Jiří Hůla: Zdeněk Sýkora’s Œuvre at the Municipal Library

I have to go back and play the picture correctly, according to its score, says one of the Czech Republic’s best-known and internationally most acclaimed artists

Painter Zdeněk Sýkora was born on 3 February 1920 in Louny. In 1938 he went to study at the Mining University in Příbram; after the Czech universities were shut down, he worked as a railway yard labourer, telegrapher and later on as a dispatcher for the railroad in Bohemia. After the war ended, he went to the Faculty of Architecture and Building Construction in Prague (later Charles University’s Faculty of Education) and majored in art education and descriptive geometry. /Ed. note: In 1945, ZS applied to doctoral programmes in art education and descriptive geometry, which at that time were taught at the Czech Technical University’s Faculty of Architecture and Building Construction. As both subjects were moved to Charles University’s Faculty of Education the following year, starting on 5 Oct 1946 ZS continued his studies there. He majored in art education and minored in descriptive geometry and geometric modelling. He took his final state exam on 7 November 1947. Starting in 1946 he was an assistant for several professors, and in 1966 he was named Associate Professor in the Art Education Department at Charles University’s Faculty of Education in Prague. He taught here and at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts until 1980./ In the late Fifties he created his first flat colour paintings in which the originally nature-based forms smoothly transform into purely geometrical shapes. Starting in the early Sixties he used a computer as a tool for his essential rational art; he created flat Structures and Structures in space. Since 1972 /ed. note: ZS started painting Lines in 1973/ he has painted Lines. Sýkora, who lives and works in Louny, is one of the Czech Republic’s most well known and internationally acclaimed visual artists. His art is on exhibit in the Municipal Library till 18 June.

Could you tell us how audiences receive your work?
I split audiences into two types. When they are not encumbered by half-truths or the propaganda of a certain type of art, the reactions are spontaneous and direct. This is a way of looking at things that I also prefer in life. The second group is made up of art critics who from the beginning have had an overt aversion to my work. Art critics evaluate everything based on the criteria of what is going on right now internationally; they don’t like seeing original work that hasn’t been absorbed and worked on in advance by international theoreticians. I’ve had and I still have plenty of opponents. The theory of art, though, is a separate issue and rarely does it directly relate to the art being written about.

How did art theoreticians receive you in the Sixties?
Indisputably – with rejection. At that time, the imaginative tendencies that centred around Mikuláš Medek prevailed, but for the most part other work was also more lyrical. The incursion I caused with geometric art stirred up traditional problems. It always happens that when something clear and rational appears in Czech art, there are problems.

Did art historians find your work had little content?
They are orientated towards works that illustrate feelings, attempt to evoke feelings and seek resonance. What I do is a type of objective creation – the painting is simply what it is, it does not have any concept or idea behind it, it does not explain anything. The content of the work is in the visual experience.

Now you have received recognition at home and abroad. What has changed because of this?
When someone starts to achieve international success, then local theoreticians start to take notice. Leoš Janáček and Antonín Dvořák, for example, both had to leave the field here at home and then return once they were great artists.

In Prague you have two major projects that people may not know much about …
In the late Sixties, the architect Josef Kales approached me and asked if I wouldn’t like to apply my idea of Structures in architecture. When we first went to the arts commission, we

bombed. As it was the Sixties, though, there were still a few intelligent people sitting there – so in the end the ceramic tiles on Jindřišská street were approved. I tried the same thing twice for the Letná tunnel ventilation shafts. Both projects were created with the aid of a computer. Jaroslav Blažek translated my idea into the computer’s language.

At the Municipal Library you are exhibiting works created over a fifty-year time span. How did you select them?
I wanted to make a vivid overview of developments, almost an art biography. I didn’t leave out anything; for the first time I exhibited work that I do at the same time as “rational” art. I attempted to represent my journey as an unbroken progression, so that works would illustrate themselves – to make it visitor-friendly. About half of the things did not fit into the library. This was a salutary penalty of the installation.

You characterise your work as rational. What do you feel when you are creating art, what do you think about?
The actual execution as well as intellectual preparation – this is poetry, something like prayer, concentration that is more indicative of a mystic state than technique or technical sensitivity. The preparation materials look like architectural plans, but theoreticians “find” a lot of interesting aspects; some even “see” more in these than the actual completed painting.

So the painting is created in several separate phases?
The first is the concept of the painting – whether landscapes or cubist paintings, one always has a reason for doing precisely this exactly that way. That hasn’t changed. All of the works create an uninterrupted chain, the new painting arises from the previous one, and in the last one I see what can be done further. I don’t have a plan that is clear in advance; I am led by the opportunities offered by the last completed painting.

What does the initial concept look like?
In the last work, for example, I see that the lines could be more dramatic and I want to get right down to that sort of work.

And then it’s transferred to the computer for processing?
The line paintings are essentially modelled from random factors. Randomness designates the starting points, the widths of the lines, what colours the lines will be, the angles at which they will curve, the lengths of the curves, how they will intersect … To select all the characteristic elements of the lines, I use series of random numbers.

How do you get a series of random numbers?
With a random number generator. Of course, it would be possible to do the same thing purely mechanically – it would be enough to take the quantity of numbers that correspond to the quantity of colours and pull them from a hat one by one. But the computer is incredibly quick. Modelling randomness manually is tiring and boring work. Each random process is designated by various conditions; nothing in the world exists on its own, with no other relationships. The entire painting is first created in numbers, and only afterwards is it gradually executed from the first line on. The computer just processes changes in direction; we calculate the curves taken from the tangent lengths and angles once we start working. My pictures are not constructed using computer methodology; it is essentially geometric work.

Try to describe the feeling when the painting starts to appear …
It is hugely dramatic, a huge amount of tension – even when I know how it will probably turn out. I can imagine the colours, for example, but the execution is as thrilling as an action movie (laughs)!

Generally thrilling, or is it thrilling just for you?
A lot of people see the paintings gradually evolve and always are amazed at what structural opportunities simple elements offer. It astonishes me that it surprises some people; music is made the same way. There is the composer’s concept, and there are musical instruments. We have become used to conventions, that an artist should have a wide-brimmed hat and a palette. When he attacks the canvas with his brush, he is communicating something.

How long does it take you to create a painting?
I painted The Last Judgement precisely one year, six hours every day. When my wife dictates from the score, it goes faster.

You compare painting to music, you used the word “score” …
I sense painting as I do music. I have spoken about this issue with a number of musicians and all agree that it would be possible to play my paintings, reconstruct them into music. I also hope that this will happen, but till now there hasn’t been time. When you enter the current, it pulls you, I constantly have my mind two years ahead of my last completed project. I recognise the difference compared to quick, conventional painting, but the time and energy invested into a painting is never lost.

You have named most of your paintings “Lines” and a consecutive number. Why do some paintings also have additional names? The Last Judgement? 
The Last Judgement – that was a very early and the first large project. It reminded me of the dynamics in Michelangelo’s fresco, as an aid I named the work The Last Judgment and the name stayed.

The Waltz?
While I work, lots of ideas crop up, spaces open where it would be possible to continue. Waltz is one of the things that got ahead of itself, it deals with spiral turns made by a single line. This is a subject that will soon be tackled. /Ed. note: This “subject” reappeared only in the painting Lines No. 135, 1996, acrylic / canvas, 140 x 140 cm./

One of the first Lines is named Renata ...
There was a period when I named paintings using a Czech calendar, according to the name of the saint listed under the date I started the painting. October 13th is Saint Renata’s day.

What is the relationship between the independent paintings you are exhibiting in the library for the first time, and the rational art that has made you internationally famous?
The feelings I get from the work are very similar, it is just a different method of executing the artworks. For geometric paintings, the process is predefined, I must adhere to the sequence of information written in the score. It is trying, and when I start to even have dreams about it, I have to relax and revive myself.

Is independent painting a greater joy for you?
It is just as exhausting. Each painting presents me with a lot of work, I am anxious and overburdened with ideas, and I exert myself quite hard.  

A return to paint as a material?
I still feel like a painter. But I see that in painting, nothing is ever finished. In this country there have also been discussions about how nothing more can be done in painting, but painting has not ceased to exist because of this. In the Czech Republic paint and paintbrushes are used, but hardly anyone knows what paint is as a material. It is an autonomous medium that is explosive in every way.

Which Czech artists do you consider to be true painters?
Only Ota Slavík. We spent wonderful years together, we influenced each other.

You taught at the Faulty of Education in Prague for thirty years, Otakar Slavík was a student of yours.
He was a student and also a classmate. An enormously talented person from the first moment – that was something phenomenal.

Why do you leave your pencil markings on the paintings?
For one it would be a lot of work to remove them, and in addition I don’t want to hide the rational basis that is underneath the paintings and interests a lot of people. One German man came to me who was ecstatic about the dynamics and expression in my paintings. When I explained to him why the numbers were there, he completely fell apart. He said it was deplorable and he was no longer interested in it. That same day, when I explained the entire process to him, his enthusiasm was restored. He has remained true to me to this day.

How is it possible that rationally calculated works have the lightness of calligraphy?
This has to do with the use of randomness. In paintings with wide, horizontal lines, it is as if the sense of randomness disappears; a similar painting could be composed using feeling, but it would probably look entirely different. Short lines have their own vitality; that is where I got furthest. I always return to short lines, but my painter’s genes force me to do large colourful surfaces. It’s my biorhythm, in which the more intellectual or philosophical half of my personality alternates with my more sensory half.

Do you find any allegories in your works?
Not at all. It’s the same feeling as when I look at the sky. I don’t understand it at all, I don’t seek any meaning that would illustrate something.

Certainly. When you use form that doesn’t dictate anything to you or designate anything, analogies with everything possible appear. With biology, physics, astronomy – reactions come to me absolutely spontaneously. A lot of my collectors are scientists, they find correlations to their own work, they bring scientific publications to my attention. About ten years ago I got a book about the chaos theory. It’s nice when you work utterly spontaneously, you don’t illustrate anything, you don’t refer to contemporary scholarship, and yet you create things that resonate with what is happening in entirely different areas, in remote fields of science.  

Your artwork is open in all possible directions – is this openness connected with the term Structure? And how do you understand this word?
I created pure Structures until 1972. A grid, something like a surface split up into squares in which elements can appear, defines the structure. Elements can be placed and turned in various ways. The structure must be divisional; if you divide it, then it exists in any detail and any cut pattern. Paul Klee elaborated the theory of structure perfectly. The most important characteristic of my Structures is that they continue on all sides; it is as if they are cropped from infinity. Lines also have a structural basis, but they are not built based on a geometric grid; their grids are free, topographic, it’s an open system.

What does format mean to you?
The larger the format, the better. I recognise the feeling of expansion out to all sides most when there are large formats. They are impractical, hard to store and move, are practically unsaleable, but despite this I once again see great things before me.

The smallest but for you still acceptable format?
I almost despise small formats, I only paint small paintings of about one square metre when someone explicitly asks me, usually as a gift. Sometimes I verify new possibilities on small formats.

Why did you experiment with non-traditional formats?
I don’t know, the impetuses are sometimes so unexpected – like when you fall in love with someone and just the day before you didn’t know a thing about them.

A series of random numbers designates the starts of the lines. Can it occur that it emerges outside the surface of the painting?
A number of curves or parts of curves originate outside of the canvas. In Waltz, about three quarters of the curves do so. The course of the entire curve is always recorded in the documentation, though.

Does it ever happen that you make a mistake when reconstructing the painting?
Sure, but the mistake is always found.

Do you let the mistake be?
Not at all, I have to go back and play the picture correctly, according to the score.


Published in Denní telegraf, 8 June 1995, p. 10. This interview is also included in the book Jiří Hůla: Interviews, Dauphin, Slovo a tvar ed., Prague 2001, in the chapter entitled “The energy put into a painting is never lost”.


Jiří Hůla (1944), artist, commentator and art theoretician.