This exhibition reveals a small segment of the 1980s, and just a section of Sugár’s oeuvre.
János Sugár: A Story from the Year Zero _ Print Works 1986-90
Curated by Peter Bencze
Curatorial asisstants: Andrea Tarczali, Sára Vilma Nagy
5 April – 10 May 2019
aqb Project Space, Budapest
Andrea Tarczali - Negative Avalanche_On János Sugár’s graphical thought
János Sugár got acquainted with graphic techniques during the seventies, before his years at the Academy. Having graduated as a sculptor from the Academy of Fine Arts, towards the mid-eighties, he developed an interest in the system of techniques of visual arts, attested by an early draft of his that has survived (Art is the technique of what?), in which he had positioned graphic techniques too – according to the relation between the intention and the result. Invited by László Beke, he held a lecture on the topic in March 1985 to art history students. Although printed graphic techniques are further from the intention than the immediate procedure of drawing, considered to be in sync with the artistic thought, the distance is still smaller than in the case of his specialization: sculpture. In addition to the examination of immediacy, another question also arose: what does the maximal exploitation of the potentials of a medium make possible? How far can one go? This inquiry was what led to Sugár’s graphic experiments in the long term.
One of his basic inspirations was Dóra Maurer’s summary on copper etching and engraving. Titled Copper Etching, Copper Engraving, Maurer’s text was published in 1976 as part of the series Trade Secrets, which introduced techniques of art. In this publication Maurer endeavoured to introduce intaglio printing not only from a historical and technical perspective, but she also smuggled in some contemporary materials among her examples illustrating the graphic approach. This was where Sugár first read about János Major’s graphics. “Many use it to achieve particular material effects by combining it with other procedures. An apt example of this is a detail from a mixed technique sheet by Major. The composition is comprised by etched and engraved, soft, fluid and hard, rigid forms.” As a student at the Dési Huber Drawing School, around 1978, Sugár and some of his peers got acquainted with classical intaglio printing techniques at János Major’s: on some weekends, Major welcomed art workshop students at his home on Otthon Street, where he showed them the tricks of the trade. Perhaps Maurer’s testimony on the sensual experience of the graphic work process and her notes on the role of chance had a similarly inspiring impact on Sugár. The observation and elaboration of incidentalities and faults offered new technical possibilities and formal solutions to those experimenting with the technique. “Every fortunate incident and idea can be a new means of expression we can implement as a graphic sign at the proper place and in the proper context. Just as in speech, we select words from our vocabulary depending on what we wish to say, we cannot use our repository of graphic qualities, signs and devices randomly. We must also make sure we keep broadening it.” “I seek incidents that are in fact not incidents, but occurrences resulting from the faults of a routine activity that relies on an insufficient knowledge of materials and processes. They throw light on the – to me – hitherto unknown laws of the interaction of materials.” Sugár’s graphic series seem to have been motivated by similar considerations.
Sugár calls this method technical conceptualism: in quest of the potentials and limits of graphic techniques, it is at once their destruction. After some early experiments (three linocut series made between 1976 and 1980 – graphic sheets of calligraphic character, exhibiting an influence of Suprematism), in 1984, while making the first poster for the series of exhibitions and events Fast Two and Fast Culture, he got acquainted with the simplest technique of serigraphy. (This was in use by the artistic and political samizdat publishers of the period.) Between 1986 and 1990 he made two large-format graphic series using mixed media technique and several other single works. The drafts for the first series are from 1986. Sugár printed five graphic sheets in the same year and the remaining eight in 1987. The series of thirteen sheets was mate using the same technique, serigraphy combined with copper engraving and relief printing. The image motifs filling the main surfaces are screen prints, for which he made drawings – with the method used in tactical application – in coating and crayon on tracing paper, which was exposed onto the screen. We can discover a delicate mesh of marks, the texture of the substrate for the crayon lines, which Sugár included in the image surface as a frottage element. This vague, provocative attitude and the exploration of boundaries is manifested in his use of copper engraving as well. In contrast with the discreet and clean lines, instead of swiping the plate clean, he allows the smeared parts or the traces of saw-marks to be outlined as well, becoming constituents of the composition. With the mesh of delicately embossed triangles and squares, a further layer is formed by the relief print covering the white substrate, as a precursor to the textures used in his visual language of computer-drawn illustrative figures while cancelling out the neutrality of the white paper.
The combination of simplified personal and more popular symbolic visual elements forms a motivically more complex system of metaphors. The structure and interaction of forms seems to recall a dream-like imagery with the help of either suggestively evident or more enigmatic images. The chosen title (sometimes variations on titles) is also rather just for orientation than specification.
The diversity of surfaces and treatments in these graphic sheets is owing to the synergy manifested by juxtaposing or interfusing different techniques. Sugár developed a complex procedure of several steps in which the different techniques not only form distinct layers, but also suggest that each layer is associated with a different layer of reality, which can be decoded and unravelled. Different graphic media have different dramaturgical roles, and their interaction gives rise to a nonlinear narrative. This kind of conceptual approach to narrativity derives from Sugár’s cinematic and performative works.
This increased media-consciousness perceivable in Sugár’s graphic sheets owes a lot to the practice related to the work of the INDIGO group at Miklós Erdély’s interdisciplinary art pedagogy course, in which Sugár participated from 1979.
The conception of the first series is related to the period following Miklós Erdély’s death; three sheets are more directly associated with him. Citing the grotesque and at once euphemistic German turn of phrase for the personification of death in its title, Mein Freund Hein shows the time of Erdély’s death. Shaped as a capital M, the structure supporting the central shape resembling a traffic sign is a reference to Miklós Erdély’s name. With some of its motifs, Disease Theory recalls Erdély’s time at the hospital preceding his death. (Similar motifs are featured in his first series of computer graphics.) Printed in the second series, the title of Kékgolyó refers to the street where the hospital accommodating the ailed Erdély is located. The two motifs of Matryoshka Doll and Mummy find their common denominator in the symbol of death. Sugár’s notes reveal the train of thought leading to the mechanical “concept” of the Matryoshka doll: form, which is “non-life”, contains nothing but a miniature version of itself, symbolizing nothing. The outlines of the copper engraving insert within the composition of Three Ts allude to the two spotlights from his former work within the Indigo group (That Which is Personal and That Which Is Sacred, 1984). The visual influence of the Böröcz-Révész performances appears on several sheets. Still, the aesthetic of Sugár’s graphic sheets is defined not by these specific signs and references.
This narrative visual thought also appears in his early computer graphics (the series from 1986 and 1987), but already by the turn of 1987-88, this formal language transformed into a more abstract, figure-like language. His copper engraving The First Stone (1987) and the series of lithographs to follow are characterized by this mode of expression. Each copy of The First Stone exhibits slight differences, either in terms of the colouring of the circular sector or in the treatment of the larger surfaces on the right side of the composition, in their rougher or finer coating. As a result, each sheet can be considered a unique graphic, even though the prints were made from the same plate. In the case of series made using a combination of techniques, as well as with unique pieces, owing to the slight differences in printing the “mobile” elements, and other unintentional but programmed faults, these printed graphics bring up the following questions: to what extent do they push the boundaries of multiplicability, and to what extent should they be considered unique works of art? Even more intentional are the divergences in the sheets of Cognitive Nonsense (Cleveland version, 1994), which are based on a 1981 work originally made for a mail art call. Some copies of the printed version have different colours, and the roller printing procedure yields conspicuous differences in each sheet. For that matter, this was the last sheet Sugár made using a traditional printing technique.
Sugár had the opportunity to make two lithography series using 70 x 100 cm stones (which counts as a rarity) at the Vác Graphic Arts Workshop in 1988 and 1989. In these sheets, the basic technique used is the combination of lithography with copper engraving. On these surfaces, coloured cooper engravings form a kind of relief print. The sheets readily illustrate the abstraction of Sugár’s graphic language. Such titles as “The Brownian Motion of Facts” or “The Mechanics of Facts” create a scientific illusion, and the abstract graphic symbols seem to be figures for scientific models. This language is not quite related to Sugár’s former graphic language, much rather to the illustrations of his volume of essays conceived in these years, titled Minus Pathos, which, albeit not scientific figures, can be read as illustrative models of the thoughts outlined in the texts.
In certain cases “faults” endow the work with a special quality; this is how the texture of the copper engraving in Disease Theory becomes visible on the surface of the pillow tucked under the legs. In colouring the pyjama coat, Sugár chose a crayon with the wrong tone, thus this surface remained uncovered. The graphic Ouvo Sole (1989), which was the poster of Sugár’s exhibition in Firenze, was also made in versions with dislocated double printing (and these are the nicest according to the artist). The resulting image is a kind of optical illusion. With some copies of Story from Year Zero, the slightly discoloured surface of a sheet of paper used for a test print with a cleaned stone gave a three-dimensional effect to the lithograph later printed on the same paper. This sheet of graphic art was made as a gift for the premier of a theatre play in Miskolc for which Sugár had done the scenic design. An upside-down double-printed version of The Reality Content of Memories (1989) gave rise to a new work: Reorganized Experience.
Exhibited here, the installation The Background of Calligraphy was first put on display in 1988 at the French Institute, together with five other sheets from Sugár’s first series of lithographs, made specifically for the occasion. In the installation, graphic elements enter the three-dimensional space; the emblematic basic elements of Sugár’s “vocabulary”, the comma and the dash “continue” in his reliefs and installations, while certain visual signs (diagrams) prefigure the formal language of his subsequent pictographic works.
This exhibition reveals a small segment of the 1980s, and just a section of Sugár’s oeuvre. Simultaneously with the presented pieces of graphic art, in his rather active and productive creative period between 1986 and 1990, the artist made installations, plaques, large drawings, videos and films, performances as well as theatre productions and publications. This exhibition is the first comprehensive presentation of his printed graphics, with a juxtaposed display of various copies and series of prints, offering the opportunity of discovering further qualities in this work. A special feature of this show is that the exhibited copies of some graphics are at once the last remaining sheets.
The exhibition is being produced in collaboration with art quarter budapest, Everybody Needs Art and Kisterem.
Photography: all images copyright and courtesy of Aron Weber and the artist and aqb Project Space, Budapest