Demosthenes Kokkinidis, July 1967, from the series And Regarding the Remembrance of Evils…, 1967-1997


Megaron the Athens Concert Hall

Today, in an era in which there is a perceived need to re-examine the role of the artist, concepts such as participation, interaction, community, anticulture, environment, new technologies, process and bodily identity—concepts that are closely interwoven with the Seventies—are ever more prevalent in contemporary art. In the context of this re-examination, the exhibition The years of defiance: The Art of the 70s in Greece traces an era of social and political unrest; a decade in which the Greek reality was called into question and transformed, but also influenced artistic activity.

Showing 187 works by 54 artists, the exhibition attempts to explore the new formal and conceptual trails blazed by Greek artists after the Sixties. How did a contemporary vocabulary come about that put some Greek artists in the forefront of the international art scene? And how did Greek art end up taking the form it did “after the Modern”?

This exhibition aims to bring to the surface the quests pursued by the Greek artists of the period and their new relationship and experiments with the ever-changing ‘image’ current at any one time. Above all, however, it seeks to shed light on the multifaceted idea of “defiance” that has kept their work alive into the twenty first century.

The exhibition The years of defiance: The art of the ’70s in Greece outlines a milestone in the history of modern Greece which witnessed the emergence of new artistic quests that drastically altered the artistic landscape of the country. The climate of social and political unrest produced a rich dialectic between art and reality as well as a climate of opposition to traditional values, the art system and the Establishment. The meaning of the work of art, the role of the artist, and the viewer as the passive recipient of an aesthetic experience were all reappraised in the light of the new and subversive mode of thinking typical of much of the Seventies. In searching for new functions, art ended up redefining itself.

It is precisely this artistic phenomenon that the exhibition explores, blocking out the new realities that were infiltrating the Greek arts scene. The show centres primarily on the years 1969-1981, with occasional references to slightly earlier works that intimated at the new formal and ideological ferment to come. Its chronological starting point, 1969, coincides with the resumption of exhibitions on the part of Greek artists. Their two year absence from the few exhibition spaces Greece could boast at the time in protest at the totalitarian régime was judged utopian, and actually posed a serious threat to the already languishing domestic art scene. The closing date, 1981, is the year in which the “Environment-action” exhibition was staged in the Zappeion building. The spatially-based works, that surround the viewer like a stage-set, plus performances and actions with their obvious theatrical dimension that brought the artist’s persona into the foreground, first appeared in Greece during the Seventies, an era in which they also flourished internationally (1).These anti- and un-conventional forms of expression condemned the capitalist economy of the West through their very form, posing another timely issue in their own way: the anti-commerciality of art, which during the Seventies had acquired the status of an ideological issue (2). The choice to exhibit in a public space, the Zappeion, squared absolutely with this spirit

The rationale underlying the National Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition was suggested by the artworks themselves, which were selected after extensive research and grouped into three sections for methodological reasons in an attempt to make the material more readily accessible to the viewer. The works were divided into these sections—intended to convey in condensed form the artistic thrust of the times—in accordance with the primary concerns of the artists’ œuvres, though taking into account, too, the need for visual alternation and surprise in an exhibition. The sections are entitled: Facing the real, Processes and interactions and Structures and metastructures.

The first section investigates the critical dialogue between art and the real world, using this relationship to communicate the historical and social context of that particular period. These works are grounded on a common axiom: raising the viewer’s awareness of contemporary problems and situations both on a locally specific and universal level. The works range from pictorial realism to art that is dematerialized in the sense that there is no material artefact. The contrasts as well as the negotiations between different art-forms is one of the exhibition’s broader objectives, showcasing the range of art produced in the Greece of the nineteen seventies.

The second section explores the calling into question of the traditional perception of art. The focus of interest has now shifted from the art object to the process by which it is produced, while in the case of theatrical happenings and ephemeral actions, the tangible visual product has been replaced by the intangible process. Artistic process became the epicentre of art internationally in the late Sixties, when the term was used as an alternative label (process art) for a trend which reacted against the formalist austerities of minimalism, intentionally revealing the nature and origins of the materials and the evolutionary stages in the work’s production (3). In the exhibition, the term has been used in a wider sense to describe artists who aspired to demystify the artistic process and to ritually initiate the viewer into the creative acts and concept, often turning the viewer into a vital factor in—even a co-creator of—their work.

The bipolar third section spans the new abstraction and the new narrative in art, dealing with the introduction of a new communicational language that arose out of new artistic conditions. “Structures” refers to ways in which abstract work is frequently structured in relation to real space—which profoundly alters the way in which art is conceived. By contrast, in “Metastructures”, a term borrowed from Nikos Kessanlis, the deconstruction of the image forms a new reality in which the visual narrative is fragmented, imposing a different way of reading the story on the recipient/viewer. The works in all three sections are imbued with the spirit of critical intervention that typified Seventies art.

Within the above framework, our goal is to present the production of the Greek artists who played an important role on the Greek art scene during the Seventies, whether they were resident in the country or not. Temporary or permanent migration—a characteristically Greek phenomenon—continued into the Seventies and intensified as a result of the prevailing political situation. Consequently, the show aims to chart the rewarding cultural interchange that arose between the artists who stayed in Greece and those that maintained close contact with the country and whose exhibitions helped mould the home arts scene. It also brings the international aspects of the art produced by Greek artists into view, researching the Greek artistic situation from a global perspective, and taking into account the countless objective difficulties that presented themselves along with the personal courage needed to overcome them. Finally, the exhibition explores the radical re-evaluation of earlier views that left their mark on the Greek art scene, stressing the defining moments when artists in the Seventies decided to sever their links with the past and explore their artistic calling, thus re-posing the eternal question: What is art?

[1] The first spatial work, Merzbau, was created between the wars by Kurt Schwitters, a faithful adherent to the spirit of Dada. Performances, too, grew out of Dadaist acts, but also from the acts of all the subversive artists of the early 20th century: the Futurists, the Russian avant-garde, the Bauhaus, the Surrealists and others. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, ed. Kristine Stiles & Peter Selz, University of California Press, 1996, pp. 499 & 679. The anarchic Dadaist stance was reborn in the artistic world of Seventies Greece as a position of firm resistance to the Establishment.

[2] Michael Archer is right in noting that numerous artists refused to serve the Western capitalist market in the late Sixties and early Seventies on ideological and political grounds, Michael Archer, Art since 1960, Thames & Hudson, London 1997, p. 111. One should also note the contradiction whereby the consolidation of anti-commercial art-forms—including conceptual art, performances, arte povera and land art etc.—world-wide during the period in question led directly to these trends being taken up by the most well-established museums and most important art events: the Kassel Documenta and the Venice Biennale. Thus, art that came into being in opposition to the system quickly became an integral part of it, promoted by the officialdom as the new avant-garde.
The advice Allan Kaprow gave younger artists he taught during the Seventies is typical of the era: to become ‘un-artists’ and to dedicate themselves to the international struggle against the production of saleable items. It was Kaprow who conceived of the term happening for a series of performances he staged entitled “18 happenings in 6 parts”, set at the Reuben Gallery in 1959; Τheories and Documents of Contemporary Art, op. cit., p. 682 & n. 8, p. 907. Kaprow argued that the boundaries separating art and life had to be broken down, a view which corresponded to some extent to that held by the Fluxus artists, a group founded in 1961 which experimented with cross-fertilization between music, literature, visual arts, film and events. Among the core Fluxus artists, and a key figure during the Seventies, was Joseph Beuys.

[3] Other labels used for the same trend include postminimalism, a term coined by the art critic Robert Pincus-Witten, and anti-form· Art since 1960, op. cit., p. 62. We owe the term anti-form to Robert Morris, Τheories and Documents of Contemporary Art, op. cit., p. 578. Morris curated “9 at Castelli” in 1969, an exhibition considered a turning point in the establishment of American process art. Two other important exhibitions promoting this trend, among others, were held in the same year: When attitudes become form: Works, concepts, processes, situations, information at the Berne Kunsthalle, and Anti-illusion: Procedures-materials at the Whitney Museum. The concept of process/procedure appears in the title of both exhibitions. We also note the use of the Greek prefix ‘anti-’ in both the Whitney exhibition and Morris’ term to denote an alternative dimension in the concept to which it is attached. The prefix in question, has made inroads into the English language –going some way towards replacing the equivalent English counter–, is part of the international terminology of the time and also figured in the work of Greek artists, occasionally by George Touyas in terms such as “Anti-myth”, Desmos Gallery 1974, and systematically by the sculptor Theodoros. In Theodoros’ case, the ‘anti-’ declares his opposition to spectacular ‘avant-garde’ demagogy, as in the series “Manipulations-Anti-Spectacular Theatre”, Aspen, USA, June 1973, “Sculpture ’73-’74 – (Anti-spectacular)”, Desmos Gallery, 1974 and elsewhere.

Curated by Bia Papadopoulou