The Art of a Lifetime
In 1982, Colorado Homes & Lifestyles published a story about the Polish-born, Colorado-based artist Witold-K. Thirty years later, we decided to check back in with the man who has achieved international fame for his work, but who remains relatively unknown in the city where he’s had a studio and gallery since 1981-Denver.
Witold Kaczanowski, who long ago simplified his name to Witold-K, recently marked his 80th birthday (and 65th year in the arts) with celebrations hosted by family and friends, ambassadors and art patrons, in cities all over the world: Warsaw, Krakow, Paris and Denver. Throughout his career, he’s enjoyed stints as a painter, sculptor, graphic artist, architect, set designer, photographer and poet. He’s nothing short of a creative renaissance man.
Born in Poland in 1932, the artist was commissioned to design the new Cultural Center in Oswiecim, Poland, in 1958, which he conceived as a memorial to the people who perished at the nearby Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz. In 1964, he went to Paris on an art scholarship and was introduced to the painter Pablo Picasso, who extended an invitation to paint with him in the south of France.
Witold-K’s work has appeared in galleries around the globe-from Warsaw to Washington, D.C., from Los Angeles to New York-and starred in more than 40 one-man shows in the United States and Europe. In 2007, Sotheby’s in Amsterdam paid him the extraordinary tribute of organizing a retrospective of his work.
We sat down with the artist at Arté, his studio-gallery in Denver’s Cherry Creek North shopping district, to discover that there are no short answers from this charming raconteur who touches on history and philosophy as well as art.
Colorado Homes & Lifestyles: How has your Polish heritage shaped your art?
Witold-K: I’ve always been drawn to Polish folk art, but not commercialized folk art. Far away in Eastern Poland where country roads cross, you’ll often find a small “santo” standing on a wooden post. Primitive and charming, it was the art of farmers living in the country where almost every person created something. I find great beauty in this folk art, which can be religious too.
From the eighth to the 11th centuries, the Pope sent Eastern European monks to Spain to counteract the influence of the Moorish invaders, and they took the carvings, those little santos, with them. From Spain these sculptures migrated to South America and Mexico, then to the Southwestern United States. So when I came to New Mexico, it felt like coming home. When people look at my work, especially my early paintings, they ask, ‘Did you live a long time in Spain or Mexico?’ And I tell them that my style and forms are actually influenced by Polish folk art.
Have you always wanted to be an artist?
W-K: Yes and no. For a long time I wanted to be an architect. More specifically I wanted to be an architect who designs zoos. When I was a boy, I saw the animals in small cages pacing back and forth and I wanted to design zoos in which animals would have some space, some freedom. When I was bored in school, especially during math and science classes, I would always be drawing something and the teacher would have to shout at me.
You grew up during the harsh Nazi occupation of Poland, and in a mental hospital where your father was director. How did that upbringing influence your art?
W-K: Because I grew up inside a mental institution, I witnessed so much human tragedy, especially during the winter of 1941-42. It was an incredibly cold winter and we had nothing. The Nazis stole everything of value from the hospital, and patients died from starvation and cold. I watched from my window as the undertaker took them away in a two-wheeled cart. But more than that, I witnessed-and experienced-loneliness. I can tell you that nobody is more lonely than the mentally disturbed. And so I began drawing the loneliness of the figure.
I remember walking down the Avenue of the Americas in New York one cold winter evening in 1966. A shop window with a display of fur coats illuminated a homeless man sitting on the curb with his hands clasping his knees-in a fetal position. I started painting this scene-very realistically at first, then with greater abstraction until I captured what was, to me, the essence of loneliness.
In 1958, you were asked by the Polish city of Oswiecim to design a Cultural Center. Tell us your response to that creative challenge.
Yes, I was asked to be the architectural designer and muralist. I chose to honor the victims who died at Auschwitz, which is just a few miles from Oswiecim. The building I designed has white wings-like an angel’s-with no decoration, no details. It was very contemporary for the time.
In the theater, I painted a very large mural, bigger than 4,000 square feet, of people in the sky-colorful, happy people, the way they look before tragedy strikes. Gradually, the ceiling goes dim until you can no longer see the people in the mural…and what remains is a sky full of stars.
How was the work received by the community?
The local communist party apparatchiks didn’t like what I did, and so the concept was not fully realized until 2011, when the city spent a tremendous amount of time restoring the mural and making it work properly. I was invited back and was happy with the results because, well, it is my baby.
We’ve heard you’re fascinated with explosions. We’re intrigued.
I’ve always considered Mark Rothko one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and when I lived in Houston, I visited the Rothko Chapel many times. I looked into the blackness of his paintings and saw not just black, but a vibration that is close to nothingness. At first I had the distinct feeling that I should stop painting and destroy everything I’d done; that’s how I felt in the presence of those few great pieces. Then I thought: how could I, as an artist, go farther? So I began blowing holes in Rothko’s paintings-in my mind, you understand-to see what’s on the other side. That’s when I started painting and creating black holes.
You were invited to exhibit at Sotheby’s in Amsterdam. That’s quite an honor. What did that experience mean to you?
Let me explain it this way: I drive my little old car and I can see other cars passing me, going very fast on the contemporary ‘art highway.’ I try to go at my own speed without trying to adjust my artistic language to the fashion of the day. I’m very stubborn and continue going my own way. Of course, there have been moments when I’ve had doubts. There are always moments like that. But the Sotheby’s exhibition reinforced to me that I have been right to go my own way. It was a great satisfaction to have that appreciation.
A few months ago, the museum in Krakow bought an entire series of human heads that I had painted in 1964. No one had ever bought a single painting in this series so I still had all 38 of them-isn’t that extraordinary? And because I make my living as an artist, it’s also meaningful that that my paintings have increased in value.
What brought you to Colorado? And what keeps you here?
Family reasons, actually. My oldest son, Paul, is a diabetic and, with the exception of Stockholm, Denver has the best doctors, hospitals and most innovative therapies to treat diabetes. I stay here because my grandson was born here, and I am most happy in the moments when I am skiing in the Colorado mountains with my boys-my son and grandson.
What are you hoping for at this stage in your career?
All of my life I’ve been painting what I don’t understand. Many poets and writers describe what I paint, but I haven’t understood what’s behind the images that come from my subconscious. At 80 years old, maybe I will finally be able to look back and understand my art.