THE ASSUMPTION OF artistic intent and the acceptance of the artist’s self-presentation is not only suffered by art critics, but is even encouraged in the field of arthistory, although it tends to lead more to the construction of myths and presumption of a didactic vehicle provided by the artist for our comprehension than to actual understanding and relevant interpretation.
In the case of Július Koller, commentators are also prone to using easily remembered, effective self-referential designations such as “UFOnaut“. It is as if the artist, in his perseverance, has finally pushed his ownset of lenses upon the viewer and established a fixediconi creading of his own work. Fortunately, there are always spaces offering vantage points from which we may find other ways to examine the artwork described so definitively today, to break it open, and breathe new life into it. The retrospective exhibition and publications of the Slovak National Gallery devoted to Koller presented ample evidence of the need for a cautious and critical approach to the artist, whose status as international star, publisher, and enfant terrible may be attributed to his own ambition or various other factors. Similarly, the exhibition and book clearly documented the significance of Koller’s work and the ability of the Slovak National Gallery staff to navigate a landscape full of pitfalls, temptations and a priori or incontrovertible judgments. So, what about these spaces, and how may his work be viewed?
THE FIRST SPACE (LARGE)
The interpretation of Koller’s work typically revolves around several basic questions, ordered roughly as follows in the Czech and Slovak art milieu, and answered depending in large part upon one’s lens of co-optation or political identity. While we may not wish to acknowledge it, the fundamental question is, and shall remain for quite some time, how the West understands Koller, or whether they can understand him at all. Positive steps to accepting Koller’s artistic strategy in the global (i.e. Western-biased) discourse may be made by observing his early works in particular. Here, he was unfettered by the burden of specific conflict sor the fear of being pigeon-holedas a conceptual artist; of course tinged with an exotic flair confirming the universality of the principles of art in the 1960s.
Nevertheless, we may agree with the thesis of Petra Hanáková that this view does not penetrate to the historically unique conditionalities and specific ,non-transferrable meanings, and lacks by definition the existential experience and memory of the local situation.
Another question I believe to be most fundamental but which is only beginning to receive some attention is the relationship of life to art in his work (and legacy). According to the paradigm of the classical avant-garde, which culminated here in the 1960s, one encounters the dilemma of “life“ or “art“. As put by Jindřich Chalupecký, in lieu of this contradiction Koller attempted to introduce the concept of “cultural situation“, a proposition of “life and art“. Using the term “culture“ to expand the fielddoes not negate our question, unless of course we do not accept the artist’s “evasive maneuver“ and start using this term discursively with respect to other “artistic“ positions. From here, we are close to answering the questions of whether the enormous archive which has been preserved belongs to Koller’s oeuvre, and what is its position therein. Here, Petra Hanáková is most justified in her obsessive pursuit of this theme. The answers are of course numerous: the archive is an integral part of his work regardless of whether it was consciously created as a cultural artifact; it is a parallel universe and reference point for the interpretation of the “work itself“; it is a separate part of the whole and is by nature artistic performance.
Another pressing question regarding the many preserved artifacts (the term “media“ used by Petra Hanáková may be tempting, but is undesirable given the gradual fetishization of Koller’s work) and the activity behind them is to what degree Koller believed information and reports about unverifiable events. His unequivocal and surprisingly pointed criticism of developments in the art world would seem to belie any long-term, open fascination with the fabulous, strung along and founded upon the shakiest of facts to explain what, how, and why something was or may be.
We should also decide to what degree the concept of play as used by Koller for “deconstructing“ the nature of artwork was theoretically founded, and to what degree playful assumptions of artistic strategy were used by the artist based upon his own experience with sports, i.e. intuitively. With respect to the available literature from the period such as Homo ludens (Playing Man) (Johan Huizinga) and the hermeneutic discourse Fotbal je hra (Football is a Game) (Jiří Černý) or Jak si lidé hrají (How People Play) (František Koukolník), play as an anthropologically relevant dimension of culture for Koller may be present reflexively, but it is the artist’s own sporting passion which allowed for elaboration and application based on the real life experience of sports (or was a precondition for the appropriation of theoretical considerations about play). Another question concerns the uncertain relationship between the artist’s intellectual invention and his ability to take various types of contemporary stimuli and incorporate these in a manic and exhaustive fashion into artwork and cultural practice.
And naturally, the current project fully articulates for the first time the question of whether Koller’s works painted before 1989 for the official gallery network area complementary (visible) part of his (invisible) non-conformist work, or whether they were deliberately intended at the time of their creation to take a subversive conceptual stand against the political and social status of artists and art during the Normalization period, thus also serving as institutional criticism directed against itself.
Can we even ask whether Koller’s work is critical, ironic, or specifically affirmative?
I think that the temptation to refer to ambivalence as a possible metric for reading artwork is not very helpful to us in this case. The answer to the basic questions about Koller may even be “yes“, but this is in principle unsatisfactory since it clearly does not resonate with the basic impression imparted by his legacy. In my experience, the myriad meanings of Koller’s work force us to take a clear position. Polarized stories about Koller leading us to one particular extreme create room for indecision, space in which we may for the first time consciously choose what kind of artist we would like to have. The critical, ironic, and affirmative aspects are all there, but they are bound together by a radically neo-avant-garde view of artistic work as an examination of the conditions of their possibilities. Hence demarcation through use of the prefix“anti-”, hence movement between the official and unofficial, professional and amateur, hence his famously solitary critique of the painting as an institution sui generis, hence the index-like nature of his gestures, abbreviations and situations.
A SECOND SPACE …
In the paradigmatic debate regarding the search for the first conceptual work of art in Slovakia, Július Koller became a referential figure many years ago. Nearly all stories about the beginnings of conceptual painting in Slovakia according to Slovak critics and historians such as Radislav Matuštík, Tomáš Strauss, Aurel Hrabušický, Dušan Brozman or Daniel Grúň, revolve around Koller’s painting More (The Sea) dated 1963–1964, a happening known as Happsoc instigated by Stano Filko, Zita Kostrová and Alex Mlynárčik, and Koller‘s reaction to this in the form of text messages announcing various types of “anti-happenings”.
I am most interested however in the debate over the nature of the painting More (The Sea), which significantly expresses the need for a founding act, a mythical beginning or rebirth, for reasons and arguments supporting a chosen mode for relating the fate of Slovak art. This painting presents a kind of crossroads, leading on the one hand to self-reflexive works dealing with the issue of painting as an institutionalized medium, while on the other to a purely conceptual emergence of independent text and gesture as an index of life activity, to the substitution of life for art, the intrusion of one upon the other and vice versa. It essentially does not matter whether More was already a conceptual act (I admit that dating is an important competitive advantage, but fortunately I am not concerned with that here), or a threshold, beyond which conceptual art in Slovakia became a reality. The space between “already” and “not yet” with respect to the conceptual act provides something more important: essentially, once a painting is “written”, it will be continually re-written and thus retroactively correct the index of metonymic literalism for texts (illusion, perspective) and images (Tatry/Tatry).
In her catalog introduction, Petra Hanáková succinctly captures the essence of Koller which enables his work to relate to while at the same time clearly differing from the efforts of his generational compatriots of a similar vein. His obsessive use of terminology from the world of computers and emphasis on words such as hardware, software and medium provides a key to open his life’s work or perhaps his life itself. If so, then Koller’s artistic strategy does not create a body of work, but rather a discourse which unfolds, leaving in its wake combinations of efficiency, superficial indexes, means of sorting and classification which alter fields and changesigns, his strategy combines and creates a network of meaning, it designates. His archive, his notes, comments, documentation and the everyday objects remaining behind him collectively constitute a vast repository of information. Because of this strategy it is possible to avoid claims not only of what is up or down (just point it out), inside and outside, but also what is left from the past and what transcends in the present (which may be stored, re-written, imputed). Such strategy enables one not to fixmeaning,butto accumulate, sort and designate (like an index) in a radical manner, here and now. Only this has any meaning (for the future).
On the other hand we have already mentioned metonymic recursions, which from time to time initiate the process of saving gestures which are firmly fixed to the signified. What may we fall back upon? Surprise? Straight for wardness? Purpose unto itself?
As opposed to Július Koller, Alex Mlynárčik affirms the descent to rural depths, while the worldly expansion of the events staged there institutionalize possibility.
Stano Filko, another constructor of a total and thus mutative archive, obsessively incorporates absolutely everything into the snares of an individually objective hierarchical system of classification– from the beginning of the world (linear time) to a spiritual level of some kind of enlightenment (vertical ascension beyond time and space). Mlynárčik controls emotions and affectation, Filko fills and controls space. Koller designates and disappears… but then returns in the end… and abides. All three accumulate, expand and store, each in his own way.
…AND THE THIRD
Contrary to the relatively large number of paintings which have informed me in some manner about the world or myself, paintings in which I recognized my own emotions and joy and which could thus be understood (be it Kubišta’s Still Life, Picasso’s large women, Slavíček’s alley of trees, Gauguin’s Paradise Lost, Van Gogh’s crows and billowing cypresses or Medek’s bitter sweet existential scream), paintings which have become jumbled in time so that I don’t know which was first,contraryto these I have a vividly clear memory of when I first encountered something whichI could not understand for quite some time, something I had to set aside but which touched me suddenly, deeply, and with clear consequences. Art could no longer be what it had been. Even though I only realized this gradually over time, the place art held in my life and the role it had previously played were radically altered.
First there was a string wrapped around a pole falling freely to the ground. The black and white photograph of the installation/ intervention of Jiří Kovanda, printed on a two-page spread about contemporary artists published by Jazzová sekce during the late 1970’s under the title Situation. And then there was tennis. The lining of a tennis court to be exact. And visions of Július Koller, still without the full beard… wearing glasses and shorts (From afar he looked a little bit like my uncle). But how to interpret a string or the preparation of a tennis court in the context of art, which, after all, transcends this world, gives it new meaning, and fills one with something wonderful, new and miraculous? Tennis and a piece of string are absolutely banal. In spite of the incomprehensible vulgarity, it hit me, the fact that art can be even this, and that I would escape neither Kovanda nor Koller. I had a chance to tell the former. I was a bit more shy with the latter and was satisfied with merely observing his tenacious forehand and efficient backhand.
I may have been prepared for the futurological retrospective of Július Koller in the Slovak National Gallery, but it still raised pressing, although more easily formulated questions concerning what art has been, is, and what is its role in the life of the artist and viewer (or participant). This space full of questions opened to great depths upon that first, random and unanticipated forceful encounter with the photographs of the man on the tennis court. And thus the question is raised, if I may follow my interpretation, whether I’ll be able to live with Július Koller.
Július Koller (*1939 Piešťany – †2007 Bratislava) was one of the first representatives of conceptual art in Slovakia. He studied at VŠVU in Bratislava from 1959-1965. In 1990, along with Petr Rónai and Milan Adamčiak, he became a member of Nová vážnosť (New Seriousness).
Starting Object, 1966-1968. Left: U.F.O.-naut J.K. (U.F.O), 1970, courtesy of SNG. Photo: artist’s archive.
Hidden Figural Original (U.F.O.), 1978, Fine arts archive of SNG Bratislava.
The Sea. 1963–1964, photo: SOGA auction house.
Marek Pokorný is the director of the Moravian Gallery in Brno.