Jana Komárková: The Infinite Possibilities of Painter Zdeněk Sýkora’s art

Painter Zdeněk Sýkora is a fan of logic, order and precision. These are reflected in his oeuvre and in his life, though upon closer look his life is filled with odd paradoxes: he lives and works in Louny, away from the “Prague centre”, but despite this he has become one of the most well known Czech artists – outside the Czech Republic. He has exhibited in renowned galleries and the most prestigious contemporary art shows (such as Documenta in Kassel), but over the past twenty-five years ha has had just three solo exhibitions: at Nová síň (1991), the Central Europe Gallery and Publishing House (1992) and (finally) in 1995 he held a large retrospective exhibition at the Municipal Library, made possible by City Gallery Prague.  He has created an impressive oeuvre, even though he was employed until he turned sixty – he taught painting and 20th Century painting theory at the Department of Art Education at Charles University’s Faculty of Philosophy and Arts and Faculty of Education. At the age of sixty-three he married his former student Lenka, and together they have formed not just an ideal couple, but also a strong creative team. Zdeněk Sýkora’s former favourite pastimes included yachting and windsurfing; now he settles for the sauna and driving. This year he celebrated his 77th birthday.

You got to a lot of things later than you may have wanted, but in one thing you were the first as an artist: computers. How did you arrive at using computers?
Perhaps from something where many would not look for the beginning – the thorough study of nature at university, immediately after the war. Till this day I am glad that I subjected myself to that martyrdom and that I survived, because that was not art school, we did not learn to make pictures, but we learned to see. Regrettably, possibly all schools I know lack this, and not just here in this country.

My progress was very slow – from a completely realistic phase of landscape painting, to Impressionist or even Fauvist painting. That lasted nearly ten years. A visit to the Hermitage in 1957 /ed. note: the date of 1957, which the artist himself wrote in his biographies (see ZS catalogue, Josef Albers Museum, Bottrop 1986; House of Art, Brno 1988; Teufel Gallery, Mahlberg, 1991; City Gallery Prague, 1995 etc.), is mistaken. The trip to the Hermitage in fact took place in 1959. The incorrect date was corrected in 1998 in the  ZS exhibition catalogue, Litomyšl/  was hugely significant for me; there I encountered Matisse’s early works, which was the phase I myself was in. I came home and in the garden I created a painting “in a single breath”. This was one of the fundamental breakthroughs in my work. Suddenly I understood the logic of modern painting, the dependence of drawings and colours, light and space.

And the computer?
I also got around to the computer in a gradual manner. When in 1961 I arrived at simple forms of geometric abstraction, called hard edge, the path continued to paintings-symbols that could be turned or sequenced. At that time, Dr. Josef Hlaváček translated Klee’s Pedagogical 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."/ into Czech and I was captivated by the section on structures. I dropped everything and started to try sequencing, at first instinctively. After two years, in 1964, I reached the stage where the instinctive method did not seem logical enough to me. It was right at that time that computers were no longer described as being some “bourgeois pseudoscience” and started to be used in scientific research. Coincidentally, one of the first computers was at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics – which is where my friend, another Louny native, Dr. Jaroslav Blažek, worked and I convinced him to give it a try with me. The Structure series was created; here the computer was mainly used as a quick and reliable aid (this was the period when two architectural projects in Prague were also created – the wall of the covered passageway on the corner of Wenceslas Square and Jindřišská, and the facing for the Letná tunnel ventilation shafts – eds.) /Ed. note: The precise dates: first use of the computer – 1964, mosaic on Jindřišská street – 1968, Letná Tunnel ventilation shafts – 1969./ It took a long time for me to move on to Structures composed of large elements – Macrostructures. The contour lines of those large circular elements started to interest me, so from 1973 I gradually started to work only with lines. As opposed to the strictly programmed Structures, in the Lines I was excited by the freedom of movement that was suggested from the use of randomness as a decisive principle. In my work I was constantly discovering something new; I created a continual, uninterrupted sequence that, with small digressions, I work with to this day. One could also say that each painting starts in the previous one, the next painting starts in the current one. It is just like in nature.


An uninterrupted sequence also means infinite possibilities. What effect does this knowledge have on you?

The image of an infinite number of possibilities, the question of how many I’ll get to finish doing, is sometimes a nightmare for me. But I perceive this infiniteness more as a propelling force.


The entire process for creating a painting is prepared in advanced, elaborated in several pages of numbers, “scores”. Does this mean you have a precise idea of the painting that will emerge?

Sometimes I am surprised by what appears underneath my hands; not always am I excited and sometimes the execution is so complicated that Lenka and I curse when we’re doing it. The result is often a painting that I myself must get used to. This is one thing that excites me – I constantly see something new, something I never saw before, what often knocks down my own conventions, let alone general ones.


Even the names of the numbered documents – scores – and the very form of the paintings brings up the question of whether you have ever thought about the possibility of putting them to music.

Of course I thought about that. With me this would not concern some sort of interpretation of the painting, but on the contrary – a very precise adherence to the numbered scores, where each number has a tone, strength and intonation. But for now I don’t have time to be led away from my painting work because I have the feeling that these musical experiments would be able to completely engulf me.


Another paradox: You are more well-known and celebrated outside of the country than here at home.

The truth is that I found understanding earlier abroad. This is apparently caused by the lyrical – mystical – surrealist – imaginative – literary psychological atmosphere on our domestic scene.


And when did it happen that someone important for your future came?

In the Sixties, when things were liberalised, there were a number of exhibitions of Czechoslovak art – in Germany, France, Belgium … / Ed. Note: E.g. the exhibitions Tschechoslowakische Kunst heute (Czechoslovak Art Today), Bochum 1965, La Transfiguration de l'Art Tchèque (The Transfiguration of Czech Art), Liège 1965 and Tschechoslowakische Kunst der Gegenwart (Contemporary Czechoslovak Art), Berlin 1966./ The Merited and National Artists /translator´s note: Communist-era titles awarded to artists for serving the cause of socialism (Roberts, Andrew Lawrence. Good King Wenceslas to the Good Soldier Švejk, A Dictionary of Czech Popular Culture. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2005, p. 110)/ would be there and a couple of us young “modern” artists would tag along with them so that the exhibition wouldn’t look behind the times. At that time, the Berlin National Gallery and the Museum Folkwang in Essen bought my paintings – when I found out I almost fainted. That was a good start.


Internationally, your paintings sell for five-figure sums in Deutschmarks. Are you now the “most expensive” Czech artist?

It’s possible, but I don’t know and don’t care about those things. The fact is that prices of my paintings continue to rise. Issues of the market are beyond my control, the prices have been and are set by gallery owners, museums and collectors – you can’t influence anything here. Heaven help the ones who try to sell their own work.


Computer technology has been gathering momentum, particularly in recent years. Does this also affect you and your work?

I don’t follow it much any more. From the outset my work used a computer only as a tool. Since 1974, when I started working with randomness, I have only used a random number generator. I am still invited to various symposia and computer art exhibits, but I always decline because I don’t have anything whatsoever in common with the current form of computer art. I know almost all the pioneers who were at the beginnings of the use of computers in visual arts. Now the situation is completely different: Computers control absolutely everything and easily engulf a weak individual. Few can control it; most are controlled. Virtual reality, that’s a miracle that sends a chill up your spine …

In regards to me, I’m already on my own course and I’m continuing along it with pleasure.



Večerník Praha, 11 Apr 1997, p. 13

Jana Komárková (1964), journalist.