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Jan Sawka:  Biography

Jan Sawka was a painter, print-maker, graphic artist, set designer and architect who was born in Poland on December 10, 1946 and who passed away on August 9, 2012 in High Falls, NY.

Jan Sawka:  Education and Early Years

Jan Sawka was the son of an architect father and linguist mother.  His childhood was overshadowed by his father’s Stalin-era political imprisonment.  Sawka completed two Master degrees:  in Painting and Print-making from the Wroclaw Fine Arts Academy and in Architectural Engineering from the Institute of Technology in Wroclaw.  A rarity at the time, it was perhaps the first individual program between two schools.  His program was overseen by Professor Stanislaw Dawski in print-making and Professor Józef Halas in painting at the Fine Arts Academy and by Professor Jerzy Rospedowski in Architecture at the Polytechnic.

As a young artist, he became a well-known figure in the world of Polish counter-culture.  He was active as a set-designer and graphic artist in the avant-garde theater scene (Kalambur, Teatr STU), cabarets as well as festivals such as FAMA and Jazz Nad Odra (Jazz on the Oder River).  He organized well-known happenings, which were of a politically satirical and absurdist nature.  He illustrated books, including samizdats (underground poetry) of the most outstanding contemporary Polish poets of his time, including Edward Stachura, Leszek Aleksander Moczulski, Ryszard Krynicki, Stanislaw Baranczak, Adam Zagajewski and others.  He also exhibited his paintings and fine-arts prints, as well as curating.  By his late 20’s, Sawka had become a star of the Polish Poster School.

In 1975, Jan Sawka was instrumental in organizing an exhibition of paintings, prints and posters called “The Four” at the Poster Museum in Wilanów (Warsaw).  The show was a “Trojan Horse,” a plan masterminded by Sawka and the museum’s then-director Janina Fijalkowska, to show the politically controversial fine art of J.J. Aleksiun, Jerzy Czerniawski, Jan Sawka and S. Stankiewicz, known for their art-poster work as the Wroclaw “Four.”  The exhibition was an instantaneous hit, not only with Poles, but guests visiting from abroad, creating consternation and problems for the regime.  It would soon lead to Sawka’s exile.

Shortly after, still in 1975, while yet in his twenties, Jan Sawka was the youngest recipient of France’s “Oscar de la Peinture” and the award of the President of the Republic of France at the Festival of Painting at Cagnes-Sur-Mer.  He was awarded for his paintings entitled “From My Head” and “I See My Great Theater.”  The President’s Award was for “Innovation in the Art of Painting” for his combination of engraving/intaglio print-making techniques together with traditional painting.  In the example of “From My Head,” Jan Sawka created 216 plates from an engraving of a head.  He painted each plate uniquely and to represent a different moment in a narrative progression.  He assembled the hand-colored plates into a painting, which, when viewed from afar, has its own aesthetic composition as an abstract work.  When viewed close-up, the painting shows a narrative of a person’s thoughts and life.  Jan Sawka used this approach in many paintings, and across disciplines, with the goal of creating an aesthetic experience within a single artwork that held true when viewed at both close proximity and from afar.

In 1976, Jan Sawka was expelled from Poland for his artistic and oppositionist activities.  He and his wife Hanna “Hanka” Sawka and recently born child Hanna Maria emigrated to France, thanks to an invitation from the Centre Georges Pompidou that had resulted from his medals at the Festival of Painting the year before.  Jan Sawka was one of the first artists-in-residence at the Pompidou Center, shortly after its opening.  That same year Sawka represented France and the Pompidou Center with an exhibition of his work in the United States at the Aspen Art and Design Conference that was being held in honor of the Bicentennial of the United States.  He continued to develop his career rapidly, which drew the attention of the communist regime in Poland.  The Embassy of the Polish People’s Republic of Poland (communist regime-ruled Poland) refused to renew the Sawka family’s passports, which had been issued in the first place for one-way only.  The Sawka family had had only three days left on their French residency cards.

At this point in late November 1977, Jan Sawka and his family emigrated to the United States, where he would continue to develop his career, forging his unique place in American culture.  Initially, Jan Sawka made a living by creating commentary illustrations for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times.  He commenced an active gallery career in New York, Los Angeles and other cities in the United States.

Jan Sawka, The Painter

Jan Sawka’s paintings, posters and prints are in over 60 museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, National Museums in Poland (Krakow, Warsaw, Poznan, Gdansk and Wroclaw), the Israeli Museum, The Netherlands’ Stedilijk, The Museum of Modern Art in Toyama, Japan and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  Major retrospectives of Sawka’s paintings and sculptures toured American university and college campuses through 1989-1991, starting at the SUNY New Paltz campus and touring the East Coast and American West, including the Arvada Center of the Arts in Colorado.  The Queens Museum of Art (New York) presented a show of his paintings in 1992.  During 1991-1992, a major retrospective focusing on paintings toured the Polish National Museums in Warsaw, Krakow, and Wroclaw that also travelled to Budapest and Pecs, Hungary.  Sawka had over 70 solo shows at international museums and galleries, chiefly of paintings.

Sawka exhibited his paintings in galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Texas, Florida, Colorado and other places.  Within a year after arriving in New York from Europe in 1977, his first New York galleries were in the Fuller Building, including the Andre Zarre Gallery and the Sid Deutsch Gallery (4 shows).  Later, he was represented by the Samuel Dorsky Gallery (2 shows).  He exhibited in Los Angeles so much that he became a part of the LA arts scene, exhibiting with the Ankrum Gallery (3 shows) and the Anca Colbert Gallery, among others.  In Texas, he exhibited with the Evelyn Siegel Gallery.  In Washington, D.C. he exhibited at the International Monetary Fund Gallery and others, and in Denver, Colorado, the Hassel and Haeseler Gallery.  In France, Gallerie Lefor Openo hosted his exhibitions in Paris.  Prior to his death, the artists’ works were represented by ACA Galleries in New York and by The Wheelhorse Gallery in Greenwich, CT.

Jan Sawka, Master Drypoint Engraver

Jan Sawka was a master of creating fine-art prints in the techniques of aquaforte and drypoint engraving.  During the first 10 years of his career (the Polish era), he created aquafortes and lithographs.  His first posters were lithographs.  During the majority of his career (35 years in the West), he mainly etched in the unforgiving material of plexiglass, which does not allow for corrections. After printing very small runs on the intaglio press, Sawka would paint each individual print by hand with different colors.  Each print was unique.  Jan Sawka’s drypoint engraving prints represent the largest collection of a single artist’s works in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. whose curator Elena Millie, called Sawka’s dry-point work “painterly on par with Rembrandt” [in 1996].  Among these is the dry-point engraving series called, “A Book of Fiction,” which later was published in book form by Clarkson and Potter and was awarded The New York Times’ Book of the Year Award in 1986, also winning at the Frankfurt Book Fair.  Jan Sawka’s fine art prints are in many private and public collections around the world.  His hand-colored prints have enjoyed a deep appreciation in Japan, where the Striped House Museum of Art (Tokyo) hosted a Jan Sawka Print Retrospective in 1994.

Jan Sawka, Art-Posters

By his late 20’s, Sawka had become a star of the Polish Poster School.  His theatrical and jazz posters are well-known around the world and are considered classics of poster art.  In 1978, Sawka won the Gold Medal in the Political Poster category at the 1978 Warsaw Poster Biennial for his poster design “La Voiture de l’Annee” (Car of the Year).  A great deal of controversy surrounded this award, as the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Poland attempted to pressure the international jury to not award Sawka’s poster.  The jury threatened dissolution and an international scandal, forcing the regime had to relent, however, Jan Sawka would not personally receive his Gold Medal until after the fall of communism in 1989.

Once in the West, Jan Sawka dedicated himself to other disciplines, mainly painting, print-making, set design, sculpture and multimedia.  He would create posters for theaters and for publicizing his own exhibitions. He also created posters for important causes, such as the First World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Israel, Non-nuclear Proliferation, assistance for Haiti, the memorial of the 1956 massacre in Budapest, Hungary and others.  In 1981, when martial law was imposed in Poland, the AFL-CIO led a bipartisan fundraiser that sold Sawka’s Solidarity poster in the millions to provide immediate support to the besieged Solidarity Movement.  Jan Sawka had originally designed this poster at the request of the Solidarity itself.  Pilots of LOT Polish Airlines smuggled the poster’s original to Warsaw’s Solidarity office, where it awaited printing.  On the day that Martial Law was declared by General Jaruzelski, security forces (UB) stormed the Solidarity office and destroyed the poster original.  Thankfully, an American photographer had captured iamges of the design in New York and Sawka was able to quickly recreate the design for the AFL-CIO’s “Let Poland Be Poland” campaign and fundraiser.  (The campaign was named after a song by Jan Pietrzak).  Millions of dollars were raised. The image of a button with the Solidarity-logo as a sun above a landscape of crowd-like trees became an icon of the freedom movement.

In recent years, Jan Sawka’s “Exodus” poster was one of just 20 representing the Polish School of the Poster at a 2009 exhibition regarding this movement at the MoMA in New York.

Jan Sawka:  Set Designer, Theater Career and Multimedia Performances

In New York, Sawka designed graphics and sets for such theaters as the Harold Clurman, Jean Cocteau Repertory and Samuel Beckett Theater.  In 1989, he designed a monumental set for the The Grateful Dead’s 25th Anniversary tour as a solution to Jerry Garcia’s concern that stadiums are inhuman concert environments.  Sawka continued to make large-scale multimedia, including a set for Steve Winwood’s Traffic Reunion Tour and “Skypower,” projections on Houston skyscrapers for NASA’s 40th Anniversary.  At the time of his death, he had just completed a multimedia spectacle titled “The Voyage” for performance with the Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s ensemble.  For a pilot of “The Voyage,” Sawka won the Premio di Lorenzo Il Magnifico Gold Medal in Multimedia at the 4th International Biennial of Contemporary Art in Florence, Italy in 2003.

Jan Sawka:  Architect

In 1993, Jan Sawka created a multi-media spectacle entitled, “The Eyes,” at the Tadashi Suzuki-directed ACM Theater at Art Tower Mito, Japan.  As a result, Jan Sawka received a Cultural Ministry artist residency grant, during which he was introduced to various high-tech laboratories, including NSG, Sumitomo, Studio MGM and Toho Studio. Among the fruits of these collaborations are Jan Sawka’s “UMU” sculptures, which are a merging of art and technology, such as the latest SmartGlass technology.  Together with his Japanese team, Sawka designed “The Tower of Light Cultural Complex” for Abu Dhabi, U.A.E., which was presented by Japanese corporations and technology firms to the Royal Family in 1996, under the patronage of then-Minister of culture and Information (and present Minister of Foreign Affairs) Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan.  The proposal included a monument, 7 museums, a poetry center, philharmonic hall, amphitheater, film and theater school and recreational facilities.

Jan Sawka’s last award was for his unbuilt design for the “Peace Monument, Jerusalem,” which is a symbol of interfaith unity.  When he was awarded by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Excellence in Architecture Award for the design in 2011, the jury comment was, “Poetry and passion… who could argue with this concept?”

Selected Art Critics Who Have Written about Jan Sawka

James Beck, art critic and historian and the head of the Columbia University Art Department at the time, described Sawka as a contemporary Renaissance artist, not only for his creative breadth, but for his painting techniques.  Art critic Cynthia Nadelman, former editor and current contributing editor of ArtNews, has also written about Sawka’s work over the years.  Sawka’s work has been written about and reviewed by the New York Times and many art and design publications in the U.S. and abroad, including Germany, Japan, Poland, England and Canada.  Upon his death, the New York Times published a large obituary, as well as the Los Angeles Times.  Art Forum and ArtNews also carried news of his passing, as did many publications in the United States and Europe.  Articles continue to come out nearly every month regarding some aspect of the artist’s work.

The Ongoing Legacy of Jan Sawka

Since the artist’s passing, there have been several exhibitions of a memorial nature.  On November 7th, 2012 an exhibition of Jan Sawka’s hand-drawn and painted journals entitled “Personal Equilibrium” opened at the Bard College Stevenson Library.  23 journals were displayed within glass vitrines, showing highly finished images that represent studies of visual phenomena such as typography and the written word, as well as studies for paintings, architecture and other large works.  By popular demand, the show was extended through February 2013.

A major memorial show of paintings and hand-colored dry-point engravings called “Jan Sawka.  1946 – 2012” opened at the National Museum in Krakow, Poland in May 2013.  This exhibition was covered on Polish National Television, radio and local/national press.  Later in 2013, not-for-profit Gallery Aferro in Newark, NJ, in partnership with the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ cultural mission in New York, The Polish Cultural Institute and support from the Polish and American Business Club and the Polish and Slavic Federal Credit Union opened a show titled “Reflections on Everyman: The Work of Jan Sawka.”  During the run of the show (Sept. – Dec. 2013), a symposium took place at The Paul Robeson Galleries at Rutgers University.  The presenters were critic Cynthia Nadelman, Dr. Jeffrey Goldfarb of the New School for Social Research and Dr. Frank Boyer.  

Currently, more exhibitions are in the process of being organized in the United States and Poland.  Widow Hanka Sawka is working with Dr. Frank Boyer on documenting the legacy of Jan Sawka for a catalogue raisonée.

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All artworks/images copyright Jan Sawka Estate