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Ostoja-Kotkowski, Joseph Stanislaw (Stan) (1922–1994)

by June Edwards

This article was published online in 2018

Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski, with a Moiré pattern artwork, n.d.

Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski, with a Moiré pattern artwork, n.d.

State Library of South Australia, 21270727

Józef Stanisław Ostoja-Kotkowski (1922–1994), artist, was born on 28 December 1922 at Golub, Poland, son of Stefan Kotkowski, bank manager, and his wife Jadwiga, née Niejedli. In 1937 the family moved to Przasnysz, where he continued his secondary education. During the Nazi occupation his father was placed in a forced-labour camp. Stas, as he was then known, worked in several jobs to support his mother and younger sister. Having demonstrated artistic talent from an early age, he studied painting and drawing under Olgierd Vetesco. In early 1945 he was sent into forced labour at Warendorf, West Germany. At the end of World War II he was relocated to a displaced persons camp at Düsseldorf and secured a scholarship to continue his artistic training at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.

In 1949 he migrated to Australia, where he became known as Ostoja or Stan. Assigned to employment cutting sandwiches at an army camp in Melbourne, he worked in the mornings and attended the National Gallery schools (1950–52) in the afternoon. His other projects included painting a theatre set (1951), collaborating with Clem Christensen on a film (1953), and exhibiting at the Macquarie Galleries in Sydney (1953). In 1953 he secured a job as a house painter at Leigh Creek, South Australia. Inspired by the ‘superb and vivid’ colours of inland Australia, he attempted to incorporate this light in his paintings (Ostoja-Kotkowski 1969, 10).

By 1955 Ostoja had settled at Stirling in the Adelaide Hills. That year he staged a solo exhibition at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts. He was a driven artist and developed skills in several fields. His early work spanned painting, photography, film-making, stained glass, sculpture, murals, and vitreous enamels. He regularly designed sets for the ballet and stage plays, and twice won the Cornell contemporary art prize (1957, 1959). From the early 1960s he began to experiment with technology, producing ground-breaking work in chromasonics (the transformation of sound into images) and laser kinetics. For the 1964 Adelaide Festival of Arts he fashioned the MLC building into an eleven-storey light mosaic.

At the laboratories of Philips Electrical Industries of Australia Pty Ltd, Hendon, Ostoja used modified televisions to generate electronic paintings, and photographed the results. His 1964 exhibition of these pictures at the Argus Gallery, Melbourne, was unfavourably reviewed by critics and a financial failure. He persisted and three years later his work was recognised for excellence by Switzerland’s Fédération Internationale De L’Art Photographique. He also won a Churchill fellowship to travel overseas and study techniques of fixing electronic images onto a permanent surface. At Stanford University, California, United States of America, he explored the artistic possibilities of lasers. On his return, the Weapons Research Establishment at Salisbury helped him to set up a laser beam that could be synchronised with voices or electronic music to produce pictures on a screen. His subsequent 'Sound and Image' show at the 1968 Adelaide Festival was innovative in its use of a laser in theatre. Two years later his 120-foot (36.6 m)high chromosonic tower was the centrepiece of illuminations at the festival. Among his other commissions were an annual Christmas ornament on the BP Australia Ltd building in Melbourne and a mural for the Australian pavilion at Expo ’67, Montreal, Canada.

In 1971 Ostoja took up a Creative Arts fellowship at the Australian National University, Canberra. Assisted by the Research School of Physical Sciences, he created a Laser-Chromason, an auto-kinetic device. He and the composer Don Banks used the device in Synchronos '72, a concert in which music was translated into kinetic images. Ostoja would stage several similar productions including at Ballarat (1984), at South Australia’s sesquicentenary celebrations (1986), and in Warsaw (1991). In 1973 he again went to the United States aided by an Australian-American Education Association travel award. Criticised by some for his scientific approach, he claimed that he was ‘not seeking to obscure art with technology’ but was ‘trying to free the imagination from the impediments of traditional media’. He argued that his methods could ‘lead to a more immediate articulation of visual ideas in art’ (1975, 144). In time his art was widely embraced and provided him with financial independence.

A strong individualist and a consummate self-promoter, Ostoja was intelligent, opinionated, and energetic. His art was born in Eastern Europe and shaped by the Australian light. He was a pioneering multimedia artist but because much of his laser/kinetic and theatre works were transitory, records of them are found only in publications, photographs, or on video. Having been elected a fellow of London’s Royal Society of Arts in 1972, he was awarded the medal of Merit for Polish Culture in 1990 and appointed AM in 1992. He died on or about 2 April 1994 at his Stirling home and was cremated. Although he never married, he rarely lacked female companions (Kenihan 1994, 13). At his childhood home of Przasnysz a street and medals for culture are named after him. In 2008 his archives—held in Adelaide and Melbourne—were inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation’s Australian Memory of the World program.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Davidson, Ian. Art, Theatre, and Photography: Remembering Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski (1922–1994) in Adelaide, South Australia, 1954–1972. [Strathalbyn, SA: I. Davidson], ca. 1999
  • Edwards, June. ‘Explorer in Light.’ Bibliofile: Quarterly Publication of the Friends of the State Library of South Australia 12, no. 3 (August 2009): 2733
  • Jones, Stephen. ‘Light Becomes the Medium.’ Meanjin 68, no. 1 (Autumn 2009): 29-41
  • Kenihan, Geoffrey. ‘Refugee Artist Made the Light Fantastic.’ Australian, 13 April 1994, 13
  • Macdonald, Ian S. ‘Josef Stanislaw Ostoja-Kotkowski: Explorer in Light and Sound.’ PhD diss., Charles Sturt University, 2005. Accessed 17 October 2017. http://www.crookedmirror.com/soundandlight/
  • Ostoja-Kotkowski, Josef Stanislaus. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 17 December 1969. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Ostoja-Kotkowski, Stanislaw. ‘Audio-Kinetic Art with Laser Beams and Electronic Systems.’ Leonardo 8, no. 2 (Spring 1975): 14244
  • ‘Stanisław Ostoja-Kotkowski: Two′rca Sztuki Laserowej.’ Accessed 17 October 2017. http://ostoja.kotkowski.w.interia.pl/eng.htm. Copy held on ADB file
  • State Library of South Australia. PRG 919, Papers of Joseph Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski

Additional Resources

Citation details

June Edwards, 'Ostoja-Kotkowski, Joseph Stanislaw (Stan) (1922–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ostoja-kotkowski-joseph-stanislaw-stan-21621/text31834, published online 2018, accessed online 24 June 2019.

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