IRWIN’s “Back to the USA”

Alenka Gregorič

December 13, 2013
Galerija Škuc, Ljubljana
October 15–November 3, 2013

This fall, the IRWIN collective repeated their historic “Back to the USA” exhibition at Galerija Škuc in Ljubljana, where it was first shown to the Slovenian public in 1984. This new presentation of their work brought forth information about the collective that was largely unknown to the Slovenian and international public, and demonstrated how their practice spurred new ideas and a critical debate in the contemporary Slovenian art scene. In recent years, the collective has garnered international attention for, among other projects, their 2006 East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, documenting seminal works and projects taking place in the region over the last fifty years.1 However, in order to grasp the significance of the restaging of their “Back to the USA” exhibition in the same gallery thirty years after its initial conception, one must consider the initiative’s basic facts, concepts, and starting points, which were a direct response to the existing conditions of artistic production in Slovenia.

Artists Marko Kovačič, Dušan Mandić, Andrej Savski, Bojan Štokelj, Roman Uranjek, and Borut Vogelnik founded IRWIN in 1984; while Kovačič and Štokelj left the group early on, Miran Mohar subsequently joined and has remained a member to the present day. Within the Socialist Republic of Slovenia in the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s, it was virtually impossible for an artist to survive without a clearly defined income or commissions dictated by the state socialist agenda. Controlled by only a handful of professionals, the art system was extremely limited and closed, and the absence of an art market offered no real alternatives. Adding fuel to the fire, a majority of the Slovenian artists who were officially recognized as “state artists” simply copied artworks by their Western contemporaries and Western artistic trends without acknowledging these sources and influences. Frustrated by these conditions, the IRWIN collective decided to launch a show that made this relationship explicit, deploying the act of appropriation as a form of critique. It was based on two significant observations—firstly, that locally produced art was always belated, and secondly, that it was consigned to “eclecticism,” characterized by an uncritical combination of differing artistic styles and traditions. Critically engaging these various motifs or images from different sources and historical periods represented an essential conceptual turnaround for the group, becoming the basis of their artistic language.

On the advice of his professor at Ljubljana’s Academy of Fine Arts, Uranjek visited the 1983 exhibition “Back to the USA: Pattern & Decoration, New Image, New Wave, New Expressionism, Graffiti; American Art of the Seventies and Eighties” at the Kunstmuseum Luzern in Switzerland; this exhibition, organized by the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn and which later traveled to the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart, featured the work of contemporary American artists involved in the New York art scene, including Nicholas Africano, John Ahearn, Jonathan Borofsky, Richard Bosman, Neil Jenney, Robert Kushner, Matt Mullican, Cindy Sherman, and William Wegman. Later that summer, Uranjek and Savski travelled to Paris, where Savski, who did not see the original exhibition, procured the exhibition’s catalog from a Parisian bookshop. Since the “Back to the USA” exhibition was not destined to be shown in Ljubljana nor any other Yugoslavian town, the artists decided to “bring” the exhibition to Galerija Škuc themselves with its original catalog becoming the most important and only material basis for their project—since no one from the entire collective except Uranjek saw the exhibition.2 Thus the project should not be read as a mere replication of the original “Back to the USA” traveling exhibition, but rather as a reassessment of the Luzern exhibition catalog, recasting the debates of the field.

Significantly, IRWIN’s copies of full-color works were often rendered in black-and-white because they were patterned exactly after their reproductions in the Luzern catalog. So even though Uranjek saw the original work by Africano in color, for example, he still produced his copy of the work in black-and-white in accordance with its catalog reproduction. Uranjek applied the same principle when he created a copy of Borofsky’s Man with Briefcase (1982). The photograph of the work, which was originally exhibited on the ceiling at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, had a distorted perspective of the figure so the head-to-body ratio was 1:3 instead of 1:7. By emphasizing the catalog’s distortion in his version—which he also displayed on the ceiling of Galerija Škuc—Uranjek demonstrated the counter-intuitive idea that the reproduction of the work of art might be a more important source of information than the original.

Mandić also made a copy of Borofsky’s own version of Goran Đorđević’s The Harbingers of the Apocalypse (1980). Initially, Đorđević sent Polaroids of his drawing to various internationally acclaimed artists and asked them to replicate it. Borofsky responded to the call and sent a miniature copy on plastic film that was reminiscent of a slide. Mandić duplicated the slide and enlarged it, ending up with a graffiti painting measuring several meters wide. In another work included in the IRWIN exhibition (all works were untitled), Mandić copied images from Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977–80), but instead of taking photographs, he recorded a video, in which artist and scholar Marina Gržinić imitated Sherman’s now famous film star poses. It was a double repetition—Sherman had already simulated the poses of these types of figures, and then Gržinić rendered these same gestures in moving pictures, corresponding to the series’ original title.

Without ever having seen the original, Vogelnik copied Bosman’s Sunday Morning (1982) as a black-and-white woodcut. The original featured a constellation of figures—a man, a woman, and an ashtray. Vogelnik set his prints alongside one another like pictures in a comic book, substantiating the idea that graphic art is the most suitable artistic medium for repetition. Savski, in turn, copied the paintings by Kushner by introducing minute transformations in its texture and patterns, and based his copy of Jenney’s The Press Piece (1969) on one of its previous installations dating back to the end of the 1960s, performing the work in Jenney’s characteristic “Bad Painting” style.3

The IRWIN collective also published a catalog for their exhibition in the form of a fanzine, which included two texts particularly relevant for understanding their artistic position today.4).] Uranjek and Savski’s “The Retro Principle: The Dictate of the Motif” contains all of the basic postulates of what is now known as IRWIN’s “retro-principle” concept, the critical appropriation of pre-existing styles and works. In another text, “Back to the USA,” Vogelnik and Miloš Gregorič evaluate the state’s cultural policy towards art production, addressing the general stagnation of the art market—which was virtually non-existent by Western standards—and the ever-increasing reduction of state subventions for contemporary art production. Today, amidst repeated political and economic crises, this commentary remains current even though it was written thirty years ago, and the photocopied fanzine represented a welcome, if not necessary, part of the project’s latest presentation.

The fact remains that cultural funding by public institutions continues to dwindle in Slovenia as a direct consequence of “austerity measures,” not to mention that an “art market,” in the Western sense, never successfully materialized. The timely restaging of IRWIN’s “Back to the USA” exhibition compels us to consider a series of facts that did not garner due attention thirty years ago; it is both a confirmation and amplification of the original message raised by their show and fanzine, which pushed issues of authorship and reproduction into the foreground, acknowledging the Slovenian art scene’s unfavorable circumstances. Today, it should be recognized as one of IRWIN’s more significant projects, demanding a much more complex reading that positions it squarely within the political narrative of Slovenian art, and the local reception of international art. This is why IRWIN’s multilayered and precisely articulated work represents one of the most socially engaged projects in Slovenia, and perhaps even, in the international art scene.


IRWIN (ed.), East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe (London: Afterall Books and MIT Press, 2006).


Klaus Honnef (ed.), Back to the USA: Pattern and Decoration, New Image, New Wave, New Expressionism, Graffiti; Amerikanische Kunst der Siebziger und Achtziger (Bonn: Kunstmuseum Luzern and Rheinland Verlag, 1983).


This refers to a style Jenney pursued from 1969–70, and was later included in the seminal “‘Bad’ Painting” exhibition curated by Marcia Tucker at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York (January 14–February 28, 1978).


R IRWIN S (ed.), Back to the USA (Ljubljana: GALERIJA ŠKUC IZDAJA, 1984 [April 21

Exhibition Histories, Art Collectives, Appropriation Art, State & Government, Publishing

Alenka Gregorič is an art historian, curator, and writer.

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December 13, 2013

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