle and versatile artist and, while successfully going through various styles, concepts and ideologies he became quite successful both at home and abroad. His oeuvre, counting well over 1200 works, bears witness to a remarkable technical intelligence and ability and to his mastery of the most diverse media: painting, collage, etching, ceramics, objects and installations, grouped in cycles which span an amazingly wide range of topics.
Thinking in cycles is actually a feature of his mature work-phase, mainly after 1967, as Bitzan first took up experimenting with etching techniques and with abstract artistic expression under the influence of direct contact to the newest Western art movements during his participation in the Venice Biennale of 1964.
It is only recently, with the necessary benefit of some historical distance, that a new approach to, and a re-evaluation of Ion Bitzan's entire work is being undertaken.
The exhibition gathers some of Bitzan's abstract work series from the early seventies, when the artist enjoyed a growing international presence, and sets them in a new context from a contemporary perspective. From a curatorial perspective that takes into account the experimental impulse that the artist gave to these series of works, Plan B presents woodcuts, monotypes and object-installations, accompanied by a selection of related photographs and documents.
The large group of abstract Compositions Bitzan created between 1968 and 1973 is a homage to the historical Avant-garde, both in formal terms and through the titling of works. His deference may be understood as an attempt to adopt, and adapt to the Neo-Avant- garde movements that had so far defined the international art scene at the time, but also as an effect of the re-evaluation of abstract art which first became possible in Romania after the 1967 Brancusi Colloquium.
These approximately 100 compositions-woodcuts and monotypes on chipboard, wood and metal plates-can be clearly distributed into series of works. Some bear titles given by the author, for instance the Cadences cycle (Cadente, 1968-1969) or the Inseparables cycle (Inseparabile, 1969-1970). Others were assigned to a group or other after research into Bitzan's work, according to the alternative titles the artist himself noted on some works and from a simple description of their appearance: Grey Drawings (Desene gri, 1970-1971), Boxes (Cutii, 1970), Strings (Snururi, 1970-1971), White and Coloured Pipes (Tuburi albe si colorate, 1970-1972), Pink Drawings (Deseneroz, 1971-1972), White Squares (Patrate albe, 1973). The lineage of, and the demarcation line between groups are not clearcut, because the themes and shapes are interrelated and overlapping. They also relate to works from other cycles and are echoed by three-dimensional objects and installations they belong together with as a composite work.
The choice of works Plan B made for their Berlin exhibition showcases the group of grey Drawings, earliest specimens of which were displayed in 1970 at the Panorama Mesdag Gallery in The Hague. They were at the time accompanied by the installations with soft objects, Soft Machine, which the artist described as studies of a falling object.1 Those plastic tubes half-filled with straw,reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg's Pop Art aesthetics, were themselves a source for shapes Bitzan used in later works.
Bitzan's spirited but pragmatic personality left no room at the time for a self-reflecting or self descriptive discourse: there are no considerations on his own work to be found anywhere, not in interviews, in a diary, in notes or sketchbooks. Therefore, exhibition flyers or catalogues and a few art chronicles are the only sources for clues about this series of works. References to the grey_Drawings_ appear in the flyer of the exhibition Romanian Art Today, which the Richard Demarco Gallery organised as part of the International Edinburgh Festival.
Ion Bitzan, whose work was presented there for the second time (the first had been in 1969), exhibited together with important artists from Romania, several of whom were his close friends: Paul Neagu, Ovidiu Maitec, Pavel Ilie, Horia Bernea, Serban Epure, Diet Sayler, Vladimir Setran, Ion Pacea. The text Cordelia Oliver, the Scottish art critic of the Guardian, published in the exhibition-flyer2–, sheds light upon the kinship between the series of the grey Drawings and theseries of object-installations bearing a long narrative name, which is rather untypical of Bitzan's work: Once I slept in a foreign room, the pieces of furniture were unusually tall and dark coloured. Close by my bed a watch was ticking unusually loudly and I couldn't sleep. I stared at the watch all the night. On its enamelled dial a little bag was painted, and, instead of numbers I saw spots-these signs I reproduced exactly, naturally, by heart-TIME?3
This installation, partially reconstructed in the Plan B exhibition, consisted of four sets of twelve boxes each containing little bags of white cloth, one for every hour on a watch dial. The signs printed on the bags should be conceived of as a coded language. Bitzan creates a sign-code which translates something from the surrounding reality according to a principle similar to the one he will apply for the Colour Code (1978-1983), where the code is one-to- one correspondence between a colour and a letter. The red or black signs on the small bags are ideograms, symbols which simultaneously translate as letters and numbers.
Bitzan's interest in signs, writing and coding emerges in this abstract creative period and will accompany his whole work. There might be a connexion to his experience as a professor at the Design Department of the Art Institute 'Nicolae Grigorescu' in Bucharest, which he actually cofounded in 1969. The courses on calligraphy and signage, which were part of the Graphic Design curriculum, shaped Bitzan's artistic vision and visual language for the rest of his creative period.
Whereas the title of the TIME? series shows concern for introspection and for investigating the private sphere, for the prospection of the subconscious and the exploration of states of half awareness, and not least for anyone's fear of time, another group of little bags in the Edinburgh exhibition, titled Once upon a time in my childhood, in a sunny garden, a man was sealing a lot oflittle bags like this one..., connects Bitzan's method to memories of a childhood spent in the Romanian countryside. From this perspective, the little bags may be understood as a receptacle for the germinative element (germ, seedling) or fertile layer (the earth). Sealing the little bags in wooden boxes with a glass top, like in some sort of jewel showcase or shrine, an exhibition system which the artist will use again, with the same meaning, in the early 1990s in the Insectary Series,can also be read in a double key which speculates the ambiguity of Bitzan's symbols. On the one hand, sealing the sachets in boxes symbolises the preservation of memory, engaging the viewer in a meditation upon the passage of time and the possibility of arresting it. This interpretation is also backed by the sand which fills the bags and therefore cannot flow any longer. On the other hand, this manner of packaging may be read as an ironic jab at the fetish of agriculture in the communist block. Bitzan displays the bag of seeds as an idol of the iconography of productivity, just as American Pop Art used fast-food products as iconic images in its critique of consumerism.
According to Cordelia Oliver's interpretation, based on a personal discussion with Ion Bitzan on the occasion of her visit to his Bucharest studio in 1971, the sachets are three-dimensional developments of the structures present in the two-dimensional works of the Grey Drawing series.4 Many of the 44 gouache monotypes use signs identical to those printed on the TIME? bags. Thecylindrical and rectangular shapes in various grey tones-an explicit allusion to night vision-distorted images of furniture in the sleeping room can be guessed, as described by the narrative title: pillows, bedding, mattresses, folded textiles, bed-frame, piping segments, clock dial, etc. Bitzan activates his memory of the senses and his intuition by resorting to the roots of the subconscious, like a child whose unleashed imagination makes funny associations in order to better internalise the world around himself. In Bitzan's case, this childlike game, which converts the props of a sleeping room into abstract graphic signs, is backed up by a more refined adult sense of humour, which cannot help but grasp the erotic undertone of some of the compositions.
From this point of view, the 'Weight and density and an unyielding hardness' which 'give way to, and counterbalance feelings of lightness, flexibility and sensual softness'5, as Oliver pointed out, could in addition be interpreted as a male/feminine opposition, which significantly enlarges the connotative horizon of the little bags.
The history of the exhibitions which showed the TIME? series and the Grey Drawings, continues with the solo exhibition Objects, Collages, Drawings of January 1972 at the Amsterdam Espace Gallery which also went on exhibition, with a similar list of works, at the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh in the spring, and at the Art Gallery in Aberdeen in the fall of the same year. Under the same title, but with a different list of works, some of the bags were also exhibited in Bucharest at the Orizont Gallery on the occasion of the VIIe Congres International d'Esthetique Bucharest 1972.
Photographs and documents kept in the Ion Bitzan Archive indicate that the artist conceived and created the works exhibited in 1970-1972 in Amsterdam, as an artist in residence at the Stedelijk Museum, where he was invited for three months in the summer of 1970 and again in the fall of 1971. At the end of the first visit four of the Grey Drawings were purchased by the museum. Five other works of the series went over to the Richard Demarco Gallery.
The core of this exhibition, made up of Drawings and sacks, is supported by works from cycles with related shapes, such as that of Tubes and Cords, including the impressive Cordonnet non tendu and Cordonnet bien tendu woodcuts. Besides these there was a generous selection of Compositions from the numbered group of works, ranging from No. 46 to No. 75 (1970-1972). Ion Bitzan conceived most of them as independent works, not connected to any exhibition concept, but intended for participation in biennials and graphics and engraving competitions, such as the Biella International Biennale (Italy), the Norwegian International Print Biennale in Friedrichstadt (Norway), Internationale Grafik Biennale, Frechen (Germany), International Exposition of Gravure Xylon, Geneva, Woodblock and Linoleum Prints, USA, etc. Bitzan was regularly invited in such competitions that were quite popular in Europe in the 1960s-1980s, and also represented good opportunities for East European artists to keep in touch with the 'free world' and gain some notoriety abroad.
These brightly coloured woodcuts and monotypes are the more interesting as, whereas at a profane glance it is their strong decorative effect which impressed, their semantic duality activates two distinct reference systems: that of Western society, marked by Pop Art, Op Art and Minimalism, and that of the Eastern Bloc, subject to state prescribed themes and motifs. Ion Bitzan's artistic versatility allows both a conceptual interpretation in line with the concerns of the Western world, and an interpretation which toed the line of the Romanian official themes of that period, which privileged the industrial, agricultural and urban topics. From this second perspective, Ion Bitzan's experimental shapes turn into bags for grains or building materials or seedlings, irrigation pipes, power cords, sewers, anchoring ropes, loadbearing structures made of poles, beams and iron profiles, etc. This concealment strategy is a frequent occurrence in the work of other Romanian graphic artists from the '60s-'70s, and by means of a language derived from advertising and book design it allowed the successful infiltration of the Pop Art and abstract art-forms behind the Iron Curtain in an era in which cultural 'openness' rather favoured the non-figurative expression of the archaic and folkloric decorative kind, which better served State ideology.
Cristina Cojocaru, art historian
Translation from Romanian to German and English by Vlad Arghir.
1 Article by W. Penders in Het Vaderland, Wed., July 22, 1970
2 Cordelia Oliver, in the catalog for Romanian Art Today, curator Ana-Christina Atanasiu Condiescu, Richard Demarco Gallery, International Edinburgh Festival, 1971, pp. 2-
3 List of works, id, p. 8.
4 C. Oliver, op. cit, p. 3.
5 C. Oliver, op. cit, p. 3.
Ion Bitzan, born on August 23, 1924 in Limanu, Constanța, Romania, lived and worked all his life in Bucharest, where he died on September 15, 1997. Bitzan studied (1945-1951) painting at the Institute of Fine Arts 'Nicolae Grigorescu' (presently The National University of Arts) in Bucharest. As of 1963 he started to teach at this institution, first in the Scenography Department and in 1969 he co founded the Design Department where he taught until his death. In 1964 he attended summer courses at the Accademia di Belle Arti from Perugia and in 1970 and 1971 he was awarded a fellowship from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 1981 he had visiting lectureships in the United States. From 1953 until 1989 he participated in almost all national and official exhibitions organised by the Romanian Artists' Union.
Solo exhibitions include: The Prisoners of the Avant-garde. A Ion Bitzan Retrospective, National Museum of Contemporary Art Bucharest (2017); Homage Ion Bitzan, National Museum of Art, Bucharest (1998); The Cabinet The Song of Songs, HotBath Gallery, Bath (1994); Works 1975-1985, Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast (1985); P.S.1, New York ( 1981); Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh and Aberdeen (1972); Panorama Mesdag, The Hague (1970); Ion Biţan. Colaje, desene, Sala Dalles, Bucharest (1967); Arsenal Gallery, Sopot and Warsaw (1966).
Selected group exhibitions include: Mapping Bucharest, Art, Memory, and Revolution 1916-2016, MAK, Vienna ( 2015); Internationale Buchmesse, Untergrundmessehaus, Leipzig (1998); Centenaire Tristan Tzara, Maison de l' UNESCO, Paris (1996); Moholy-Nagy-Memorial Book, Vigadó Galéria, Budapest (1995); Salon de Mai, Paris (1980); Über die seltsame Natur des Geldes in Kunst, Wissenschaft und Leben, Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf (1978); Edinburgh International Festival, Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh (1969, 1971); Premi Internacional dibuix Joan Miró, Palau de la Virreina, Barcelona (1969, 1970); 4 Romanian artists, Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh and Aberdeen (1969); Bienal de São Paolo, Romanian Pavilion, São Paulo (1967, 1969, 1981); Biennale di Venezia, Romanian Pavilion, Venice ( 1964, 1997).
Public collections: MoMA, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh; Kunsthalle Hamburg; Lidice Memorial; National Museum, Poznan; Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rijeka; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest; National Museum of Art, Bucharest.
Press release courtesy Galeria Plan B.