National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens


17/12/2008 - 01/03/2009


Bia Davou

A Retrospective

Athens Conservatoire

17/12/2008 – 01/03/2009

Curated By: Stamatis Schizakis, Tina Pandi

The retrospective exhibition of Bia Davou (1932-1996) and those to come in the following years, is part of our exhibition policy, which, in its historical axis, aims to highlight the historical depth of contemporary art in Greece, emphasizing the experimental and critical explorations and realizations of the 1960s and 1970s. The major survey The Years of Defiance, The Art of the 70s in Greece, organized in 2005 by EMST, paved the way for in-depth knowledge and critical re-examination of Greece’s recent history through selected presentations of individual artists who are renowned to a greater or lesser degree.
The first exhibition of this cycle was twice overdue for us.
Exploratory and poetic by definition, Davou’s oeuvre, represented with singular completeness in the Museum collection, following the large donation by Zafos Xagoraris in 2002, signals the emergence of conceptual and language-based tendencies and directions that liberated the artistic praxis from the artistic object, shifting the focus from the aesthetic end product to concepts, practices and processes. Drawings, essays, photocopies, collages, words and texts form the majority of this work, whose investigation focuses on bridging the gap between artistic creation and science, on crossing different codes, systems and languages, particularly poetry and mathematics. The artist’s transition from an abstract problematique and investigation of the limits of the visual language in her early accomplished paintings, dating from the 1960s, could be considered as the first, perhaps necessary, stage in this artistic enquiry which lasted until the very end. Colour forms, drawing signs and variations which emerge in the very act of writing herald the ensuing drawing tautologies based on mathematical data, and images jointly articulated by drawings, dots and verse units, mathematically arranged.
Writing, always at the centre of the creative process, discloses to us the two-sided nature of things and the poetic depth of Bia Davou’s oeuvre.

Anna Kafetsi



What interested me more than anything else
was searching […]; for my life to be interesting,
it must be like a researcher’s life, always
excavating and searching.
Bia Davou

If the art of the 1970s attempted to redefine the artist’s role and the conditions of art work production, Bia Davou (1932-1996), with intellectual austerity and discipline, developed, through osmosis with the prevailing artistic pursuits of her time, a personal, temperamental oeuvre of a genuine poetic and meditative nature. The creative act was for Bia Davou identified with a life-long pursuit, which demanded full spiritual, intellectual and physical dedication by the artist, reaching the threshold of identification between life and art.
A woman artist who became prominent in the context of Greek art in the 1970s, Davou lived in the Greek art milieu while maintaining close ties with current pursuits in international art. Davou was active during a period of experimentations and fermentations in art, marked by the dematerialization and the expansion of the concept of the art object, establishing new terms for the relationship between artist, work and spectator.( 1) By transcending the traditional principles of organizing the visual structure, Davou placed at the core of her problematique contemporary demands in art, such as the communication between art and public, the redefinition and questioning of the traditional art object, the prioritization of the creative process over the end product through adopting and analyzing “(inter)-media”, such as mathematical concepts.( 2) […] Yet, bar her affinities with the aforementioned pursuits, Davou in her work defies such limiting classification.
From the mid-1970 until 1990, Davou associated her work as an artist with the history and the environment of defiance and experimentation promoted in Manos Pavlidis’ and Epi Protonotariou’s Desmos Gallery, where she had five personal exhibitions in 1974, 1978, 1981, 1983 and 1990, which represent major turning points in her development as an artist.
This exhibition is Bia Davou’s first major retrospective, focusing on her artistic activity from the early 1960s until the mid-1990s, surveying and interpreting fundamental questions and principles of her research. This orientation dictated, as a key critical objective of the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, to highlight the interdisciplinary and intertextual explorations in her oeuvre, which conversed, in early manifestations, with the new communicative conditions of the technological era, before turning from a strict serial system into a ripe and sincere poetic meditation on myth, longing, time and death. At the same time, it was considered important to trace aspects of her work which had not been systematically studied until now, that is, the relation of her work with key tendencies in the art of the 1960s and ’70s, such as cybernetics and mathematical logic, the fundamental importance of the grid, the serial development and the application of a predefined set of principles, the linguistic orientation.
The exhibition comprises the extended collection of Bia Davou’s works in the National Museum of Contemporary Art whose provenance is the donation of her works by her son, Zafos Xagoraris, in 2000 and 2002, as well as important works on loan. […] The exhibition was structured in sections presented in an open plan and which, by following the historical development of the artist’s work without being strictly limited to works of the same period, highlight the conceptual and formal pursuits which traverse her evolution as an artist, as well as their transformations over the course of time.

From gesture to system
As for most of the artists who rose to prominence in the 1960s and ‘70s, for Bia Davou the adoption of the problematique of the abstraction became a way to transcend the limitations of the figurative function of the art work and to emancipate it from the mimetic relationship to reality.( 3) Having worked in the studio of painter Kostas Iliadis from 1952 to 1958, Davou in the 1960’s developed a ripe and original abstract language. Nevertheless, she soon realized that this direction was a dead end and sought manners of artistic expression that where not based on the subjective treatment of the material.
The transition from the autonomous value of the gesture to a schematic predefined structure first occurred in Bia Davou’s development as an artist in the series of Grids, which were produced in 1967-1970 and then in the Flowcharts and Circuits. In the series of the three-dimensional Grids, besides experimenting with new materials, such as Plexiglas and PVC, Davou explored new ways to organize the sculptural space through the combination of transparent leaves, whose interplay and interleaving determines the end result. […] In the years following the series of Grids, Bia Davou’s artistic research developed in conjunction with the demand of the contemporary period for the social and communicative function of the art work.( 4) […] Specifically, in Bia Davou’s research, the binary system, the principal computer language, brings the artist to the Fibonacci sequence.( 5) The Fibonacci sequence was the fundamental system of development for her work, the initial impetus for the artistic process. Seriality emphasizes process rather than end product, subverting the uniqueness of the art object. In this problematique, which prioritizes the artistic act over the work, the concept of sequence and continuity, rather than mathematics, form the core of the work. In an interview, the artist remarked that, “This search interested me in a purely magical, mythological manner; I was not familiar with mathematics, which is probably the reason why I did not understand anything else from flowcharts, that is, the thinking that takes place prior to a computer programme.” We might argue here that Davou made the principle of seriality a fundamental condition for her artistic research; her entire career as an artist is informed by inner cohesion and consequence, as one series is organically related to and resulting from the previous one, as if they were structural elements of the same sequence.
Yet, on the contrary with Sol LeWitt’s axiom that, “The serial artist does not attempt to produce a beautiful or mysterious object but functions merely as a clerk cataloguing the results of his premise,”( 7)16 Davou’s laborious manual practice opposes the rationalism of the system.[…]

The dialectics of the journey and death
The shift of Davou’s artistic production from a system to a free, creative and poetical act was effected through her encounter of Homer’s Odyssey.( 8) In 1981, Bia Davou showed at Desmos Gallery a series of works titled Serial structures 2. Odyssey, in which she appropriated epic verses through a meticulous process of copying and embroidery. The rhythm of the imagistic text is determined by the Fibonacci numbers and other arithmetical series. The Serial Structures 2. Odyssey narrate the adventure of the text itself, inspiring various cultural associations with the myth of Penelope, the journey of Odysseus, the loss of his companions.
From hand-written Homeric verse and triangular formations derived from visual representations of the Fibonacci sequence, Davou’s artistic research arrived at environments
of sails, which unfold majestically in space. […] The dense mythological and intertextual references of the sails invoke fragments of collective and personal memory, familiar stories and narratives. The artist’s journey in time, into herself and others, becomes the main theme in her artistic creation. The time of the creative act, the symbolic time of the journey of the sails, the narrative time of the poetic composition, all interweave. By transcending the narrow confines of space and time, Davou, via the sails, weaves a thread from the present into the past, which gives rise to a journey of contemplation in search of the “continuity and spirituality contained in a journey […]. A journey in the sense of knowledge.”( 9)
Yet, when in the late 1980s her painful disease manifested itself, the concept of journey in her work can now only be seen in this grim context. Journey, longing and death are inextricably related in the latter works. […].
Bia Davou tried to come to terms with this tragic experience in her monumental installation Epitaph, in 1990. Through a “dramatization” of her personal experience, Davou meditated on death and the human condition on a universal scale. Epitaph is also a journey, yet the stretchers are vehicles that do not travel, like sails, in space or time, but from life to death.
In 1992, two years after the Epitaph, in Serial de-re-structures, a pictorial diary of 367 drawings, done with self-healing obsession in the course of one year, the agony of death is interwoven with the journey of the artist’s quest. In the last drawings in the work, the two words, nostos [journey] and thanatos [death] appear, erased and illegible at first, and then more clearly in the last drawings, suggesting that they may have been well hidden in the entire body of drawings. In Davou’s last work, the monumental installation Stairs and Sails, she instilled all of her collected experience as an artist: the gestural painting of her early explorations is combined with the serially conceived triangular shape of the sails and with the deathly and metaphysical symbolism of the stair, distilling through their poetic transformation the dialectic alternation of life and death.

Tina Pandi
Stamatis Schizakis
Curators of the Exhibition

1.Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970, ed. Donna De Salvo, London: Tate, 2005, p. 13. Lucy Lippard and John Chandler, “The dematerialization of art,” Conceptual Art, London: Phaidon, 2002, p. 218.

2. “From work to process,” Metamotphoses of the Modern: The Greek Experience, ed. Anna Kafetsi, Athens: National Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum, 1992, p. 191. The Years of Defiance: The Art of the 1970s in Greece, ed. Bia Papadopoulou, Athens: National Museum of Contemporary Art, 2005, pp. 101-103.

3. For the domination of abstraction in the second Panhellenic, of 1960, in which Bia Davou participated, Eleni Vakalo noted: “In the 1960 Panhellenic, the presence of abstraction is imposing. It is no longer a tendency but an established fact, with ripe manifestations in the work of its main exponents, Kontopoulos, Marthas, Maltezos and other artists if the first generation of the Greek abstraction. Side by side with their serene, quality explorations, a more violent version is provided by younger artists, particularly those who experience the current international developments abroad and send their works from there,” Eleni Vakalo, I fusiognomia tis metapolemikis technis stin Ellada / Afairesi, Kedros, Athens 1981-1985, p. 71.

4. Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970, ibid., p. 13.

5. See in detail in the essay on “Serial Structures 1.”

6. “Bia Davou,” Interview to Bia Papadopoulou and Dimitris L. Koromila, ibid., p. 20.

7. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual art 1962-1969: From the aesthetic of administration to the critique of institutions”, October, Vol. 55 (Winter 1990), pp. 105-143, The MIT Press.

8. Bia Davou notes that, “contact with poetry brings about unexpected results.” Bia Davou, “Seiraikes domes 2. Odysseia. Mikri anakefalaiosi,” ibid.

9. Maria Marangou, “Bia Davou. I kallitechnida ton ‘Istion’ milaei gia tin techni, ton anthropo kai to laikismo,” Eleftherotypia (29.4.1990).


Editors: Tina Pandi, Stamatis Schizakis
Texts: Tina Pandi,Bia Papadopoulou, Stamatis Schizakis, Charis Savvopoulos
248 pages, 30 Χ 24 εκ, Athens 2008
Bilingual (Greek / English)
With texts and reproductions of the works
ISBN 978-960-8349-32-2
Available for sale: price 25 euro


Photo: Istion, 1981-1982