Art Basel 2024 through a Polish Lens Art Basel 2024 through a Polish Lens
Artworks by Maria Pinińska-Bereś at Art Basel 2024, photo by Agnieszka Szablińska

Art Basel 2024 through a Polish Lens

Aga Sablińska
time 23 minutes

Three focused historic presentations of Polish women artists—Ewa Partum, Erna Rosenstein, and Maria Pinińska-Bereś—encouraged slow looking amidst the hustle and bustle of the famous Swiss art fair.

Art fairs are not usually conducive to slow, careful, and considered viewing of art. At these events—the most important of which is undeniably Art Basel’s flagship fair in Switzerland in June—thousands of artworks are presented by hundreds of galleries, typically without context, in characterless convention centers for just a few days. There is simply no way to see everything on offer, let alone to have a meaningful, extended experience with the art on view.

For the visitor looking for Polish art at an international art fair, there are certain names that almost always recur: Wilhelm Sasnal; Mirosław Bałka; Monika Sosnowska. With international gallery representation, works by these artists are instantly recognizable and ever-present, be it at Art Basel in Miami or the Armory in New York. While works by these artists were of course on view at Art Basel in Switzerland earlier this month, too, this year’s edition featured a number of less internationally-known Polish names, especially works by underrecognized Polish female artists active in the twentieth century. And, rather than including one or two works by them, as is typically the case, there were a few larger, focused historic presentations that not only presented an overview of these artists’ works but were also thoughtfully curated to encourage slow looking amidst the hustle and bustle of the fair.

In the Feature section of the fair—which included sixteen curated projects focusing on work made over the course of the twentieth century—nestled between Leonora Carrington paintings at Wendi Norris and local legend Jean Tinguely’s sculptures at Galerie Mueller were a series of photographs, videos, and works on paper by Ewa Partum presented by the Prague-based gallery Hunt Kastner. In the outer corner of the booth, facing outward at passersby, Partum’s face, variously painted, looked out at the fair from a TV screen displaying the work Zmiana / Change: My Problem is the Problem of a Woman (1974). As a conceptual artist known for her performances in public space, the positioning of this work by Partum was a masterful curatorial stroke: by placing the TV at a busy intersection of the fair, it became almost like a public artwork itself, with Partum’s gaze challenging viewers to stop, look back at her, and step into her world.


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Born in 1945, Partum is well-known in Poland for being part of the first generation of the Polish neo-avant-garde and has been increasingly recognized in Europe for her contributions to feminist art and conceptual art. Much of her work includes linguistic play and blurring the boundaries between the visual arts and poetry, as in her series Poems by Ewa, which she began in the early 1970s and a number of which were presented by Hunt Kastner at Art Basel. In these “poems,” Partum prints her lips, wearing bright red lipstick, on a paper while she speaks words, leaving behind a visual imprint of language and sounds. Partum sent out editions of one the first of these works, My Touch is the Touch of a Woman (1971), to artists worldwide, creating a mail art project that disseminated her experiments with deconstructive poetry.

Visitors to Hunt Kastner’s booth at Art Basel were treated to a miniature museum-quality introduction to Partum’s work from the 1970s, from her poetic experiments to the documentation of various performances including the aforementioned video work Zmiana / Change. For this performance, Partum asked a make-up artist to make half of her face appear aged while the Polish artist and filmmaker Józef Robakowski captured the transformation. Displayed in the age of the filtered selfie in a fair that often presents showy and shiny art, Hunt Kastner’s booth encouraged a deeper meditation on the complexities of female identity.

Artwork by Ewa Partum, photo by Agnieszka Sablińska
Artwork by Ewa Partum, photo by Agnieszka Sablińska
Artwork by Ewa Partum, photo by Agnieszka Sablińska

Upstairs at Warsaw’s Foksal gallery was another skillful historic display: six works by the late Erna Rosenstein, whose oeuvre reflects the life of an artist who dealt with unimaginable adversity and grief. Born in 1913, Rosenstein was associated with the avant-garde Kraków Group before her life was violently disrupted by the Holocaust and murder of her parents. Throughout her life, Rosenstein grappled with the question of how to process trauma through culture. As if to acknowledge the heaviness of this, Foksal separated Rosenstein’s works in a triangular space within their booth, accessible via a narrow entryway that could only fit a single visitor.

Stepping into the small room Foksal built for Rosenstein was an intimate experience distinct from the rest of the fair. Whereas fair-going is inherently social, this space created a private intimacy between the visitor and Rosenstein’s art. The works on view here functioned almost like a mini-retrospective, ranging from Fire Fountain (1977), a surreal depiction of water and fire that resembles an alchemical landscape, to From A Distance (1993), a mesmerizing portrait of a woman covered with twine resembling bars across her face. Known for her sculptural assemblages as well as her paintings and drawings, the inclusion of this work was a nod to Rosenstein’s more fragile and experimental works, in which she transformed everyday objects like cigarette packs into artworks.

Rosenstein’s work is often described as alchemical, not only because of its at time pseudo-scientific imagery but also because of the way she was able to transform her trauma via a creative practice that moved seamlessly between figuration, abstraction, and surrealism. By giving her a room of her own, Foksal reinforced this alchemy: the solitude and silence of this space felt almost magical. In what feels like a real feat of fair curation, Foksal created an experience for viewing Rosenstein’s work that will be hard to replicate elsewhere; this sort of intimacy with Rosenstein’s work is unlikely if any of these works end up in the museums where they belong.

Artworks by Erna Rosenstein, photo by Agnieszka Sablińska
Artworks by Erna Rosenstein, photo by Agnieszka Sablińska
“Fire Fountain” by Erna Rosenstein, photo by Agnieszka Sablińska
“From a Distance” by Erna Rosenstein, photo by Agnieszka Sablińska

Next door to Foksal, the London-based gallery The Approach also developed a distinct space for their historic presentation at Art Basel. For their exhibition of works by Maria Pinińska-Bereś, the gallery used the artist’s signature pink color to denote her section of their booth. Much more well-known in Poland than abroad, Pinińska-Bereś leaned into hyper-femininity as a socio-political critique. Drawn at first to techniques associated with female labor like sewing and quilting, Pinińska-Bereś would ultimately blur the domestic and erotic to create a sarcastic commentary on the patriarchy’s view of women.

While the soft pink sculptures presented by The Approach may seem girly and frivolous, many of them were made at the height of Poland’s oppressive Communist regime. Koniec Uczty / End of the Feast (1983) is a direct reference to this period when the artist’s works were increasingly censored: the crumpled napkin on the side of the table symbolizes Pinińska-Bereś’ exclusion from the art world during that time. The Approach’s unique display of her work at Art Basel demonstrates the gallery’s commitment to ensuring that she is included in the art world this time.

Artworks by Maria Pinińska-Bereś, photo by Agnieszka Sablińska

There were other great Polish modern artists peppered around Art Basel this year, including a couple of Alina Szapocznikow lamps at Hauser & Wirth. There was also a young presentation worth noting, of the up-and-coming painter Barbara Wesołowska at Warsaw’s Galeria Stereo. In the Statements section of the fair—which included eighteen new solo projects by emerging artists—Stereo’s presentation also stood out for its curation. Featuring just four works hung together in pairs in close proximity in the corners of their booth, Wesołowska’s painting glowed subtly, drawing the visitor in for an introspective, almost spiritual moment.

As an art writer, it is very easy to be critical of Art Basel as a temporary shopping mall for the rich and famous. While it is, of course, that as well, focusing on this overlooks the hard work of gallerists who devote time, energy, and research into curating small focused moments of aesthetic pleasure and historic importance. At Art Basel this year, Polish female artists were the stars of this approach, and we can hope to see more of their work on view in museums worldwide as a result.

Artworks by Barbara Wesołowska, photo by Agnieszka Sablińska
Artworks by Barbara Wesołowska, photo by Agnieszka Sablińska

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