Throughout his trajectory, the Romanian-born, UK-based artist Paul Neagu (1938-2004) favored a holistic approach in which a plurality of media and disciplines converged. Over time, he constructed a veritable artistic system whose signature concepts will be presented at Independent 20th Century by Ivan Gallery from Bucharest.
Reactivating the avant-garde desideratum to transform art and society, to merge art and life, a young Neagu combined ideas of art’s spiritual and metaphysical purpose with the principle of “non-retinal art” launched by Marcel Duchamp. He found a way out of the conservatism of the artistic system in his native Romania by familiarizing himself with new movements such as Op Art, kinetic art, Neo-Constructivism and cybernetics. Socialist realism was the prevailing paradigm in Communist Romania, and this was compounded by a ban on the foundational texts of early 20th-century art. For local artists interested in the rise of cybernetics in the “information age”—who shared the technological optimism of inquiring minds from the USSR to the UK and beyond—Neo-Constructivism represented a novel and exciting direction of research.
Here, the basic idea was structure. The study of organic, social, economic, and technological systems found its corollary at the artistic level in the representation of networks of relationships between elements caught up in complex meshes. The painting Altar Making from 1965-67 is indicative of Neagu’s exploration of geometric structures, departing from abstract folk motifs from Romanian peasant culture to create an elaborate composition of volumetric shapes which converge into a central nodal point.
Neagu soon made the transition from painting, the medium he had studied at university, “towards the three-dimensional” object. He began participating in international exhibitions, such as the pivotal presentations organized at the Richard Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh from 1969 onward. A new participatory aspect of Neagu’s work came to the fore in his projects outside Romania, where cultural manifestations were closely monitored by the state and performances could not be enacted in public galleries.
The Edinburgh shows inspired Neagu to advance his practice by turning the objects he made into vehicles of collective, embodied communication. He created a wide range of tactile objects which were striking in their rich, composite materiality. The inner and outer surfaces combined leather with fragments of fabric and metal, but inside their cavities could be found bread, feathers, pieces of mosaic or glass, velvet, matchsticks. The more eclectically constructed the object was, the more likely it was to transmit contrasting stimuli to the epidermis.
Neagu drafted the Palpable Art Manifesto in 1969, and henceforth his object-making activity was integrated into a program. The manifesto begins by criticizing the eye as the primordial vehicle of perception: “From the beginning of art to the present day, the eye as the organ of reception and control has been educated and super-educated thanks to a process of reciprocal influence between itself and the art object. Stimulated successively or concomitantly, the eye has been deceived, exploited, manipulated, worn out by so many demands.” Neagu argues that the artistic object should instead “be perceived through actual contact” and “its expression should be realized in the act of touching”.
Neagu’s Cake Man happening at the Sigi Krauss Gallery in London in 1971 offers an eloquent demonstration of his “palpable art”. Participants in the event were greeted by the smell of freshly made waffles as soon as they stepped inside the space. Waffle “cells” glued together with chocolate glaze made up the edible sculpture they were to devour collectively. Each compartment was assigned to a particular person. Neagu had first cut out the waffle cells using cardboard templates, deconstructing and then reconstructing the human body on the gallery floor. Thus, the Cake Man’s meticulous construction highlighted the relationship between part and whole in an organism. The performance can be viewed as symbolizing the constitution of a collective, an action that comes about through the arrival of the participants.
Paul Neagu, Going Tornado, 1974, photograph from the performance at the Forrest Hill Poorhouse during the Edinburgh International Festival, 15 3/4 x 19 2/3 in. Courtesy of the Paul Neagu Estate, London and Ivan Gallery, Bucharest
Paul Neagu, Gradually Going Tornado, 1976, photograph from the performance at Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol, 16 3/4 x 26 in. Courtesy of the Paul Neagu Estate, London and Ivan Gallery, Bucharest
The Cake Man’s underlying grid might be said to represent an ideal pattern which can be directly linked to Neagu’s efforts to analyze human anatomy. He started to produce numerous cellular-body drawings in 1969, and subsequent drawings, prints, and paintings on the theme were grouped under the concept of the Anthropocosmos. Neagu coined the term in the mid-1970s, but also used it retroactively to describe his exploration of cellular networks in two-dimensional form. The human body as a whole, as well as its separate organs or fragments, such as the eyes, hands, mouth, and heart, were subject to a regime of geometric compartmentalization. The rigor of Neagu’s diagrammatic depictions have sometimes been compared to technical drawing, a skill he acquired through evening classes in the years before he became an art student. Like a topographer, he maps, measures and calculates. In other words, he maintains the position of a philosopher who cultivates a certain distance, seeking to confer a symbolic generality on the elements he observes, on the ideas he generates.
The Anthropocosmos series has a single referent, the human body. It is tempting to trace its connections with the human-oriented spiritual philosophy of anthroposophy developed by Rudolf Steiner in the early 1900s (although structuralism and generative grammar, an influential linguistic theory, also provided important intellectual reference points). Neagu became familiar with Steiner’s ideas in the late 1960s, via his then mother-in-law. The artist saw the human body as the organizing principle of nature and the cosmos, while society was “composed of inter-connecting cells in dynamic, energetic relation to each other”.
In Neagu’s drawings, the relationship between the bodily fragment and the whole can be read as a metaphor for the all-encompassing relationship between humans and the cosmos. Neagu asserted the need to re-establish a link between the microcosm and the macrocosm, whose rupture had led to the atrophy of humanity’s spiritual faculties and to their alienation in society. He regarded the human being as a “universe” made up of interconnected cells, and sought to express through this constructive image what he called the “cosmic awareness” of “spiritualized”, thinking individuals.
Rarely has an artist of his generation spoken to the conditions of the present moment as presciently as Paul Neagu. Sensorial knowledge, the importance of collective participation, the interdependence between embodiment and spirituality: these complex ideas are all part of a legacy which remains relevant to new generations of artists and continues to inspire reflections about what it means to be human in the world.
Magda Radu is a curator and art historian based in Bucharest, where she founded the independent art space Salonul de proiecte. She is the editor or co-editor of exhibition catalogs and books including Paul Neagu (2022), Art in Romania Between 1945- 2000. An Analysis from Today’s Perspective (2016), Dear Money (2014) and André Cadere/Andrei Cădere (2011). She co-curated the first international retrospective of Paul Neagu at Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein in 2021 and Neue Galerie Graz through September 25. Previously she curated Geta Brătescu – Apparitions, the Romanian Pavilion exhibition at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, as well as exhibitions at KIOSK, Ghent; Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin; Art Encounters Biennale, Timișoara; and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest.