Vítek Čapek - Interview with Zdeněk Sýkora

This interview is the result of a dialogue that took place over several years (1982 – 1985) between the art historian and the artist. It was created by progressively enhancing the precision of the questions and answers. The dialogue was interrupted in 1986 by the tragic death of Vítek Čapek.    

Epigraph: Several times in my life I had the feeling that I had gone astray in my work. I was slowly drawn into every new situation by forces that I could not, and even did not want to resist. New results always struck me as being foreign, even though they were created spontaneously and were not the result of a decision or intention. Always after a longer period of time, I started to understand them and I realized that they had preceded my thoughts.

Your artistic beginnings are bound to the landscape and the study of nature, aren’t they?

If I disregard my Surrealist beginnings and Cubism, which at the time was more of an expression of enthusiasm than understanding, my artistic consciousness began to take shape in landscape painting. Its basis has been my innate need for free space.     

Several factors left their marks on the beginnings of my landscape painting. My teachers, Bouda, Lidický and Salcman, convinced me quite easily that it was necessary to start from the beginning, with the study of nature and not with what had already been done before. The study of nature at school didn’t have the character of academic copying; it was a method of the gradual visual and haptic recognition of reality in drawing, painting and modelling. This method did not evoke any specific artistic idea – it was a unique school of creative perception and feeling. As I also accepted this method as my own basic means of expression, in my beginnings I was actually transitioning from the Barbizon school to Impressionist artistic thought. Afterwards, in landscape painting, I spontaneously went through the transformations in form that European art had experienced in the first decades of this century.     

This line led from Impressionism to Cézanne, Fauvism and Cubism. For me, Matisse was decisive - in his development I could see the nature of these changes. This development had natural and solid logic, the development of semantic and expressive changes to modes and tools of expression. It has been described, explained many times and many ways. What were sought were, as usual, mainly contexts and relationships; the developmental dynamics in the substance of the artistic language has remained untouched.

Could you explain this transformation in your painting more thoroughly, interpret it on the basis of your own empiric knowledge?

Translated into the language of painting, it is the transition from perspective representation with local colour to flat autonomous expression by gradually clearing it of colour, as the drawing and form become generalized. In other words, the transformation from the illusion of space to flatness – or, interpreted by means of light, from expressing gradations of light to the colour reconstruction of light and on to the luminous, material quality of flat colour.     

This revolution returned elementary power to the tools of expression and made it possible to move forward.

It would be good if you could trace this development in your painting. How did the tools of expression in your painting eventually become autonomous?

As an illustration of the beginning of this development I could mention the realistic landscape paintings from the Fifties, mostly in subdued local colours (Vršovice, 1953). This local colouring gradually transitioned over to purer colour that was Impressionist in nature (The Avenue near Lužerady, 1953). The Impressionist blotch gradually increased in size. The pictures become more and more colourful and less three-dimensional (View of the Street, 1956). My encounter with the Matisse collection at the Hermitage represented a radical break for me, resulting in the series of Gardens paintings. By then I had understood what colour and line meant as tools of construction and expression; I could see the laws of the relationships between individual colours. In Matisse I grasped the nature of Cézanne’s genius.     

The more I tried to express colour relationships precisely, the more layers of paint were applied. The brush was replaced with a knife, making it possible to transfer paint from the palette to the canvas more cleanly. (The shift to clayey colouring was motivated, apart from other things, by the low price of coloured earth pigments). It was not my intention to make these thick layers of colour; it was the result of repeatedly adapting and striving after more precise colour relationships (Brown Composition, 1960). These paintings were created in front of the landscape; their shapes were rounded like the bushes and treetops. The palette knife that I used prompted a gradual transition to increasingly angular forms, which then logically resulted in geometric shapes. Here too the thick layers of paint started to disappear; later on, the canvas was covered with just a thin layer of paint without brushwork. The transition from organic to geometric form had its roots in my growing attempts to exclude any subjective distortion. This also corresponded to the brushwork-free flat colour geometric surfaces that made it possible to reveal more objectively the expressive potential of current painting media.

The turning point in your work was "Grey Structure," 1962-63. How did it come about?

I found my way to Structures by gradually “objectifying” and reducing my means of expression to flat-colour geometric shapes that were balanced in every position. This sign – the element – whose colours were restricted to white, grey and black so that I could eliminate associations as much as possible, literally lent itself to be arranged, rotated and grouped. Klee's definition of structure as a divisible, dividual system was the basis for my further work. As I continued to develop the combinatory possibilities of the basic elements’ own positions and positions in relation to one another, I reached a phase where my intuitive work with elements seemed illogical and the use of a computer became essential.     

The result of several years' collaboration with the mathematician Jaroslav Blažek was a highly developed system which we described in detail in the review Leonardo (Pergamon Press, Oxford - New York 1970, Vol. 3, pp. 409-413).

What scope did you think the use of a computational engine offered?

Various circumstances brought me round to using a computer, and they occurred in about the following sequence:     

I have already described my route to the Structure paintings; another factor was the period around 1960 when, in our country, new opportunities arose for using computers. In the art world this was and still is taken as heresy, like something dangerous for this "fragile realm of feelings."     

Art that doesn't feel or isn't capable of perceiving the spiritual pathos of contemporary scientific knowledge and experience, is not the art of today or the future. I continue to be excited about the opportunities offered by new media and knowledge, so long as they deepen or elucidate the expression of my outlook on life.

Let us return to the computational engine that operates as part of the working process. It assists you in your work. You even admit that its language has also influenced you.

A bit of clarification is necessary regarding my relationship with computers. At the phase when it is decided to use a computer, the material has to be made up of elements that can be transferred into the computer’s binary code. This applies for all disciplines. My Grey Structure already contained a number of these conditions – above all with its grid, which is analogous to the computer memory system. But even this Structure was constructed by instinct. The basic rule was to try not to allow two same elements to have identical identical sets of elements bordering them. At that point I didn't even think of using a computer.     

Later, when I started working with Dr Jaroslav Blažek, I was forced to accept the consistent rational logic which in no way undermined my artistic ideas – on the contrary, in fact.     

The first works using the computer showed that consistently adhering to a fixed system violated a number of artistic conventions, compositional and otherwise, which would, for example, probably not allow the same element to be repeated ten times in a row.     

Thus the computer can influence one's thinking by making it more logical and precise. 

In your Structures you dealt with the general character of relationships. What, then, was the relationship between the actual development within the internally divided structures and the format of the canvas? What was the motivation behind using irregular formats?

The aim was to truly maximally exhaust the combinatory options offered in the mutual and individual positions of the basic series of elements.

/Ed. note: A detail is missing here: “in accordance with the rules that have been selected”. Without this addition, this statement applies only for the first intuitively constructed Structures from 1962-1963. The article in Leonardo contains a detailed description of the entire Structure system./

The Structure itself developed around several starting elements and continued beyond the format of the canvas. This was not about organising the surface. I needed large formats to show the maximum number of mutual relations. In order to emphasise these characteristics, I later placed the axis of the grid at various angles to the axis of the canvas format. Irregular formats had a similar meaning and moreover, they were motivated by the opportunity to apply them to architecture because at that time I had completed a number of such projects. Indoors, irregular formats created completely new, unconventional possibilities for interior design.

In the case of your “objects”, did you have a spatial solution in mind?

I attempted to apply flat combinatory principles using only one three-dimensional element. It was therefore the elements that made it possible to develop mutual positions and relationships in all directions; this is why they had circular or square cross-sections. The results then gave one the impression of spatial arrangement, especially the hollow elements – this was not the intention, though they begged to be used this way.     

I sense and understand space as the emptiness contained in and containing everything. I consider three-dimensional artistic interpretations of space to be anachronistic. In saying this I of course do not reject sculpture or architecture, both of which work with three dimensions, though in another sense.

You have mentioned the application of the Structures in architecture. These are certainly a factor related to the way human beings communicate. Have you thought about integrating painting, or possibly sculpting, into architecture?     

I consider the ability of painted and sculpted expression to be integrated into architecture to be proof of its topicality. It always feels good when the work you created in the confines of a studio begins to function in everyday social intercourse. The installation of my mosaic on the Letná Tunnel ventilation shafts and my ceramic structure on Jindřišská Street in Prague perform this function.

Structures were followed by Macrostructures, where you began to take an interest in outlines - the borders between equal quantities of black and white. Finally, you arrived at lines which no longer created a complete and whole entire area, but are located in a void. Could you clarify this?

Macrostructures were created when the programmed Structures came to a conclusion. They were an expression of my attempts to demonstrate unambiguously their combinatory nature. Macrostructures also emphasised the elemental base. It was actually by chance that in doing this, I showed myself the expressive and semantic power of the lines that emerged from connecting the spherical parts of individual elements as borders between their black and white areas. The lines fascinated me more and more. I continued to adhere to a rational method which I still consider to be the mainstay of the work. The starting point was still the square grid, supplemented with diagonals. The vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines of the grid functioned as tangents of the future line. Each line had its random sequence of interconnected tangents. This method resulted in lines of a rather stereotypical character, where the restrictive role of the grid was too prominent.     

I later developed a new alternative. The connecting lines between the centre of the centre of the dial and the individual numbers of the clock became the primary directions for new tangents. Each subsequent tangent began at the end of the previous one, and could be aimed in twelve different directions. The relevant arc corresponded to each angle formed by the tangents. These new lines already had a natural latitude. The restrictive grid disappeared, and with this its bond to the surface of the canvas. Its white colour now represents emptiness as a natural environment for randomness. Your works are based on reason, which is suggested by their structural nature.

These are creations that are aware of the nature of their scope in advance. They gain optimum inclusiveness from limiting the applied rule.

All creation is aware of the nature of its scope, whether it relies on reason or instinct.     

Among other things, form is a product of intrinsic limits. Creation is filling and moving beyond these limits.      

The structural principle is not new; it was already quite evident in the past: Michelangelo, Bach and Cézanne stand out as examples. The structural principle is always tied to the artist’s specific typological quality.     

The relationship between the rational and the emotional spheres can be considered a natural feature of the human psyche. I do not know any human expression that would lack one or the other component. It is obviously a question of their proportion and sequence in relation to one another. The important question may be at what moment a specific element is decisive in the creative process.

It would seem that random phenomena also follow certain patterns. One and the same phenomenon can be described as random, while from another perspective it appears to have been determined. In what way is randomness applied in your work?

There are inexplicable and unexpected situations and phenomena that we define as being random for want of a better explanation. It seems paradoxical that it is precisely in the exact sciences where the concept of randomness has acquired such plasticity. Too many situations are random, stochastic. We are forced to have more and more faith in it. Each random process is dependent on elements that are capable of creating relationships. Randomness does not exist “in and of itself”; there are only extremely complex, changing and unpredictable relationships. There probably is some “higher order” that we cannot grasp, but can sense even more profoundly. I think that the relationship between understanding and feeling is decisive for the sense of freedom.     

The use of randomness is of crucial importance to my present work. Since 1960, I have been striving to achieve greater objectivity. At the beginning, strict programming that practically eliminated randomness suited me for my work. Now I can see a higher degree of objectivity in chance.     

I get the feeling that randomness is a quality that offers scope for making direct contact with the universe. In a broader sense, randomness enlightens my thus far instinctive relationships to Zen and Tao.     

What, then, is the value and significance of randomness? In art it has functioned as a purgative tool since the beginning of the century. It was the basis of the logic of Dadaism and Surrealism. There has not been a single field of art that was not considerably affected by it. The concept of randomness contains more philosophical, semantic and mathematical trickiness than any other. It offers no certainty. But even in its most problematic form, it is a rich source of freedom.

As the exchange of information from one discipline to another has made it possible for crucial findings to be exchanged, the scope for interpretation has expanded. How is your work related to other disciplines?

These relationships mostly exist only on the level of feelings and to a certain extent in respect to ideas.     

When I eventually started to paint simple structural elements that could be easily described and therefore rationally manipulated, I was able to communicate about my work with a number of scientific disciplines. It was among scientists in the fields of genetics, linguistics, biology, physics and medicine that - unexpectedly yet logically - I encountered sympathetic understanding. This has been the case for both Structures and Lines.     

Naturally, this communication exists only in the field of analogies. The influence of scientific knowledge is another question. None of my work has ever been created on the basis or under the influence of a scientific theory; I am still a painter. I move from one canvas to another, I get all of my ideas while I work. The fact is, though, that scientific processes and findings – such as thought processes in cybernetics, the theory of information, theoretical physics and astronomy – all fascinate me.     

I can therefore say that experiencing the intellectual adventures of scientific cognition has the same emotive power for me as the sensory experience of nature.

Apart from Structures and, now, Lines, in certain periods you paint outdoors. What keeps attracting you to landscape painting?

In the historical context, the landscape was always the category that developed the relationship between man and the universe in the most direct way; it happened the last time in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Painting outdoors satisfies my need for open space. It is a painter’s form of contemplation and source of power. My sense of the landscape led me to art. I have no reason to abandon it now. When I started with programmed Structures, I realised that they were a transposed expression of what I had been striving for in my early Impressionist paintings.  Lately, the paintings I paint outdoors have their own structure, even though they respect the initial feeling. I am shifting their form towards ever greater synthesis and simplicity. Now they are reduced only to the line of horizon as the border where the substance of the earth makes contact with the substance of space. This is a process similar the transition from Macrostructures to Lines.      

In both my “rational” and “intuitive” methods, I unexpectedly arrived at lines as the main feature of expression. Each method strives, in its own fashion, to concretize one and the same feeling of reality.

What effect do Lines have on you when they are completed? Do you seek any other meaning in them?

The Lines detach themselves from me once I am finished. I view them as a new, unknown landscape. I do not think about anything. I watch them and think about them just with my eyes. I do not look for any other meanings...

Sometimes I find an echo of my existential feelings: the ungraspable nature of the world, the lack of clarity that defines human existence, the infiniteness.

No certainty!

So what remains? Nothing but the joy of living.  

At the end of the interview with Zdeněk Sýkora, a quotation by his revered master, Henri Matisse, came to mind which actually generalizes Zdeněk Sýkora’s epigraph at the beginning:

“We are born with the sensibility of a given period of civilization. And that counts far more than all we can learn about a period. The arts have a development that comes not only from the individual, but also from an accumulated strength, the civilization that precedes us. One can’t do just anything. A gifted artist cannot do just anything at all. If he used only his talents, he would not exist. We are not the masters of our production. It is imposed on us.”

Only now do I dare say that dividing Zdeněk Sýkora’s work into sections, as it was in this interview with him, can be undone, thus closing the semantic circle of interpretation if we admit that painting has energy that gives it its own life, independent of the subject that it may depict. Painting goes deeper than the senses can go. Its aim is the expression of life. Painting is transformed into the mysterious manifestations of vital forces.  

Vítek Čapek (1954–1988), art historian and artist, family friend, curator at the Benedikt Rejt Gallery in Louny.