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When people think of cutting-edge art and design in Eastern Europe, they think: Berlin. But they’d do well to think of another B town, even further east. And that’s Berlin’s sister city of Budapest., a new capital of cool.
The Hungarian capital has quietly been developing into a compelling city for visual culture, even as Budapest is—like Berlin—still contending with its recent past. That past includes the Nazi and Soviet regimes, both of which still cast long shadows 15 years into this century not just in the papers and on the streets but also in the local art scene. The current right-leaning regime has been accused of cherry-picking cultural appointees, like museum directors, “loyal to the current government,” as one Budapest curator put it, and “as a consequence cultural institutions are losing their autonomous position.”
Addressing that very issue head-on, the inaugural OFF-Biennale Budapest is shunning government interference or support by offering a decentralized series of exhibitions and art events in and around the city. organized collaboratively by artists, curators, gallerists, and collectors (through May 31).
“The project intends to emphasize our conviction that culture is not the terrain of party-political battles and propaganda,” said a collective statement from the volunteer organizers. A key goal is to “offer an alternative to the network of government-funded art institutions” and “to encourage, support and celebrate an independent art scene.” OFF is partially funded by the Budapest-born billionaire George Soros’s progressive Open Society Foundations and pointedly does not use “government-run locations.”
More than 150 participating artists of all generations are showing work across all media in more than 130 venues, including art galleries, artists’ studios, vacant buildings, private apartments, bars, cafés, and public spaces. The curators hail from galleries, museums and fairs in the region and abroad.
Just ten minutes from the center of town, the Budapest Art Factory, a not-for-profit arts collective with permanent studio and exhibition space, can be visited by appointment. BAF, or “the Factory,” was founded in 2006. Its name pays homage to Andy Warhol’s Factory, but also to the more obvious fact that the collective’s home happens to be a nearly 10,000-square-foot former turbine engine factory.
Five painters of varying degrees of renown who all studied at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, have permanent studios on site: Márta Kucsora, Dóra Juhász, Levente Herman, Eszter Csurka, and Sandor Szasz. (Herman and Szasz, the two men in the group, are more expressly concerned in their work with the political and social.) The collective invites guests “whose work we love, and who we want to work with us under one big roof,” said Kucsora, for one-month residencies that culminate in public talks and a one-night show of new work in BAF’s raw exhibition space. (This month, it’s the Parisian artist Pascal Dombis.)
During our visit, large-scale paintings of domestic scenes lined the walls from the recent guest resident, Swiss artist Andy Denzler. Denzler’s Berlin gallerist, Michael Schultz (which has represented German giants like Kiefer, Richter, and Baselitz) was so taken with BAF, says Kucsora, that this autumn the gallerist will mount a solo show of work by Szasz (opening October 10). And BAF’s resident artist for June, the Berlin painter Bernd Kirschner, is also on Schultz’s roster.
Situated in a classic Budapest building complete with interior courtyard, ACB Gallery is owned by Gábor Pados, who since the late 1980s has been one of Hungary’s biggest collectors of contemporary art.
Orsolya Hegedüs, who is artistic director along with Rona Kopeczky, gave a tour of work by the artist István Felsmann, whose “paintings” comprising Legos evoke Mondrian and Malevich. Hegedüs says that in addition to showcasing artists in their 40s and younger, the gallery aims to exhibit “artists who during Communism were working underground and not simply not supported.” Helping artists from the 1960s and ’70s in Hungary be known internationally is key, “because it helps to contextualize artists from 2000 on,” she says. But “to represent Hungarian art is tough because almost no one knows any Hungarian artists, or if they know them, they don’t know that they are Hungarian.”
On view at ACB and its tiny annex across the street is work by the esteemed artist Magda Csutak and the late Miklós Erdély, who was a central figure of the unofficial Hungarian neo-avant garde. The show is a 30th-anniversary reconstruction of a seminal 1985 exhibition drawing on the traditions of Judaism and Christianity that was mounted in Csutak’s Vienna apartment (June 17 through July 30).
Then, there is the Ludwig Museum’s Budapest outpost. It focuses on international contemporary art (as does its mother ship in Cologne and its sister institutions in Koblenz, St. Petersburg, and Beijing), but with an emphasis on Eastern and Central European art and Hungarian masters. (Two beautiful and extensive solo shows of work by the modern painters Simon Hantäi and his contemporary Judit Reigl were on view during my visit—and both artists are well represented in the Ludwig’s permanent collection.)
The Ludwig is one of the museums whose leadership is government appointed, and that (according to artists, curators, and gallerists I encountered) is now viewed with distrust and skepticism. “When the new director was appointed by the government, many at the Ludwig Museum left voluntarily as we didn’t want to be identified with this regime,” says Tijana Stepanovic, a former Ludwig curator. (She is now one of seven key curators for the OFF-Biennale.)
The museum’s founders, Peter and Irene Ludwig, who started their collection during the Cold War and hoped it might serve a mediating role between the East and West, would be pleased with this season’s exhibitions. In honor of the museum’s 25th anniversary a show includes 80 artworks from its permanent collection by more than 50 artists, almost all from Hungary (through December).
Opening June 4 is an exhibition organized by curator Viola Farkas of post-Stalinist Soviet-Russian art bought by the Ludwigs in the former Soviet Union (through September 6). A show of 150 photographs dating to the 1950s depicts the life and work of the Hungarian-born photographer and Academy Award–winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who worked with directors like Spielberg, Altman, and Boorman on films including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter (through June 21). And looking finally to the West, as the Ludwigs themselves often did, is an exhibition of British and American Pop art, also culled from the museum’s collection (through January), right in line with Pop shows at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (through August 29) and the Tate (September 7 to January 24).
Finally, on a much smaller scale, there’s the Brooklyn-ish and category-defying Printa, which is all at once a gallery, a silkscreen studio, a popular café that sees its espresso and coffee-making as an art form in itself, and a “concept shop” with an emphasis on housewares, posters, and cool printed clothing (some crafted from recycled materials) mostly from local independent labels.
The gallery presents a new exhibit every two to three months of silkscreen based art. Typically on view are contemporary limited-edition serigraphs but also combined with other kinds of drawings, graphics, and cheeky work from upcoming Hungarian and regional artists. And if all the silkscreened goods for sale are inspiring, the silkscreen studio offer workshops for beginnings, as well as and studio rental for artists.. “All the elements of the space strengthen each other,” says owner Zita Majoros, a Serbian graphic artist and designer, who co-founded Printa in 2009 with a friend who is a curator and photographer. It sounds like a lot, but the place is coherent, inviting, and cool.
An article in The Atlantic, published while I was in Budapest, posited a “theory of cool” as a phenomenon that successfully subverts expectations, both societal and historical, by managing to be iconoclastic yet at the same time legitimate and bounded. In just that fashion, Budapest is eking out its elegant edge.
A version of this article will be published in the summer 2015 issue of Whitewall.