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List of Essays

Essay by Artist
Contemporary Artists, Fourth Edition (click here to read)

Essay by Szymon Bojko
Art Cirtic
Contemporary Artists, Fourth Edition (click here to read)

Essay by Elena Millie
Curator, Library of Congress
Contemporary Artists, Third Edition (click here to read)

Essay by James Beck
Professor of History of Art, Columbia University
Contemporary Designers, Third Edition (click here to read)

Fantasm and Fiction: On textual Envisioning
by Peter Schwenger
University of Stanford Press, 1999 (click here to read)

Essay by Kara Rooney
Art Cirtic
Catalog for Reflections on Everyman:  The Work of Jan Sawka, an exhibition curated by Evonne M. Davis and Hanna Maria Sawka, Sept. 12 - Dec. 14, 2013, Gallery Aferro, Newark, NJ (click here to read)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Contemporary Artists
Fourth Edition
St. James Press, New York, 1995
By Jan Sawka

I'm sure I know why and what I paint. It's something like a feeling of warmness in your head; a half-ready answer is waiting. But when I must put it down, my God, it's not so easy.

From the very beginning, from childhood, something was wrong with me (oversensitivity, the family physician stated). Books and reading interested me first. As far as I can remember drawing was somehow regarded as natural, not respected at all -- like eating or playing with toys. My parents' house was overwhelmed by books and discussions during those dark, Stalin years. Little groups of friends gathered over the bridge table, not so much to play but mostly to talk.

Up to the last moment before entering higher education, I was unsure what to choose -- philology at the university of fine arts at the academy. But the "oldies" decided to push me toward some "practical" career -- architecture, engineering. And that was the beginning of my way to the current painting. Nothing fitted me properly, the frustrations built up; now I understand it was very positive this manytimes-forced way.

Disillusioned by technical training in architecture, I began desperately to add something more to this boring existence. The relatively lively cultural life of city students lured me quickly. Jazz, "nightlife," cabarets, theater -- I lived for it, waiting nervously every day at the drawing rooms of school. Troubles built; I hardly managed to pass all the exams. Finally, after two years, without resigning from my engineering school, I joined the Fine Arts Academy, trying to cope with two problems. But my "off-duty" activity didn't cease; it grew. Although extremely hectic, it was a far more exciting life. The next event, which shaped my entire life, was not designed by me but by the "Reds." Nineteen sixty-eight; student riots, Zionists, Revolutionists, tanks rumbling down Prague streets. It was a time of extreme tensions and simple "yes" or "no."

After the amnesty was granted by the government to all (almost all) unruly students, I tried to rebuild. But amnesty was mainly on paper. Practically, I was eliminated. However, some brave people fought back, and by 1969 I had carefully constructed, multi-media study program, which protected me from being pushed out of the schools but gave me a mad schedule. Staying at the architecture faculty, I studied mostly design, while I worked also at the history of art institute as a junior researcher in my free time, restoring churches, etc. To keep "them" happy, I worked around the clock.

My "post-school" activities had grown serious. By the early 1970s, I was among those who had rejected the "Socialist way" and tried to pursue "free culture" (read: "counter-Red establishment"). My real companions were theater, poetry, cabaret, the visual arts -- and I did anything that was needed. Thank God, it paid well, not in money but in far more important bonuses: I traveled abroad, all over Western Europe. You don't understand how hungry somebody can be to see the normal, civilized life of the Western world. During this time, I worked on those hard-to-formulate, private tensions -- my private world.

Now, how do I say what I paint? Maybe it sounds megalomanical, but I try to discuss the world I see and feel. I try to care about the composition, shape, color, the so-called "form," of course. I try to execute paintings in the best possible way -- no easy tricks, no airbrushes, no copying from slides -- all hand, pure hand.

But, most importantly, I try to communicate with all, concerned and unconcerned. I have no idea which trend of art I represent. Nothing interests me less. Of course, I'm sensitive to many currents of modern art, but I try to understand art as a whole. I love Old Masters but try to put their work into a larger context, not to separate their canvases from literature, music, society. I listen to music during my work. I read. I try to know a little of everything. They did the same, I think. You cannot close yourself in a personal shell. Or maybe you can. I can't. (Adapted from an interview published in Arts Magazine (New York), May 1983.)

Since my last entry in the publication, in 1990, dramatic changes occurred in my life and work. Once a leading artist of the Polish Poster school, today I do very little graphic design. In the 1980s I established myself in the galleries of New York City as a painter and printmaker. The 1990s further reinforced my position as an installation artist, only sporadically active as a graphic designer. Starting in 1990 I have had a series of museum shows of my works all over the world.

I started to develop two new and important new venues in my work: sculpture and multimedia experiments. It all started with the 1989 concert sets for the Grateful Dead. From there I went to the new hand highly experimental projects. The art created directly by me, on canvas or paper, is being transformed to the kinetic images projected on screens or directly on the walls by computer synchronized projectors supported by light and original pieces of art. I designed the series of concepts for such theatrical or music pieces with the entire "visual space" created by me.

The concept for Handel's Messiah was followed by my production of the Visual Theater spectacle at the Art Tower Mito, in Mito, Japan, in 1993. It was the first time I collaborated with California-based projections and light designer Marc I. Rosenthal, with whom I am working on almost all new projects of such nature. After the first successful production I designed projection-based concert sets for Steve Winwood and Traffic in 1994.

Later that year I went to Tokyo to concentrate on the development of sculptures, multimedia works, and projects for architecture. I was awarded a special grant by the Japanese Cultural Agency to stay in Tokyo and experiment. The results were fantastic! I was teamed with the best architects, designers, and electronic engineers Japan has today. The series of large sculptures emerged in concepts which will soon be realized, but the most important project born in Tokyo was the Tower of Light. The giant monument as well as the live screen for kinetic images was prepared for presentation to the ruler of the United Arab Emirates. In designing and preparing the proposal for the tower I got formidable help from leading Japanese corporations like Sumitomo and Nippon Glass besides the architectural offices and planners.

Sometimes I must pinch myself when flying to Tokyo or Abu Dhabi again... It feels like a magic trip for an artist who began his career as an underground graphic artist in Krakow, Poland. Years ago, when my father was pushing me to study architecture before turning to painting, I hated him. But he insisted, saying: "The true artists must know architecture -- it could come in handy one day, you never know." God bless my father.

To put it the simplest way, I see design, architecture, and art as one potent mixture of ideas, rules, and challenges. Not only to create new space and color and images for people, but also to use this magic mix to work with the musicians, actors, writers, dancers, and all creative types on building THE CULTURE, regardless of religions, borders, systems...

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Contemporary Artists
Fourth Edition
St. James Press, New York, 1995

Szymon Bojko

For the reader who wants to be acquainted with Jan Sawka's early work (1970-1990), I greatly recommend Elena Millie entry in Contemporary Designers (St. James Press, 1990), which focuses on the artist's graphic design production and his paintings. "Perhaps," Millie states, "Jan Sawka is a visionary of our time." This was written long before the important reorientation and change -- which confirmed Millie's judgement -- had occurred in the artist's approach to his work.

The 49-year-old maverick American of Polish extraction with Slavic temperament and wit works now hand in hand with electronic and high-tech tools, enriching his material with visions originating in his childhood.

Trained in architecture, based in rationalism, experienced in painting and printmaking, exploring old masters' engraving techniques and drawing, skilled in book illustration and poster design, collaborating with illustrious poets and playwrights, author of "artists books" and "postcards," scenic design, illustrations, sculpture, a craftsman, believing in the power of a pencil, brush, eye, and hand, Sawka is more than any one else in the contemporary art world fully conscious of the new dimensions and scale of the coming era of communication.

In the 1990's Sawka, who lives in the country outside of the great art centers and works in a barn, started down a new path. One could call it an "acceleration in rhythm and in the tempo of being." From and artist who performed quite successfully in distinguished New York galleries and museums, and other indoor sites, he started to bring his ideas and dreamlike visions to macro space, to the modern agora where thousands of people gather in order to participate. It's there, like in ancient times, where young and old, rich and poor, can enjoy the mystery of music, word, and spirituality.

The "ego" and subjectivity of an artist can no longer be maintained -- it is divided, transformed by a team of equal creators: producers of images, music, technicians who operate light, sound acoustics; constructors and computer operators. Isn't it that kind of production that was known in Greece during the Dionysian or Olympic festivities or later on at Bacchanalian wine orgies?

Sawka's work appears nowadays in theaters, rock music festivals, concert halls in the USA as well as Japan, Spain, Poland, Hungary, with a perspective which can be extended to the Near East, Italy, Taiwan, and other places in the world. The artist defines himself as a multi-media man, which is correct in definition but doesn't indicate the cultural context of his work. One must recall here Wagner's vision of Gesamkunstwerk, Baudelaire's ideal of "Correspondence des Arts," Scriabin, and Kandinsky's modern model of unified art work, where music, dance, poetry, rhythm and light support spacio-architectural concepts and vice versa.

In our time such ideas -- revealed here and there -- oppose the gloomy perspective of a "global village" uniform, passive, without joy and interaction. Sawka's recent images derive from his previous iconography -- colorful and powerful banners float in the air set on open-air platforms: mysterious large eyes move in obscurity, frightening and evoking anxiety; pieces of paintings, blown up and synchronized by computer, bring to the contemporary eye and ear new experience.

Let us quote among other projects and productions the first gigantic outdoor objects and banners for The Grateful Dead rock performances (1989), the British rock group Traffic (1994), "Eyes" at the Art Tower Mit in Japan, "The Messiah," an audio-visual project based on the masterpiece by Handel -- images appearing in the air -- the Vatican version appearing in 1992.

Sawka is currently working on "The Tower of Light," a 100-meter-high obelisk with kinetic art projections to the music of Summerlin, in Abu Dhabi; and "The Window of Hope," a 35-meter-high monument to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan.

The dimension, format, and geometrical range of these multi-media concepts give and idea of Jan's endless energy and artistic vitality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Contemporary Designers
Third Edition
St. James Press, New York, 1997

Elena Millie, Curator,
Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Perhaps Jan Sawka is a visionary of our times. In 1980, he designed a poster titled "Car of the Year" which won first prize at the Eighth International Poster Biennale in Warsaw. It pictured a new-style, Russian tank rolling down a city street. On December 13, of the next year, tanks did indeed roll in Poland as a show of strength behind the government-imposed martial law. Sometime before that fateful day, Sawka had also been requested by the leaders of Solidarnosc, the powerful Polish union, to design the official Solidarnosc poster which would express, among other things, the hopes of the Polish people. The design for the poster showed the sun of Solidarnosc shining down forever on the hopes and dreams of a colorful landscape of the Polish people below. The original artwork was secretly transported into Poland and proudly displayed in the headquarters of the Solidarnosc until it was destroyed by the Polish government. The poster, however, could not be suppressed; nor could Solidarnosc, which contributed to the toppling of the Communist regime in Poland.

As a student, Sawka had participated in the political underground, but being a talented and gifted artist, he was rescued from any serious repercussions. He was a student of design and the fine arts at the time of his emergence into the Polish poster movement. Realizing that acceptance into the Polish poster movement would have to be step-by-step up the already established ladder, he set out designing posters according to his own rules, artistic expertise, and available technique. His first poster was a linoleum cut for a student musical group; after that, he was asked to design other posters for various music clubs and student groups. By the time of his diploma show for graduation, Sawka had thirty posters to exhibit, as well as his paintings, prints, and drawings.

Later, Sawka moved to Krakow, which he considered the cultural center of Poland. There he was asked to be art director for the renowned Polish avant-garde theater, STU. Although he received no salary, he was given a free hand to design whatever he chose.

In his student days, he has studied all aspects of design in order to understand all the processes and fine art of culture. By understanding the varied aspects of culture, Sawka believes that he can then better understand the relationships and complexities of mankind. He attempts to express this in his work.

As an artist who developed during the 1960's, Sawka reveals the influence of the psychedelic in both his compositions and in his use of colors. While his designs are always -- without exception -- powerful, they are also satirical, symbolic, humorous, bursting with energy, and imaginatively created. The colors he uses are combined in an explosive melange. The lasting and overall effect is one of total honesty. Sawka converses in his language -- art -- succinctly, truthfully, and creatively. He does not compromise his iseas or designs for expediency. His images cause one to confront oneself, to examine one's thinking, one's way of life, one's hopes and dreams.

A versatile artist, Sawka paints, draws, and designs what he sees and what he believes in. His graphics reveal his insights into every phase of life -- culture, politics, society, history, etc. He considers the poster a personal statement about the problem or subject. When designing a poster, he uses the medium he is working on at the time. If he is working on a print, the poster will look like a print; if a painting, the poster will look like a painting. Having studied architecture, his work naturally includes many architectural elements. He displays talent in every medium; etching, engraving, stencil, linocut, drypoint, etc. From miniatures to wall-sized works, he works on masonite, paper, plywood, etc., using gouache, crayon, felt-tip, ball point, and acrylic -- in any combination.

While in the United States, Sawka has become recognized not only for his expertise as a painter, but also as an illustrator. He has made more than 200 illustrations for the op-ed pages of the New York Times and the Boston Globe. These assignments have helped Sawka to understand the United States. Before he could execute the commission, he had to understand the current political or social situation he was to interpret. He has a knack for reducing each complex assignment to its simplest common denominator. His social comments on "the system" are artfully and delightfully drawn.

Freedom, as one can imagine, is very important to this designer, and he has expressed this though his graphics. His designs warrant more than one look, for although the exuberance is apparent, the real meaning, which is often biting, is sometimes concealed, often in narratives in the form of the comic strip, revealing the message which has been interwoven through the design.

Sawka's first major international award was won in 1975 in Cagnes-sur-Mer for a painting. The painting consisted of 216 smaller paintings that gave the illusion of being prints and drawings. In New York City in the 1980's, he again turned his creativity to painting. Sawka's achievements and zest serve as an inspiration to other young designers throughout the world. As Sawka himself has said oh his life so far in this country: "I am successful, I do what I want, I shall stay my old self, I, Jan Sawka."

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Contemporary Designers
Third Edition
St. James Press, New York, 1997

Professor James Beck, History of Art,
Columbia University

The exhibition by Jan Sawka in the Queens Museum of Art offers a total panorama of the artist's long-range objectives. Standing as a telling event on the basis of the depth of his artistic invention, it documents his emergence as a painter of pictures from the time he arrived in America in 1979. After all, given the restriction under the totalitarian governments in his native Poland in the recent past, fine artists were never at liberty to take one or another medium merely out of desire, gift, or interest. Sawka, who was oriented toward the creation of posters, graphics, and stage design, carved out a predominant position at a very young age. Still, he was not free to paint, despite his yearnings to work with the brush and with tubes of color. So when he came to America, leaving restrictions behind he was finally able to explore the potential of pure painting to it's fullest extent. Thus as he moved from images that are more or less dependent upon his graphic habits to a more painterly statement -- where he could more naturally from one extreme to another -- we are permitted to follow his process toward pictorial independence.

To designate Sawka as a complex man and a complex creator is an understatement. Yet, approaching his pictures requires forays into both aspects, that is to say the artist and the man, although the two are of course inseparable.

At the very core of one aspect of his essence is an intense connection, affection, passion, and high hopes for his Poland, which has endured, despite more than its share of crash landings. Occupation at that hands of two cruel invaders was coupled with economic calamities. Behind all these hardships stands the strength of a people and its tradition which is also Sawka's strength. What I am trying to say, even if it sounds incurably romantic and from another historical moment, is that Jan Sawka is a patriot. His Poland is not its armies or national ambitions for new borders but a land of struggling intellectuals, poets, writers, dramatists, composers, and fellow fine artists, all on or close to the financial edge but creatively churning. Although essentially he has ben absent from Europe for a long time, by commitment and personality, by temparament and vision, Jan has retained a close bond with the uncompromising artistic spirits back home.

His aspirations for Poland's future are in step with his concerns for the neighboring countries once again locked within a historical vise between Germany and Russia. Jan retains a curious and unrivaled intermingling of cosmopolitan realpolitik and a land-based wholesomeness. A large dose of fantasy combined with a healthy, inherent optimism conditions his thinking towards basic human conditions. Memory may be mixed with desire but it takes place within a claustrophobic interior room or within the confines of a phone booth: obituaries fade away into shadows of recollections of the pavement.

The point is that Jan Sawka is a very smart fellow. His lively thoughts accelerate like a Ferrari Testa Rossa on the Utah Salt Flats, there being very little affecting our modern society that he does not ponder. He is an avid reader on all subjects, from biographies of world class automobile moguls to avant garde theater. Jan has a flair for rigorous analysis of current trends, political in-fighting, papal strategies vis-a-vis the Ukraine, artistic maneuverings of the establishment toward Arte Povera, and even the latest video from the Grateful Dead.

Another side of Jan Sawka thinks in images, in segments and snippets, jagged Tuscan horizons and green fields in the New York Catskills. That is, the painter slides through his world of printmaking, for he has never stopped etching and he is still a master of the poster: in these mediums his visions are elaborate and even grandiose. Eve in his most ambitious projects -- filling a stadium full of his banners or lighting a vast, columned piazza with an unprecedented performance of light and color imaginings -- the artist and the social individual coalesce.

It is a relatively easy matter for a critic to describe his paintings, since the are quite suitable to narrative explication, being graphic, clear, blunt statements in a modern context. More difficult is pinning down the synthesis between the individual and the artist, each aspect reinforcing the other. The Queens exhibition is the most manifestation of Sawka's passionate pictures executed in America. To further complicate the equation, however, he is very much an American too, operating in the distinguished tradition that has offered constantly renewed strength to the United States as a nation and to its newly arrived as well. His American experience, which is the final factor in the process of cross-stimulations that have given rise to a unique statement. (Adopted from Jan Sawka in Queens" in the exhibition catalogue Jan Sawka Mixed Media Paintings by James Beck.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Contemporary Designers
Third Edition
St. James Press, New York, 1997

Professor James Beck, History of Art,
Columbia University

The exhibition by Jan Sawka in the Queens Museum of Art offers a total panorama of the artist's long-range objectives. Standing as a telling event on the basis of the depth of his artistic invention, it documents his emergence as a painter of pictures from the time he arrived in America in 1979. After all, given the restriction under the totalitarian governments in his native Poland in the recent past, fine artists were never at liberty to take one or another medium merely out of desire, gift, or interest. Sawka, who was oriented toward the creation of posters, graphics, and stage design, carved out a predominant position at a very young age. Still, he was not free to paint, despite his yearnings to work with the brush and with tubes of color. So when he came to America, leaving restrictions behind he was finally able to explore the potential of pure painting to it's fullest extent. Thus as he moved from images that are more or less dependent upon his graphic habits to a more painterly statement -- where he could more naturally from one extreme to another -- we are permitted to follow his process toward pictorial independence.

To designate Sawka as a complex man and a complex creator is an understatement. Yet, approaching his pictures requires forays into both aspects, that is to say the artist and the man, although the two are of course inseparable.

At the very core of one aspect of his essence is an intense connection, affection, passion, and high hopes for his Poland, which has endured, despite more than its share of crash landings. Occupation at that hands of two cruel invaders was coupled with economic calamities. Behind all these hardships stands the strength of a people and its tradition which is also Sawka's strength. What I am trying to say, even if it sounds incurably romantic and from another historical moment, is that Jan Sawka is a patriot. His Poland is not its armies or national ambitions for new borders but a land of struggling intellectuals, poets, writers, dramatists, composers, and fellow fine artists, all on or close to the financial edge but creatively churning. Although essentially he has ben absent from Europe for a long time, by commitment and personality, by temparament and vision, Jan has retained a close bond with the uncompromising artistic spirits back home.

His aspirations for Poland's future are in step with his concerns for the neighboring countries once again locked within a historical vise between Germany and Russia. Jan retains a curious and unrivaled intermingling of cosmopolitan realpolitik and a land-based wholesomeness. A large dose of fantasy combined with a healthy, inherent optimism conditions his thinking towards basic human conditions. Memory may be mixed with desire but it takes place within a claustrophobic interior room or within the confines of a phone booth: obituaries fade away into shadows of recollections of the pavement.

The point is that Jan Sawka is a very smart fellow. His lively thoughts accelerate like a Ferrari Testa Rossa on the Utah Salt Flats, there being very little affecting our modern society that he does not ponder. He is an avid reader on all subjects, from biographies of world class automobile moguls to avant garde theater. Jan has a flair for rigorous analysis of current trends, political in-fighting, papal strategies vis-a-vis the Ukraine, artistic maneuverings of the establishment toward Arte Povera, and even the latest video from the Grateful Dead.

Another side of Jan Sawka thinks in images, in segments and snippets, jagged Tuscan horizons and green fields in the New York Catskills. That is, the painter slides through his world of printmaking, for he has never stopped etching and he is still a master of the poster: in these mediums his visions are elaborate and even grandiose. Eve in his most ambitious projects -- filling a stadium full of his banners or lighting a vast, columned piazza with an unprecedented performance of light and color imaginings -- the artist and the social individual coalesce.

It is a relatively easy matter for a critic to describe his paintings, since the are quite suitable to narrative explication, being graphic, clear, blunt statements in a modern context. More difficult is pinning down the synthesis between the individual and the artist, each aspect reinforcing the other. The Queens exhibition is the most manifestation of Sawka's passionate pictures executed in America. To further complicate the equation, however, he is very much an American too, operating in the distinguished tradition that has offered constantly renewed strength to the United States as a nation and to its newly arrived as well. His American experience, which is the final factor in the process of cross-stimulations that have given rise to a unique statement. (Adopted from Jan Sawka in Queens" in the exhibition catalogue Jan Sawka Mixed Media Paintings by James Beck.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All artworks/images copyright Jan Sawka Estate

www.jansawka.com