Joseph Kurhajec is a Wisconsin-born sculptor currently living in France.
Kurhajec's international exhibitions began in the early 1960s with the Allan Stone Gallery, New York; Galleria Etrusculudens Rome, Italy; Art 6'75, Basel, Switzerland; "Ten Independents", Guggenheim Museum; Gallery Alexander Monet, Brussels, Belgium; Galerie Caroline Corre, Paris, France; The Chech Museum of Fine Art, Czech Republic, Gallery Pelegro, New Orleans, LA; and Carrie Haddad Gallery, Hudson, NY. The Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited Kurhajec's sculpture in the 1964 Annual Exhibition and in "Young America 1965".
Edward Bryant, art critic wrote, "Joseph Kurhajec is a wild and generous artist, the creator of formidable, declarative sculptures which bite sharply into our fin de siècle complacency. A cry in the 1990s wilderness, Kurhajec is an embracer of life, a primitivist yearner for a simpler world based on the impossible dream of basic values restored. With gusto he performs his role as expressionist wanderer, working intuitively to give from to those dark, primitive and mysterious forces within myth, legend, self, dream and belief. Independent of stylistic consensus, he creates with an individualistic raw directness of great forcefulness. On the edge of "artistic evangelism." His recent work prods us to reconsider those unthinkable premises for survival after the deluge, the rain of fire, when art will be at the service of the emotional, the irrational and the magical. Fetishes, masks, armored warriors, gagged heads, and the expressive madness of materials forewarns us of an era post-mortem rather the post-modern!"
Perhaps too much has been read into the fact that Kurhajec grew up on a mink ranch in Wisconsin, where as a child he was in constant contact with the fatalistic life cycle from endearing kit to chic fur coat. In 1960, while studying with direct-metal sculptor Leo Steppat at the University of Wisconsin, he was very impressed by an exhibition of Congo fetishes at the Art Institute of Chicago. 'At that point I moved from welded assemblage into fetishes. I recognized a strong desire to put such a vital quality of spirit into my work, which ever since has had a strongly religious nature. Mine has been a search for the truth, the soul, that spiritual mystery, the magic of art, the sacred presence."
In 1961, after receiving his M.A. in Studio Art at the University of Wisconsin, Kurhajec lived in Merida (Yucatan), Mexico, for two months to study Mayan culture and it's powerful visual imagery. Returning to Racine, Wisconsin, he opened his own gallery, The New Generation, where he exhibited his first fetish sculptures, human images wrapped and bound, which he called "mummified art". At this time he became aware of Chicago's avant-garde of controversial artists critically dubbed the "monster roster" for their urgent expressionist images, including Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Cosmo Campoli, H.C. Westermann, Richard Hunt, and others. The pungent imagery created from industrial junk by New York sculptor Richard Stankiewicz also interested him.
In 1963 Kurhajec moved to New York City. His sculptures became more intensely subjective, larger, more complex, and tougher. A frequent theme was an organic form wrapped in fur and/or leather and tightly bound in rope or thongs. A plastic tube or other coupler joined it to a metal geometric solid, suggesting an interdependent, erotic relationship. Tall singular sculptures, phallic in form and twisted with energy have a strangely ceremonial restraint. In 1963 the Allan Stone Gallery in New York exhibited a group of these fetishes, and in 1965 presented them in a solo exhibition. The Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited Kurhajec's sculpture in the 1964 Biennial Exhibition and in "Young America 1965". As Associate Curator of the Whitney Museum at that time, it was the writer's pleasure to select the Kurhajec works for those exhibitions.
At the end of the 1960's Kurhajec also translated his creative ideas into the two dimensions of collage and relief prints, using a matrix of fur, reptile skins, hair, cloth, plastic and other evocative materials.
In the 1970's Kurhajec began to work in Rome during the summers, welding massive warriors covered with mail armor of bronze and steel plates. Other works combined fur, bindings, and animal horns. One of the most striking of these is The Struggle, an awesome gladiatorial conflict, surely between bitterly opposed aspects of the human psyche. In 1976 Kurhajec created his largest and most abstract works to date: monumental geometric sculptures juxtaposing massive black sheets of steel with enormous blocks of carrara marble still retaining parallel grooves from having been quarried. These were effectively exhibited in the Piazza Rondanini in Rome.
By the Mid-1970's, Joseph Kurhajec and his wife, artist Primarosa Cesarini-Sforza, and their two sons, were living in Rome during the winters, and removing themselves for the summers to a small village in Upstate New York, where they converted the former town hall into studios and living areas. In that quiet rural setting his work underwent changes which were the fulcrum for his subsequent political works. Becoming interested in forged iron work, he gathered pieces of old farm implements and beat out metal shapes, some incorporating stones, that suggest torture instruments he had seen in European museums. In 1978 he carved a schematic stone head gagged by a steel cable attached to a dominating upright jagged sheet of metal, and mouthed both to a slate base. Titled Prisoner, it was seminal to his next series, begun in outrage at the terrorist kidnapping, captivity, and killing of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro.
Between 1978 and 1980 this incentive brought Kurhajec's introspective expressionism into sharp political focus. In a letter of September 5, 1980, he wrote: "I have finished five new marble sculptures. The work has taken a good direction-for me a direction so powerful and so-to-the-point that the commitment scares me…These sculptures are a statement of our times-the political unrest, the turmoil in men's minds, the struggle for existence." This referred to a series of heads, each about four-feet tall, representing tortured political prisoners.
Sufficiently related to Etruscan and Roman portrait heads, they remind us of those surviving remnants of our Classical legacy so important to defining our concepts of civil law and civil liberties. Hostages of unseen captors, they are immobilized, silenced by iron gags, their eyes bulging and necks straining against choking iron collars-the suppression of human rights personified. The bases of some, like gravestones, are inscribed with epitaphs: I Stand for Freedom and I Stand for Liberty. "They are prophets of our time, and yet they are absurd." He wrote. "How can our prophets be gagged?" One head, however, is that of a helmeted fascist pig (literally) in military uniform-mouth twisted by the gag attached to a spiked collar-victim of his own violent ideology. An American Indian, almost two-dimensional (suggesting the old Indian-head coin), is gagged by a chain connected to a vertical iron strap mercilessly pulled down over the sides of his head and attached to an iron band around the "tombstone" base.
The human head as seat of intelligence and order, and chamber of imprisoned emotions and irrationality, has continued as a strong humanistic symbol in Kurhajec's work. From a terra-cotta series, 1983-87, two blankly smiling "heads " are actually masks tied back-to-back onto an upright central form. Enhanced by animal horns, hair braids, feathers, and bones, they are titled Prince of Man and Janus. Their finely delineated facial features ironically suggest the vacuosness of fools.
In 1987 and 1988, Kurhajec made several fetishes from horse skulls, one with leather and other materials to be read as a female torso. Another, persuasive as a potent ritualistic object, combines the skull and jawbone of a horse painted with magic symbols, and ceremonially bound together with other objects. Altogether Kurhajecs' recent fetishes are made strikingly credible by their extraordinary energy. The working process is hardly evident, as tough these images just happened-as direct manifestations of the élan vital, that enduring original vital impulse essential to life and consciousness.
These recent works confirm Kurhajec's long interest in fetishes, which for years he has sought out in major collections in Europe and the United States. They call to mind aboriginal images of important tribal ancestors, culture heroes and god-kings from the tribal cultures of Africa, New Guinea an Oceania. Each of Kurhajec's small figures with its diverse attachments suggests that, like its prototype, upon propitiation, it is capable of awesome effects. Many of Kurhajec's fetishes are structured of pitted and eroded stones, to which are attached hair, horns, bones, amulets, beads, desiccated offerings, cast skulls. Lacking the impassive remoteness of, say, a Bakuba statue of a culture hero, or a uli figure from New Ireland, these fetishes for our times are full of rage, and project a sense of imminent violence, hate, and disorderly minds in beings mangled, distorted and horrific. Their intensity rings with the frightful prospect that the demarcation for the end of civilization has already been drawn by whatever the amazing ingenuity of humankind has devised.
Significant to his recent work is Kurhajec's personal and professional move from Italy to France, where he has become very interested in l'art brut, avidly studying the large collection established by Jean Dubuffet and the Compagnie de l'Art Brut. It seems inevitable that at this point in his career he would have this encounter with the "raw art" of psychotics, children, naïfs, art outside artistic culture, direct, non-imitative, crude and pure.
With this recent work Kurhajec reaches a new creative level. It is as though in the creative process such intense energies were generated in these images that the artist stepped aside to allow the work to relate even more directly to it's viewer. Thereby, freed of his own egocentrisms, the artist became the medium through which these sculptures could establish their awesome presence.
Essay by Edward Bryant, 1990