Lenka Lindaurová: Structure, Randomness, the Computer and Louny

It’s difficult to recognise a good painting, but when it´s good, it´s certain, says painter Zdeněk Sýkora 

A retrospective exhibition of one of the most significant names in geometric painting, Zdeněk Sýkora, comprising art from 1945–95, opened yesterday at the Municipal Library in Prague. Even though Sýkora is a very well-known artist internationally, here in the Czech Republic his art, in which every aleatoric aspect is programmed, is esteemed by only a couple of theoreticians. One of them, Jiří Valoch, defines Sýkora’s oeuvre as a well-posed question.

When did you progress to using geometry in your artwork, and what led you to this path?
Geometry was present from the beginning in my landscape paintings, in the spatial construction of the painting. Gradually, though, geometry was projected further and further to the foreground until it itself became the language and subject of expression.

What role did randomness play in your work?
From the initial landscapes I travelled down the path from randomness to something I have control over, to a result in which I know why it got there. Developments went from randomness to understanding elementary order. This tendency was not common in the Czech Republic.

Why didn’t geometric painting say anything to people?
It is entirely understandable. There continues to be an aversion to geometry. I understand this because back when I was painting gardens, Mondrian also didn’t say anything to me. People need to reach that point on their own, and that is why I don’t get upset with anyone for not being taken with geometry. It is a question of a long period of contact with this way of art and a question of free thinking.

You yourself started with landscape painting. Did your school’s influence play a role in this?
In school, professors used the classic method of instruction. First they taught us to understand facts, express them in colour, three dimensionally – and only after that, let everyone do what they knew how to do. Everyone should have a good foundation; now that’s not taught anywhere any more. No one creates based on nature. What has happened with means of expression from the beginning of the century to the present is absolutely revolutionary. Everything has been reassessed. Before, means of expression served to shape ideas, to translate opinions, but they gradually became independent – until these means of expression themselves became a medium that communicates without portraying anything.

But you went through university during the Socialist Realism years. Did you have enough freedom to create?
I studied under Salcman and Lidický, as well as under Bouda. There was a wonderful atmosphere with them. All the way through the Fifties, the term Socialist Realism wasn’t uttered once there. No one forced us into it, even though, of course, there were students in blue shirts /translator´s note: Blue shirts were a typical symbol of the Socialist Union of Youth, an organisation run by the Czechoslovak Communist Party. One of the group´s aims was that all youth be uniformly educated in the spirit of Marxism-Leninism/ there. Lectures were given on topics that would be lectured on even now; we had complete freedom, it was a miracle. At that time we were constantly and mainly talking about modern art.

In the end, you tried out the profession of educator. What did years at the Faculty of Education mean for you? Which students can you now boast about?
Teaching meant a lot for me. I could teach what was most interesting for me, and that was the development of painting from the end of the 19th Century up to the present. Not history, but the development of means of expression: light, colour, space, drawings. Thanks to my profession, I was entirely independent in my own work. The Faculty produced educators, but despite this, a number of now noteworthy students graduated from the Faculty or spent some time there: let me start with a rhyme - Milan Knížák, Ota Slavík, Karel Malich, František Dvořák, Miloš Šejn, Václav Malina, Jaroslav Malina, Miroslav Melena and Václav Šrámek, and from the youngest generation Václav Šimice, Jiří Štor, Jaroslav Vančát and Aleš Svoboda. Noteworthy women included Lída Vachtová, Mahulena Nešlehová and many others.

What led you personally to geometry? Did anyone influence you?
Before I started working with a computer, I divided the picture into triangles and squares and I located them intuitively. At that time I came across Klee’s sketchbook /ed. note: Zdeněk Sýkora was chiefly fascinated by the following passage (Hlaváček's translation also appeared in the catalogue for Sýkora's exhibition at the Václav Špála Gallery in 1970): “The element which unifies the surface and produces movement is structure. This appears as structural rhythm, and may take the form of a primitive arrangement in layers or of a highly complex series of accents. Its distinguishing mark is the repetition of some unit. Parts can be taken away or added without their rhythmic character, which is based on repetition, being changed.  he crucial sentence: The structural character is dividual (divisible).” This entire quote in fact did not come directly from Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, but from a book by Werner Haftmann: Paul Klee, Wege bildnerischen Denkens.  Frankfurt am Main and Hamburg; Fischer Bücherei KG, 1961. Josef Hlaváček translated part of this book. [Paul Klee:] The Inward Vision: Watercolors, Drawings, Writings. London: Thames and Hudson, 1958. Josef Hlaváček translated part of this book. In his text entitled Memories are memories (Verzone, 2008) from 2003, he recalls: : "Vladislav Mirvald gave me an English translation of Paul Klee's monograph written by Werner Haftmann back then. I was impressed by the chapter about the Pedagogical Sketchbook, so I translated it and asked Zdeněk Sýkora to pass the translation on to Dr. Lamač for Výtvarné umění (Art) magazine. Lamač rejected the translation because it was a translation of a translation. Nevertheless, it seemed to impress Sýkora – when he was on the bus going to Prague he mostly read about Klee's interpretation of the creation of structure.This impetus that arose by chance from Klee apparently ended the searcg that followed after the two peaks described earlier and launched the risky and brave step called Grey Structure."/ that was his basis for teaching at the Bauhaus, and there was a chapter on structure. On its divisibility, the possibility to expand it to all sides. Structure is created by elements whose juxtapositions change. The immanent life of the picture itself is created from this: something is happening within it, it is not a dead decoration. I reached the opinion that it is superfluous to take intuitive decisions about the picture, and it would be better to use a combinatory method that would make it possible to find all the possible relationships in the structure’s elements more consistently. In co-operation with Jaroslav Blažek from the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics, the location of one of the first computers in the country, we tried for two or three years to find some method, but we weren’t successful. In the end we thought up a method that worked perfectly.

Is it a secret?
We entered a few basic elements (square and circle) and their various proportions into an empty grid. These elements had their own numbers based on the proportions of black and white colour. The computer scanned along lines of the flat net and gave options for adjacent fields. It was a simple, mechanical principle. /Ed. note: Simplified response. For a more detailed explanation, see Petrjanoš, 1991./

You in fact became a Czech pioneer in the use of computers in art …
In the Sixties, the computer was a terribly dangerous thing. People wrote about ideological subversion and capitalist pseudoscience in connection with computers. In addition, even people in scientific circles expressed their scepticism towards computers. And getting it tangled up into art? I thought everyone would kill me. Even now a number of people think that a computer makes pictures for me.

You’re wrong. Now the word on the street is that you come up with the paintings on a computer, and your wife paints them. Is it true?
I feel sorry for those people who suffer due to my success.

Could you describe your work process, from the idea right up to the execution?
As always, in the beginning there is a mental picture that originates in the previous painting. This way it would be possible to follow how the picture developed from the beginning in reverse sequential order. To me it’s like a bead in a rosary. The next phase is designating the conditions or restrictions in which the principle of randomness can develop. /Ed. note: This description solely refers to Lines./ This is then followed by the actual preparation of the score, where the series of random numbers from the computer are finally also used. My wife also acts here as a colleague: in the actual physical execution onto the canvas, it is necessary to also calculate the equations for the radii of the curves – a normal calculator can do this. Finally, nearly the most important thing is how the lines intersect – this is resolved by a series of random ones and twos. I think that in my process, I am not much different than the masters of the Renaissance and later periods. I think I would please Uccello, Michelangelo and Leonardo.

How successful have you been at breaking the barrier of isolation in what at one time was the European art world?
There weren’t many people here who believed in modern art. Miroslav Míčko  /Ed. note: Miroslav Míčko (1912–1970), art critic, theoretician and modern art historian. From 1948 professor of art history in the art department at Charles University’s Faculty of Education, and later at the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts and at the Academy of Fine Arts. Co-organised Czech artists’ participation in the V biennale internazionale d‘arte contemporanea (5th International Biennale of Contemporary Art) in San Marino in 1965 and in the exhibition Tschechoslowakische Kunst heute (Czechoslovak Art Today) in Bochum, Germany, in 1965/, a man who truly understood art, was an advocate for our generation in Europe. Nowadays no one mentions Míčko’s name at all, but he was the one who opened the doors for all of us. We started to exhibit works beyond our borders. It was funny because both official and avant-garde artists showed up there. So, next to Jiroudek, Paderlík and Souček there would be exhibits of works by Malich, Boštík, Šimotová, Kolíbal and me. /Ed. note: This is particularly in regards to the exhibitions Tschechoslowakische Kunst heute, Bochum, 1965, and Tschechoslowakische Kunst der Gegenwart (Contemporary Czechoslovak Art), Berlin, 1966./ This helped Czech art an awful lot. We awakened the interest of gallery owners and theoreticians, and then they themselves travelled to see us. A number of these relationships have lasted forty years now.

You say that geometry has roots in the same place where man has them. Could you explain that?
Geometry had its beginnings as far back as with the caveman; it is certain that cavemen had to consider measurements and sizes, the heights and widths of things and people. The basics of geometry, which developed from surveying, are contained in the first buildings. And what did ancient cultures do with geometry? Suffice it to cite Greece.

Do you think one can tell a good geometric painting apart from mere decoration with certainty?
It is generally difficult for all types of paintings, but it can be recognised with certainty. Good artists always agree, it is a question of sensitivity and experience, not theory.

You are one of a few very famous Czech artists. What is it like?
As a rule it gives rise to both awe and envy, but that’s Czech nature and I can live with it.

Have you ever had the desire to stay in the West – where your position as a painter already is very good?
It never occurred to me; when I was young I would have never been able to leave my parents. Now there are a number of places where I would rather enjoy living, but just for a certain length of time.

You live in a small city that you preferred over the big city – do the residents of Louny know what star they have living in their city?
I don’t live like a star, that’s why I’m happy here, I have a lot of friends here. People from the world’s leading metropolises want to spend some time living here in Louny the same way I do. I’ve already promised them they could.

Do people in Louny buy paintings from you?
Most of the time, my friends have received paintings from me as gifts. Others received them under very friendly conditions.

Which criteria did you chose for selecting works for the retrospective exhibition that just started?
I wanted to show how smooth the developments and logic were for individual phases, but especially explain the identity of the intuitive and rational approach. And finally, not wear out the viewer too much.

What have you been working on lately? Where would you like to end up with your art?
New areas for randomness in geometric linear structures keep opening up for me, I come back, nothing is closed – let alone finished. Each of the processes can be developed further and further. End up? No, just keep going.

Which way are you headed?
I just need to go with the mainstream. And when I’m tired, because it is quite tiring, I return to nature and go paint outdoors, where my sensitivity is revived. If I ever lose my strength, then perhaps I’ll return completely to landscapes. Some critics reproach me that in public I pretend to be an avant-garde artist, but behind closed doors I paint Fauvist blotches. But I really love transgressing like that. 

Geometric Map of the Unknown
The use of randomness as a means for researching and forming potential options is fascinating in both art and science. It is a tool for mapping out the field of the unknown, it is a means for ridding oneself of prior thought and memory. The phenomenon of randomness in Zdeněk Sýkora’s art is not just an analogy of the adventure of theoretical learning and the boundaries of determinist precision, but also of openness and the possibility to always be surprised over and over again by world events, the opportunity to play an active role in the world. As John Cage says about his music, “For each of these works I look for something I haven't yet found. My favourite music is the music I haven't yet heard. I don't hear the music I write. I write in order to hear the music I haven't yet heard.”

Excerpt from Pavel Raiman´s text in the Sýkora restrospective exhibition catalogue

Published in Lidové noviny, Národní 9 arts supplement, Vol. VIII, 15 Apr 1995, No. 90, p. V.

Lenka Lindaurová (1960), art commentator, critic and curator.