Endre Tót
19.01 - 28.04.2024

Endre Tót
Ich bin sehr glücklich und du (I am very happy and you)?
19.01 – 28.04.2024

Online catalog: www.ichbinsehrgluecklichunddu.com

Text by Emmanuelle Rapin and Raphaël Levy

I cannot stress enough that the post was the only way to break out from isolation…
Through the post, I rapidly became part of the international avant-garde. Mail art is the strangest chapter in the history of art: artists sent each other wonderful works absolutely selflessly… Postal traffic, despite dictatorship, worked surprisingly well.
” (Endre Tót, Interview with Marta Smolinska for the art magazine artluk, 1/2011)

This exhibition is based on some 60 documents sent by the Hungarian artist Endre Tót (b. 1938 in Sümeg) from Budapest, Bucharest, Berlin, Cologne, and London to the publisher Thomas Howeg in Zurich. This epistolary source stretches from 5 January 1974 to 23 June 1980, with the exception of one last letter dating from 1989.

These one-way letters – we don’t have any of Thomas Howeg’s correspondence with the artist – bear witness to Tót’s creative process within the context of the isolation and restrictions imposed by the dictatorial regime of Hungary. On the one hand, they would seem to reveal Tót’s artistic activities fairly exhaustively: his artist books, his exhibitions, and his contacts with artists and art theorists in Western countries. On the other hand, they also reveal the daily difficulties and growing sense of isolation experienced by him and his wife, Herta Paraschin. Herta Paraschin’s presence in these letters is crucial. Endre Tót dictated his letters to her in Hungarian and she transcribed them into German. Herta Paraschin is the vital mediator in the elaboration of this correspondence, which will facilitate the distribution and knowledge of Endre Tót’s art through Mail Art. Indeed, they are co-signatories of all the letters written to Howeg.

With regard to the construction of this international network, the letters provide a wealth of information on the artist’s travels and his encounters with key figures in the production, circulation, recognition, and critical reception of his work. He mentions his trip to Geneva in 1976, when he carried out his first “street action” (TOTalJOYS) in a Western country, at the invitation of John M. Armleder, one of the three founders of the Galerie Ecart. The latter had already organised a solo show for the artist, who was unable to attend, in 1974. Tót also relates in glowing terms his meeting that same year in London with artist Cosey Fanni Tutti, member of the group COUM Transmission (with Genesis P-Orridge).

We also learn how difficult it was for the artist to travel and obtain exit permits (when he was awarded the DAAD grant in Berlin in 1978). In order to send a group of works to an exhibition in another country, he would unassumingly travel by train to Belgrade, from where this could be done (e.g., for his exhibition in Israel in 1975). The impossibility of being able to produce some of his famous rubber stamps in Hungary finds mention there too. They were produced in Holland with the help of Harry Ruhé, the founder of Galerie A in Amsterdam.

If we return to the genealogy of the restrictions and impossibilities suffered by Tót, they are at the root of the artist’s radical abandon of painting. His pictorial expression, influenced by the experiments of American informal painters, did not correspond to the aesthetic criteria of Hungarian state art. But it was with these restrictions, with an economy of means and derisory materials, that he took the path of Mail Art, with intelligence, determination, and irony, and out of necessity, engaged in an approach specific to American conceptual artists.

His letters give us a precise image of seven key years of intense artistic activity during which he developed his vocabulary. We see him elaborate his postcards, books, and exhibitions with virtuosity and keen intelligence, rapidly generating associations that read like slogans (for example, a postcard depicting a statue of Lenin covered with “0”s and stamped with the phrase “zer0s make me calm”). In these letters, we follow the creation of a striking system of signs and writings now emblematic of Tót’s work.

We are fortunate to possess a very fine example that demonstrates the precision with which the artist worked: the original layout of the book Nullified Dialogues published by Editions Howeg and the letters describing its detailed elaboration, the compositional and layout requirements prescribed by Endre Tót’s aesthetic vision.

Artist books play a key role in Tót’s work. In combination with the information provided by the letters to Howeg, they are a critical source in the approach and understanding of the artist’s practice. The exhibition will not feature paintings or photographs since these find no mention in the letters. We are concentrating on the conceptual genesis and creative process of an artist who worked at home, in ever-increasing isolation in his own country. Indeed, the more Endre Tót communicated and expanded his network with Western artists, the more he distanced himself from the Hungarian avant-garde scene*. With few resources, by constraint but also by choice, Tót elaborated an art of the ellipsis which had to fit into a plain envelope. Whereas the concern of Mail Art was the network that artists wove among themselves, Tót assigned his postal message with the status of an artwork. Here we find the formal requirements that a painter might have. He composes with restriction and obstruction. This tension between the visual force of the message and the reduced, derisory material vehicle was the precondition for the emergence of an artist considered in the West to be one of the most important figures of the Eastern Bloc Avant-garde.

The aim of the exhibition is to communicate the conceptual, technical, and aesthetic effervescence with which Endre Tót developed his work. The correspondence with Howeg will be illustrated with books, maquettes, postcards, and graphic works postcards, and accompanied by a commentary.

Books and letters are essential for reflection and research into Tót’s art. We have therefore digitised each book, page by page, to enable viewers and researchers to discover its contents in the catalogue which will be published on this occasion. The same applies to the letters (or other media) whose contents, handwritten or not, has been transcribed. This correspondence written mainly in German will be translated into Hungarian, French, and English. Emmanuelle Rapin and Raphaël Levy will also associate each book and artwork presented in the exhibition with respective passages in the letters.

Thanks to this rich documentation, we’re working on what will be close to a catalogue raisonné of all of Endre Tót’s artist books up to 1989.

Beyond the sonorous messages of “0”, the aim is to highlight the richness of meaning and the great visual poetry conveyed by Tót’s work as a whole. The works read like visual verses and aphorisms; they are clear and generous. There is no renunciation, just an invitation to think.

Our research has enabled us to communicate productively with people who have discovered, recognized, and distributed Endre Tót’s work with enthusiasm and determination.

* See Géza Perneczky, “Long Live the Culture Bungler! – The Mail Art Movement in Hungary”), in: Mail Art – Osteuropa im internationalen Netzwerk, Schwerin 1996.