EXAT 51

Kunstmuseen Krefeld | Haus Lange
Wilhelmshofallee 91-97
October 1, 2017–January 14, 2018

Ivan Picelj, Zvonimir Radic, Vjenceslav Richter, Aleksandar Srnec, Designs for the “Highway” exhibition set-up in Belgrade, 1950, ink, tempera, black-and-white photograph, cardboard, felt, 19 3/4 x 27 1/2".

As the Yugoslavian political regime liberalized in the aftermath of World War II, breaking from the Eastern Bloc, so too did the region’s artists. The group EXAT 51 (Experimental Studio 51) is a product of those years, when abstraction replaced Soviet socialist realism as the country’s official artistic style. A brain-scrambling number of the group’s art and design projects are presented here, highlighting EXAT 51’s fervent efforts to provide its society with new modes of self-representation.

Because the exhibit, even with its thematic headings, largely seems to organize EXAT 51’s projects according to medium—animation, architecture, models, and living spaces—it is easy to overlook how audaciously its members experimented across boundaries. Their collaborative ethos is conveyed especially well in a section on designs for international trade fairs. In Vjenceslav Richter and Emil Weber’s Yugoslavian pavilion design for Expo ’58 in Brussels, glass volumes feature interiors checkered with television monitors, offsetting the stereotype that communism could not produce modern technology.

Elsewhere, it is smaller-scale works that speak most confidently of Yugoslavia’s newfound internationalism. Aleksandar Srnec’s travel brochures from 1963 transform the country’s landscape into blocks of primary colors, beckoning European visitors to arrive by land and sea. And in a 1956–57 drawing by Richter and Zdravko Bregovac proposing a modern national museum for Aleppo, geopolitical realignment becomes creative opportunity.

Appearing in a Mies van der Rohe building, at a venue that often commissions artists to engage the Bauhaus’s legacy, this show risked framing EXAT 51 as yet another tardy echo of European modernism. Careful historical contextualization, however, acknowledges the group’s precedents without diminishing its unique potency.

Christianna Bonin