Olbinski: America’s Greatest Contemporary Surrealist

During the period between the two World Wars, Europe was left staggering. Empires had disappeared. New borders were drawn.  And the ensuing deep economic recession seemed a permanent quagmire. Little wonder that within this environment artists and writers would explore themes that expressed the depths of anarchy and madness, the playful escapism from reason found within the subconscious, and the world of dreams. Starting in the early 1920s “The Surrealist Revolution” led by André Breton began emanating from Paris.  By the mid 1930s the movement had blossomed with major exhibitions in museums in Paris, London, and New York.  Magazines worldwide popularized the bizarre images of Salvador Dali and René Magritte, making those artists the most widely known of the Surrealists. To be certain, the period between the wars was surreal for Americans, too, owing to economic fits and starts that ultimately devolved into the Great Depression.

The Surrealist movement was disrupted at the outset of World War II. Nevertheless, a political surrealism defined the environment of Kielce, the town just south of Warsaw where Rafal Olbinski was born in 1943. Kielce proved an important center of resistance against the German occupation. But when the smoke had finally cleared, most of nearby Warsaw had been reduced to an unimaginable 720 million cubic feet of rubble with 800,000 dead. During the 1950s, Olbinski adapted to the new Communist régime.  Izabela Gabrielson, his biographer, points out in her essay, that “the absurd, the unreal, the fantastic, the bizarre…could be used to describe the reality of everyday life for an artist growing up in Communist Poland.”

Certainly, it is that surreal cultural and political environment in which the young Olbinski was forced to adapt that sparked his unique approach to seeing. By chance, and to America’s good fortune, he found himself stuck in New York in 1981 when martial law was declared in Poland. Very soon, the artist whose unusual images were dominated by dream became highly sought after by art directors of the magazines of his adopted country — including Newsweek, Time, and The New Yorker to name just a few. His large series of posters for the New York City Opera became iconic. His illustrations continued to win many gold medals and more than one hundred awards.

By the late 1980s Olbinski’s art had attracted the attention of Ken and Sherri Nahan, whose eponymous galleries in SoHo, New Orleans, and Tokyo enjoyed a successful run from 1965–1995. The Nahans were quick to recognize Olbinski’s position within the history of surrealism. It mattered little to them that a large roster of corporate clients sought the artist for his commercial illustration. Rather, the Nahans understood that many great artists had led double lives as illustrators and painters — including Magritte, the artist to whom Olbinski has most frequently been compared. Even when Olbinski develops a concept image originally intended for a commercial purpose it rarely has that “commissioned look.” That’s what happens when the artist is fiercely independent as an image-maker, a poet of private visions.  Studio Vendome is proud to present the first major Olbinski exhibition in decades, composed largely of private works by a poet who invites us to encounter and enjoy unexpected contradictions.

Peter Hastings Falk