Mladen Stilinović, the Croatian conceptual artist whose work critiqued power structures and examined the relationship between art and labor, often with a tongue-in-cheek incisiveness, died last night at age 69 of what is being called “a serious illness.” The news, which was first reported by the Croatian publication Novi list, was confirmed in a Facebook status posted by Paris’s Galerie Frank Elbaz.
During the 1970s, Stilinović created a number of experimental works that played on the boundary—or lack thereof—between culture and commerce. In 1978 in a Zagreb gallery, Stilinović staged a performance called Artist at Work, whose title would seem to negate what the work actually entailed: the artist sleeping in the gallery. Eight black-and-white photographs documenting the performance show the artist curled up in a blanket, with his head propped against a pillow.
Though seemingly simple, Artist at Work was a radical gesture that signaled an artist unwilling to produce work or participate in a capitalist society. For Stilinović, art and labor were opposites, and creativity only resulted from having free time. In his 1993 manifesto In Praise of Laziness, which took its cues from Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, Stilinović wrote, “[T]here is no art without laziness.”
Other works by Stilinović considered power structures. Money was frequently used in his work as a form of language—one that Stilinović believed was a universal one. The artist also assigned meanings to the colors he used in his work, and he considered red a symbol of pure oppression and power. (Pink, by contrast, stood for bourgeois values.)
Stilinović was born in Belgrade in 1947 and later raised in Zagreb, where he continued to work for most of his career. The son of a newspaper editor who was, at one point, arrested for Communist activity, Stilinović had an independent spirit. He dropped out of high school as a sophomore and finished his education on his own, absorbing various forms of Easter European countercultural art as part of his self-determined curriculum.
Experimental films coming out of Croatia and Yugoslavia, and happenings that were being staged in the United States informed the early years of Stilinović’s work, which involved impromptu performances and the creation of books. In 1975, Stilinović founded the Group of Six Artists, which consisted of himself, Sven Stilinović, Fedor Vučemilović, Boris Demur, Vlado Martek and Željko Jerman. Together, they created “exhibition-actions,” lo-fi pieces that involved the exhibition of unfinished artworks in public spaces.
Though Stilinović achieved fame in Croatia for these early works, his art was largely unknown to foreign audiences until a few years ago. Two shows at New York’s E-Flux and a mini-retrospective at the 2013 Carnegie International bolstered Stilinović’s reputation in America.
Yet a lack of foreign recognition hardly fazed Stilinović, who continued making books, installations, and collages well into the final years of his life. Stilinović’s work continued to fight against capitalist systems and politicians in power because, as he once said, “The question is how to manipulate that which manipulates you.”