Blesok no. 64, January-February, 2009
Gallery Reviews

Dragan Petković, Retrospectively

Zoran Petrovski

”Art is the highest form of hope”

Gerhard Richter

At the exhibition Six Macedonian Artists, opened in 1985 in Zagreb[1], which can be considered a milestone that marked the end of the developing phase of the Macedonian modernism and announced its tendencies towards the contemporary post-modern artistic practices, Dragan Petković for the first time showed his new cycle of works The Joy of Life (1985/1987), named after Henry Matisse's work Le bonheur de vivre and composed of groups of outstandingly vivid and brightly painted cardboards with sharp edges, cut in the form of indefinite associative figures and compositions that bounce in a wild rhythm all over the gallery walls, as if being aroused and carried by a thrilling and passionate dance. Judging by the features like the use of quotations, the ambivalence between the figurative and abstract character of the forms and their ecstatic color and spatial expression, these works of Petković could be defined as close to some of the basic postulates that were in a vigorous and euphoric gust brought about by the post-modern “New Image Painting”.

    This general title covers the numerous painting occurrences encompassed basically with the terms “neo-expressionism” and “trans-avant-garde”, whose common output was the idea of returning to the painting or, as the American critic Thomas McEvilley has put it, “the exile's return”.[2] Following the crisis years of 1970s, when the rigid formalism of the high Modernism, the closed structures of the iconoclastic minimalism and the radical rejection of the art object in the conceptualism resulted in a block of ideas and when “Another kind of cultural impasse seemed to be approaching in which culture would symbolically destroy itself through its auto-critique”,[3] the reaction in the art at the beginning of the 1980s first came through painting, through the return of some of its suppressed values: subjectivity, expression, narration, return of the figure, decorativeness, media and style pastiche, or the mere pleasure in the act and in the matter of painting. However, that revived painting did not find its landscape in nature but only and exclusively in itself, in its own modern art history and in the media of the popular culture. “As if to offset its former elitism and puritanism, it returned in a costume of rags collected from everywhere. It returned as a Conceptual painting and found a variety of new uses for the medium.”[4] In the years that followed, in the nomadic decade of the 1980s and soon after that, painting underwent a wide range of metamorphoses, returning as a broken film flashback of fragments of its own modern history, deconstructing and reconstructing it in the attempts to once again adapt and define the objectives and means, and finally, the meaning of its existence in a different, post-historic age.

    The work of Dragan Petković develops and corresponds to this critical period for the art of painting. The beginning of his painting career was under the strong influence of his studies at the Art Academy in Ljubljana in the mid 1970s which rendered a generation of artists who supported and developed the practical and theoretical postulates of the tradition of the American abstract art.[5] In the works he made in the years after his graduation in 1977, which he exhibited several years later at his solo exhibitions in Skopje, first at the Journalists' Club in 1981 and a year later, in a larger scope at the Gallery of the Youth Center, Petković showed a series of works which were an actual compendium of different forms and idioms of the American abstract painting, set one next to the other: from works in the spirit of the Abstract Expressionism and the sublime painting to those close to the post-painterly abstraction, the color-field painting, hard-edge painting and minimalism. Neglecting entirely the modalities of the style and overcoming the conceptual and theoretical differences of each of these abstract idioms, Petković restricted his interest to their formal aspects of reducing the painting to its basic elements: color, drawing and space.

    Most of the titles of his works from that period are an exact description of the applied artistic methods or topics. So, for example, in a group of paintings which tackles the complementariness of the colors, like in Complementary Games 2 (1978, plate 7) or Games of Simultaneity 2 (1978, pl. 5), the chromatic opposition of two colors, treated as two layered surfaces, emerges as a kind of engraved notches which compose a drawing by means of sharp and short strokes which have no expressive but plastic role, creating a grid, a porous membrane in the game of planes and spaces amidst the colored fields. The spatiality of color and the network structure of the drawing are also included in an impressive group of red monochromes, where his typical short, broken, non-expressive strokes (Obsessive Red 3, 1977, p. 3; Dynamic Surface on Red, 1977/78, pl. 4) become denser from one painting to another, turning into a powerful chromatic intensity that visually has the tendency to expand beyond the painting frame (Obsessive Red 2, 1977, pl. 10); an opposite direction from this extensive spatiality is to be seen in a particular group of monochrome works (Structures on Yellow, 1978/80, pl. 6, Structures on Red, 1978/80, pl. 8) where by means of layered textures of the painting matter he achieves a dense structure wherein the space is forced out, while the corporeality of the painted field is emphasized.

    Although in all of these works he mostly uses the vocabulary and the formal models of the Abstract Expressionism, Petković actually does not show that its expressive contents is particularly close to him; there is not a hint of the existential gesture, the mythical connotation, the tendency towards the metaphysics of the sublime and the transcendental. On the contrary, the analytical, distanced and expressively reduced approach is guided by the logic of the modeling structure and the process of rendering the artwork. It is interesting to note that it is an utterly deliberately chosen approach since his student days and Petković had cherished it all through his career. In his final exam in 1977 he says “I intend to exclude sensitivity from painting since I don't want to flirt with the plot”, and he adds “The seeming bloodlessness which the viewer – and I am aware of that – sees in my paintings is actually due to my tendency to harmonize the idea and the execution. The drawing becomes schematic and the paintings posses a pervading symmetry. However, the 'bloodlessness' is deliberate because I would not like to lean on any kind of a chance or to put emphasize on any particular object, any direction or color.”

    The closest to this program of harmonization of the idea and the execution, which equalizes the tautological consideration of the painting with the means of the very act of painting, Petković approaches with his last paintings from the period of his second solo exhibition at the Gallery of the Youth Center in 1982 (of which only three have survived, due to the extremely self-critical attitude of the artist and his usual practice of frequently re-painting his older canvases: Quivering, Endlessly Red, pl. 13 and Endlessly Blue, pl. 14, all from 1979) and especially with a group of watercolors made from 1980 to 1984. So, in Pulsating from 1981 and Flow from 1980/81 (reproductions 15 and 16), the former grid of gesture strokes is replaced by a texture of evenly and monotonously repeated, almost identical movements of the brush until the moment the background becomes a solidly structured two-dimensional surface, a self-aware pictorial pulsating organism. With a tautological repetition of the strokes, which includes a process of employment of the dimension of time as a replacement of the color in the composition and the drawing in the construction of the artwork, Petković approaches to some extent to the art of the post-minimalism from the 1970s and its sub-variants: the analytical or primary painting which tends to reach the so called “zero point” in the semantic decomposition of the artistic elements. But, unlike these tendencies which rely upon or function as theoretical models of the post-structuralism, Petković's watercolors are made under the influence, or even better, in a concurrence with the minimalist and ambient music of Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Brian Eno and what seemed to be especially significant for him, the work of Steve Reich[6] Music for 18 Musicians, in the obsessive sound pulsating of which[7] Petković finds an ideal background for the continuous monotone rhythm of his almost meditative strokes which render an utterly rich surface structures.

    Although the Macedonian post-war art had been for already for three decades under the absolute domination of the abstract art, the occurrence of this self-reflexive painting of Dragan Petković introduced a radically new attitude, a significantly different understanding of the painting and the art of painting in comparison to that tradition.[8] Namely, since the beginning of the 1960s the Macedonian art has been developing under the influence of the late European Modernism in its less radical, lyrical variants as derivatives of the Paris school, where the painting, although reduced to abstract image, is still a kind of an imitation or direct association of motifs from nature or real objects, somewhere shown as abstract landscape, somewhere through the language of symbols, and somewhere as a personal expression of those natural experiences. The support of the Abstract Expressionism and the analytical occurrences of the post-minimalism, which are part of Dragan Petković's experience, are opposite to that kind of thinking. According to that attitude, painting is determined by the awareness that it is part of the historical experience and therefore the question of the illusion of the natural phenomena is completely pushed aside or does not exist at all, making room for the emphasis of the principles of the modernist theory of the pictorial which treat the painting background and the stroke as autonomous, that is, independent elements of the plastic organism which exists in the real space of its background. In other words, we might say that with the painting of Dragan Petković the circle of questions on the modernity in the Macedonian post-war art was definitely closed, regardless of the fact that that chain probably lacks some other important links. But what is also interesting is the fact that this work is also a symptom of a caesura or the shift into the age of post-modernism which begins at the exhibition Six Macedonian Artists in the second half of the 1980s, one of the most dynamic periods in the Macedonian contemporary art.

    The cycle The Joy of Life actually seemed also like a caesura in relation to the other works of Petković. The cardboard Matisse-like cutouts or “decoupages”, formed in a kind of indefinite quasi-anthropo/zoomorphic figures filled with shiny day-glow colors, were a somewhat unusual shift compared to his earlier artistically refined and always maximally finished abstract paintings and drawings.[9] Besides, their daringly direct decorativeness and aptness for a kind of narrativity in the arrangement and the inter-relations of their setting on the walls was certainly not something that belonged to the repertoire of the abstract purism of any kind, but mostly to the enthusiasm of the liberating impulses of the “new image painting”, which partially touched the works of Petković, as well, and which made almost senseless the dogmas of the opposed couples abstract-figurative and their style variants.

    Although the arrangement of the parts is variable and dependant on the space, the cycle The Joy of Life still includes a composition which is in the epicenter and which radiates with strokes/figures in their joyous dance: it is an ellipse of seven cutouts which follows the form and the rhythm of The Dance by Henry Matisse (La danse, from 1909 and 1919), the artwork which was derived from the painting Le bonheur de vivre from 1905/06 where Matisse pictures scenes filled with eroticism, happiness, beauty and “physiological 'pleasure in life', by way of analogy with the body.”[10] The ecstatic rhythm of the movement of the strokes/figures in the work of Petković, their powerful, even explosive expansion or cutting into the wall mass was undoubtedly provoked and driven by the same Matisse-like principle of the erotic and “physiological” pleasure in life and in painting.

    Nevertheless, what I want to point here is that behind the initial seductiveness of the “new painting” wave, in these works of Petković I can discern some other important components that should participate in the interpretation and evaluation of his work and the relations he establishes in the given context. First of all, I think that the initial impetus for Petković's cycle came from the wall and spatial drawings of the Macedonian sculptor Gligor Stefanov, exhibited at one of the important exhibitions in the 1980s, the site-specific installation Linear Intervention, set in the Youth Center in 1983. [11] In these spatial inversions consisting of spatial drawings and rods Stefanov managed to provoke with the viewer a feeling of a two-dimensional space where the viewer is also turned into a kind of a body/drawing in the flat real space. It had a considerable impact on this and on the somewhat younger generation of artists regarding an altered understanding of the sculpture and the nearing of the two media of sculpture and painting, which will be practiced in the art of the 1980s, and especially in the 1990s. For Dragan Petković this experience was probably a stimulus to return, on the one hand, to the ideas conceived in one of his unfinished projects on upgrading of his abstract paintings into spatial/architectural installations (Variations on a Given Topic and Continuance, pl. 17 – 23); on the other hand, he set to rendering the drawing as an engraved “allover” network made of his initial paintings (see pl. 5 and 7), which, of course, refer to the abstract expressionists, but also to the Matisse-like “invention of erasing the traditional distinctions between drawing and color”[12] by means of dividing the colored areas. So, the cardboard cutouts were basically devised as fragmentary separated and enlarged strokes/gestures, which in a dynamic game of illusions turn the walls and the space into a painterly conceived and desired totality, bursting at times as engraved notches, and at times as projecting relieves, leaving it to our gaze to decide what is the background and what is the stroke/figure, a procedure known from the Gestalt psychology and which resembles the child's experiences of gazing into the wall spots which turn into figures in the imagination.

    Only a few years later and especially following the exhibition of the six artists, the ambience in the Macedonian art encountered drastic changes. The occurrence of a large group of young artists educated at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Skopje induced great creative energy and quick changes which followed the spirit of the nomadic, inconsistent and fickle 1980s. The deconstruction of the solid modernist discourses by way of ready-made answers to the painting problems and the emphasis on the objectiveness of the painting and the melting of the traditional media were some of the main currents towards the art of the 1990s and the end of the century. The works of Dragan Petković were part of these events, but it seems that some of the dilemmas that were aroused in the cycle The Joy of Life, like for example falling into figurative narration or drawing descriptiveness, made him continue to deal with the problems of painting from the point he had started from: the two-dimensional surface and the autonomy of the medium. In a sense, the works of Petković remained close, although on a rather intuitive and formal level than actually theoretically supported, to the concurrent researches of his generation colleagues from Slovenia who worked within the frames of the psychoanalytical Lacanian theory and in general sense within the frames of the concept of the “Modernism after the Postmodernism”, as the renowned Slovenian critique and theoretician Tomaž Brejc[13] has defined it.

    With the paintings Furioso (pl. 29), Brutally Red (pl. 30), Fatally Blue and Traces (the last two are destroyed), all from 1987, painted in large formats and with, untypical for him, vehement power, even aggression, Petković seemed to declare with a loud voice of objection his dedication to the space of the painting and to the pleasure in painting. They were all made in monochrome gradations of the blue or red hue, which is almost poured on the canvas with fierce hand movements, but in the same variants of his characteristically broken gestures or regular application of wide strokes. It seems as if Petković wanted to break his own barrier, the guaranteed surface of the grid, that normative membrane against the illusion as a basic concept of our spatial order, which now, after all the painting has passed through, seems to be unnecessary, a long ago overcome obstacle in guiding the gaze into the layers of the body of the painted matter. In his following artwork in this period, the large triptych Tendencies (1987/88, pl. 31), the inclusion of the viewer in the process of creating of the painted representation became an exciting challenge. Petković lowered the high tone and reduced the color to nuances of white, and beside the white pigments he introduced pencil drawings and white nontransparent and transparent curves, layering it all into a dynamically agitated organic structure which is disclosed only

to the curious look in an almost tactile revelation of the interlacements of its open and dimly concealed layers. Tendencies showed that Petković remained devoted to his abstract sources and the cherishing of the means, techniques and procedures which defined the basis of his artistic practice; Tendencies also showed that now the painting or what it is representing is something which is not anymore analytical and tautological definitions of the form. Now they are ambiguous and multi-layered painted representations which “act as if intuitively painted areas, as metamorphosis of the gaze which has materialized into flexible forms-figures.”[14]
    In this period and in the following several years Petković intensively worked on a large series of drawings he labeled Structures which basically follow the logic of his large triptych; there are series of white and/or black drawings made with rhythmically and evenly layered strokes of pencil or white chalk, that saturate the surface so much that the eye experiences them as skin, as a kind of a tactile body wrapping. Finally, in a span of two years, between 1990 and 1991, Petković worked on a series of completely black and completely white paintings that, despite the differences in the texture, the thick layers of black pigment or the flat, shallow surface, still hardly induce our perception to experience them as representations, association or allusions and, actually, seem to completely alienate from the status of a traditional iconic, representative picture. The only “picture” we see in them comes from the titles which, still, do not possess any logical relation and could hardly suggest any suitable metaphors: some refer to certain moods (Eutimia, Astasia), some to abstract logical concepts (Kogito, Nocio), musical terms (Sordo, Gustozo) or physical phenomena (Expansion, Emanation). If we call in mind the works of the Informal Art, maybe in their reading we could find the basis for the idea of the existential “angst”, or if we consider the minimalism of Ad Reinhardt or the “white desert” of Robert Ryman, we might understand them as an intention to reduce the form to “ground zero” and that Petković was reaching the ultimate questions of the ontology of the painting and the meaning of its existence.

    However, a painterly installation with which Petković participated at the exhibition 9 1/2: New Macedonian Art in 1995, leads to different kinds of interpretations. The installation consisted of two identical rooms, one of which was painted black and on its walls were hung the black paintings of this Petković's cycle, while the other room was painted white and it contained the white paintings. The floors of the rooms were covered with black and white pigment which was Petković's way of allowing the viewers to symbolically carry the paintings on their feet and spread them all over the space, turning the floor into a kind of an arena. The title of the installation was Simbio (pl. 44) and it was actually a spatial realization of an earlier painting from the mentioned black/white cycle, titled Noesis (pl. 45): an artwork consisting of a particular arrangement of geometric forms, reminding of magnet and magnetic fields which attract and reject each other, rendering strong pulsating fields. This was quite unusual work for Petković, both by its form and by the symbolic language, but it also very sincerely and directly reveals the doubts and the faith of Petković in the essence and the power of the painting he's been knowing and was dedicated to maintain in the time when it became rather obvious that things were moving to different directions. Sharing the same dilemmas Tomaž Brejc noted: “Maybe that ontological effort of the art of painting was just the last 'religious' attempt in the world which has become profane to that extent that it does not care any more for the essence of the paintings, it does not care if the painting reclaims at least some of the domains, or an attribute of sanctity, experiences of special values which can be retrieved only by the artist and not the ideologist, or if you wish, the electronic machine.”[15]

    Starting from 1994 all the way to 1997 Petković had been occasionally working on a quite simple painting which obviously required a lot of his time to decide and declare it completed. Its title is Ellipse (pl. 50) and it consists of two black canvases with “sand” texture dominated by a simple white line which outlines a vertically set ellipse and which undoubtedly reminds of a vulva. There is a slide of that painting which shows that the diptych at the beginning consisted of white and black canvases with the same ellipsoid figure of vulva outlined against the contrast of the backgrounds; a black line on the white background and a white line on the black background. This first version of the painting is a synthesized version of the concept of the “petrified gaze” in the series of black and white canvases, where the ellipse had the same integrative function as in Noesis and the installation Simbio: the idea of connecting and reconciling the contrasts and the erotic connection of the “blood system” suggested by the ellipse from The Joy of Life. The final version, however, shows that Petković distances from this, inappropriate for him, kind of rhetorical interpretation of the problem of the picture and returns to the body of the painting itself, revealing it as a compressed symbol, as something similar to the black cross on white background of Malevich, a “zero ground” as the beginning of the reflection of the being.

    The display of the black and white paintings in the installation Simbio in 1995 was the last significant public appearance of Petković. His later work was rather conceived in his intimacy, in his constant occupation with the drawing, almost on a level of an intimate, diary-like note. Such are the numerous blue watercolors with the ellipsoid, Courbet-like direct suggestion of the vulva which sometimes turns into an eye, into what is its other identity (pl. 51-53). Such are the peculiar and preciously hand-made slides with the central ellipse (pl. 55 – 60). In that period Petković worked on two series of paintings, where in successive change of the form, similar to the film frames, he deals with the idea of motion and time in the painting (see pl. 46 – 49 and 61 – 64). And finally, the motion, the vibration or the existence of the painting in the rhythm of the pulse and the breath marks his last series of drawings with color pencils, made and labeled as Dialogue with Monet (pl. 70 – 83). In his home and studio there are still groups of paintings which were obviously a preparation for starting a painterly dialogues with Monet's quivering of the lotus, the symbol of fertility.


1. Šest makedonskih umjetnika: Od čudotvornosti livade do radosti življenja (Six Macedonian Artists: From the Miracle of the Meadow to the Joy of Living), Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1985. The exhibition was also shown in Belgrade, Skopje and Kavadarci. This exhibition is important because it was the fist topic or curatorial project. Curator of that exhibition was Sonja Abadjieva, and along with Dragan Petković it was also participated by: Aneta Svetieva, Gligor Stefanov, Petre Nikoloski, Simon Šemov and Dimitar Manev.
2. According to the title of the book: Thomas McEvilley, The Exile’s Return: Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post-Modern Era, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
3. Ibid., p. 6.
4. Ibid., p. 7.
5. Igor Zabel, Disclosed Images: Selected Slovene Works of Art of Eighties, Moderna galerija, Ljubljana 1989. “The turning point to which led the appearance of these young authors was related to the introduction of the American abstract art tradition (…) This tradition was a sort of novelty in Slovene visual arts, not because artists did not have knowledge of it, but because they were not particularly interested in it in the “heroic” fifties, or even later, in the sixties and seventies.”
6. “Now I usually listen to experimental, avant-garde music. Sometimes it inspires me with its rhythm; sometimes it helps me approach with greater concentration to what I'm working on. Music and painting complement each other. Both intermediate through the inner structure and immediately in the so called integral works. In the music we are listening right now (Steve Reich – V. V.) there is a structure which exists in a picture: dark-light contrast, combinations of elements connected into a logical string, possibility for infinite duration given in a time frame.” Interview with Valentina Velevska, “Ova e period na istražuvanja”(This is a Period of Experimenting), Mlad borec, Skopje, 10.04.1985.
7. “Rhythmically there are two basically different kinds of time occurring simultaneously in “Music for 18 Musicians”. The first is that of a regular rhythmic pulse in the pianos and mallet instruments that continues throughout the piece. The second is the rhythm of the human breath in the voices and wind instruments. The entire opening and closing sections plus part of all sections in between contain pulses by the voices and winds. They take a full breath and sing or play pulses of particular notes for as long as their breath will comfortably sustain them. The breath is the measure of the duration of their pulsing.” Steve Reich in the liner notes on the back cover of the LP record: Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, ECM Records, 1978


8. It was noted by some of the Macedonian critics, like for example Konča Pirkovska who wrote in 1982: “Such artworks are not typical for our artistic ambience”, in Petković Dragan – sliki i skulpturi, Youth Center “25th of May”, Skopje, 1982; Sonja Abadjieva considered it “an anomaly or irregularity”, having in mind the level of “deviating from the artistic norms of the milieu”, in: Sonja Abadjieva Dimitrova, Dragan Petković, Museum of Contemporary Art, Skopje, 1984.
9. In his book dedicated to the post-modernism of the 1980’s Nebojša Vilić describes this Petković's shift “quite unexpected and beyond the logic and the tendencies in his art…”, in Nebojša Vilić, States of Changes? Postomodernizmot i umetnosta na osumdesettite, Feniks, Skopje, 1994, p. 195.
10. John Elderfield, Describing Matisse, in: Henri Matisse: A Retrospective, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1992, p. 54. Elderfield actually draws his reference to the physiological pleasure from the American critic Leo Steinberg who is comparing the way the forms of the figures are organized and deployed in Le Bonheur de vivre with “a circulatory system, as … of the blood, where stoppage at any point implies a pathological condition”.
11. After Skopje, the installation Linear Intervention was set in the Gallery of the Students' Center in Zagreb in 1984 and in the Students' Cultural Center in Belgrade in 1984.
12. Yves-Alain Bois, The Matisse System, Artforum, New York, October 1992, p. 92. In conclusion to this paragraph Bois writes: “For me this invention represents a gigantic leap in the history of painting, an extremely serious blow against the dualistic tradition of Western thought (spirit and matter, idea and form, drawing and color). It was a blow that was only begun to be understood later on by Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. It represent, in short, a fundamental attack on the idealist division between conception and realization: if a color has no identity before it covers a certain quantity of surface, it cannot be thought up beforehand.”
13. Tomaž Brejc, Modernizam posle modernizma? (Modernism After Modernism?), Moment, 11/12, Beograd 1988, p. 12-16.


14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.

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