Zdeněk Sýkora 90 – A must-see exhibition in the Czech capital

Lignes No 220, 2003

Artist Zdeněk Sýkora, who turned 90 last month, is without question one of the Czech Republic’s most important painters, whose style over his long career developed from traditional landscapes to the abstract line paintings for which he is certainly best known. A retrospective of some of the artist’s best work – including Line No. 24 on loan from Centre Pompidou in Paris – is currently underway at Prague’s Municipal Library, a highly-respected gallery space within the city centre.

'Tree'  (1959)
Curator and art historian Pavel Kappel told me more about the artist’s work:

“At first, he was truly a landscape painter. He started to paint landscapes in the 1950s, when he was studying at the Pedagogical Faculty at Charles University, influenced by his teacher Martin Salcman. After that, his painting gradually developed into geometrical shapes and expression in the ‘60s. He evolved his system intuitively, following not only the example of his teacher Martin Salcman but the modernist painters Cezanne and Matisse.”

In 1960, Sýkora’s work moved fully into geometric abstraction, his so-called Structures, where the artists made use of numbers and mathematical systems to determine combinations of visual elements on the canvas. The system influenced the frequency of shapes, their exact positioning, and overall spatial relationship. In 1963, his work Šedá struktura (Gray Structure) was organised on the basis of a grid (which he would use continually), and in 1964 Sýkora was one of the first artists in the world to use a computer to help with his calculations in his art work. Curator Pavel Kappel again:

'Gray Structure'  (1963)
“It was just a tool, like an artist uses a brush. It became easier to compute all the relations between elements. Before that he did it intuitively or in his head, but there was always a danger of making a ‘mistake’ or it simply took a very long time. By coincidence Zdeněk Sýkora met a former classmate from high school, a mathematician, who had access to one of two of the first computers in Czechoslovakia’s school system.”

Because of the geometrical precision of much of Sýkora’s earlier paintings, some critics compared or attempted to pigeonhole Sýkora’s work as Op Art. Pavel Kappel says that was off the mark:

“Sýkora’s work was far more complex and the paintings were not made for optical effect, they don’t want to evoke some shock from the viewer. They are more complicated, based on a system which combines or set rules for combining elements. The pictorial space is based on really complicated relations. Even from the 60s there was a group of critics who tried to connect his work to Op Art, but the artist went to great lengths to explain the difference in his work.”

In the 1970s, Sýkora gradually began moving to a less rigid style, eventually moving away from using the grid.

'Line 125'  (1994)
“The grids are really the topics of the Structures, that is obvious when you look at that series. The Line paintings he started to develop in the ‘70s were also based on the grid, which was logical in the evolutionary process. But the grid was also very rigid, a barrier for following the lines directions so it later disappeared and the system developed in a different direction.”

The artist didn’t give up on his systematic approach, but what he did do was introduce randomness into the equation.

“When we compare his earlier Structures and the systems they were based on in the ‘60s, to the Line paintings in the 1970s, the difference between the two, we can see a really big shift, a big difference. The first rules were very strict, but later he introduced randomness or random numbers in the system, and I think this allowed much greater opportunities and many different paths of artistic expression.”

The result was colour lines moving across large canvases, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in opposition, intertwined or unbound, endless strings moving across white or black backgrounds. 1984’s Line 24, informally known as The Last Judgment, was acquired by Paris’s Georges Pompidou Centre, which has only one other Czech artist – Frantíšek Kupka – in its collection. Line 24 was lent to the Municipal Library for this year’s show and is one of the exhibition’s most impressive works. Curator Pavel Kappel again:

Zdeněk Sýkora
“It’s very expensive of course and you have to meet all kinds of requirements, from special packing during transport to being insured at a very high price. But we’re very glad to have it; there’s no question it’s one of the best and most important works by the artist.”

The curator is, meanwhile, also very happy with the gallery space for this particular show:

“I like the place very much because it has very beautiful light. There is also a second reason – because it is a challenge. Sýkora had one retrospective here 15 years ago, when he was 75. The challenge was how to present his work in a different way, in a different light.”

One fascinating aspect of many of Sýkora’s paintings is the fact they are done on a square format, which curator Pavel Kappel says is important for the following reasons:

'Line 220'  (2003)
“It’s a natural format of objective or constructive art because it doesn’t have or it doesn’t set a hierarchy. You know, we have been talking about systems and the systems are open, theoretically not limited by the canvas. This is the reason also. You can’t say, or it isn’t that important, to say what is the ‘up’ or ‘down’ side. Of course there is a right way of hanging the pictures, but the system is really open, really to infinity.”

The Zdeněk Sýkora 90 exhibition will be on view at the Municipal Library until May 2.