An artist and teacher inspired by a love for life

Most people that knew the artist Dimitris Contos (1931-1996) remember him as a warm, unpretentious and cultivated person, a man driven not by career goals but with an inherent spontaneity, sincerity and love for life. For both those who had met him and those who hadn’t, Contos also stands out as one of the most talented and original artists of his generation. However, because Contos seldom exhibited his creations publicly and was not as prolific as other painters, his work is not that familiar to the public or well studied by art historians. Contos used to say that he loved life more than art and in an interview given four years before he died he admitted that this was at the cost of productivity. Contos did not paint in quantity. But he left behind a solid body of work that has consistency, delicacy and is filled with innovative ideas. «Dimitris Contos: 1931-1996, a Retrospective,» curated by Maria Kotzamani at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki, reveals those qualities and provides a clear understanding of his work. The most comprehensive presentation of the artist’s work held thus far, the exhibition documents his oeuvre in chronological order and in clear, distinctive groups of abstract paintings and drawings. In the exhibition catalog, art historian Maria Kotzamani, a specialist in the so-called Sixties Generation – the generation of Contos – and a friend of Contos, singles out and analyzes the main attributes of the artist’s work. Dimitris Contos had a fine eye for drawing and could create strong images with just a few lines. A group of minimal drawings dating from the 1960s are mostly studies of natural phenomena, the falling rain or a cloudy sky. Painted in hues of gray with only a few dabs of pastel, light pink or green hues, the drawings have a soothing effect and poetic quality. They capture the ever-changing natural phenomena and may derive from the artist’s interest in the philosophy of Heraclitus. Some of these drawings were made in Rome which, like Paris, was a training ground for many Greek artists of his generation. By the time he arrived in Rome in 1958, his fellow artists Nikos Kessanlis, Vlassis Kaniaris, Yiannis Gaitis and Costas Tsoclis, a very close childhood friend of Contos, were already there (Tsoclis, who was present at the exhibition’s press conference, gave a moving speech). They all joined forces and established the short-lived Gruppo Sigma, a group in line with the latest art movements. In both Rome and Paris, where he spent another couple of years, Contos painted abstract compositions in the style of Art Informel, an equivalent of abstract expressionism. Contos painted one layer upon the other and in certain areas of the paintings appears to have squeezed paint right onto the canvas, giving the effect of a three-dimensional composition. What Contos strove for was different ways of depicting natural phenomena and capturing space within the two dimensions of a painting. In Paris, he made works composed of small canvases put together in geometric shapes to create new structures. The idea was how painting could be used as a unit to create a sense of volume and three-dimensionality. Contos was also interested in how art could be made more accessible to a broad public – for example he supported the production of multiples – and more integrated in everyday life. In «Toy for Big Kids,» 35 small, wooden cubes each painted on every side with a spiraling, scribbly motif (a recurring motif in the work of the artist) can be moved around by the viewer to create new structures. Contos had an unusual way of combining anti-elitism with sophistication. «Roman Pictural» from 1968, one of his most important works, was a pocket book with art as a content. The black and white, scribbly motifs that recur throughout the pages of the book also betray the artist’s interest in the interplay between word and image. The book was published in 500 copies. Compared to those black and white, abstract motifs, the 1975 «Votive» series seems as if it were made by a different artist. Resembling the religious icons that in most churches are covered with small votives, these works are seen as criticism of religious worship and the kitsch aesthetics of the junta regime. Besides the completed works, the exhibition also includes projects that Contos had designed but never materialized. One of them is the «Supermarket» project, the construction of an actual supermarket that would make culture available for mass production. Another important side to the artistic personality of Contos was his work as a teacher (the exhibition catalog includes a large chapter on the subject and memoirs of some of his students). In 1964 he became assistant professor of drawing at the Architecture School of Athens Polytechnic and 20 years later he helped found the School of Fine and Applied Arts at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He became professor, director and rector of the school and managed to establish a department with a sound reputation. As a teacher, Contos believed in a rounded education and encouraged his students to observe nature, paint in the open air and perfect their drawing techniques. He took his students on educational trips and spoke to them not just about painting but about art, culture and life in general. Xenis Sahinis, who at some point was an assistant of Dimitris Contos, remembers the artist’s creative teaching techniques, the sophisticated yet immediate manner in which he could communicate knowledge to his students. In a sense, teaching combined his love for art and life, for it was a way of applying art in real life. This is a contribution that cannot be quantified in actual paintings but is as valuable as an artist’s output. «Dimitris Contos: 1931-1996, a Retrospective» at the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art (154 Egnatias, 2310.240.002) to January 31. Sponsored by the J.F. Costopoulos Foundation.