1989. A Painter in the Attic

A Painter in the Attic
by Kálmán Kecskeméti

(manuscript) 1989

The studio, where we are having this conversation, is located in the attic of one of the old buildings on Moszkva Square. The attic was converted into a studio by the painter himself, who also has a degree in architecture. He has recently returned from the United States, where he had spent two years on an arts scholarship. He, too, wanted to achieve what seems to be the ambition of so many other artists nowadays – to make a name for himself on the international art scene. It is not easy to be a Hungarian painter these days: on the one hand, the system of art dealership in Hungary is not yet fully functional, and on the other hand, state sponsorship is no longer available. In any case, Géza Németh is not the type who would have qualified as a „tolerated artist“, and much less as a „sponsored artist“, under the reign of György Aczél, the all-powerful cultural commissioner during the Kádár regime. As a consequence, he encountered some difficulties, when he started out in his career. Németh, too, emerged from the subculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. First he displayed his works in various clubs and culture centres; then he was invited to exhibit in György Galántai‘s Chapel Gallery of Balaton­bog­lár, a venue that was subsequently banned after László Szabó had published his venemous article in Népszabadság. In 1979 Németh was admitted to the members of the Art Fund, although that helped him very little in terms of exhibition opportunities.
In 1985 he set out for the New World to find fame and fortune in New York, of all places. In the early days he was so engrossed in his work that he hardly ever set foot in the city. He produced large compositions. The works he had earlier completed in Hungary bore witness to a sunken culture. He painted the pictures of destruction. The compositions he made in the United States allow a glimpse into a strange world. These works depict cosmic events: warped matter of elementary power, curved surfaces in spiritual spaces, huge forms radiating light from within. These compositions were not without precedence. Some of his earlier silk-screens and graphical works had already featured strange linear formations, with which the artist had come accross sometimes while watching the sand or some fossilized impressions and sometimes while studying the curiously twisted roots of trees. Organic or magical metaphors – this was how I liked to call the world emerging from the paintings. The use of magical metaphors continued to characterize Géza Németh’s compositions made in the United States. By a strange twist of fate, it was through his mature works made in the United States that he discovered the mysterious world of shamans, sorcerers and goblins: the ancient toposes of the collective memory of a people. These paintings make up the „landscapes“ of the myth – of a nation‘s legendary origin, of a beginning, of a culture. Watching these „landscapes“, one has the feeling that the two legendary figures of Hungarian folklore, Woodripper and Rockroller, have just stepped out of the scene a short while ago.
Next, Géza Németh turned his attention to the art galleries. The tax system adopted by the United States has a favourable influence on investments in cultural projects, as well as on art funds and grants. As a result, the system of art dealership in the United States has enjoyed a terrific boost. Europe has gradually lost the advantage that it had gained in art over the previous centuries. America has become the centre of art dealership: this is the place that dictates in terms of both „fashion“ and prices. New York alone has nearly 3,000 art galleries. With almost all the trends and schools being represented, it is impossible to talk about the „dictatorship“ of any particular style.
It is, of course, extremely difficult for a Hun­garian painter to engage the attention of an art gallery. Art dealership is a business – a rather lucrative one, as a matter fact. Since art dealers take serious risks, they deliberate a great deal before they make a decision about promoting a particular artist. The rental rates paid by the galleries are very high, and so are the costs associated with advertizement and catalogues.
Géza Németh was blessed with good luck. Through some of his acquaintances he got to know Imre Ladányi, a Hungarian-born painter who has sadly died since then. Greatly impressed by the paintings of his fellow Hungarian, Ladányi introduced Géza Németh to an Italian physician who owned an art gallery in one of New York’s more affluent suburbs, Scarsdale. Brucato Art Gallery, as it was called, gave home to Németh’s first exhibition in America. The event proved successful, with the magazine Art Speak presenting the artist in a favourable light and with many other journals also reporting on the exhibition. When a gallery owner offers an artist with the chance to exhibit, he is the one who decides what to hang up on the walls. He is the one who risks his own money in the venture. In preparation for any exhibition, the duration and the floorspace are carefully specified in the contract, along with the precise percentage that the advertizement costs are spilt and the proceeds from the sale of the paintings are shared. Ususally, the dealer takes forty percent. There are gallery owners who rent out their venues, but only very few artists will ever avail themselves to this opportunity, as the asssociated costs could be very high. Renting out a small gallery on Madison Avenue for two weeks could cost as much as $15,000.
New York has a number of gallery owners of Hungarian descent. The most famous of them is Tibor de Nagy, whose gallery is on 57th Street. Pál Kövesdy’s gallery is located on the corner of 71st Street and Madison Avenue. The latter is primarily interested in early-19th-century Hungarian artists, most notably Lajos Kassák and his circle. Géza Né­meth soon became a member of the Art Gallery; then in 1987 he won the international fine art competition of the World Bank. He had a one-man show at the Washington centre of the World Bank in 1988. Still in the same year the paintings he had made in the United States went on display in Duna Galéria of Budapest. The same material was later exhibited in Kecskemét and Eger in 1989.
Physicians and engineers are not the only ones who take their business to abroad in response to the adverse conditions in Hungary; sadly, there are an increasing number of artists, too, who try to earn a livelihood abroad. Hungary has always treated its artists poorly. Through the example of a few lavishly sponsored artists the authorities in the past couple of decades have tried to convey the impression that artists in Hungary enjoy exceptional social and financial support, verging on state employment. Well, the statistics paint a different picture. Approximately forty percent of the Art Fund members draw no income whatsoever from their artistic activities.
Géza Németh came back to Hungary – he wanted to work in his native country. His ardent hope is that future economic growth will be conducive to the reorganization of art dealership, eventually fostering a link-up to the international market. That could help transforming our system of values. Perhaps Aczél‘s infamous rule of the triple „T“ – támogat (sponsor), tûr (tolerate) and tilt (ban) – will at last give way to a fourth „T“: talent.