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Chapter One

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Art and Nonviolent Revolution

My strange destiny

The above article from the The New York Times was published on April 6, 1989, the day after I met Jerzy Ryba. It describes what became an exceptional moment, not just in Polish, but in world history, on the fateful day that our paths had crossed. Ryba was on a cultural exchange mission to invite American artists to his country. Given the nearly useless telecommunications systems back then connecting Poland to the outside world, I doubt that he was aware of that day’s momentous importance. It would’ve otherwise been peculiar that he uttered nothing about what I saw upon passing by a newsstand the next morning. The significance of the headline was clear: accepting his invitation to Poland was my destiny.

What a concept: a nonviolent revolution won with weapons of mass laughter!

On that day, the Polish Round Table Agreement was signed, which allowed for the first free elections since 1945. Much later I learned that I was the only American artist to accept Ryba’s personally typed invitation to Poland. The mission that Ryba outlined was to arrive after the summer under the following conditions:

1) I had to cover the cost of the flight to and from Poland

2) I would receive small pocket change while touring the country by train

3) During my stay, I had to create an artistic project, but without any suggested subject matter, materials or known work space

4) There would be organized exhibitions of my artwork during my visit

5) Lodging would be provided

It became clear during my unforgettable encounter with Ryba, held in an artist’s loft in downtown LA, that I had met a most remarkable human being. It was a hot spring day and I asked if he would like something to drink. I said, “I have beer, wine, juice, sparkling or still water,” to which he replied, “It’s so much easier in my country where we have only one choice.” I was to later learn that any home or office I entered throughout Poland, the first thing I was asked was whether I wanted a cup of “herbata” (tea). On the other hand, there were two choices, for he could have just as easily been thinking of vodka.

Ryba showed me a video documentary of an activist artists’ group from Wrocław, known as the “Orange Alternative.” I distinctly recall watching an intentionally absurd political demonstration they staged. Dressed in orange gowns and wearing tall orange dunce caps, they put on a show of ridiculous antics. Dancing and singing in the streets, they slapped their hands on the sides of military buses, making them wobble back and forth, as the Communist National Guard broke up with laughter. What a concept: a nonviolent revolution was been waged with weapons of mass laughter!

The clincher that convinced me to accept Ryba’s invitation was the discovery of a book at Santa Monica’s public library, “Letters from Prison,” by Adam Michnik. A Polish Jew and one of Solidarity’s dissident leaders, Michnik had played a critical role in the Round Table discussions. For three decades he has been editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s most widely read newspaper that was born in May of 1989 on a kitchen table in Warsaw. Contained in this compilation of his letters was essentially a blueprint for the nonviolent revolution. His theory was to be completely transparent with the Communists, to allow them full access to phone numbers, addresses and all communication. Likewise, artists, led by Orange Alternative, played a key role in disarming any reason for provoking hostile resistance.

Gary Cooper at High Noon, June 4, 1989


Since its inception in 1980, the Solidarity trade union, that was led by Lech Wałesa at the Gdansk shipyard by the Baltic Sea, forged the civil battle against the Communist Party. This culminated in 1989, as Soviet-dominated countries were liberated across Central Europe. While I waited back in LA for my fateful journey to Poland to commence, on June 4, 1989 the Solidarity Party won a landslide election victory. The party’s official election poster bore an image of Gary Cooper from the movie, “High Noon.” This spoke to Poles of a romanticized perception of American gun-slinging freedom. However, in Cooper’s hand was an election ballot, as opposed to a gun. As Solidarity leader Lech Wałesa wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Under the headline “At High Noon” runs the red Solidarity banner and the date—June 4, 1989—of the poll. It was a simple but effective gimmick that, at the time, was misunderstood by the Communists. They, in fact, tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the “Wild” West, especially the U.S. But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys in Western clothes had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom, both physical and spiritual. Solidarity trounced the Communists in that election, paving the way for a democratic government in Poland.

Events occurred quickly as soon as I landed that October in Warsaw. Ryba was waiting to greet me at the airport and took me to the home of a woman who served me two sandwiches. Afterward, he handed me a handwritten itinerary on a narrow vertical strip of paper outlining a three-week, nine-city tour of Poland and brought me to the central train station. Following a sleepless 24-hour flight from Los Angeles, including a long wait during a plane change in Belgrade, I found myself squished tightly between bodies on a hard bench for an all-night cold, noisy train ride. Ryba had warned me when we met in downtown LA about the harsh conditions I could anticipate and this was my first taste of it. At the same time, he said to me, “The reception that you can expect will be warm and hospitable.” Poles have a reputation for their hospitality and in most cases I stayed in the apartments of wonderfully hospitable people living in such austere conditions that sometimes there was no hot water. From one home to the next, breakfast, lunch and dinner offered an interchangeable variety of bland yellow cheese and slices of tomato on white bread. Occasionally, a sliver of salami was added to the austere mix with a tiny pickle on the side. Contrarily, the cultural side to Polish life was rich with art, literature, theater and live music.


The first destination was Przemyśl, a city in the far-off lower eastern corner of the country, where there had once existed a Jewish ghetto. During the day I caught up on a bit of sleep in a private home, where I was also fed and kindly catered to by a woman, who had picked me up at the train station, but spoke hardly a word of English. That evening, I was driven to another home at the outskirts of the city and escorted into an attic. What a way to commence my journey as I found myself among a group of artists and intellectuals, who had congregated to discuss the cultural future of Poland. Among them, in the secretive attic of this far corner of the country, were professors from Harvard and Kansas State University.

Secret weekly meetings were held there during the ’80s following the imposition of Martial Law. An underground newspaper called “Strych” (The Attic) was an offshoot of these clandestine gatherings, where leaders of Poland’s artistic and cultural underground plotted their plans in opposition to the strict rules and regulations of the totalitarian government.

Luck was on my side, for many Poles had no telephones and if they did, often they could not connect with phones in other neighborhoods of the same city. I was even more convinced that I had an ordained purpose in this country. 

Ryba had arranged for someone to pick me up at each train station on his itinerary, as I traveled on my own without a word of Polish in my vocabulary. Everything was orchestrated to perfection, that is, until late one evening, when no one showed up at a small train station somewhere in the Polish Twilight Zone to greet me. Never before had I been confronted with a feeling of being completely lost in an alien world and without any local phone number or address, I had no idea what to do. Outside of the station was a taxi stand where just one taxi was parked. I approached a middle aged driver, who not surprisingly spoke no English either. I showed him Ryba’s handwritten itinerary and pointed to the name of the person who was supposed to greet me. He opened the side door and took me to a woman’s home where I was offered a cup of tea, while he looked up the name in a phonebook. To my enormous relief, he found the name and phone number and my host answered the call. Luck was on my side, for many Poles had no telephones, and if they did, often they could not connect with phones in other neighborhoods of the same city. Following the fateful circumstances of meeting Ryba on the historical day that opened the door to Eastern Europe, I was even more convinced that I had an ordained purpose in this country. It seemed like my journey was shaping up as some kind of test, of what sort, and for what purpose, remained to be seen.

'The Routes of the Game,' CAD ink drawing plotted on translucent mylar of Moscow and Washington DC Metro Maps, 1989

I carried with me a black plastic tube, containing about 40 rolled-up computer-generated drawings of subway maps of the world, that were created in the Santa Monica office of my father’s restaurant kitchen-design business. Playing with the first hi-tech computer architectural design system (CAD) on the market, which wasn’t invented for the sake of artistic expression, I manipulated each drawing with precise mathematical accuracy. Afterward, a mechanical colored ink plotting system reproduced them on translucent sheets of Mylar. Shortly before embarking on my journey to Poland, art dealer Thomas Solomon exhibited ten of them in his first Los Angeles art gallery, inside of a residential two-car garage.

Click here to read about and see more of these drawings

Łódż 'Plotting the Routes of Civilization' Exhibition,
ber 1989

Day-by-day, as I traveled from city-to-city, Poland led the way of a nonviolent revolution sweeping across Central and Eastern Europe. Along the journey by train, exhibitions of my CAD drawings were planned in the cities of Koszalin and Łódż. I gave a slide show presentation of my work at the Łódż Muzeum Sztuki (Art Museum), which purchased three of the drawings for its permanent collection.

Koszalin exhibition poster at Na Plebanii, October 25, 1989

Upon arrival in the city of Koszalin, I was informed that an exhibition of my work, that I knew nothing about beforehand, had been scheduled to open the next day. Posters had already been produced, hand-printed as had become necessary during the 1980s era of Martial Law, when the Communists outlawed the mass production of information about public gatherings. A primitive printing press copied a simple black ink graphic including my name and the name of the exhibition space, “Na Plebanii” (The Clergy House). To circumvent the strict legal restrictions on published promotion, the specific definition of the event (Spotkania = Meeting, Wystawa = Exhibition), the location of the event (Koszalin) and the date were manually printed letter-by-letter with children’s wood blocks. Just like my exhibited computer-generated drawings that would go on display, no two posters were exactly identical. Though the drawings I exhibited were made with what then was state-of-the-art technology, mechanically programmed movements of colored pens were never precise. Today both forms of printing are as extinct as dinosaurs and just as fascinating.

The day of the exhibition, I temporarily taped the drawings close to each other in several rows onto a wall, which conveyed the impression of a massive modular mural. Beside them, I posted a small vintage map of the long since demised Los Angeles commuter train system that was once the largest urban network in the world, but was dismantled around the same time that the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. Next to it, I placed a futuristic map of the Warsaw Metro, a system offered by Stalin as a gift to Poland, which decades later amounted to two unfinished underground stations. On the day of the exhibition’s reception, I gave a lecture about my work and compared the two systems as one representing gross mismanagement of a centrally controlled communistic system, the other of unregulated capitalistic greed. 

Arriving in Poznań just in time for Halloween, I stayed with an American couple, the husband being the director of the American Consulate, which had sponsored Ryba’s visit to the US. However, there was no trick-or-treating for children, no costume parties for adults. Poles instead spent November 1, All Saints Day, somberly visiting cemeteries of loved ones who had passed away. However, this was no usual annual day of mourning. I was taken to a military cemetery and witnessed a historical procession, where the first time since the end of WWII Poles were allowed to pay homage to dead soldiers.

Public displays of mourning had been one of the first formally sanctioned acts of the newly elected government. In Warsaw, I attended a Mass that seemed half the size of the sprawling city on the fifth anniversary of the murder of a famous handsome young Polish priest and Solidarity activist, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko. Some Poles say that his assassination marked the turning point in the Pole’s battle against the Communist regime. It was one thing to tolerate depressingly impoverished conditions during the communist era, quite another to allow their suppressors to make a martyr out of a leading spokesperson of a 95% Catholic society.

In 1989, on the 5th anniversary of the murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko at the church where the priest gave sermons -'A child stares at the candle's flame, his forlorn past laid bare'

All Saints Day, November 1, 1989, at a military cemetery in Poznań - 'An old widow is about to mourn for the first time in 40 years, the loss of her son, the suppression of her tears'

This is a song I composed and recorded in 1993, which commemorates these painfully cathartic moments of Poland’s liberation. By a stroke of circumstance, I entitled it the same as my many-decades-long multimedia project, “The Underground Cathedral.” In the song’s lyrics I make reference to a post-modern cathedral that was taking forever to complete, as was the fate of the first line of the Warsaw Metro, which was being constructed directly below:

During my near three-month visit of the country, the Berlin Wall came down, Romania’s dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife were executed and the Velvet Revolution led by playwright Vaclav Havel succeeded in nearby Czechoslovkia (now Czech Republic). In Wrocław, art professor, Zbigniew Makarewicz, was elected the president of the newly legalized Polish Artist’s Association. At that time, I was staying as a guest in his home, following the three-week long train tour. Makarewicz had run an art gallery known as Galeria X during the time that Martial Law was declared in 1981. Not an institutional gallery that was sanctioned by the Communist Party, one day the door was torn down and Makarewicz was dragged off to prison, where he remained for 9 months. Around 8 years later, as the totalitarian rule of law had suddenly faded away, he introduced me to other artists, who had also risked operating alternative spaces inside of private apartments. Having known all too well the meaning of oppression, Makarewicz was reliably there through every hardship I faced in his country.

Shortly after assuming the artist’s association presidency, he was invited to present a new weekly TV show on the arts called, “Man and Space.” I was his first guest. Here are excerpts that I have never shown previously, from that broadcast on TV Wrocław in November of 1989.

From 1984 – 89, Jerzy Ryba was the director of an art gallery “na Ostrowie” (On the Isle), in the basement of the oldest church in the city, located on Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island). Two years later, he was appointed to become the Director of Culture for the city of Wrocław. Even in impoverished post-communist Poland, there was government support for the arts in ways that are foreign to the US. For the first time in my life, as an artist, I understood the risk of losing the right to free expression that in the West has been so badly taken for granted. 

It was Ryba who, in 1989, had arranged for Makarewicz and Krzysztof Albin, a graphic artist and spokesman for Orange Alternative, to co-host my time spent in his native city of Wrocław. In August of 1991, I revisited Wrocław and Makarewicz invited me to exhibit my work at his new Galeria X. Further confirmation of my strange destiny, by complete chance, on the day of my arrival, Ryba handed Makarewicz the keys to a city-owned location for his new gallery.

Galeria 'X' East - West Candlelight Postcard Installation, November - December, 1991

My repertoire of creative survival skills continued to evolve in the face of endless unknowns. The exhibition in November of 1991, at Makarewicz’s revived Galeria X was a textbook example. It also proved to be an ominous prognosis for other unanticipated episodes of Mission: Impossible waiting down the road. Upon returning for a third time to Wrocław in November of 1991, I brought with me more than fifty 35 mm slides that needed to be printed prior to the exhibition. They consisted of photos taken during my first trip to Poland and subsequent travel in Europe. The subject of most of them was life inside of underground transportation systems, including those of Paris, London, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Prague, Budapest and Warsaw. This photo essay had commenced in Warsaw during my prior visit to Poland in 1989. A first sign of technological and commercial advancement, two photo shops had become equipped with new one-hour photo printing machines, yet they were useless for printing from slides. With no time to lose, I found one lab that still relied on old equipment from former communist Czechoslovakia that made no promises but offered to attempt printing them, though no larger than snapshot size. Worse, the new gallery space had no electricity. Necessity being the mother of invention, I purchased tall white candles from a shop that sold liturgical accessories to churches and presented a “Candlelight Postcard Installation:” 

The new art gallery was a converted office space consisting of seven large rooms connected by a long corridor. I placed the tiny snapshot-sized photos far apart from each other on the walls and as guests arrived at the evening reception, I handed them tall lighted candles at the gallery’s door. From there they walked down the dark corridor and through the rooms, as if searching for gems in a gold mine. Aside from the photos, in one room I exhibited three framed graphic drawings that represented the art project I was asked by Ryba to conceive during my visit in 1989. One of them, “Społemność” was printed on the exhibition invitation. All of them can be seen in the background slide show. I chose the subject of two iconic Polish logos that were ubiquitous throughout Poland: “Solidarność” (Solidarity) and “Społem.” I redrew both with red ink on pieces of typing paper, while switching their graphic designs and for the third drawing I made a hybrid of the two. The “Solidarność” logo was always the same crude red painterly graphic. “Społem” was always the same slick modernist design that was found all over the country on shop windows, department store facades, restaurant china, silverware and as large neon signs. The irony is that both words, in their own way, mean “unity and togetherness.” However, Społem was the brand name of the communist monopoly that owned and controlled virtually all means of production, distribution and sales of products and services. Solidarność, on the other hand, was the trade union that fought against the totalitarian monopoly.

Together they represent my vision of where I imagined the country was headed socioeconomically, morally and spiritually. Many years later, I found their symbolic significance to be disturbingly prophetic.


Eleven days after the November 28, 1991 exhibition, I journeyed to Moscow in the dead of winter. My recent preoccupation with taking photographs inside of subway systems couldn’t end without touring the Moscow Metro, which was said to be an underground palace.

Moscow Metro, December 1991

What a contrast to the Warsaw Metro, where my photo essay had begun two years earlier, which after decades of snail-slow development was but two unfinished stations.

Warsaw Metro, November 1989

Click here for my photo essay of Eastern Europe that was taken in 1989 and ’91

Once again, my fate was linked to a historical moment as the Soviet Union officially disbanded upon my arrival in Moscow for a nine-day visit. For many, the collapse of the Communist regime was a time of great hope, yet my travels brought me face-to-face with paralleling waves of suspicion and pessimism. It took no time upon visiting an office where I received official visitation papers, to become acquainted with Soviet-style propaganda that had fed the Cold War. On a table in the waiting room was a small booklet in English entitled, “The Arrogance of Power,” which described a socialist’s view of the evils of American imperialism. As a great imperialistic act, I confiscated the booklet and still have it in my possession. Truthfully, I found it a fascinating opposing point-of-view. Welcoming me were the reassuring words of the booklet’s author, Yevgeni Lugovoy, who referred to Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 as a prime example:

After US troops landed in Granada, President Reagan stated with feigned satisfaction that it gave him pleasure to read for once on the walls not “Yankee Go Home” but “God Bless America.” He did not specify, however, that “God Bless America” had been scratched on with a US Marine’s bayonet, while the other inscription had been washed off with the blood of Grenada’s patriots.

Around the same time, Americans lauded Lech Wałesa as the great Polish freedom fighter and liberator, who deified Ronald Reagan for calling the USSR the “Evil Empire.” All of this to me was hard to swallow, for Reagan’s presidency was a big reason that I chose to go abroad. It was perhaps easy from a foreign point-of-view to glorify an American cowboy movie actor, who as our president made bold condemnations of totalitarian communist tyranny. It was another to witness his economic policies that threw countless Americans with mental illnesses onto the streets, while a government owned and controlled by an oligarchy class began to dominate. 

Meanwhile, outside of Moscow’s Red Square, I immediately became acquainted with a display of xenophobic Stalinist protestors waving red flags with warning of things to come.

Stalinist demonstrators in Red Square, December 1991

Click here for Chapter Two: Samoobsługa (Self-Service)