Text: Maja von Horn
Photo: Gosia Turczyńska
In the Polish art world, Gunia Nowik needs no introduction. For the last eight years she co-ran the Warsaw contemporary art gallery Pola Magnetyczne (“magnetic fields”). In the summer of 2021 she started a new chapter, opening her own space in Warsaw’s city center, the Gunia Nowik Gallery. The bright, open interiors with black chevron wood flooring on the historic Bracka Street seem to be tailor-made for a gallery. Gunia’s trained eye and inimitable taste are apparent in the gallery’s decor, in her personal style, but above all in the choice of artists that she represents. Most of them are her peers, people born in the 70s and 80s, including Agata Bogacka, Jakub Gliński, Katarzyna Korzeniecka, Anna Orłowska, and Iza Tarasewicz. Teresa Gierzyńska (born 1947) and Krzysztof Jung (1951–1998), a key member of Poland’s queer scene in the 1980s and 90s, are exceptions. And it is their work that is on view at the gallery until the end of January.
Maja von Horn: When did you realize that you wanted a career in the art world? Was art a big part of your family life, or did you discover your passion for it elsewhere?
Gunia Nowik: My parents are historians. As a child, I’d go visit medieval churches with my father. My grandfather was an architect – he designed the house on the outskirts of Warsaw that I grew up in. When we’d travel as a family, museums were always a mandatory part of the itinerary. Some time ago I saw a great meme: two people are sitting in a car, one dressed in understated, basic clothing, the other in a more crazy, boundary-bending way, all colorful and covered in feathers. The caption under the first person is “history,” and under the other “art history.” This meme is a perfect illustration of the relationship between these two disciplines, as well as the one between me and my parents. I sent them the meme, we were all tickled.
M.V.H.: Two different worlds?
G.N.: Yes, although my parents these days are also interested in art, especially my mother. She started collecting contemporary art, which is my domain.
M.V.H.: When did you realize that you wanted to be a gallerist?
G.N.: I don’t know if I wanted to be a gallerist right away, but I definitely wanted to have a career in the arts. I came to this decision when studying art history in Fribourg in Switzerland. Traveling opened my eyes to the world and to art. Right after graduating from high school, my friend and I hitchhiked through all of Europe. During one of these trips, I somewhat accidentally passed through Switzerland. I was so intrigued that some time later I ended up studying in Fribourg. It was a turning point in my life. My Warsaw high school offered French, and I was interested in Francophone culture, including that of Switzerland. During my studies I decided that I should do some sort of internship. I ended up doing one at the small local contemporary art center Fri Art. This was a key career decision and my experience there steered me toward contemporary art. We exhibited the work of contemporary artists, both Swiss and international (Petter Coffin, Marcelline Delbecq, Mark Dion, Jimmie Durham). I was part of a team preparing the show, part of this fascinating process. After this internship I was sure that this was what I wanted to do in life.
M.V.H.: After coming back to Poland you started working for the art foundation run by the bank ING.
G.N.: Yes, I came back from the country of banks and ended up in a bank. It was a very interesting experience. I later worked for the art magazine Piktogram, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where I organized artist studio visits in French and English. I was a translator and guide around Poland’s art world for various curators and leaders of cultural institutions who were visiting Poland.
M.V.H.: Having such a network is probably crucial to your work.
G.N.: I’m in touch with most of these people. I even recently had coffee with one of the curators after accidentally bumping into her on the street in Paris. It was an interesting job! I met wonderful people, I learned a lot. I was also already running the Pole Magnetyczne gallery along with my partner in life and business – later just business – for which we used the unused half of his apartment. I also worked with Sharon Lockhart and Basia Piwowarska on the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale. I always had several jobs, it was intense.
M.V.H.: Until in the summer of 2021 you finally opened your own space, the Gunia Nowik Gallery – in Warsaw’s city center, in the middle of the pandemic. It seems like a decision that required a lot of courage.
G.N.: The gallery is new, but I still do what I’ve always done, I’m continuing on the same path. I ran my last gallery for almost ten years, since 2012. Some of the artists came with me. If I hadn’t had those relationships I probably wouldn’t have opened a new gallery in such a central location, and in the middle of a pandemic. But the risk was smaller because I had cultivated these contacts for years. I have a group of wonderful collectors who support the gallery.
Gunia Nowik Gallery
Dec 4, 2021 - Jan 29, 2022
M.V.H.: How did you find the space?
G.N.: In the beginning of the year I announced that I was leaving my previous gallery. That same day a collector friend called me and said “I have no doubt that you will be able to continue what you’d already started, because if I were an artist, I’d feel safe in your hands.” This was very touching, especially in such a pivotal moment. After that he added that he had a space for me to continue my work in. It’s thanks to him that we are on Bracka Street. It’s a wonderful place, with good energy.
M.V.H.: During the pandemic businesses in many different industries shifted their work online. Could a gallery exist solely on the internet?
G.N.: An art gallery is a very complex structure, built on trust and the relationships between the artists and the gallerist. It’s a space for encounters with art, but also with people. Of course, I could simply send a pdf file with an artist’s work, and someone who already has a trained eye and knows the artist’s work very well could decide to buy a piece like that. But 99,9% of people want to be in direct contact with the art. Buying a work of art is such an intimate transaction, it requires one-on-one contact between the piece and the viewer. It’s hard to convey those emotions through a flat screen, you have to experience them viscerally.
M.V.H.: Your gallery’s online presence is very deliberate, considered.
G.N.: I decided to forgo all social media except for Instagram. It’s better to focus on one thing and do it well. My associate Kasia Legendź is responsible for our Instagram and she’s great at it. Everything there is to know about the gallery is of course on our website, designed by the studio Noviki. I put a lot of emphasis on choosing the font. I settled on NeuZeit Grotesk, which is also the title of an exhibition of Berlin-based artists that we’re putting on in May 2022, which will bring some of Berlin to Warsaw. It’s a German, modernist font from the late 1920s and early 1930s, used for road signs on German highways. It’s austere and elegant. I was looking for something that would symbolically connect Warsaw and Berlin, the two cities between which I have been splitting my time for the past four years.
In the Middle of the World
Gunia Nowik Gallery
Dec 4, 2021 – Jan 29, 2022
M.V.H.: What led you to Berlin: love for the city or for one of its residents?
G.N.: One of its residents, who is actually from Cologne. I never thought I’d be in a relationship with a German, but I’ve always loved Berlin – a city that connects the West and the East, where anyone can quickly feel at home. In school, when I had the option to take French or German, I didn’t hesitate to choose the former. These days I’m learning German, but with no ambitions of getting to a level where I can talk about art. It’s more about being able to buy bread and vegetables at the market. I’ve always believed that if you live abroad, it’s good to understand at least the basic fabric of the city, even if it’s just a store sign, in order to feel at home. At home we speak largely in English, but we mix our languages. It’s our own “sprachmüll,” a linguistic dustbin.
M.V.H.: Has the pandemic had a significant impact on the Polish art market?
G.N.: During the first lockdown, we thought, just like everyone else, that the world was ending. But fairly quickly it turned out that similarly to the market of luxury goods, the pandemic didn’t significantly upend the art market. We recently had the 11th annual Warsaw Gallery Weekend. 11 years! I remember that during the first one, only a handful of people visited the participating galleries. Now they’re lining up outside! During the last decade the art scene in Poland has developed remarkably. In our parents’ generation very few people collected contemporary art or were interested in design. They were focused on covering their basic needs. Now Poland is in a phase in its development where many people’s basic needs have already been taken care of and they need something more, something for the soul. It’s often art. Our generation is much more aware, and it’s filled with seekers. We are the ones spurring change.
M.V.H.: What had the biggest impact on popularizing art in Poland?
G.N.: Definitely events like the aforementioned Warsaw Gallery Weekend, and tremendous support from organizations like the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts or the Friends of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, whose new building is under construction. Back in the day, people walking into a quiet, empty gallery felt uncomfortable. Now they are much more at ease. The younger generation has no hang-ups at all, which is wonderful.
M.V.H.: Do you need to be an expert on art in order to invest in it?
G.N.: I don’t like to call it “investing in art.” It is, of course, a form of an investment (in the beginning it’s an investment in yourself), but it’s such a long-term one that it may be your children who reap its benefits, not you. I don’t know any collectors who buy art solely as an investment. You don’t have to be an expert, but you have to be open to exploring art. It broadens horizons, builds relationships.
Iza Tarasewicz, Vortex, 2021, oxidized steel, 145 x 130 x 130 cm
M.V.H.: For your gallery’s opening show, you decided not to have a collective exhibit of all your artists, but an individual showcase for Iza Tarasewicz. Why?
G.N: A collective exhibition would indeed have been the most obvious thing to do, but it was important for me to start with showcasing a strong female artist. Leaving my last gallery, where I had a partner, was my own path to emancipation. I believe in women and their power. As a gallerist I represent five women and two men, so we’re the majority. It was important for me to open with an exhibit of an artist that I hadn’t worked with before. Iza is an amazing sculptor, and sculpture is a perfect medium with which to introduce a new space. It forces you to move around within it.
M.V.H.: A grand opening as an encounter of two strong women?
G.N.: Yes! We’ve known each other for many years. I’ve been following her work and attending her exhibitions, but we’ve never worked together. The entire exhibition was created for this space. Iza lives and works in a village in Poland’s Podlasie region, not far from Białystok. She’s surrounded by 120 chickens that her mother raises, six dogs, several cats, and farming machinery that belonged to her grandparents. Her studio is in a barn. She lives there with her husband, an art critic and curator who hails from California. The theme for her show was collaborative labor, the collective. Hence the conjoined hands, which allude to the mazurka, a Polish folk dance. Iza has been studying traditional dance for years. There were also references to farming equipment: the way couples twirl around their axis in the mazurka is akin to the movement of a cog. It compares man to machine, but it’s also about human community.
M.V.H.: The next exhibition was Jakub Gliński’s YOU ARE TOO CLOSE, which was part of the Warsaw Gallery Weekend. You gave the artist the space for his disposal two weeks before the opening.
G.N.: Yes, I wanted to adapt to the way Kuba works every day – constantly and purposefully repainting, erasing, adding new layers to his painting. For the show, he created most of the paintings at his studio up until a certain point in the process. Then we transported them to the gallery and Kuba was with them alone for a week, painting. I also gave him the largest canvas he’d ever worked on (320 x 450 cm), which had to be mounted on stretcher bars in the gallery, and the piece had to be created there in its entirety. Kuba often works at night, so I took a risk and gave him the entire space. He spontaneously reacts to different stimuli from the outside world, and then transmits them onto his canvases. Confronting an artist with a canvas so enormous it wouldn’t fit in his studio is almost therapeutic. Its scale is a statement.
M.V.H.: Gliński likes to experiment with erasure, sometimes covering two-thirds of a piece with white paint. You weren’t concerned that the pieces might disappear completely, that he’d go too far?
G.N.: There were moments when I thought “I love this stage, he should keep it like that, and not cover it up.” But I was proud of myself for being able to stop myself from interfering. I trusted him and told him that he would know best himself when the painting was complete. I was in Switzerland at the time and Kuba would send me a new version of the giant painting every morning. I’d wake up and wonder what awaited me this time. I didn’t sleep well the last two nights before the opening, emotions were running high. But being able to participate in the act of creation, to which artists usually don’t give us access, was really fascinating.
Jakub Gliński working on his solo show YOU ARE TOO CLOSE, Gunia Nowik Gallery, 2021
M.V.H.: Do you always find buyers for the works that you exhibit?
G.N.: Iza has an established position in the art world. She currently has a big art installation at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, she just had a show open in Malmo, and has one opening in the summer in Glasgow, she’ll be at documenta15 in Kassel. Her work was part of the Sao Paulo Biennale. She’s an internationally recognized artist, who didn’t have representation in Poland in the last several years. Collectors know her work and are eager to acquire it. But Jakub is only beginning his journey on the international art scene and his pieces found new homes as well. It’s fantastic art, a particular and honest mode of communication that resonates with the viewer. I think that if the work is good, there will always be someone who’d want to have it in their home. I’ve been buying works from my own shows for years, because they are important to me and I don’t want to part with them.
M.V.H.: Do you sometimes sell a piece to someone you don’t know?
G.N.: A sale is always an opportunity to get to know someone. I know all of the collectors I sell to personally and I know their collections. Buying art is for me such a personal, intimate event, that there is no other way to do it.
M.V.H.: And you’re a collector yourself.
G.N.: Both me and my partner, who runs a gallery in Berlin, are collectors. We have works by the artists that we work with, but not exclusively. The first thing that we bought together is by the British artist Ed Atkins. It’s a drawing of a strong, clenched fist. We chose it after seeing his show in Brussels. Out of all the drawings we picked that one together.
M.V.H.: It seems very meaningful, as if it’s a reflection of your status as a power couple.
G.N.: It’s hanging by our entryway in Berlin. Collecting art is always very personal, it says a lot about us. There’s no avoiding it.
M.V.H.: And how do you feel about fashion? Is it an important form of self-expression for you, does it help you with work?
G.N.: Of course. Some time ago I discovered that in professional settings I feel the most confident in a suit, and from that point on, it became my uniform. At work, I only wear suits, most often bespoke ones made for me by a friend in Berlin. It’s classic power dressing. The suit was originally an element of the male wardrobe. The art world and the world in general are dominated by men, whereas I believe in the power of women!
M.V.H.: We’re changing that right now!
G.N.: We are!
M.V.H.: But you’re wearing a dress in your profile picture
G.N.: It’s a unique item, designed by my Parisian friend Vava Dudu. Vava is an artist, she has worked with Jean Paul Gaultier, she designed outfits for Lady Gaga. She sent me this dress as a gift when she found out I was opening a new gallery. Printed on it are the words of my favorite song by the band La Chatte. I wore it for my birthday, because at the gallery I really do need to wear a blazer and pants.
M.V.H.: What are your plans for the coming months?
G.N.: Our exhibits are planned ahead for the next 1.5 years. I even know what we’ll show during Warsaw Gallery Weekend in two years. On December 4th we opened two concurrent exhibits which will be on until the end of January. The first one is from Teresa Gierzyńska, an artist who is very important to me and who I’ve been working with for the past eight years. I call her series About Her, “mystical feminism.” For many years she analyzed a woman’s place in society by taking photos of herself or a model (her daughter, a friend), and describing her emotional state in that moment. A retrospective of Teresa’s work is currently on display in Zachęta, curated by Joanna Kordjak. At the gallery we wanted to show the prologue to the retrospective, more geared toward landscape, emotional introspection, with only a hint of the female silhouette. Teresa Gierzyńska was married to Edward Dwurnik, a famous Polish painter. They divorced. It’s a story about a woman’s emancipation, the case of an artist who for years created away from the public eye. Now it’s finally her time and I’m very happy about it. During the last several years her works have been acquired by the best art collections in the world, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago. I’ve been waiting for her well-deserved retrospective for many years, and it’s all the more important because it’s the last exhibition in Zachęta under the leadership of Hanna Wróblewska. Along with Karol Sienkiewicz we’ve also put together an exhibit of Krzysztof Jung’s work. Jung was a key member of Poland’s queer art scene in the 1980s and 1990s, and the show launches our representation of his work. These two exhibitions are statements. The emancipation of women and the queer community. Showing their work is very important for me personally, especially considering the political situation in Poland.
Favourites places in Berlin
- Ora Berlin - great wine bar & restaurant in a former XIX century pharmacy
- Sale e Tabacchi - italian classic dishes in a classy interior
- Witz Hummus on Blücherstrasse - hummus for life, not a joke („witz”)
- Two Trick Pony at Südstern - best salty hot chocolate in town
- Prinzenbad - open air swimming pool, great for home office breaks
- Hasenheide - nice running paths in the park
- Wannsee - favourite sailing spot 30 minutes from home
- Salon Splendido - kobido massage for your face and soul
- Campbell handmade glasses - if you need glasses at one point
- Kino International on Karl-Marx-Alle - stylish cinema from the former East Berlin, time capsule
- Patina in Kreuzberg and Chairs in Prenzlauer Berg - design classics, not only chairs
- Haus Lemke by Mies van der Rohe - nice excursion for architecture lovers
- June - besides all the great galleries in Berlin, good to visit this project space at Strausberger Platz with an ambitious exhibition program