Globalism has been the great disrupter of many things, among them the standard account of 20th-century art, in which Paris hands the baton of the historic greatest to New York. Due in no small part to the art market’s ravenous appetite for novelty, that narrative has unraveled since the turn of the millennium—which is just as well, since we would have otherwise missed shows like this fascinating roundup of Cold War–era Hungarian avant-gardists.
The artists here emerged during the 1960s and ’70s, a span following an inauspicious period for Hungary that included an alliance with Hitler during World War II. This left the country at the tender mercy of the Russians, who, in 1956, crushed an anti-Communist uprising in Budapest with tanks.
Yet within a decade, Hungarians enjoyed a modicum of freedom unavailable in the rest of the Eastern Bloc. “The happiest barracks in the Socialist camp,” is how they put it, though the joy wasn’t spread to artists who colored outside state-sanctioned lines. They were obliged to keep their heads down, showing at each others’ homes and scouring Western publications like Artforum for inspiration; a few managed to travel to abroad.
Notable examples of the latter include two painters, István Nadler and Imre Bak, whose abstract geometric compositions are among the liveliest offerings on view. Both spent time during the early ’70s in Essen, West Germany, where they picked up pointers on hard-edged painting. The results, filled with bright color, seem both modern and atavistic, especially Bak’s imposing SUN-OX-FACE (1976), a schematic landscape of orange, purple, blue and green that greets visitors to the show. On the opposite side of the same wall, Dóra Maurer’s multipanel, algorithmic 5 out of 4 I–III (1979) reflects the contemporaneous Western vogue for system- based abstraction.
Conceptual and performative practices play a big role, represented by photographic documentation of works, including seemingly straight-up body art (Tibor Hajas, Katalin Ladik) and more evident, if somewhat ambiguous, subversive gestures (Endre Tót). But all of the work here, abstract or not, could be construed as political, since its very existence was a rebuke to the state.
A mixture of longing and resignation permeates the show, emotions best divined, perhaps, in Károly Halász’s tribute to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Bálint Szombathy’s comical hanging of a sign reading “Bauhuas” in a shabby garret. More poignantly, the photo set lending its name to the exhibition, Károly Kismányoky’s With the Eyes of Others (1973), pictures the artist with cutout images of models’ eyes pasted over his own. At once matter-of-fact and wonderfully surreal, it speaks to a generation of artists struggling to find their place in the world by gazing beyond their cultural confinement.