The New Tendencies
Written in 2002, hitherto unpublished.
What the New Tendencies were
This somewhat imprecise term jointly designates a series of international exhibitions staged by the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, in the following chronological order and under the following, precise tiles: New Tendencies , 1961; New Tendencies 2, 1963, New Tendency 3, 1965; Tendency 4, 1968/69; and Tendencies 5, 1973. The alterations in the titles are slight, yet noticeable enough. The exhibitions included a wide cross-section of artistic production of the 1960s and early 1970s, contrary to the widespread and, basically, erroneous assumption that the collective name, New Tendencies, merely covered Neo-Constructivist, Programmed, Optical, Kinetic and Luminokinetic Art. The corpus of issues raised and considered through these exhibitions was actually much broader than any single, strictly determined, linguistic matrix. The importance of the New Tendencies phenomenon for the ‘Yugoslav art space’ and, especially, for Zagreb as its smaller-scale hub, lay, among other things, in the fact that the first two exhibitions of this name, In 1961 and 1963, have gone down in history as among the most significant artistic events in Europe during the first half of the 'sixties.
How the Staging of the First New Tendencies Show Came About
There is an authentic testimony, as to the circumstances that led to the staging of the first exhibition of New Tendencies, and it comes from the very initiator, Almir Mavignier, a Brazilian artist who worked in Germany and was studying at the Ulm School of Design, at the time; today, it might be more correct to refer to him as a Brazilian-born German artist. This document is worth citing at length, for it describes some extremely interesting events:
'In the year 1960, I was in Zagreb. My encounter with the artists and art critics was exciting due to the open-mindedness of an amazingly well-informed group. (…) During a conversation at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, the subject of our discussion was the report on the 1960 Venice Biennale. To the question on which so-far-unknown art movements could be detected at that Biennale, I answered: None, for the simple reason that, owing to the Biennale’s structure at the moment, the art presented there had already been known through the artwork trade or through the official representations of some countries.
In order to trace any unknown movements, one had to visit studios and meet the artists experimenting with new ideas and new materials, which in my opinion included such artists as: Morellet, Gruppo N, Castellani, Mack, Piene, Wilding, Gerstner, Pohl, Adrian, Zehringer and others who sought new ways and a new artistic construct.
To provide evidence in support of my conviction, I suggested an exhibition of such artists. (…) A little while thereafter, the initial preparations began. Božo Bek, Director of the Gallery, and the art critic Matko Meštrović, in untiredly maintained intense correspondence with me, kept explaining the decisive elements of organization. (…)
The works sent in were very good on average. (…) Apart from paintings, there was a kind of plastic items which nonetheless had not one traditional property but rather the character of objects. As to the order in which the exhibits should have been displayed, it was clear to me outright: the objects should be exhibited after the paintings, that is, we should start with painting art and move toward the object.
As to the name of the exhibition, I suggested the title New Tendencies. The name comes from Stringenz – Nuove tendenze tedesche, the exhibition held in 1959 at the Pagani Gallery in Milan. The greatest surprise of the first New Tendencies show was an astonishing kinship in the experiments by the artists from most different countries, although those artists knew little or, frequently, nothing at all about one another.
It was in Zagreb for the first time that the phenomenon injected into our consciousness the existence of an international movement wherein art disclosed a new conception which was experimenting with optical research into the surface, the structure and the object.
The awareness of the new optical dimension stimulated the organizers to provide documentation thereof and spread information by way of future New Tendencies exhibitions that were to be held thereafter, and outside of Yugoslavia, too.1
The European Context of the First New Tendencies Exhibition
In the book, Prospectretrospect. Europa 1946-1976 (Cologne 1976), a chronicle of the most significant events on the European art scene during the period in question, edited by Konrad Fischer and Hans Strelow, the section for the year 1961 includes: the Bewogen Beweging exhibition, held at the Stedelijk Museum, in Amsterdam (later re-staged at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm); Le Nouveau Réalisme à Paris et à New York and A 40° au-dessus de Dada – both held in Paris; the Zero group in Düsseldorf; a series of solo exhibitions, including those of Rothko, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Arman, Christo and Tinguely, held in various European cities, and, finally, Manzoni’s and Castellani’s exhibitions in Rome. The first New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb was listed along with these others. At that time, Mack, Piene and Uecker, who were members of the Zero group, as well as Manzoni and Castellani, gathered around the gallery/magazine Azimuth & Azimut in Milan; they were on Mavignier’s list of participants for the Zagreb exhibition, along with Dorazio, Gerhard von Graevenitz, Le Parc, Stein, Morellet, the Italian Gruppo N, from Padua and Gruppo T, from Milan and, representing the local scene, Ivan Picelj and Julije Knifer. As early on as this, the initial list of names made it clear that the first Zagreb exhibition of the New Tendencies succeeded in bringing together numerous protagonists of early post-Art informel under the wing of Abstract/Concrete Art (the other wing, being represented by Object Art, comprising British and American Pop Art and Paris-based Nouveau Réalisme). The former practised monochromatic painting, static and moving objects in new materials – all of them, technically simple and, primarily, of a mental rather than optical character. Emerging after Art informel had been exhausted as the prevailing artistic expression during the early post-war period, the art of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s reflected the spirit of resurging optimism then spreading through the ranks of a younger generation of artists, who were maturing in the altered and consolidated social circumstances of a reconstructed Europe. It was in this spirit that one of the protagonists of the New Tendencies, François Morellet, wrote (with reference to his own belief, yet implying the overall spiritual climate of that landmark moment) the following lines in the exhibition’s catalogue:
'We find ourselves on the eve of a revolution in art that will be just as significant as the one going on in the sciences. The reason and spirit of systematic exploration should therefore make up for intuition and individualistic expression'.2
The Events Related to the New Tendencies between 1961 and 1963
During the first Zagreb exhibition, there was no mention of establishing an international New Tendencies art movement yet, but it was agreed that a second exhibition should be staged in two years’ time; that is how a biennial event was established, with the Gallery of Contemporary Art, in Zagreb, acting as host. Manfredo Massironi, a member of the Gruppo N, in Padua and one of the participants of the first Zagreb exhibition, described the impact this made:
'This exhibition, which in criticism left feeble echoes, was for the artists themselves of exceptional significance, because it provided an opportunity for exchange of experiences and for meeting many artists from diverse parts of Europe who, unacquainted mutually, could now eyewitness the astonishing kinship of their works. Although they were not aware of what actually connected them, it was for them a moment full of great enthusiasm.'3
As a result of such an attitude, numerous contacts and exchanges of experiences ensued soon enough, and so did a competition as to who was going to prevail in the ideological and organizational sphere. The Paris-based Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel took the initiative for the moment, and by October of 1961 had published a programmatic piece of writing entitled General Propositions (Propositions générales), which proclaimed the following, with reference to New Tendencies:
'We wish to free the audience from inhibitions and deformations in art evaluation which have resulted from traditional aestheticism, and to create a new situation between the artist and the society. To ascertain the existence of variable elements in the structure and visual manifestation of an artwork and, departing therefrom, to open a new field of exploration.'4
In the individual contribution by one of the members of the Parisian group, Julio Le Parc, entitled “Notes on Art-Spectacle, Active Spectator, Inconstancy and Programming in Visual Art”, one can read, among other things, the following sentences:
'And here we are, facing a new situation, the complexity of which stimulates contemplation. Its evolution may also possess some blurred facets, yet this is not a question of substituting one routine by another.
The roles of the work and of the spectator have changed. Lively and active participation is more important than passive contemplation and may in the audiences develop their natural creative capacities. The chain concept-execution-visualisation-perception is given a new stage that governs all: modification. This idea brings us to the concept of inconstancy. The concept of inconstancy in visual art corresponds to the inconstant conditions of reality. We endeavour to concretize it in works that show the following attributes: it is a transformation of the spectator’s contemplative position in favor of his active participation.'5
During the year 1962, intense meetings took place, their goal being not only to produce the list of participants for the second New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb, scheduled for the year to come, but also to inaugurate more solid conceptual and ideological postulates as a basis for the selection. The most active roles in these meetings were played by some individual members of the Groupe de Recherches d’Art Visuel of Paris, by the Gruppo N of Padua, and by critic Matko Meštrović. This last represented the host organization, the Zagreb-based Gallery of Contemporary Art. When the second New Tendencies exhibition was finally opened in August of 1963, significant changes could be seen between the first and second Zagreb exhibitions, and not only in the personalities present but also in their programmatic attitudes. In his text “Critical Remarks on the Theoretical Contributions Within the New Tendencies from 1959 to 1964” (Appunti critici sugli apporti teorici all’interno della Nuova tendenza dal 1959 al 1964) Massironi wrote the following lines about this exhibition:
'The most important event in 1963 was definitely the second New Tendencies exhibition. It was first and foremost characterized by a strict selection of participants, and then by a troublesome search for a common ground of understanding in order to create a large-scale and unitary international movement.'6
Therefore, to create 'a large and unitary international movement' was the intention of the most agile of the organisers of the second New Tendencies show in Zagreb, which now saw some strengthening through the participation of some local artists, among whom were – in addition to Picelj and Knifer, from the first exhibition – Vlado Kristl, Vjenceslav Richter and Aleksandar Srnec, from the former membership of EXAT-51, plus Vojin Bakić and Miroslav Šutej. But, parallel to the expansion, which involved numerous international participants, ran the shortlisting of potential members of the newly-founded movement, and it was based on the criteria of whether their way of working did, or did not, fit into the framework of the Propositions for the second New Tendencies exhibition to be held in Zagreb. The American art historian and curator of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Valerie L. Hillings, toured a number of European countries in order to study the phenomenon of the New Tendencies. She has recently published her study, Concrete Territory: Geometric Art, Group Formation and Self-Definition (printed in the catalogue of the Beyond Geometry exhibition held at the County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, in 2004); in footnote no. 77, she reports that after the second Zagreb exhibition some artists from the New Tendencies movement were denied further membership - namely, Marc Adrian, Marta Boto, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Piero Dorazio, Garcia Miranda, Rudolf Kämmer, Julije Knifer, Heinz Mack, Herbert Oehm, Henk Peeters, Otto Piene, Aleksandar Srnec, Helge Sommerock, Miroslav Šutej and Günther Uecker.7 This detail confirms that the ambition of establishing 'a large and unitary international movement' encountered difficulties from the very outset, and had to cope with crises and a rift between the members of, the ‘outcasts’ from, the recently constituted New Tendencies movement. The following excerpt, from the introductory text written by Matko Meštrović for the catalogue of the New Tendencies 2 exhibition, reveals the tense atmosphere within and around the movement’s establishment at the moment, and in the circumstances, of its ideological and organisational turmoil:
'The dangers of deviation and of diverting energy were constantly there, namely, the prism of social opposites keeps parting them and dissuading them from the only way effective enough – penetration into the very structure of the society. It is in breaking social barriers, breaking mental ossification, routine schemes and all the resistances inherent in un-restructured relations in production and their superstructures that the historical necessity of art still resides. However, if confined to the domain of imagination and emotion only, art crushes against the armours or gets beaten back however forcefully attacking, it keeps struggling in vain and finally succumbs. It has to penetrate the extra-poetic and the extra-human, for otherwise the human itself can make no gains.'8
Domestic Contribution to the New Tendencies Movement
Considering the fact that the first New Tendencies exhibition, in 1961, was initiated by Almir Mavignier, a guest from abroad, and that the home country was represented by only two domestic participants (Picelj and Knifer) and two authors of the introductory texts in the catalogue (Matko Meštrović and Radoslav Putar), the first New Tendencies exhibition had a strikingly international character, whilst enjoying the organisational and logistical backup of the Gallery of Contemporary Art, in Zagreb. However, the second exhibition, held in powever1963, showed a significant strengthening of the domestic share of artists, as those whose works went on display, alongside Picelj and Knifer, included Bakić, Kristl, Richter, Srnec and Šutej, while catalogue texts were again written by Meštrović and Putar. The continuity of the next three exhibitions, held in the period from 1965 to 1973, confirmed that the series launched with the first exhibition in Zagreb, in 1961, had taken root, and the fact that the successive editions of the event were also put on at the Gallery of Contemporary Art was by no means the result of chance or improvisation, but evidence of the numerous pre-existing factors on the domestic art scene that reached back at least as far as a whole decade. One of these pre-existing factors was the interconnectedness of EXAT 51, mentioned earlier, and the New Tendencies, which, apart from being obviously related to those involved (Kristl, Picelj, Richter and Srnec had played a key part in both), was also grounded in ideas, and given its unitary character by general notions of art Influenced by the Constructivist approach. Knifer, Meštrović and Putar had gathered within the Gorgona group between the years 1959 and 1966, which indicates that there were some points of contact and some intermingling along the ‘axis’ EXAT 51–New Tendencies–Gorgona. Subsequently, Juraj Dobrović joined the New Tendencies movement for the third exhibition (1965); likewise, Vladimir Bonačić, for the fourth exhibition (1969); these esteemed newcomers widened the circle of domestic participants gradually, though not significantly. Despite falling short of the expected echoes among the local art audiences, there is no doubt that the New Tendencies shows began and continued to be held as a result of deep spiritual/living need of the (mostly) convinced and ever-growing circle of participants from the milieu in which the events were held. Therefore, what is fully certain is: the entire framework of events surrounding the New Tendencies was basically an achievement of Zagreb’s and Croatia’s art scenes, and it was owing to its creative potential and organizational agility, as well as its cultural and human open-mindedness, that many foreign participants of great prestige saw an opportunity to find their place within those major, and often decisive, developments.
Matko Meštrović as a Theoretician and Ideologist of the New Tendencies
Matko Meštrović was the only critic from the former Yugoslav art space who acquired the status of a timely and responsive theoretician ideologist of a currently relevant international orientation in art, through his timely response to the advent of New Tendencies during the first half of the 1960’s. His role in this has been recognised by numerous historians of this movement, including Donald Drew Egbert, Frank Popper, Lea Vergine, Filiberto Menna, Ernesto Francalanci and, recently, Valerie Hillings. Meštrović formulated his theoretical and ideological postulates in relation to the New Tendencies in the following texts: New Insights into Visual Art / Nove spoznaje u likovnoj umjetnosti, 1962; The Ideology of the New Tendencies / Ideologija Novih tendencija, 1963; Methodology and Utopia / Metodologija i utopija, 1963; The Reasons and Opportunities for a Historic Consciousness-Raising/ Razlozi i mogućnosti povijesnog osvješćivanja, 1965. As a champion of the New Tendencies, Meštrović was a genuinely militant critic, but his interest in advocating the movement was not primarily of a promotional nature. This means that he did not only aspire, in association with the artists, to achieve a breakthrough on the international art scene. Active in a milieu outside the predominantly market-governed system of art, and opposing it ideologically, Meštrović was, above all, attracted to the debates on the New Tendencies by the sociological, cultural and ideological potentials through which this movement exercised subversion against the ruling, institutionalized values in art. Meštrović was not an a priori apologist of the New Tendency, but a critical analyst of the phenomenon. Logically enough, he offered his full support to its progressive intentions, but when he began to notice some symptoms of a crisis within the movement, he pointed them out uncompromisingly, and without beating around the bush. He had a considerable influence on redirecting the profile of the New Tendencies (from the first to the second Zagreb exhibition) towards the ideal of the 'scientification' of art, together with architecture and industrial design. Hence his interest in the issues of industrial design which became particularly prominent in his doctoral dissertation The Theory of Design and the Issues of the Environment (Teorija dizajna i problemi okoline) published in 1980. The theoretical and ideological background of his criticism can be seen as a version of contemporary Marxism akin – in terms of some general postulates – to the Praxis philosophy, which is by no means surprising considering the temporal and spatial coincidence between the first exhibitions of the New Tendencies and the magazine Praxis being published in Zagreb. That there was a concrete working relation of the two circles is supported by the fact that Rudi Supek authored the introductory essay for the catalogue of the New Tendency 3 exhibition, one entitled Humanization of the Human Environment and the Human Creation (Humanizacija ljudske sredine i ljudskog stvaranja). Meštrović was the first among the critics in the country to use the term ‘ideology’ in the debates on contemporary art; moreover, one can say that he was primarily interested in art as an ideology of a kind. Therefore, his texts were written in the trenchant idiom of theoretical prose instead of being permeated with his aesthetic experiences of particular artworks. And it is this manner in Meštrović’s thought and writing that is noticeable in the characteristic excerpts quoted below; they have been taken from his key essay The Ideology of the New Tendencies:
“The ‘New Tendencies’ appeared spontaneously in the climate the old Europe was first to feel. A positive attitude towards scientific achievements is the tradition of the pioneers of modern architecture, neoplasticism and members of Bauhaus, which remained alive. Also alive was the confidence in the potential transforming power of technology and industrialization. The deep-rooted Marxist thought made the approach to social change and problems constructive. Those were the reasons that made the first criticism possible in Europe, and with it came the first opposition to corruption and alienation. A resolute demand was made for the demystification of art and artistic creation, and for the unmasking of the dominant influence of the art market which speculated in art, treating it in a contradictory way – as both myth and commodity. The tendency towards the suppression of individualism and towards promoting the spirit of collective work also became possible. A progressive political orientation was clearly expressed, and art was concentrated not on the issue of uniqueness of an artwork but on the problem of plastic and visual research, endeavouring to establish objective psycho-physical principles of the plastic phenomenon and visual perception, thus excluding a priori any possibility of interference of subjectivism, individualism and romanticism which burden all traditional aesthetics. Understandably, the principles of industrial production were also resolutely adopted as the most effective instrument and method of rapid socialization of material and spiritual values; so, accordingly, works tend to be conceived in those terms in order to make them multipliable and accessible.”9
Further in the same text, one reads:
“The positive nub of the New Tendencies precisely lies in such a way of considering the historical reality and in such a working orientation which surpass both the scope of individual action and the scope of artistic action. Taking an attitude aimed at discovering and exploring the complex reality of the age and, at the same time, reckoning with all of its aspects, [the nub] grows within itself a germ of a general and all-embracing subversive idea which does not tend to manifest in any rebellious or destructive manner, or through a short-lived act. Exploratory approach is an attitude which implies acceptance with a wish to change, which aspires to transform the spontaneous and the established into the implementable, into an important practice. Hence, the core problem is: implementation of a practice which should in itself imply a critical stance to that which disables it as such, invariably maintaining the capacity for sagaciousness and assessment, and, thus, the capacity to undergo correction itself.”10
When and How the International New Tendencies Movement Came to Its End
Although with the fourth and the fifth exhibition it fell well into the second half of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s, it was only with the first two shows in Zagreb that the New Tendencies, as an international movement, were on the upswing. As early as through the third exhibition, in 1965, they started to reveal an irreversible crisis. The protagonists and later critics of the movement often put forward the issue of the moment of, and the reasons for, the end. Judging by many signs, it happened exactly in the year 1965. The preconditions for the crisis were many, and it occurred abruptly and not long after the seeming triumph of the New Tendencies through the series of events that had taken place from 1963 to 1965.
Namely, in 1963, the exhibition Oltre l’informale (‘After/Beyond Art Informel’) was held in San Marino. It was organized by Giulio Carlo Argan, Pierre Restany and the Spanish critic Vincente Aguilera-Cerni. On that occasion, the definite end of the age of Art informel and Abstract Expressionism was pronounced, and post-Informel phenomena were promoted such as New Realism, Neo-Dada, Pop-Art, New Abstraction and New Tendencies. The Croatian artists taking part in the exhibition included Bakić, Gliha, Knifer and Picelj. Owing to Argan’s uncompromising advocacy, the major prizes of the event were awarded to the Zero Group, Gruppo N and Gruppo Uno, from the New Tendencies movement. Such an outcome indicated that what was brought to the fore was the ideal of collective work in the contemporary art and suppression of the prestige enjoyed by artistic individualism; as a rule, it was prestige that fed the art market and enabled it to put the work into wider circulation.. While the leftist political and cultural public supported such an orientation in art, resistance was demonstrated by a number of respectable Italian artists (including Piero Dorazio, one of the participants in the first Zagreb exhibition of the New Tendencies) who accused Argan of dictatorship in the superimposition of art trends. The semblance of the triumph of New Tendencies was additionally intensified by some other events in 1964: the Nouvelle Tendance exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts (Musée des Arts Decoratifs) in Paris plus the participation of a number of Italian members of the movement (Alviani, Castellani, Mari, groups N and T) in the 32nd Venice Biennale. But this Biennale was marked by an unparalleled (until then and later) offensive of the contemporary American art which was, through the powerful selection by Alan Solomon, represented by Robert Rauschenberg (Grand Prix awardee), Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella. Much more attractive than the strictly formal structures produced by the members of the New Tendencies, with the iconography of the Neo-Dada and Pop Art paintings and objects, as well as the huge canvases of the New Abstractionists, all enjoying the backup of mass media who found it easy to comment upon, and support, this hyper-communicative art, the American selection completely eclipsed the representatives of the New Tendencies, in the eyes of the European exhibition-going public and forced them to face the fact that the vast international world of art has to keep itself going and regenerating itself, depending on the respectability of the prominent, commercially promoted, figures in art life, instead of challenging these mechanisms with the left-wing ideological motivation threatening the elementary functioning of the economy in the worldwide art system.
New Tendency 3 exhibition, in Zagreb, in 1965, took place when the movement had already won its international reputation. It gathered a considerable number of newcomers, which, in consequence, created a controversial situation: on the one hand, there was a feeling of satisfaction with the fact that the ideas of the movement had been adopted and spread among a great many artists of the young generation; on the other, the ‘hard core’ of the pioneers was dissipating, and the first-stage New Tendencies had lost in ideological sharpness. In order to prevent the threat of the third exhibition’s degradation to the level of a mere parade of exhibits, the organisers endeavoured to preserve the event’s provocative character through the choice of subject – 'divulgation of the specimens examined', in line with a concept developed by the Italian artist and designer, Enzo Mari.
Yet despite this intervention, numerous symptoms revealed that the enthusiastic stage of the movement had already passed its climax and now started, gradually to stagnate and gradually decline. That is why the third exhibition, like the following two (the fourth, in 1968-9 and the fifth, in 1971) – despite the international composition of its participants – failed to have a first-rank significance within the European artistic context, unlike the first two editions of New Tendencies. However, it is noteworthy that each of the five New Tendencies exhibitions possessed a particular physiognomy of its own in terms of the issues raised. The fourth exhibition introduced the subject of computers and visual research, championing the use of highly advanced technologies for the purpose of artistic articulation, while the fifth and last one, containing a section of Conceptual Art, established a link, by advocating continuity between the two successive waves of art-related innovations within the age of late Modernism - waves that could tentatively be designated as ‘New Constructivism of the 'Sixties’ and ‘ The New Art Practice of the 'Seventies’.
There was one more major event related to the American art scene that had previously played a decisive role in the acceleration of the crisis in/of the New Tendencies movement. It was the exhibition, The Responsive Eye, curated by William Seitz and mounted at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in 1965. Of the participants in Zagreb’s New Tendencies shows, this Included Adrian, Alviani, Biasi, Castellani, Costa, Demarco, Dorazio, Equipo 57, Garcia Rossi, Gerstner, von Graevenitz, Landi, Le Parc, Mack, Mari, Mavignier, Morellet, Pohl, Sobrino, Stein, Uecker, Yvaral and Zehringer, and from Croatia there were Picelj and Šutej. To counterbalance the overused concept of Pop-Art, this exhibition introduced the term Op-Art, which implied the purely optical/retinal/visual/physiological properties of the art. In the aspirations of its protagonists and ideologists, this art pretended to be something different from, and more than, the reception of an artwork merely based on the psychology of perception. That is, Op-Art, as grasped and advocated by the said New York exhibition, aspired completely to empty art (or whatever was understood by the term) of any subversive ideological dimension and – having once deprived it of any such potential – integrate it with ease into the prevailing American system of museums, galleries and the market. Naturally enough, this seemingly very prestigious promotion, which they found to be a dangerous trap, was instantly recognised by the ideologically most conscious members of the New Tendencies movement. They summarised the effects of the New York exhibition as a 'Pyrrhic victory' or a 'first class funeral ceremony', as Massironi sarcastically put it. Subsequently to this exhibition, which has benefited from a maximum of museological and commercial promotion, yet suffered from a lack of ideological postulates, the New Tendencies definitely could no longer reckon with their original, critically sharp, ideological endeavours. Therefore, the same remarks the members of the New Tendencies had launched a few years earlier, in attacking academicised Art informel and other phenomena of established art could be said, now apply to them, too:
'An avant-garde is an avant-garde when proposed, not when accepted; when it is neither purchasable nor sellable [...] From the moment it starts circulating through the existing channels without having destroyed them, from the moment it gets absorbed, it is no longer an avant-garde, even though it may not give up a single principle of its own; and even if managing to launch something in those channels absorbing it, it does not do anything but merely support reformism.'
That is how Massironi as a member of the most radical Gruppo N saw the final outcome of this extremely exciting history of the rise, crisis and end of the New Tendencies movement.11
Some other events that took place in the next year (1966) were characteristic of the political behaviour and moral dilemmas of a number of protagonists of the New Tendencies movement, after they had reached the peak of affirmation on the international art scene. Thus, at the 32nd Biennale in Venice, Julio Le Parc (exhibiting solo in the pavilion of his homeland Argentina) won the Grand Prix, which provoked controversial reactions among the members of the Parisian Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel whose protagonist he had been, and also sped up its final disintegration, which took place in 1968. In the extremely agitated social and political atmosphere of that year, and in the spirit of contestation exerted by the leftist intellectual circles, the members of the New Tendencies movement, Castellani, Mari and Le Parc, declined the invitation to participate in the documenta IV, in Kassel; instead of going to that leading festival of Western art, Le Parc preferred to take part in certain local exhibitions in Third World countries – Medellín, Colombia and Puerto Rico, in 1970, plus a visit to Castro's Cuba. The split in the membership of New Tendencies was precipitated by having to decide between integration into the Western art system, which was the choice of the majority and contesting the system which fell to the minority of the artists. This issue ended up, determining, not only the nature of the group's exhibition, but the ideological and political stance of the group.. To what extent many of them were torn morally can be seen from the persuasive account which Alberto Biasi, a member of the Paduan Gruppo N, gave, on the occasion of his visit to Zagreb in 1969, during the fourth exhibition of the New Tendencies exhibition, devoted to the use of computers in visual research:
'It is obvious that our Yugoslav friends, the initiators of the movement, who live in a country with socialist economy, failed to predict that the genuine factors of individual survival which had to be coped with by their friends in the West should cause an explosion of competing motives among their fellow-fighters living in the countries of capitalist structure and depending, all of them and straightforwardly so, on the art market with paleo-capitalist economic structure. From that point on – and even earlier, for some – a chase for success was under way.'
Asked about the current activities of the few, most politically radical members who had abounded making art altogether, rather than attempt to integrate it into the 'system', Biasi answered:
'The most conscious of them are in their own countries, committed to supporting student struggles.'12
The New Tendencies Exhibitions in the Context of the Political, Cultural and Artistic Scene In Yugoslavia, AT the Time when they were Staged
Biasi’s remarks on the domestic initiators and foreign protagonists of the New Tendencies movement, quoted above, inevitably open up the major, intriguing question about the position and significance of the series of the movement’s Zagreb exhibitions in the context of the political, cultural and artistic scene, in the time and milieu in which they were held. The foreign participants (especially those exhibiting in the first two shows) were all aware of the situation described below, and some of them emphasised the fact: in terms of conceptual profile and organisation, it would not have been possible to hold exhibitions like New Tendencies in any West European country, and still less so, In Eastern Europe. Only non-aligned Yugoslavia had the capability to host anything of the kind. In this connection, it is worth mentioning the significant fact that, for all the differences between the factors involved, 1961 was not only the date of the first New Tendencies exhibition, but it was also the year in which Belgrade hosted the First Conference of the Non-Aligned Countries, with the attendee of several Heads of State. Of course, there were no direct links between the two events, and the last thing one might claim is that the first New Tendencies exhibition depended on something like a superimposed political assignment. The first exhibitions of the New Tendencies in Zagreb were an independent undertaking of a small cluster of free-thinking, and undoubtedly, left-wing. Artists and intellectuals, who consciously put into practice their own need to forge international connections with kindred spirits, at that particular moment in history. Those ideas were based on their realisation that towards the end of the post-War reconstruction of the European continent many countries, regardless of their political order, embarked on a process of accelerated industrialisation and scientification. They considered that, in those processes which – in different ways – affected both capitalist and socialist countries, it was necessary to follow a well thought-out strategy for balanced progress. If this strategy was not designed from a humanistic perspective, it might prove to be the source of an insoluble crisis. And this is what actually happened, in the the events of 1968, and over the following years. Blinded by their social optimism, idealism and Utopian mood, New Tendencies failed to foresee the crisis, and that is why, when the crisis broke, the movement broke clean apart, in both organisational and ideological terms.. Soon, it ceased to exist as a lasting 'large-scale, united international movement'. In the history of European post-second-world-war art, the New Tendencies have been chronicled as a phenomenon of 'the last avant-garde'13; when the movement disintegrated, most of its former protagonists set out to build their individual, prestigious careers in art.
Set against this, and contrary to normal expectations, the exhibitions of New Tendencies did not find a strong echo in criticism and the mass media, at home. Admittedly, they enjoyed adequate material support, owing to the regularity with which they took place. It was only after a long while that the major significance of those shows was seen, and understood, in their own cultural milieu, and some traces of this could even be found, even in the places where they were not visible, at first glance. However, the exhibitions were scarcely heard of outside Zagreb, which is understandable, when we consider that the artists from other artistic milieux of Yugoslavia did not participate in the first few shows. It was only in the third one, in 1965, that the Belgrade artist, Koloman Novak, took part. In the dominant context of Socialist Modernism or Socialist Aestheticism of the 1960’s, the approaches to art that were fostered by New Tendencies were treated as being of minority concern; the uninformed and self-satisfied majority of art world representatives saw these concerns as symptoms of a form of extravagant, élitist extremism. Only later, when the climate around New Tendencies had settle down and receded into the background, and especially when even more radical phenomena, such as dematerialisation of art object and the New Art of the 1970’s, occupied the domestic art scene, did it become clear that some of the principles underlying the latter phenomena – though manifested in different forms – had been foreshadowed within the legacy of the New Tendencies. The greatest and most lasting contribution of New Tendencies in the Croatian and Yugoslav context of those years was the following: more than any other previous development, before they laid bare and highlighted some of the fundamental operational and ideological issues of contemporary art. It became incumbent on artistic milieux to face the major current challenges of global art in its own historical time, and to do this, without making any concession to local criteria.
1 Almir Mavignier, “Neue Tendenzen I – ein überraschender Zufall” [“New Tendencies – An Amazing Coincidence”], Exhibition Catalogue Tendencije 4, Galerija suvremene umjetnosti, Zagreb, 1970, unpaginated.
2 François Morellet as quoted in: Manfredo Massironi, “Kritičke primjedbe o teoretskim prilozima unutar Nove tendencije od 1959. do 1964. godine”, („Appunti critici sugli apporti teorici all’interno della Nuova tendenza dal 1959 al 1964”), exh. cat., Nova tendencija 3, Zagreb, 1965, p. 26.
3 Manfredo Massironi, 'Richerche visuali' in Situazioni dell’arte contemporanea (collection of essays), Rome, 1976, p. 56.
4 Same as Note 2, p. 27.
5 Same as Note 2, p. 28.
6 Same as Note 2, p. 29.
7 Valerie L. Hillings, 'Concrete Territory: Geometric Art, Group Formation and Self-Definition', Exhibition Catalogue for Beyond Geometry, County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 2004. Source cited: 'Nouvelle Tendance – Recherche Continuelle'. Bulletin No. 1, August 1963, pp. 3-4.
8 Matko Meštrović, Foreword to Exhibition Catalogue Nove Tendencije 2, Zagreb, 1963; reprinted under the title “The Ideology of the New Tendencies” in the book Od pojedinačnog općem [From the Particular to the General], Mladost, Zagreb, 1967, p. 223.
9 Same as Note 8, pp. 220-221.
10 Same as Note 8, p. 223.
11 Same as Note 2, p. 24.
12 Alberto Biasi, 'Situacija 1967', Bit International, 3, Zagreb, 1968, p. 33.
13 Lea Vergine, L’ultima avanguadia. Arte programmata e cinetica 1953-1963, ex. cat., Palazzo Reale, Milano, 1983-4.