“With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies”

New York

at Elizabeth Dee


“With the Eyes of Others,” an ambitious survey of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde of the late ’60s and ’70s guest-curated by writer and researcher András Szántó, took its title from a 1973 work by Károly Kismányoky, a grid of four black-and-white photographs of the artist with cutout renderings of eyes covering his own. Kismányoky’s absurdist gesture articulates the plight of artists who worked under Hungarian state socialism and were confronted with pervasive surveillance, censorship, and constantly shifting boundaries of the permissible. 

The “eyes of others” preoccupied the artist and his peers in more ways than one. The watchful eyes of the authorities were a constant source of anxiety for them, and their works were conditioned by the double bind of what the Hungarian dissident writer Miklós Haraszti called the “velvet prison,” in which artists and writers effectively self-censored in exchange for relative creative freedom. At the same time, given the lack of exhibition opportunities, the eyes of others—particularly those of the international art world—were also objects of desire. 

The first floor of the show was primarily given over to geometric abstraction, with artists synthesizing the influences of Hard Edge painting and Pop they encountered on rare trips to Western Europe with local references—to prewar Hungarian Constructivism, as well as to folk traditions. Dominating one wall at the show’s entrance, Imre Bak’s two-panel painting SUN-OX-FACE (1976) features flat graphic shapes rendered in blinding shades of purple, orange, and green. Nearby hung Ilona Keserü Ilona’s textile work Wall-Hanging with Tombstone Forms (Tapestry), 1969, whose playful wavy pattern was derived from the forms of tombstones in rural Hungarian cemeteries. 

Upstairs, the exhibition turned to the range of conceptual and performance-based practices that emerged in Hungary at the end of the 1960s. This gallery was packed with photographs, video monitors, and vitrines of mail art and other Fluxus-tinged ephemera arranged in thematic groupings: for instance, “Unpickable Locks,” featuring works containing coded messages decipherable only by the artists’ close circles, such as the inscrutable pseudo-scientific projects of Miklós Erdély; and the unfortunately titled “Snapchat 1970,” devoted to ephemeral actions and performances, including the masochistic scenarios that Tibor Hajas carried out for the camera.

While the formal strategies the artists employed recall contemporaneous developments in the West, the works’ themes were specific to the region, with many artists ironically taking up the state’s own rhetoric and forms to emphasize the gulf separating socialism’s promised utopia from its reality. Endre Tót’s series “Zeroes” and “Gladnesses,” which he began in the early ’70s, parody the emptiness of the socialist state’s affirmative proclamations, applying them to the most banal actions—as in I am glad if I can stand next to you (1971–76), a photograph from the latter series that shows the artist beside a statue of Lenin. Sándor Pinczehelyi’s Sickle and Hammer (1973), a red silkscreen print depicting the artist holding the party’s emblems, brings the logic of Pop art to bear on Communist iconography.

Few of the artists in the exhibition have received significant international attention, and it’s admirable that the gallery took on the daunting task of introducing them to an unfamiliar public. But the show often fell short in its attempts to situate them historically and contextually. While the gallery published a well-illustrated catalogue with informative essays and artist interviews, the only information provided in the exhibition itself about the works on display came by way of brief, superficial captions on an accompanying checklist. The caption for Tamás Szentjóby’s Sit Out/Be Forbidden (1972)—a one-man sit-in protest the artist staged outside an international hotel in Budapest—neglects to mention that the action was an homage to the imprisoned Black Panther Bobby Seale, or that the “forbidden” of his title alludes to Hungary’s “Three Ts” cultural policy, which required artworks to be divided into the categories of supported (támogatás), tolerated (tűrés), and forbidden (tiltás). Likewise, the show’s thematic organization often obscured more than it revealed: informal gatherings and interpersonal ties (as the catalogue rightly emphasizes) were crucial to these artists in the absence of mainstream art-world infrastructure, but this wasn’t reflected in the installation, which often separated artists who worked closely together and did little to illuminate the country’s distinct local scenes. Ultimately, recovering historically neglected artists isn’t just a matter of making their work visible; it also comes with a responsibility to make it legible.