header image
Home arrow Autobiography arrow 1971-1989
1971-1989 Print

1971-72 Mieczyslaw Porebski, now professor of art history at the Jagellonian University in Cracow, recommended Viennese Apocalypse, my reworked M. A. thesis, for publication and enrolled me as his Ph. D. student. The topic of my dissertation was the grotesque in the work of Aubrey Beardsley. In Porebski’s new home I met some of his friends: the theater director Tadeusz Kantor, the painters Tadeusz Brzozowski and Jerzy Nowosielski, the art historian Elzbieta Grabska and her husband Alexander Wallis, a sociologist.

1973 In Vienna my new work was exhibited by Christian M. Nebehay. He also commissioned two lithographs. Prints from both editions were acquired by the Graphische Sammlung Albertina. Another show took place at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Warsaw, and I wrote about “my early work, the romantic humanscapes, and the later realistic screens”:

There is a landscape on the TV screen in your hospital room. There is a tree or a beach on the screen, as you are submitted to electroshocks. You are in delirium, but a box of washing powder, bright as the sun, is rising on the screen. Dying, you can see somebody else’s agony on the screen. A family quarrels as the screen shows war break out on another continent. Screens, screens, screens...

At the opening Ryszard Stanislawski, the director of Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, bought a “Humanscape” and two “Screens”, and introduced me to the well-known photographer Marek Holzman. Such was the beginning of my and my mother’s lasting friendship with Marek, his wife Roza, and their twin daughters Kaja and Joanna.

1974 In October my paintings, drawings and prints were exhibited by the Galerie Lambert in Paris. The French mail service was on strike and invitations had to be distributed by friends. A favorable review appeared in “Le Monde”, the Polish critic Kot Jelenski spoke about my show on Radio Free Europe. Mieczyslaw Porebski wrote about my work: “It isn’t indebted to anyone. It’s not inspired by the past, nor is it avant-garde. It belongs to our time, it’s a testimony”.

1975 Helmut was teaching at the University of Vienna. I contributed work to several group shows and an exhibition-auction in support of Amnesty International. In the Schlachthof, a complex of slaughterhouses which had been given to artists, I saw The Ik by Peter Brook: a performance based on the true story of an African tribe of hunters. After their territory had been turned into a National Park, they went insane. Walking aimlessly, they picked up pebbles and swallowed them. The multiracial cast of actors imitated that gesture, as they wandered from slaughterhouse to slaughterhouse. Under the spell of the play I painted The Ik Are Us, a double portrait of Helmut and myself as blacks wearing African masks.

The British Council put me in touch with Brian Reade, a Beardsley scholar. Upon his advice I went to see the Beardsley Archive at the University of Princeton. During my short trip to the States I was impressed with paintings by the American Photorealists. After my return to Poland I wrote Hyperrealism - New Realism.

1 Opening at the Sciana Wschodnia Gallery, Warsaw 1977. Photo: anonymous | 2 At the Galerie MDM, Warsaw 1978 | 3 At the Nebehay Galerie, Vienna, 1973 | 4 At the Galerie Lambert, Paris1974 | 5 At the studio of J. Nowosielski, Cracow 1973

1976 I had just hung my triptych Who’s Afraid of the Red Mouse? at the Galeria Zapiecek in Warsaw, when the director approached me with a stranger. She introduced us: the artist - mister censor”. At once he pointed at the naked man in the bathtub and mumbled: he has to go”. Overjoyed that the censor had not noticed a red mouse with a red flag on the edge of the tub, the director exclaimed: Oh dear! He’s just an old man”. Embarassed, the censor walked away and my triptych stayed.

Peter, who for months had been in good shape, came to the opening. The next day he insisted on returning to the hospital. I went to visit him. As he saw me, he shouted: „Tell them to tie me to the bed! ” Alarmed, I rushed to the doctor. He called us hysterics and I left. Peter wrapped himself in a blanket and set fire to himself. Saved from clinical death by a skin transplant, he regained consciousness and began tearing off his bandages. For days he kept writing POE (the first letters of three words meaning “I beg for euthanasia”) in toothpaste on the wall. When he was able to get up, he ran out of the hospital to throw himself under a tram. He jumped from the second floor, breaking his leg. After an odyssey across Poland’s psychiatric wards, he ended up in the Tworki Hospital in the suburbs of Warsaw. For over twenty years mother would go there by train, carrying food, drink, clothing. When he was better, she would take him out for small trips.

1977 Fischer Fine Arts, a London gallery specialized in new figurative art, became interested in my painting. In September I went to London and sublet a room in little Venice”: a place of exiles and artists. The painter Franciszka Themerson and her husband Stefan, a writer, were my neighbors. In their house I met the art critic Jasia Reichardt who introduced me to the painters Ben Nickolson and Yolanda Sonnabend, and later to the art historian Nick Wadley. I made friends with Amikam Toren, a conceptual artist from Israel, and the American minimalist Joel Fisher. In November I did my first textile work, the triptych I, the White Kangaroo.

1977-78 My London pictures are large acrylic canvases, portraits and self-portraits with small vignettes instead of screens. The colors range from greyish blues to ashen violets, from beige tones to broken purple shades, from pale crimson to the hue of lox. Figures are composed from flat color fields outlined with red. Wolfgang Fischer exhibited my work in his international surveys of New Realism.

1 A sketch for the self-portrait Kuryluk, Don’t Dream About Love (1977, National Museum, Wroclaw) | 2 In my studio, London, 1978 | 3 With Marshall McLuhan at the Venice Biennale, 1977. Photo: Helmut Kirchner | 4 With my self-portrait at Fischer Fine Arts, London, 1978. Photo: J. Blake | 5 Picknicking with my friends the Themersons

1978 Art Actuel - Skira Annual included my work together with work by Francis Bacon, Baselitz and Cremonini, and reproduced my self-portrait Don’t Dream about Love, Kuryluk (National Museum, Wroclaw). My Warsaw painter friends asked me to join the group Cream.

At the end of the year visions of burnt skin appeared before my eyes. Color irritated me, and I eliminated it from my clothing and art. My attention shifted from painting to drawing and sculpture. In my penultimate self-portrait (Collection of Jasia Reichardt) I outline my shadow. My last London canvas ended up black.

In one of my dreams I walked along a white wall. The outlines of whatever I passed solidified in my pupils and were projected from them as a shadow or drawing that continued for miles. I woke up convinced that I had discovered a way to draw directly with my eyes. The dream is described in the epilogue of The Journey to the Limits of Art. Simultaneously with this collection of essays I was also writing poems, published in Miss Anima, in which similar visions occur:

On Veronica’s cloth
suspended in the eye
the red swept from the face
glows in the setting sun

with a sharp knife
the evening marks
Miss Anima hems
white with red

I accepted a teaching position at the Film School in Lodz, the center of the Polish textile industry. One day I bought white, pink and black artificial silk, ten meters of each, used for making lining. I pinned the material to the walls and depicted scenes from my life.

1979In January Within Our Four Walls, my first textile installation, was suspended at the East Wall Gallery in Warsaw. My first portraits of Peter were executed with red felt pens on unbleached cotton. Making them, Iunderstood the meaning of my work. Instead of the body, I “pinned down” its shadow. Instead of skin, I was “injuring” cloth.

1980Mao died, the Cultural Revolution was over. Helmut and I joined agroup of western experts” going to China. To see the Gandahara culture we made a stop-over in Pakistan. In April we landed in Lahore. Along the open gutters women gave birth, children died of hunger. In Peking guardian angels” waited for the experts”. At Nanking University Helmut was free to do nothing. Once aweek Ilectured” in English at the Academy of Fine Arts. From its library even the shelves had gone, but in acorner I found copies of Poland” in Chinese. The drawing of nudes was permitted again and young girls posed in blue bathing suits, worn over long cotton trousers. Faculty fluent in Western languages had just returned from the rice fields and wisely refrained from getting acquainted with me. The Soviet slide projector did not work. Yet people climbed over one another to catch a glimpse of a white woman. In Shanghai I bought 25 mof thin white silk.

In the fall the art critic Wojciech Skrodzki presented my first cotton installation at the Galeria Krytykow in Warsaw. These were the days of Solidarity’s rise and several people “recognized” Lech Walesa in my self-portraits. A friend was appointed director of the Galeria MDM in Warsaw, and asked me to organize an international show which in the future would evolve into an independant art biennale. In the winter semester I lectured at the Catholic University in Lublin. At night drunks tried to break into my room at the Home for External Students.

1 Vienna 1980 | 2 Medellin Biennale, 1981, Photo: H. Giuffré | 3 with the Russian artists Rimma and Valery Gerlovin at Helmut Kirchner’s, Photo: Karin Mack, Vienna, 1979 | 4 With Helmut Kirchner and Prof. Feng Duan, Nanking 1980. Photo: anonymous

1981 The International Biennale of Art in Medellin mailed me a return ticket. In April I packed my cotton work into two plastic bags and went. Medellin was ruled by the cocaine mafia, the mountains were controlled by leftist guerillas, the Biennale was guarded by military police. There was little correlation between the number of participants and the available space. Luckily, I arrived early and found an empty spot. I painted the walls black and suspended my sheets on string. After the opening Pope John Paul was shot in Rome; blood gushed onto his white robe. Suddenly, everybody noticed my art, “prophetic” and “typically Polish”. Helen Shlien invited me to her gallery in Boston. I promised to come and took a bus to the equatorial jungle where the pre-Columbian Indians had left their art.

In June The Garden of Knowledge, an international multimedia show curated by me, opened at the MDM Gallery in Warsaw. I exhibited Journey, a white-on-white silk installation, and wrote in the catalogue: We are in the Garden, and we are part of the Garden. Strolling on its paths, we discover ourselves. This show brings together artists who are driven by a desire to mark their work with personal experience and knowledge.

Frank Malina, an enthusiast of the new media, published my report On My Artistic Development Leading To Drawing on Fabric and reproduced my work in his London magazine “Leonardo”. In Boston Helen and John Shlien, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, received me like old friends. My show was postponed because of repair work at the gallery and I went to New York. I shared a two-room sublet at 110th and Amsterdam with a childhood friend, and applied for a grant to a new foundation for artists and intellectuals from Eastern Europe. At a party George Soros, whose name meant nothing to me, said: “Aha, our first candidate. Aren’t you afraid to be my guinea pig?” The show at the Helen Shlien Gallery opened on December 11, the eve of the imposition of martial law in Poland.

1982 In January a card with the words “Don’t return” came from my mother. I received a grant for three months and moved to an apartment in Washington Square Village. The Soros Program was administrated by the Institute for the Humanities at New York University. Fellows of the Institute belonged to the city’s leftist elite, the most prominent among them Susan Sontag and Josif Brodsky. The group sponsored seminars and literary events, and met each Friday for lunch, usually combined with a talk. The Institute elected me a Visiting Fellow for the coming academic year and approved my project for a 1982-3 seminar on the symbolism of duplication in art and literature.

The 12th International Sculpture Conference in the San Francisco bay area asked me to participate. All summer I worked on drawings of myself on cotton sheets. In September twelve of them were selected for the installation Interrogation and “seated” on Californian chairs. Back in New York I moved uptown, to the flat previously shared with my friend who had left town. On warm days I walked to a small “biblical garden” next to the cathedral of Saint John the Divine. There I played chess with myself, fed squirrels and re-read Effi Briest, a novel by Theodor Fontane, which inspired my Garden of Effi Briest, a silk installation. In December the „Boston Globe” listed my installations at the Helen Shlien Gallery as the best show of 1982. The “Village Voice” published Who’s Afraid of the Red Mouse?, my first longer article in English.

1 Journey, Helen Shlien Gallery, Boston 1981 | 2 Black Chairs, Princeton 1985. With Albert Hirschman, Christine Stansell and Marta Petrusewicz | 3 On the terrace of the Solidarity Office, New York 1982 | 4 With Wanda Rapaczynska, her daughter Kasia and Helmut Kirchner, Nantucket 1983

1983 I decided to switch to English and met Florence Stankiewicz, the wife of the linguist Edward Stankiewicz from Yale University and a gifted editor. We liked each other and I often visited her and Edward at their house in Hamden. It was Florence who made me an American writer. The poet Frances Padorr Brent and her husband Jonathan Brent, the director of Northwestern University Press, founded the literary quarterly “Formations”. For eight years I contributed to the magazine and co-edited it. The cover of the first issue carried a picture of my chairs. My essay Mirrors and Menstruation was published in the second issue. Martin Weinstein and Teresa Liszka, the directors of the New York gallery Art in General, became interested in my work. We have been friends ever since.

1984 In the introduction to the catalogue of Villa dei Misteri, my installation at Art in General, Edmund White wrote: Responding to the need to pack up all her earthly belonging in one suitcase at a moment’s notice, she paints on cloth, pieces of fabric that can be draped over chairs or suspended from a nail or spred over a table (a still-life of a just-finished meal) or folded softly within a framing box (a figure in a wood coffin). When all of her works are packed away into a single valise, she becomes a sort of traveling salesman of the visionary... Within a day an entire room can be filled with these harrowing figures. In seconds they can be whisked away, evacuated. Portable gods. Lares and Penates. Icons.

In the “New York Times” Grace Glueck wrote about my “classical drawings” becoming transformed by the folding of the cotton. In the Polish “New Daily” Jan Kott compared my installation with Jerzy Grotowski’s contemporary theatre performance at the University of California. Students from the New York Media School made a video entitled Villa dei Misteri. It ends with my walking away with a red suitcase into which the show has been packed.

Fall 1984 - Fall 1985 I spent the academic year as a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, sharing a wooden house with Marta Petrusewicz, an old friend and Professor of History. Helmut, who was teaching at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, often visited us. My first outdoor installations were made in our garden and on the campus. On December 12th cotton sheets with people’s injured backs were attached to tree trunks in the forest. The installation commemorated the imposition of martial law and the seventeenth anniversary of my father’s death. In January, when the first snow fell, I draped black silk sheets on black chairs. I photographed all the installations and Joyce Carol Oates published some of my pictures in her quarterly The Ontario Review.

Three of my white chairs were shown at the 12th International Textile Biennale at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lausanne. In July I met there with my mother. In October the Fund for Free Expression announced that awards would be given to „defenders of human rights” from around the globe. For that ceremony Ed Koch, the mayor of New York, was late. At last he rushed in, made a short speech and read the names of Eva Brodsky and Josif Kuryluk from a piece of paper.

1986 Salome and Judas in the Cave of Sex, the English version of my dissertation on the grotesque, received a Getty Foundation prize and was published first in hardcover, then in paperback. Andrzej Wirth, the director of the Institute for Applied Theater Science at the University of Giessen, invited me for a visiting professorship. I arrived in Germany right after the Chernobyl nuclear accident. In the attic of the house in which I rented my room, I found an original 19th-century paper theater and used it to produce Die Faust (The Fist”): a spectacle based on Goethe’s Faust. The play, which was performed by my students’ hands and video-taped, ended in an apocalyptic way. The fist”, armed with a silver spoon, smashed a raw egg: the earth.

1 Installing White Chairs at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Lausanne, 1985 | 2 With my students in Giessen, 1986 | Die Faust, Institute for Applied Theater Science, Giessen, Germany, 1986 | 4 The Hercules Project (1986) for the Documenta in Kassel

I installed my erotic self-portraits in the atrium of the Theater Institute and at the Kunststation. A visit to Kassel inspired my Hercules Projekt. In September I exhibited at the Center for Art and Communication in Buenos Aires. The painter Hector Giuffré put me up in his studio at the back of the May Square where the mothers, wives and sisters of the “disappeared” demonstrated. I took the boat down the Parana river, its water lukewarm and the color of blood, to Carmelos in Uruguay. Flamingoes greeted me on the beach; the earth was as pink as in Gauguin’s paintings.

The General Electric Foundation awarded me the “prize for younger writers”. Helen Shlien used a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to commission a new installation.

1 Gerhard Blum and Ryszard Winiarski with my installation at the Kunststation | 2-3 Center for Art and Communication, Buenos Aires, 1986 | Mrs. Aiglesias with the photo of her lost son, Buenos Aires, 1986

1987 In January Theatre of Love opened at the Mobius Gallery in Boston. Thomas Frick reviewed it in “Art in America” and later wrote the poem Theater of Love which ends with the lines:

You are the minotaur of my threadbare labyrinth, and I am yours.
These sheets will be forever imprinted with our image.

For almost a decade I had been using almost exclusively red felt pens. After my return from Boston I added blue and began covering textiles with texts. I called the new work Drawriting and wrote: “I draw what I cannot write, I write what I cannot draw. ”

The Fabric of Memory. Ewa Kuryluk: Clothworks 1978 -1987, a collection of photographs and essays, was published by “Formations”. For years our magazine had been pressing for the release of the poet Irina Ratushinskaya from a Soviet labor camp. In March she arrived in Chicago, on 7 May my interview with her appeared in the “New York Review of Books”. The Helsinki Watch Report on Soviet war crimes in Afghanistan was ignored, and so was my idea to invite the moderate Afghan ex-king, living in exile in Rome, to speak at New York University. In my first novel the king is invited by Goethe, the director of the Institute for International Vanity.

1987 - 1988 I taught at the New School for Social Research, reviewed books for the New York Times”, Los Angeles Times” and New Criterion”, contributed to Arts Magazine”, worked on Saint Veronica, typed my novel on an old electric typewriter, and read excerpts to my friend Wanda Rapaczynska, vicepresident of Citibank. When the bank modernized its computer system, she got me an old Macintosh. Friends took my work to Poland. My Shroud with Red Thread won a prize at the 4th International Drawing Triennale in Wroclaw. The theater director Leszek Madzik installed my sheets at the Catholic University Gallery in Lublin.

5 May 88 On my birthday I printed my novel and carried it over to a xerox place. When I returned to pick up my five copies, the owner handed me a box tied with a ribbon, and said something like this: No, no money, Miss. Only the pages about us, I keep, OK Miss? I from Kabul. The Soviets take father, we escape. I and brother. He dead with mine, I with injury. Walk to Lahore. Box present from me with wishes. God help Miss sell millions books. God reward Miss write about Afghanistan.

My novel was swiftly rejected by several New York publishers. The play A Little Manor by S. I. Witkiewicz opened at the Interart, an Off-Broadway theater on the top floor of a mid-town highrise. I directed the play, and designed the sets and costumes. The small stage was transformed into a real garden. Grass grew on the grave from which the resurrected heroine, naked and covered with dirt, emerged. Her small daughters (according to the author one resembles the owner, the other the manor’s administrator) were played by two young girls: one white, the other black. The owner was played by a white actor, the administrator by a black. This scandalized the Polish community and even the „Village Voice”. Over a decade later female twins were born in California from artificially inseminated eggs: one was white, the other black.

The National Humanities Center at Research Triangle Park, NC, awarded me a year-long Rockefeller Fellowship to complete my work on Saint Veronica. At the end of August I arrived in a marshy forest dotted with the research facilities of international corporations, looking like space stations. Our Center, made of white-painted brick and mirror glass (a deadly trap for small birds), looked more like a monastery. The British Fellow Jonathan Dollimore caught my eye. He was delighted to pose for me. His portraits were installed in the forest. An indoor installation, a joint work by me and the poet Rita Dove, was commissioned and donated to the Center by our class.

1 My studio in New York, 1989 | 2 After the rehearsal at the Interart Theater, New York, May 1988: the poet Piotr Sommer pretends to be an actor | 3 Henry Louis Gates Jr. with my Installation, National Humanities Center, N. C. January 1988 | 4 Rita Dove’s portrait, detail of Rive d’Urale (1988), Collection: National Humanities Center, N. C.

1989 In February my article The Afghan War Rugs was noticed by Malaga Baldi who became my literary agent. In June, on the day of my departure from North Carolina, the print-out of Veronica and Her Cloth was mailed to the British publisher Basil Blackwell in Oxford. In July I landed in Warsaw. Boiling brown liquid was dripping from the kitchen tap. There was a display of matches cut in half on the windowsill. The toilet didn’t work. Strips of flypaper were hanging in father’s room. Dirty laundry was stored on the balcony, washing powder under the piano. In the hospital I would not have recognized my brother had he not shouted “Kangaroo! ”

In September I was back in Manhattan, teaching at the New School for Social Research. Malaga urged me to write about my trip. The essay “Poland - the World’s Guinea Pig” was included in the anthology Without Force or Lies. Voices from the Revolution of Central Europe in 1989-90.

header image