Adéla a Jaroslav Krbůškovi: Conversations at Zdeněk Sýkora's studio

Zdeněk Sýkora is a Louny native and patriot. Today one can find his paintings in prestigious galleries throughout the world. He is a pioneer in the use of computers in art. He bought and reconstructed the house where he lives with his wife four years ago. At first, the Gothic Revival townhouse designed in the late 19th century by architect Kamil Hilbert did not attract them at all. During the war it was a gendarmerie, then it changed hands several times and this left its mark on the house. But one thing decided in favour of buying it:
There is a magnificent view from here that I always yearned for. Below us fl ows the Eger, my fated river, and in the distance I see the hills of the Bohemian Uplands – little belly buttons of volcanic magma worn down by erosion. I spent my childhood around the river, I know every stone. The view captivated me and because of it, we knocked down the walls in three rooms, creating my studio with a huge window. I am in contact with the landscape I’ve painted for years.

This is the reason why you didn’t move to Prague?
One of many. I studied in Prague, and then I taught at Charles University’s Department of Art Education for thirty years. I even had a studio but I didn’t paint a single stroke there. I felt like I was in Sing Sing because in a studio with a skylight, I had no view. I preferred commuting every day and I painted in Louny.

Even then you apparently made huge canvases and later on you even had to lower them out through the window of the small studio. Well now, you went and spoiled the theory that in a small space, only small things can be done.
Until 1958 I painted all my paintings outdoors – winter or summer, I stood outside and had that expanse within me. Emil Filla, who saw my paintings at an exhibition then, had a message passed on to me saying never to do small formats – that I have monumental talent. /Ed. note: Filla’s comment regarding Sýkora’s fi rst solo exhibition, from 1952, has been preserved as a handwritten note made by Čestmír Berka in LZS Archive./ In larger dimensions you recognise whether the subject you selected can carry the format or not. Structures and Lines also contain the principle of continuation, of growth in all directions. For me, opening up to space is a state of mind and a principle. I physically can’t stand enclosed spaces and darkness, which is certainly connected to this.

You have been committed to computer art for thirty years now. Computers are far removed from life, but your Lines are very alive, even sensuous.
My ideas and pictorial visions are vital and sensory. Their principle lies in randomness. These ideas and visions are realised using geometry tools, not a computer. The computer merely produces rows of random numbers based on a task. The vitality in the paintings is the result of the system and randomness working in concert – no differently than they do in nature.

For April we are preparing an exhibition at the Municipal Library in Prague, where for each picture we are appending as much documentation as possible /ed. note: in the end, the exhibition concept was changed and only limited documentation regarding the paintings was used/ so one can see how it was created. The preparatory phase is difficult and lengthy, but even after so many years, the creation process is immensely exciting. Each new picture is a continuation of the previous one.

And don’t you ever get the desire to change something while you’re working?
I respect everything because I specified it. In the next assignment I just shift what did not correspond to my idea in the previous painting, but it continues to appear beneath my hands. Over time one would get used to certain conventions, but when I consistently adhere to the rules that are in place, it is immensely enlightening for me – I don’t know ahead of time where these rules will lead me.

No boredom, no mundane routine?
Always a surprise. I have to gradually get used to some paintings, which is fantastic. That aspect of randomness astonishes me and is a liberating element. Then it’s necessary to break down one’s own conventions.

From your paintings one can hear music, sense happiness as well as gravity. But those numbers… 
That’s okay, that’s what it’s about. Not technology and how I started using it. Randomness often plays a role….

If they are so musical, have you ever been inspired to use your paintings as scores for music?
You’ve discovered my age-old project, but one that I don’t have enough time for. I can translate directions, colours and lines into sounds, a specific composition. I hope that I’ll get around to it. Life goes by so quickly, this year I’m turning 75 and my head is full of plans. That’s why I’m in a hurry.

You’ve mentioned luck. Do you think that various opportunities appear before people, but few are able to follow the right one?
For years I made landscapes and I wasn’t satisfied. But a little fragment of what had forced me to continue, brought the breakthrough to what I’m doing now. The main thing is that you have to be sincere. You can’t copy anything or want it to look smart. Be true to the fact that you are powerless in what you do, and then perhaps you’ll move forward.

The interior of your home is mostly done in white (your wife’s study is black and white), as is common among artists, but colour occupies a significant role in your work.
As a young man I was a fan of Cubism and Surrealism. Then, after the war, I came to the university in Prague, Professor Salcman placed a still life in front of me and I discovered that I don’t know how to draw or paint, that I don’t know how to create form or space using colour. It took a long time before I understood the secret of colour values. That was where modern art came from – when the focus on colour at the end of the 19th century caused artists to no longer be so concerned with using light and shade for volume modulation, for example. I also lectured on this subject for thirty years at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts and the Faculty of Education, and when someone explains something, they have to understand it far more than merely have a grasp of it. Colour in a picture can express feelings, not describe anything specific, but exist in and of itself.

Why are there so few colours used in artistic expression in this country?
Because it stopped being a central issue in art. The Paris School and everything that arose around it, led to the liberation of colour. Colour has as many inherent laws as music or literature. Just like a musical ear needs to be trained, you can’t paint well without good schooling. There were no professors here at the academy who taught it.

The Czech art scene hasn’t much time for geometry. For the most part it seeks the inner self, poetry, the surreal… 
Yet geometry was the basis of knowledge and is also a part of contemporary thinking. As an autonomous tool of expression, geometry has its strength, magic and mystery. It requires more sensitivity than art that expresses feelings or ideas. But there are people who need a pile of manure in order to be able to smell something.

In your paintings, harmony is connected with free chaos – and this is what’s exciting about them.
Over the years I’ve been using this system, I have been recognising that there is order in the chaos, that I am getting to a fundamental principle through chaos. Independent of one another, scientists who study the chaos theory get in contact with me and ask if I know that my paintings reflect their scientific questions somehow, that my unconfined infatuation resonates in that field. Collectors of my works are often scientists, and I appreciate that. One of them, Professor Ernest Polak from Paris, told me once that Lines fascinated him because they very much resemble his graphic analyses of taste and smell.

So you are more attracted to modern science than to the endless circle of artists-theoreticians-galleries-exhibitions?
I contend that the most capable minds today are in science. For me it is fantastic to observe what they’re engaged in. Like precisely the interpretation of randomness – the drama being played out in abstract settings excites me.

Mathematics and drama don’t exactly go together.
Scientists who have managed to grasp this relationship stop being atheists. The more we discover, the more mysterious and elusive it proves to be. Art that ignores science cannot be contemporary; when the artist decides to reject civilisation and science, there’s something wrong.

Mr Sýkora, you use your common sense and that upsets a lot of people, doesn’t it?
My parents and grandparents worked out in the fields. Art is a very interesting activity. In personal terms it might be critically important, but to build the world upon it, be superior to all else… One can say that a railroader is more important to people than an artist. I know what I’m talking about because during the war, I worked for the railroad.


Published in Domov, 1995, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 50–3.


Jaroslav Krbůšek (1952), gallery owner.

Adéla Krbůšková (1953), artist and journalist.