Born and raised in Glasgow, the only child of a Russian emigre, painter Yusef Szafki was much influenced by literature in his visual artwork. In an endlessly creative life, he published two literary works, including one on engaging with the Russian/Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol (60’ N (1996) ). Arguably the bold, dreamlike, exaggerated style of Szafki’s work is influenced heavily by Gogol’s character, and his writing in such famous stories as ‘Diary of a Madman’ and ‘The Nose’. Johnny Rodger reviews his retrospective at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh as the first exhibition to attempt a survey across his life’s work, and appreciates Szafki’s experimentation and his ever-developing concerns with form, tone and texture.
Yusef Szafki was a painter. The boldness of the isolated, displaced, deracinated intensities of his canvases turn our minds unavoidably and incessantly to consideration of provenance, genealogies, journeys, sources and direction. What is this colour, this form, this hue, this set of material relations? How does he come to pose suchlike at us? If the most congenial means he found – consistently, across decades – to pose these puzzles at us is through art’s bold and troubled orphan style, in the unmistakable inconsistencies of Abstract Expressionism, then the contextuality of that choice will be part, a big part, of our long look at and with the Szafki.
For looking is famously what that style will let us do: liberating us from the impulse, when stood before some other representative work of art, to understand, assign meaning and finality.
There is progress, for example, in Joe’s paintings, but without direction or destination. Take the early paintings of the late 70s and early 80s like Soothsinger (above) and Noctuary (below), in comparison with the works he was doing as late as the 2020s. We see the same concern with colour and form, but new techniques of application, draughting and so on are continually developed, experimented on the canvas. Yet there is no teleological cast through to a resolution going on here. Instead it all works in order to provoke, make manifest, emphasise, frame or heighten, effects and expressions which, retrospectively, are revealed as already integral in these earlier iterations of the work.
It seems indeed, that these paintings, in their contours, lines, relations, intensities and lines of flight, are somehow the exuberantly modest expression of where Yusef Szafki has come, is coming from: maps of the mysterious kingdom of his being. As Rothko -clearly a great influence here – once said of his own work: ‘The most interesting painting expresses more of what one thinks than what one sees.’ Or, as Virginia Woolf put it in 1920 after seeing the great Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, ‘For a moment it seemed as if thought could be conveyed by shape more effectively than by word.’
Yet Yusef Szafki is not just a painter. Joe wrote. Joe wrote a lot. He wrote stories, he wrote plays, he wrote songs – like his literary heroes, Balzac, Beckett and Gogol, he was always testing the limits of literary form, pushing into unexpected territory, innovating literary forms -even ‘A Surrealist Cookbook for 2.2 People’ written in the early 80s! Taking Woolf’s lead, we might wonder about a relationship between the visual and the literal in Szafki’s work: could we find a skeletal clue in his writings to the full-bodied ineffably powerful forces brought before us in these painted works? Woolf seems at one level to hint at a zero-sum game between the two in their conveyance of ‘thought’, though her qualification ‘For a moment…’ leaves us room in this here Szafki case to conceive of a more Spinozistic parallel of things and ideas or shapes and words, or paintings and literature as different modes of the one substance.
It would not, at any rate, be an egregious view of possible literary/visual art relation, given the long tradition of artist/writers exemplified from Leonardo, to William Blake, and to Szafki’s near contemporary fellow-Glaswegian, Alasdair Gray. What marks Szafki out here as exceptional as a literary/visual artist however, is his painterliness. Those others named above were habitually concerned in their own visual art with line and drawing which has an apparently immediate and graphic connection to writing as a type of mark, in its sense of articulation. Szafki’s painterly visual concerns are, however, more with body and bodily qualities and relations, with qualities of colour and hue, with spatial extension of the blocks and the textures of the work.
If at a certain level that painterliness potentially complicates, or distances the painting activity from the literary work, then might we nonetheless seek out some discrete expression of origins and impulses to his creativity in his writings which could be useful in ‘conveying’ some basic common ground, this common substance? One of Szafki’s two published books -the second from 1996 – 60˚N, takes Gogol’s famous short story ‘The Diary of a Madman’ and extends it to full novella length, wrapping a whole series of new (missing) dates into the original, in order, as Szafki himself stated, that it ‘evoke the spirit of Gogol’s style, but always intensified the madness’. This seeking out of intense expression, ineffable, powerful and, ironically for the diary setting, beyond the quotidian, that we see in Szafki’s development of the theme of Gogol’s madman, seems to bear much in common with the work we see in his paintings. Furthermore, Szafki himself was keen to lay particular genealogical claims to his interests and modes (at least literary ones) of expression, noting that, although his diary additions were written in English, readers had commented ‘on how Russian it sounded, the rhythms of it and so on’, and he went on to conclude thence ‘that must have come with my father’s accent, which is still very strong.’
Szafki’s father Pawel Szatkowski (1917-1993) was, in fact, of Polish ethnicity. The family was originally settled in Western Ukraine at the beginning of the twentieth century (Western Ukraine was widely settled with Polish at that time), and when Szatkowski was still a young boy, around 13 years old, they moved to South East Russia, just near the border with Kazakhstan, and he became a Russian citizen. At the beginning of WWII, Szatkowski fled, and finally, after a long and arduous trail settled in Glasgow, where he married a Glaswegian of Irish extraction, Mary Caroll. Post-war Szatkowski was allowed to stay on in Scotland, and adopted the indigenous family name ‘Kerr’. A son Joseph Paul Kerr was born in Glasgow to Mary and (now) Paul Kerr in 1950.
At this stage it may seem that we – led by hints from Szafki himself – are steering perilously close to some sort of nature/nurture analysis of this work. -Indeed, to an apparently essentialist view of Szafki’s expression as grounded in a putative Russian deep existentialist – even spiritual – heritage – as in the yurodivy, or holy fool tradition seen in the work of both Dostoevsky and Shostakovich (and of which Szafki was very well aware). Fortunately, the artist himself rescues us from that fate. It is notable that Szafki rarely gave a title to these paintings of elemental forces and relations, and seemed to avoid forcing them into the straitjacket restrictions of identity via naming. Ironically, his personal quest to redeem heritage and identity – changing his own name first to Josef Szatkowski in the mid-70s, then to Yusef Szafki (acknowledging the Kazakh propinquity) in the 90s – only shakes further the whole notion of identity, and leaves the name itself ringing hollow – perversely drawing us right back to his original like an alarm bell -Jo Kerr – the joker, the trickster, the formless, the shapeshifter, the twister, the elusive prankster. That nature/nurture debate then is not simply denied or forgotten, but raised to another level in his work. What are you given and what do you take? One interesting formulation of the trope is brought alive – and I propose it here as an emblem for his mode of operation and all his work – in a short story ‘Oligor duels with Worston’, which was, of course, published under yet another of his joker’s names – f.n. o’gafferty. The story is short, and worth citing in full from his collection of short stories, HELSINKI (not the town) (1995):
Oligor duels with Worton
Always one to flout regulations, I had lost count of how many thou-shalt-nots Worton had brandished. His favourite, rule 36, he had tattooed on his forehead, and he was forever flaunting it. Pointing to his head he would bellow, “Thou shalt not misalign the teaspoons at tea break!” I would reply by carelessly throwing my teaspoon down on the table. He would realign it and quote rule 36 again. I would pick up the teaspoon to stir my tea and cast it down again. He would realign it and quote rule 36. And on it went, he flaunting and I flouting until tea break was over. What an enchanting ceremony was tea break!
If the question of personal/ethnic inheritance is thus undone by his very search for it, then by the flaunting/flouting trope, that is by first demonstrating or making manifest the law and then undermining it, we are led directly to another genealogy of the paintings. This one we find in the paintings themselves, in the work, the material and the performance. It is not speculative -as is that proposed by his tendentious words and faux-naming – but analytical. It is simple and it is only found by looking, and looking again for a long time at these paintings – just as Rothko was said to sit and stare for hours at his own work. We look, and there it is: the paintings flaunt the materiality of the very substance. The texture and the colour, the blocks, and dashes, and spots of substance on the canvas. The fundamental laws of material being in the world are undeniably, inexorably asserted to us: they are present and shown to hold mercilessly and joyfully. Meanwhile, and simultaneously, these eternal conditions are flouted by the introduction of errant geometries, uncertain probing and blurring of lines and overpaintings, by the incomplete and the overworked aspects in those very performances of the mortal mess of the earth.
The precise genealogy of this style is of course in Abstract Expressionism, that school that rose out of New York City in the 50s and 60s as Joe grew up. The world (-the western world at any rate) was finally and definitively becoming modern at large, and throwing off the nineteenth century, and this style seemed to respond to a necessity for, as Peter de Bolla once put it in the London Review of Books, ‘a mutation in the grammar of looking.’ While Szafki knew very well, and had studied closely the works of the original wave of Abstract Expressionists – Rothko, Frankenthaler, Pollock, Kasner, and De Kooning – he was ultimately much more influenced in his techniques and moods by a later 1960s and 70s wave of painters which included Robert Motherwell, Jules Olitski and Friedel Dzubas. Is it just coincidence that he felt a special affinity for the work of these painters who had been born in central and eastern Europe and moved west to New York? (Olitski was Russian born, and Dzubas German) When he visited USA himself in the late 70s, Szafki had the opportunity to view many of their works in person.
Szafki’s inheritance from those painters named above is patent and in some cases specific. That is seen, for example, in the clear, discrete and contrasting patches and areas of hue, which as in ‘La nuit s’insinue’ (above)and again, though developed differently, and in engagement with his sometime almost Impressionist palette of abstraction, in ‘‘Untitled 4’ (below), seem to be borrowed and reworked from Dzubas. Equally the uncompromisingly black bars of paint applied raw and immediate, with seemingly random and uncertain direction and form, petering out with rough edges and scattered dottings and splashes, certainly owe a debt to the great Robert Motherwell paintings from the 50s through 70s.
Of course, it might be pointed out that Abstract Expressionism was a style born of, and appropriate to a specific era – a world of contrast, when the rich west could openly vent its violence and power around the globe, tramping all over the rights of the so-called Third World, and there were stark brutal contrasts in individual freedoms and rights between the ‘free world’ and the socialist bloc. Thus, in taking on the style in the 1980s and working solidly at it for forty years, Szafki might be perceived as coming in way behind the curve, and missing the opportunity to make really vital statements about the contemporary human spirit in his painting. Yet again however, here we can read Szafki as operating in the tension of those contradictory modes the flaunting and the flouting, where one mode feeds into the other as he dares to persist with the unfashionable, to push it to authentic conclusions with no institutional guarantor.
What interested Szafki were the perennial conditions and concerns of the human which are activated by this style. The purely visual and spatial opportunities offered to endlessly explore possible sets of relationships in hue, texture and composition, with special attention given to surface, expanse, propinquity, edge and depth -basically all the physical and visual possibilities of being on this earth, in this world. To the end he was experimenting, expanding his range of techniques, developing already existing ones and focusing on new areas of discovery. We find, for example, in the very last paintings he did, experimentation with Russian Thick Mud, Black Lava, and Earth Texture acrylics applied to give a superficially even greater dynamism, boldness and even aggressivity to the texture of those Motherwellesque black bars across the canvas (see above). Also the smaller, incorporated and less full canvas scale elements in some late works and the major feature in one of the final paintings -middle in the series of last pink paintings (see below). Over thirty paintings were made in the last few years, with Szafki flaunting his creative powers and pushing the techniques to the limit, each canvas vibrant and seething with expressive energy.
It is often said of Abstract Expressionism that the question ultimately for them all – be it Pollock, Frankenthaler, Rothko, Motherwell, Dzubus – is when to stop? When, if ever, is the canvas completed? Here we are, with an exhibition and a catalogue, flaunting the complete Szafki, but the work itself, arguably busier than that of any of those artists named above, with incessant trialling and reworking of the mark, the pattern and the composition in colour and form, is an endless flouting of the very possibility of finality.