Joseph Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski, abstract expressionist painter, theatre set designer, photographer and experimental film producer, was born in Golub, Poland on 28 December 1922, the son of Stefan Kotkowski and Jadwiga Niejedli. As a child he showed an interest in art, although his father, who was a bank manager, did not approve of painting as a career. During the Second World War, Ostoja-Kotkowski received art lessons from an artist he met in Poland. Before the end of the war, he was evacuated from Poland and sent to Dusseldorf, where he applied for and received a scholarship to study at the Dusseldorf Academy of Fine Art in Germany, from 1945 to 1949. Whilst at the Art Academy, he studied painting under the guidance of Professor Hauser.

Towards the end of 1949, Ostoja-Kotkowski immigrated to Australia, arriving in Melbourne aboard the ‘Fairsea.’ In his migration papers, he was described as a ‘mechanist’ and for his first job he was sent to work in a concrete factory. Unsatisfied, he sought the nighttime shift in order to focus on his artistic study during the day, whereby he attended classes at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, Victoria, under the tutelage of Alan Sumner and William Dargie.

In late July 1953, Ostoja-Kotkowski was one of eight Melbourne artists in a group exhibition showcasing contemporary Victorian art at Macquarie Galleries, Sydney. His co-exhibitors included prominent artists such as Arthur Boyd, John Brack and Charles Blackman. Around June of 1953, shortly before this exhibition, he moved to Leigh Creek in the north of South Australia, where he continued his artistic practice in painting, while also earning a supporting income as a house painter. Some of the paintings he completed during this time were transported to Melbourne and exhibited in the ‘Herald Open Air Art Show,’ held in the Treasury Gardens off Spring Street and Collins Street (8-14 December 1953). However, Adelaide was to be backdrop for his first solo exhibition, which took place at the Royal Society of Arts in 1955. South Australia also became his official home, as he settled in Stirling, in the Adelaide Hills.

In 1955, Ostoja-Kotkowski commenced collaboration in film production with Ian Davidson. These two artists worked together on a range of projects together, including several creative films, the first being ‘The Quest of Time,’ which was a surrealist work questioning the distinction between the ‘dream world’ and reality. Furthermore, Ostoja-Kotkowski and Davidson jointly undertook documentary assignments. In 1956, they were given the task of recording the activities that celebrated the Port Adelaide Centenary and they photographed the South Australian Architectural Exhibition that was held in the Botanical Park. Ostoja-Kotkowski contributed designs to the exhibition, where one of his first two sculptures in steel was additionally displayed.

Ostoja-Kotkowski’s creativity traversed multiple mediums. In addition to painting, film, photography and sculpture, he wrote poetry and designed décor for numerous theatre productions, his first in Adelaide being for ‘The Prisoner,’ produced by Philip Fargher. He painted backdrops for several productions by the South Australian Ballet Theatre, including ‘Pas Noirs et Sentimentals’ and ‘Cinderella.’ Moreover, he produced stained glass windows for private firms and he experimented with metal, bronze, plastic and new paints, including vitreous enamel.

In 1957, Ostoja-Kotkowski and Davidson exhibited their experimental films at an exhibition of contemporary South Australian art at David Jones Gallery, Sydney. Ostoja-Kotkowski’s painting ‘Form in Landscape’ was shown for first time at this exhibition, after which time it was displayed in Adelaide where it won the Cornell Prize. The Art Gallery of South Australia later acquired this painting.

Ostoja-Kotkowski’s public reputation as a noted contemporary Australian artist was further demonstrated by his inclusion in the “Art in Everyday Life” exhibition. He was one of eleven artists commissioned by Kelvinator Australia Limited, through the Australian Woman’s Weekly, to each paint a refrigerator that would be displayed in a touring exhibition and then sold at auction with proceeds going to Legacy House, Sydney. The exhibition commenced in Sydney in December 1958 and travelled to Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide. Fellow exhibitors included Arthur Boyd, Clifton Pugh and Jon Mulvig.

In 1958, Ostoja-Kotkowski began to work with the Elder Conservatorium of Adelaide University. He designed sets for Donizetti’s ‘Elixir of Love’ and employed innovative light settings. This can be seen as a precursor to his ‘Sound and Image’ productions, starting in 1960, where his visual production on the theme of ‘Orpheus’ comprised dance, music and sound, with projectors displaying photographs that faded in and out together in sequence.

Ostoja-Kotkowski’s innovative artistic practice led to a number of public projects in the following decades of his extensive and celebrated career. In 1964 he devised an illuminated mosaic pattern on the glass fronted MLC Building for the Adelaide festival, as well as a executing a large mural for BP House in Melbourne, constructed from steel, fibre glass, resin and copper. During the 1970s Ostoja-Kotkowski won an Australian wide competition for a mural at the Adelaide Airport, and continued activities in electronic and light displays. These activities drew upon the research he conducted during a Fellowship he received from the Australian American Educational Association, which took him to the US to study laser art and technology. In 1984 he presented a laser kinetics concert in the streets of Ballarat on the occasion of the Ballarat Festival. Furthermore, in 1991 his home country, Poland, invited him to present a concert with the National Philharmonic in Warsaw. This major production involved 13 lasers accompanied by the music of national composers.

Ostoja-Kotkowski received an Order of Australia in 1992. He passed away two years later in 1994. His work is held in several prominent public collections, including the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth and Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.


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