ARTMargins Online Blog

Encounters 2 - Anka Ptaszkowska's trajectory in the 1970s, between Poland and France


Inspired by a conversation with Anka Ptaszkowska, this fall in Paris, this post seeks to revisit her rich and free trajectory between Poland and France, marked by personal encounters and adventures that were often undertaken collectively.

Trained as an art historian at Warsaw State University and then at Lublin's Catholic University, Anka Ptaszkowska was one of the founders of the Gallery Foksal in Warsaw in 1966, along with Wiesław Borowski and Mariusz Tchorek. From 1966 to 1970, she was actively involved in the gallery's activities and in the definition of a line that would characterize its early program and events. After a series of discrepancies and conflicts that made Foksal's first team split, she left Poland with her partner, the photograph Eustachy Kossakowski, and settled in Paris in 1970.

Since then, Anka Ptaszkowska has lived in France, keeping however strong ties with her country of origin, contributing in particular to recent institutional efforts to preserve archives from the period of the 1960-70s and make them accessible to a wider public, like in the case of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Group from the Foksal Gallery on the terrace of Henryk Stażewski's studio, 1970. Photo: Eustachy Kossakowski. Courtesy Anka Ptaszkowska and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

As an art historian, critic, curator, professor of art history (at Caen's Fine Art School in Normandy, between 1983 and 2003), Anka Ptaszkowska was involved in a great number of initiatives and proved to be a tireless promoter of the work of artists she admired and maintained a close relation with - among them, Henryk Stażewski, Edward Krasiński, Krzysztof Niemczyk, Eustachy Kossakowski, Daniel Buren and André du Colombier. However, while her trajectory crossed numerous artists that have marked the developments of the Polish artistic avant-garde in the second half of the 20th century, it also certainly went beyond canonized figures and mythical episodes in the history of this scene.

Although this post doesn't focus on her activity in Poland, it is worth mentioning that her position, in the particular context of the late 1960s, corresponded to what Piotr Piotrowski designated as the "politics of autonomy" that characterized part of the Polish art scene. While Piotrowski's reading of such attitude was openly critical, seeing in it a direct result of Poland's liberal policy in matters of culture, which had led to art's deprivation of its political potential [1], Ptaszkowska has vigorously defended her position, claiming her rejection of political ideology as a way to escape a condition of restrictions that could be experienced even from the somehow "privileged" position of the Gallery Foksal (as a structure receiving financial and logistic support from the state, which tolerated its experimental and international agenda). In an article published in 2011 in Poland, Ptaszkowska reacted then to accusations of political disengagement and comfortable refusal of radicalism by regretting the reductive encapsulation of avant-garde practices into readings that in a way evacuated the possibilities of formulating other forms of opposition and resistance.[2] It is worth mentioning this debate, only few elements of which have reached a broader sphere of reception as it essentially took place in the context of Poland, among artists and art historians. Such discussions, however, touched crucial aspects of art historiography about the late-communist and post-communist periods.[3]

Contradictions were not absent, of course, and Ptaszkowska, in the context of Poland in the late 1960s, faced them with her own practice, which combined theoretical reflection about the exhibition medium and its conditions of existence, and the organization and participation in actions engaging with humor, ludic gestures, apparently non-serious practices. Ptaszkowska's refusal of any political ideology was based on an anarchist sensibility, she defined as an instinctive and emotional rather than intellectual response, and an "ethics of non-conformism" inherited from both Henryk Stażewski and Tadeusz Kantor, despite their different postures. 

What first caught my attention was Anka Ptaszkowska's involvement in several activities in Paris non-commercial and extra-institutional art scene of the 1970s, as well as her constant engagement towards atypical figures in the arts. While, as I said before, her name has been mostly associated with the avant-garde scene in Poland, her presence in France and the numerous activities she developed there over several decades are lesser known. In the French context of the 1970s and 1980s, she was undoubtedly an active agent engaged in a series of multifold practices (clearly on the side of non-institutional activities), as well as a voice from Poland whose contributions to different French publications and magazines helped to bridge the gap between two separate cultural scenes and their views, always from an independent and irreverent perspective.

Contradictions again, in the case of France. If the rejection of ideology first matched artists refusal of the market and art's definition by institutions and their representatives, in a post-1968 atmosphere, it also meant not accepting to embody the figure of the "artist in exile from the Soviet block" that fascinated the leftist intelligentsia, nor becoming the spokeswoman of communist progressive policies in matter of culture, which still attracted French communist intellectuals and artists. The perception of émigrés artists or intellectuals from Eastern Europe actually passed through the lens of a Western imaginary nurtured with the Soviet avant-gardes, and generated a lot of fantasies. Anka Ptaszkowska recalls that shortly after her arrival in Paris in 1970, she and Kossakowski met the artist Daniel Buren, the art critic Michel Claura (Buren's brother and first theorist of his work) and first and the art dealer Seth Siegelaub, who were waiting for them as messengers from socialist countries and were surprised by their virulent anticommunist discourses. Yet, her explicit rejection of any ideological positioning didn't prevent Anka Ptaszkowska to collaborate with publications and magazines with explicit leftist orientations like Opus International, Artpress or the communist Lettres Françaises, with articles referring to artistic events in both countries.

Despite the bureaucratic obstacle course required to remain in France - which administration, she recalls, was by no means welcoming - and the first years' harsh financial conditions, Anka Ptaszkowska embraced her new terrain of operation enthusiastically and started to build spaces of action and sharing that relied on a strong network of kinships and intellectual affinities. Her condition of anonymity was lived as a release after the years in Warsaw's art scene.

Galerie 16: exhibition by Henryk Stażewski, Paris, 1974. Photo: Eustachy Kossakowski. Courtesy Anka Ptaszkowska and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

Several collective adventures surged in the 1970s. With Michel Claura as a co-director, and Daniel Buren and François Guinochet as consultants, Ptaszkowska opened in 1972 a non-commercial gallery which name changed according to the number of exhibition it hosted, from Galerie 1, Galerie 2, etc., to Galerie 36, the last one, in 1976. The gallery was conceived as a place – first nomadic and not necessarily physical, then in the cellar of a building – for critical information and questioning about the role of galleries in a capitalist industrialized system, and as such, it fostered experimentation on the issue of exhibition formats and gallery display. Among the exhibited artists were Peter Downsbrough, Edward Krasiński, Henryk Stażewski, Carl Andre, Hiroshi Yokoyama, Goran Trbuljak, Dan Graham, Claude Rutault.[4] Some editions only operated as the announcements of upcoming exhibitions, combining reactions of deceptive (due to the delayed event) and expectation for the show to come. The better-known episode is Galerie 7, which gathered 10 series of 10 works from 10 artists that were displayed everyday according diverse combinations. Ptaszkowska observes that they sought to be both accurate and rigorous in their programming. The gallery's non-commercial character was not entirely exact, however, as some works were sold in the gallery through the Belgian collector and dealer Isi Fiszman. Ptaszkowska collaborated with Fiszman on many occasions, bringing the extreme-left magazine POUR écrire la liberté [FOR writing freedom] - of which he was a close sympathizer - to art fairs and selling artists multiples in order to finance it.

When the adventure of the Galerie ended due to a lack of financial resources and, also, because many artists started to have an international career, Ptaszkowska opened another alternative space, Vitrine pour l'Art Actuel, with Michel Claura and Brigitte Nigel. Located in Quincampoix street, in an area undergoing great changes because of the recent opening of the Pompidou Centre, the Vitrine was economically sustained thanks to the subscription of international galleries, which paid for a kind of advertisement. In fact, slides of their exhibitions were projected in the gallery's shop window, visible from the street. Besides this, all sorts of meetings, readings and cultural events were held, turning the gallery into a boiling meeting point for people from many places, residing in Paris or passing through. The space also included a bookshop selling international publications and journals, including samizdats. While her general sensation about this experience is dominated by a sense of chaos and a lack of control, Anka Ptaszkowska also recognizes that some events happily overflew the tidy frame (and physical space) dedicated to information on exhibitions and cultural exchange, like the concert performed by the group Theoretic Girls, brought in by Dan Graham, which required a sort of spontaneous security service in order to contain its spreading out in the public space. Soon, however, the Galerie Vitrine ran out of steam, as the accumulation of activities took place at the expense of a deeper reflection about contents and true objectives, which had characterized the previous Galerie 1-36.

Rather than embracing schools of thought or rigid communities of thinking, we could say that Ptaszkowska's path has been marked by a succession of individual encounters and affinities that have shaped and influenced actions and ideas, from Henryk Stażewski (she refers to as an influential figure) and Mewa Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska, to Edward Krasiński, Tadeusz Kantor, Daniel Buren, Michel Claura, François Guinochet, André du Colombier, Raymond Hains.

Of particular interest for her were figures that were hard to understand, and were in a way excluded from art's system, whether in socialist Poland or in capitalist France. "When I see someone rejected by a majority of people (for one reason or another), it produces in me a great emotion, a violent movement of solidarity. [...] In fact, contradictions attract me so much that the logics of my life (if there is any) becomes readable only within a certain deconstruction. My engagements towards artists, always complete and oversized, go in apparently opposite directions, not to say contradictory, and are located on very different levels [...]."[5] She mentions in particular André du Colombier as an example of marginal, misunderstood figure whose work started recently to gain greater attention (like in the last Documenta in Athens, 2017), she has followed and supported since their first meeting in the early 1970s.

Marginality was, then, a way to keep autonomy and control over artistic proposals and, on the other side, not falling into imitations or disguises many artists forcedly displayed in order to justify their work politically. On this respect, Ptaszkowska remembers with a smile the 1976 edition of the Venice Biennial, which waved the flag of political commitment and where a majority of artists, according to her, were "disguised as workers." With the notable exception of Joseph Beuys, officially participating in the German Pavilion, who maintained a luxurious, "Medici-like" standard during his stay in the city.

As I questioned her about her view on "dissidence", as an etiquette sometimes too eagerly applied to artists from socialist countries, Ptaszkowska observed that for her "dissidence" was not associated with a peculiar geopolitical area, but rather with a degree of involvement, spanning from "professionalism" to "amateurism". The second one was, and probably still is, the terrain in which she preferred to evolve, as a way to preserve her freedom of movement and ideas. The question of nostalgia (of a past condition, in which art was linked to political commitment) also surged in this conversation and although it cannot be fully addressed here, this issue would deserve further attention.

The experience of Ptaszkowska invites to keep on thinking that even already canonized narratives about art history in Eastern European have margins and figures that are less easily classifiable. The idea, or hypothesis of "Encounters" that underlies this series of contributions seeks to raise the question of the fragility of relations and the sense of "inadequacy" or uneasiness that might surge afterwards, when we face artistic and reflective practices that are still resisting taxonomies.


Many thanks to Anka Ptaszkowska for accepting to revisit all these experiences during our meeting, and to herself and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw for their kind authorization to use images from Eustachy Kossakowski's archive. 



[1] See Piotr Piotrowski, Art after Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, London: Reaktion Book, 2012.

[2] Anka Ptaszkowska, "„Wóz albo przewóz" - to nie jest pytanie", in Obieg, published on February 13th, 2011. URL:

[3] I am thankful to Mathilde Arnoux for calling my attention on this delicate aspect, she has resumed in her text "Compromission, engagement, neutralité : analyses de l'art polonais de la guerre froide" [Compromise, engagement, neutrality: analyses of Polish art during the Cold War"], in Perspective [En ligne], 1/2012, published online on December 30th, 2013. URL :

[4] In 2010, the exhibition "The Promises of the Past" at the Centre Pompidou included a small section about the Galerie 1-36, as a laudable first attempt to shed more light on this episode, included among the ones that contributed to cultural relationships between Western and Eastern Europe (more specifically in this case, Paris as a node of communication between both areas). See catalogue, Promises of the past : a discontinuous history of art former Eastern Europe, Zurich : JRP Ringier; Paris : Editions du Centre Pompidou, 2010.

[5] Ohm. Un petit journal de l'art contemporain, published by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Caen, n°22, February 2004, 10.

Juliane Debeusscher
Author: Juliane DebeusscherCountry: Spain
Juliane Debeusscher is an art historian and researcher, her work focuses on the circulation of Central European art across the Iron Curtain during the 1970s-1980s. She is interested in issues of circulation, cultural exchange and the impact of exhibitions and biennials on the construction of narratives about Central-Eastern European art. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona and a member of the research project "Decentralized Modernities. Art, Politics and Counterculture in the Transatlantic Axis during the Cold War". While she starts writing for this blog she is also a guest researcher at the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte in Paris.

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