Zygmunt Rytka was an intermedia artist associated with the Polish neo-avant-garde scene of the 1970s and the independent art scene of the 1980s. His oeuvre features photographic cycles, experimental films, and video works, as well as installations and objects, the latter after 2000. He was closely associated with the Mała Gallery in Warsaw and the Wschodnia and FF galleries in Łódź. Rytka co-founded the In Situ Contemporary Art Foundation, based originally in Podkowa Leśna and later in Sokołowsko. In his oeuvre, he combined a philosophical and artistic study of nature and perception with an ironic reflection on contemporary media and politics. His documentation of the art scene of which he was an active participant is fascinating. Rytka was born in Warsaw on 11 March 1947 and died in Sokołowsko on 23 March 2018.
Rytka was a self-taught artist. He spent his childhood in Falenica, in the outskirts of Warsaw. After completing primary school, he continued his education at the technical college in Warsaw. It was here that he joined a photography club, which probably marked the starting point of his interest in this medium. His first job was at the Electrotechnical Institute in Międzylesie near Warsaw, a position which had a considerable impact on his early works. “This is probably where my precision and interest in the problem of time came from,” he wrote in his short autobiographical note published in the catalogue of the exhibition Continual Infinity presented at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź in 2000. Rytka’s debut show, Time Units, was exhibited at the Remont Gallery in Warsaw in 1974.
In 1975–1977 he worked at the Współczesna Gallery in Warsaw, and in 1979 he was admitted to the Association of Polish Art Photographers. The foundations of his artistic approach were taking shape at this time. As Rytka wrote in the same biographical note: “It was important to meet people who shared a similar approach to art and life. And your own work. Independent thinking – your own, unverified, uncertain.” In the same text, Rytka mentioned some people who played a key role in his emergence as an artist – the artists Marek Konieczny, Krzysztof Zarębski, and Józef Robakowski (with whom he collaborated on the film Living Gallery), as well as Andrzej Mroczek, who ran the Labirynt Gallery, and later the BWA Gallery in Lublin. Other important figures for Rytka were Zbigniew Dłubak, an influential figure among photographers, as well as his close friends Andrzej Partum and Jerzy Busza. In the 1970s, Rytka began to document artistic events. From today’s perspective, it is obvious that his choices of these events were significant. He documented the group of artists who were pushing the boundaries of art, primarily those associated with the Remont, Repassage, Współczesna and Mała galleries in Warsaw, the Labirynt Gallery and later the BWA Gallery in Lublin, and the Wschodnia and FF galleries in Łódź. During martial law, Rytka documented Whip-Round Culture, the Łódź Strych (Attic), and the famous open-air in Teofilów in which artists from the Łódź Kaliska group participated. As a documentary photographer, Rytka was active until the late 1990s. He was commissioned to produce documentary theatre photographs, including for the Ateneum Theatre in Warsaw.
The early stage of the artist’s work was presented at his first exhibitions in the late 1970s, featuring the spirit of conceptual art (the exhibitions Time Units, Identification of a Place, Duplicate Notation). He photographed water using short exposure times, and his travel photographs were taken at pre-set time intervals. Rytka also recorded space on a 35 mm film by placing the full image on a contact sheet print and editing the entire film. A few years later, he created the Bluff series, in which he appeared as an actor playing the role of a hero from action movies, as if imported straight from Western European TV. On the one hand, these works launched his interest in media manipulation, while on the other, they launched his artistic method, based on creating mini performances not for the audience, but for the camera.
Rytka produced his first films, including Fiat 126p, in which he ironically depicts the “littl’un”, as the car is known, as a fetish and an object of desire of the socialist society. At the end of the 1970s, he also started taking pictures directly from the TV screen, creating a critical document of the increasing hypocrisy of state authorities – Photovision. Rytka continued this cycle throughout the martial law period in Poland (early 1980s), taking over 6,000 photographs creating a kind of archive containing testimonies or documents of these events.
At the same time, he made a cinematographic version, using a frame-by-frame technique and then editing the material (Retransmission, film 1979–1983, video 1988). This work was not shown at the time. It was presented for the first time at Rytka’s one-man show at the FF Gallery in Łódź in 2007. In 1978, Zygmunt Rytka and Jacek Drabik showed the results of another action based on direct photography of images from a TV screen at the exhibition TV / Studio 2 – Rembrandt 7, which took place at the Interpress Gallery in Warsaw. The exhibition included dozens of photographs taken during the broadcast of a programme from Studio 2, accompanied by a photograph of the presenters in a golden frame. A sentence featured in the exhibition’s manifesto was seen as controversial: “In 1978 Rembrandt would work for television.” Both projects showed the artist’s awareness of the great impact of the images of media coverage and their potential to manipulate the audience.
Krzysztof Jurecki and Adam Mazur, researchers of Rytka’s oeuvre, focus on the importance of his crucial 1978 exhibition, Photovision – Catalogue S.M. (Some Meetings). This show marked the beginning of Rytka’s long-standing cooperation with the Mała Gallery in Warsaw. The artist presented photos featuring the participants of selected artistic events in several cycles, ranging from those at which real meetings were presented to purely hypothetical combinations created by editing some of them. This exhibition placed Rytka at the centre of the neo-avant-garde activities of the time. It constituted a starting point for many subsequent projects. In 1988, at the Private Collection exhibition at the Mała Gallery, he presented the results of many years of documentary work, turning it into an original work which is considered to be one of his most important productions. Black-and-white prints of the dynamic shots of the participants of those meetings taken in a private viewing were circled by a hand-painted golden frame and partially coloured. The works thus acquired a certain “punk” character (which was also emphasized by the form of hanging the works directly on the walls). Private Collection was not only a record of the spirit of those times, but also an important artistic activity for Rytka, who created an original work of art from documentation.
It was in the 1980s and 1990s that Rytka’s artistic work was most intense. He exhibited his new works, photographic cycles, video works and spatial installations regularly. In 1984, the Continual Infinity exhibition was presented at the Labirynt Gallery in Lublin (a year later at the Mała Gallery in Warsaw), featuring the works of one of his most recognizable cycles, which he produced at the Białka River. Discussing this series, something that Rytka emphasised was his need to find something permanent in times of confusion, which he found in meditating on stones and the nature of the world. At the same time, he introduced the motif of numbering stones – an unreal and doomed project and evidence of the triumph of nature. In 1983 he also took part in the first Whip-Round Culture open-air in Teofilów, with further editions following in 1985, 1987 and 1990. The artist also produced works for Tango magazine. At the end of the 1980s, he created an important series, Momentary Objects, in which his experiments with perception research were less focused on the medium of photography itself, shifting towards being more intuitive and closer to nature. Rytka developed this approach in the cycle Impermanent Object. The first theme is tracing the shadow of trees, and the second that of the shadow of his own hand. These works manifested the spirit of reflection on the perception present in the writings of Władysław Strzemiński. One of the core concepts questioning the value of knowledge and the definition of art. This approach was symbolically manifested in the cycle Beside Art (presented at the FF Gallery in Łódź,1988). The main theme of this series was Rytka’s self-portraits in which he posed as the thinker from August Rodin’s sculpture in front of nature. These were accompanied by statements referring to one’s helplessness in the face of the enormous amount of knowledge and activities human culture consists of.
In the 1990s, nature occupied an increasingly important place in Rytka’s oeuvre. In 1994 he exhibited the series Contact, in which he photographed ants against the background of the periodic table, juxtaposing the biological world against human knowledge and culture. In 1999 he produced the cycle Lying, in which the artist himself descended to the level of nature, literally blending with it. At that time, biology started to have an increasing influence on Rytka’s life. He first observed the symptoms of his disease, diagnosed as spinocerebellar ataxia, in the early 1990s. The illness initially affects the functioning of one’s nervous system, leading to gradual paralysis. Later in the decade, Rytka started walking with a stick, immortalizing this moment in a small series of photos entitled “Now What?” In these photos he was standing against the background of the Białka River, supporting himself with a stick. This period in Rytka’s oeuvre was summarized in his first large monograph exhibition, curated by Krzysztof Jurecki at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź in 2000, and later shown as the Continual Infinity exhibition at the Museum of History of Photography in Krakow.
Towards the end of his life, Rytka focused on installations (Dynamic Objects) and objects (My Forms of Recording). At the same time, major changes took place in his private life. In 1998 he met the artist Bożenna Biskupska, with whom he would spend the rest of his life. They lived together in Podkowa Leśna and later in Sokołowsko. In 2004 they founded the In Situ Contemporary Art Foundation, of which Rytka was president until 2012. He participated in creating the programme of three annual festivals organized by the foundation in Sokołowsko: the International Festival of Ephemeral Art Contexts, the Hommage à Kieślowski Film Festival and the Sanatorium of Sound Festival. Rytka attracted many artists to Sokołowsko, creating a new place on the Polish artistic map. In 2011, at the exhibition When I’m Sixty-Four (a double act with Krzysztof Wojciechowski) at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, he presented objects which were featured in his project Traces – Proofs of Existence. The collection included ID cards and other cards, a CT scan of his own brain, as well as large-size quotations that had been formative throughout his whole creative life. Rytka continued to produce his own projects, primarily the cycle My Forms of Recording, which consisted of dozens of objects, in which he used his earlier works and the devices for creating them (cameras, VHS tapes, CDs, photographic films and others). He documented his own artistic activities in the park surrounding Dr Brehmer’s sanatorium, as well as the process of revitalizing the building. Despite his illness, he remained at the centre of artistic life until his death in 2018.
Rytka received many awards, including a diploma and medal of the Association of Polish Art Photographers (1997), a medal commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Museum of the History of Photography in Krakow (2007), the Special Award of the Minister of Culture (2007), the Silver Medal for Merit to Culture Gloria Artis (2009), and the Katarzyna Kobro Award (2011).
Rytka’s works can be found in the collections of the National Museum in Wrocław, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, the Museum of the History of Photography in Krakow, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, the Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, the Modern Art Museum in Hünfeld, Art Stations Foundation by Grażyna Kulczyk in Poznań, the Centre of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko, the In Situ Contemporary Art Foundation in Sokołowsko, the Warmian-Masurian Society of Fine Arts Collection...
Rytka’s works can be found in the collections of the National Museum in Wrocław, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, the Museum of the History of Photography in Krakow, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, the Ujazdowski Castle for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, the Modern Art Museum in Hünfeld, Art Stations Foundation by Grażyna Kulczyk in Poznań, the Centre of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko, the In Situ Contemporary Art Foundation in Sokołowsko, the Warmian-Masurian Society of Fine Arts Collection in Olsztyn, the Lower Silesian Association of Zachęta Fine Arts Collection in Wrocław, Artoteka in Zielona Góra, Studio Gallery in Warsaw, Na Plebanii Gallery in Koszalin, Exchange Gallery in Łódź, as well as private collections.