Visual arts

A Curator’s Working Place

AUTHOR / Pia Prezelj

This article was originally published in Delo in May 2022.

Igor Zabel developed an art history that he rejuvenated, paying attention to the wider context, says Urška Jurman from the Igor Zabel Association for Culture and Theory.

There are people whose influence is not only visible, but also tangible for decades after their deaths. One such individual was Igor Zabel, who was active in the Slovenian art scene as an art historian, modern and contemporary art curator, literary and art critic, as well as a writer, translator, and mentor. Today, his work has been revived and continues to be disseminated by the Igor Zabel Association for Culture and Theory.

Founded in 2008 by the Zabel family and the Erste Foundation, the association, following the example of Igor Zabel (1958–2005), operates in a highly cohesive and interdisciplinary manner with numerous discursive, educational, and publishing programs. Recently, they co-organized (already the second) notable symposium Exhibiting in Slovenia II on exhibiting art, architecture, design, and on exhibition institutions, published the book On Power in Architecture in cooperation with the Maska Institute, and co-organized a lecture by the Ukrainian art critic, curator, and visual arts researcher Katerina Iakovlenko entitled Power of Art: How Ukrainian Contemporary Art has Responded to War. But why is Igor Zabel so important for Slovenia – and what is his legacy?

Zabel graduated from the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana with a degree in comparative literature, art history, and philosophy, then worked as an assistant in the department of comparative literature and as a freelance publicist. From 1986 on, he was employed as a curator (and eventually a senior curator) at the Museum of Modern Art, where he prepared many influential exhibitions and curatorial texts. He was also one of the consultants for the Museum of Modern Art’s collection Arteast 2000+, designed by Zdenka Badovinac.

As a curator, he also worked abroad (he curated the acclaimed Individual Systems exhibition at the 50th Venice Biennale), co-edited the first six issues of the MJ – Manifesta Journal: Journal of Contemporary Curatorship, and edited the magazine of the Museum of Modern Art called M’ars. Zabel published many essays, dissertations, and articles on fine arts; he also wrote short prose and translated many humanistic and literary works by authors such as Thomas Pynchon, Edward W. Said, Oscar Wilde, Sigmund Freud, and Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein.

“Zabel’s international engagement stemmed primarily from his curatorial work at the Museum of Modern Art. He vigorously defended the importance of international integration and cooperation – which also provided the main impetus to take on the role of the coordinator of the contemporary art biennale Manifesta 3, which was hosted in Ljubljana in 2000. He was also a member of Manifesta’s international council. He saw this event as an opportunity for Slovenian contemporary artistic production to become better recognized internationally,” says art historian, curator, editor, and writer Urška Jurman, the program manager who designs and implements the association’s program since 2013.
She thinks Zabel’s greatest contribution both in Slovenia and internationally is his writing, his role as a theoretician, since “he is recognized as the author of canonical texts, such as Dialogue (1997) and ‘We’ and the ‘Others’ (1998), in which he critically examines the new power relations between East and West as they were reflected in the field of art after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”


As an art historian and Museum of Modern Art curator, Zabel paid special attention to artistic phenomena that until then had not yet received adequate institutional treatment, adds Jurman. The social history of art is key to his art-historical approach, “where consideration of the sociopolitical context is important for understanding the production and reception of a work of art. He had developed, let’s say, a refreshed art history that pays attention to the wider context, but not at the expense of the analysis of internal artistic procedures and processes. As an art historian with this approach, he was also well equipped to write about contemporary art.”

During the preparation of a documentary film about Igor Zabel, directed by Damjan Kozole, it became clear “how valuable – especially for artists – his efforts were. He aimed to articulate and place contemporary artistic practices from the late 1980s and 1990s in an art-historical context when there was still no established terminology for them. In the 1990s, for example, when he wrote about the then new artistic practices, he initially used the term ‘art of the 90s’, because contemporary art as an art-historical concept had not yet been established.” The documentary also revealed what kind of an influence his supportive and inclusive attitude had on the Slovenian cultural arena, says Urška Jurman. She remembers that Zabel gave her, “as a young curator and writer, the opportunity to publish in the magazine M’ars; he responded to invitations to collaborate despite his busy schedule, and in his own considerate way shared with me some thoughts about my work.”


Zabel also passed on his extensive knowledge and experience in writing and curating contemporary art to the younger generations within the framework of the World of Art – Curatorial Course for Contemporary Art. In the 1990s and into the turn of the millennium, his texts were “key to the reflection of the role of the curator, which came to the fore at the time; at the same time, he was critical of equating the curator with the artist. In his opinion, the task of the curator was not to produce works of art, but to produce the conditions for their display and visibility. His curatorial work was based on a dialogue with artists,” Jurman stresses. She cites the exhibition Curator’s Working Place (1997) as an example of such a self-reflective and dialogical approach; in the basement of the Museum of Modern Art Zabel “set up a temporary workspace that served as an exhibition space at the same time. He asked the participating artists to create small-format works in response to a selected photo and story and sent them by mail. Through the project, he was exploring an exhibition format model that would be affordable and easy to implement, while at the same time enabling him to have close and intensive contact or dialogue with artists and works of art.”


The Igor Zabel Award for Culture and Theory significantly contributes to the preservation and awareness of Igor Zabel’s work as well. Acknowledging exceptional achievements in visual art and culture in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, the award has been conferred by the Igor Zabel Association for Culture and Theory in cooperation with the Erste Fund since 2008. Another crucial element is the association’s publishing program, providing translations and publications of selected texts by Igor Zabel and other authors. “For an association that supports and develops art history and theory, publishing is fundamental; this is how we further strengthen these two fields. For the English editions, we focused on authors from Slovenia, the former Yugoslavia, and wider Eastern Europe, as well as authors who deal with this artistic space in their writing. Thus, we contribute to his reflection and art history, as well as to the dialogue of our art space with a wider international context,” the program manager stresses, adding that the association, in cooperation with the Archives Department of the Museum of Modern Art, also cataloged and organized Zabel’s archive, which is now accessible to researchers.

When designing programs and projects in the field of art history and theory as well as contemporary artistic and curatorial practices, Jurman explores topics such as the role of the curator, the institutional structure of art, and the relationship between cultural peripheries and centers of power that Igor Zabel discussed in his texts and curatorial projects. In doing so, she not only connects and intertwines different fields, but also various organizations and experts (a collaboration with the philosopher Mateja Kurir resulted in a series of symposia On Power in Architecture and a book of the same name, co-published with the Maska Institute).

“Igor Zabel was an extremely unifying person and expert – and that unifying approach is also close to me personally,” says the program manager, who deeply believes in the power of cooperation, “because it strengthens the cultural sector, and by connecting knowledge and other resources allows for more complex projects and better results. In this sense, I think it is important that the association connect with the academic sphere and cultural and artistic production – either institutionally or on their own – and that it is based on interdisciplinarity. The artistic fields are extremely branched and in constant flow and exchange with each other. In addition, contemporary art is strongly intertwined with other areas of cultural production and the production of knowledge, so interdisciplinarity is, so to speak, necessary.”