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Josep Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski

b. 1922 – d. 1994

Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski was a Polish emigrant who arrived in Australia at the end of 1949. He had become interested in mechanical things as a child and began painting during World War 2. After the war he studied at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie and absorbed abstract expressionist ideas in painting, as well as becoming familiar with kinetic and other contemporary art ideas abroad in Europe at the time.

When he arrived in Australia he initially lived at the Bonegilla Migrant centre in Victoria, and then went to Melbourne where he studied at the National Gallery School from 1950 to 1952. He looked for work in the field of commercial graphic design but found little. However, he was taken on by Gerard Herbst at Prestige Fabrics and produced a variety of printed fabric designs. In 1954 he took work as a miner in the coal fields at Leigh Creek and lived in the desert for almost a year. It was during this time that he became entranced by the intensity of the light in central Australia, and realised that his interest was to find a means to paint with light. It was this that drove his career.

As a painter he started to use acrylic (PVA) paints for their stronger colours. He moved to Adelaide in 1955, continued painting — generally in an abstract expressionist manner — and won recognition for his work. At the same time he found an interest in theatre, ballet and opera set design. Around 1962 he discovered that by manipulating the controls of his television set he could produce fascinating abstract forms from a mix of the broadcast image and the slewed and distorted raster brought about by pushing the horizontal and vertical frequency controls to their extremes.

It was this that led to his first images actually made with light. He spoke to technical acquaintances and built up a relationship with the engineers at the Philips Research Laboratory in Hendon, a suburb of Adelaide. The technicians assembled a set of oscillators and connected them into the deflection coils of the TV set so that the raster could be bent and twisted by audio waveforms. With this equipment Ostoja-Kotkowski made a wide range of abstract images in light displayed on the TV and recorded to both still and moving film. These are probably the first electronic images outside of very primitive computer print out images to have been made in Australia. The photographs he made from these abstract forms were first shown at the Argus Gallery in 1964.

Whether one thinks of Ostoja-Kotkowski as a video artist or not (he described what he was doing as “electronic drawing”; the notion of video art had not yet taken hold), he made raster-based electronic images using a TV set and that is why he is included here. The images have a distinctly 3D feel to them with the raster twisted and formed in way that is quite sculptural. They are different from the work of Ben Laposky in the US and Herbert Franke in Germany, who, in the 1950s used oscilloscope and audio waveforms to produce complex Lissajous figures which they also presented as photographs.

In his stage design work Ostoja-Kotkowski used lighting and projected photographic slides. He produced a series of Sound and Image presentations that were effectively composed and performed light shows, accompanying recently produced electronic music, modern dance, poetry performances and short plays with the projections as abstract elements that helped set the mood and emotional intensity of the events.

The Sound and Image performance for the Adelaide Festival in 1964 was reworked for television as a segment for Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight on GTV 9 Melbourne (26 October 1964), in which the dancers’ performance is superimposed on Ostoja-Kotkowski’s electronically generated images. The program, directed by Brian Phillis, included electronic music by Henk Badings, choreography by Elizabeth Dalman and dancers Dianna Clayfield and Zane Danson. 

He went on to be the subject of several more TV programs.

The ABC TV’s Spectrum program made a segment based on a Sound and Image production created by Ostoja-Kotkowski with the help of Philips Research Laboratory, using electronic images, music by Henk Badings and dance segment, “Dream”, with dancer Judy Dick, shown on 5 June 1966.

Another program segment about Ostoja-Kotkowski’s use of laser images for a currently unknown ABC program was produced in 1968.

ABC Survey program presents a ballet, Waltzing Matilda, where the music is played electronically and the ballet drawn by computer at the Bell Laboratory, 30 July 1969.

ABC laser kinetics TV program, 1978 (or 1979)

ABC documentary on Ostoja-Kotkowski’s work with laser images and video, 1980.

Young Talent Time, Ostoja-Kotkowski, laser artist, 1984. 

Stephen Jones
Birth place
Golub, Poland
Period of activity 
from 1962

External Assets: selected from the Ostoja-Kotkowski archive at State Library of South Australia.

SLSA: PRG 919/39/82-122 (1964-06-29): Newspaper clipping, black and white photographs, proof sheets, negatives and colour negatives of chromasonics and polarchromatics and electronic images including ‘sunset at sea’ at an exhibition at the Argus Gallery (29 June 1964) in Melbourne.

SLSA: PRG 919/39/108-122 (1964-06-29): Black and white negatives, proof sheets and colour negatives of the works in the Argus Gallery show; electronic images, chromasonics and polarchromatics.

SLSA: PRG 919/39/123-124 (1964-06-29): The invite card/catalogue and one proof print and negative from an exhibition of electronic images at the Argus Gallery; electronic images, chromasonics and polarchromatics.

SLSA: PRG 919/52/163-189 (1964-10-26): Segment on Graham Kennedy’s IMT: In Melbourne Tonight on GTV Channel 9 in Melbourne. Black and white photographs and negatives. Images are of country singers in front of Ostoja-Kotkowski’s paintings and electronic images, Gabrielle Hartley, and a cat. (Gabrielle Hartley was in Prisoner, which was also on GTV 9.)

SLSA: PRG919/8/8 (1964-10-26): Listener In, TV, 24–30 October 1964. Picture of dancers superimposed over electronic image from the GTV9 Sound and Image film to be shown on In Melbourne Tonight, 26 October 1964.

SLSA: PRG 919/52/63-162 (1964-10-26): Black and white photographs and negatives, and a newspaper cutting relating to a Sound and Image production on GTV Channel 9. Ostoja-Kotkowski created the electronic images and used music by Henk Badings. Choreography Elizabeth Dalman; dancers Dianna Clayfield and Zane Danson; director Brian Phillis

SLSA: PRG 919/52/1-18 (1962): Black and white photographs of artworks, electronic images, dancers with electronic images, the Black Theatre of Prague and Sound and Image experimental theatre in 1962. 

Electronic Drawing on the invitation card for Ostoja-Kotkowski's Gallery A show, 1966
Electronic Drawing on the invitation card for Ostoja-Kotkowski's Gallery A show, 1966