STANISLAV KOLÍBAL BELONGS to the generation whose historical task was to bring modern art back to our country after the fascist and communist hiatus. From the start he was more authentic and in harmony with the international scene than anyone here. In the liberal years of the 1960s this was already evident at the legendary exhibition New Sensitivity, which opened in the Brno House of Culture in the spring of 1968 and ended at the Mánes Gallery in Prague (just as the occupying armies entered the city). He was distinctive for his radical geometric reduction, which he saw primarily in conceptual terms as a new form of the articulation of meaning. He was striving (unlike most of his Czechoslovak fellow artists) not just for a new aesthetic, but above all for a new semantics – and this was in complete accord with the international scene, which was then addressing the theme of conceptual semantics. Among American artists this concern was articulated by a turn towards verbal formulation, whereas Kolíbal, by contrast, reacted by reassessing the sculptural medium, i.e. most often plaster. In this way he could give visible expression to his supreme themes: instability and the progressive disappearance of the chosen geometric form. Over the next two decades he took a creative path of an originality that was rare among European artists. For example, he connected his objects to the gallery wall as spatial installations, eventually arriving at the interesting device of lining up three glass mirrors that entered into an interaction with the wall. More often, obviously, he established new relationships between variously stretched lengths of string, which he juxtaposed during the 1970s with the fragility of plaster or fragments of wood. This whole theme had already been prefiguredin his design for the ‘decoration’ of the Pankrác Bridge at the beginning of the 1960s. From 1968 he systematically accompanied his search with drawings, especially in black ballpoint pen on white paper, in which he expressed similar conceptual relations in a no less distinctive style – for example geometric elements outlined in different ways and their progressive, ‘freehand’ transformation. Contemporaries will remember that the drawing What was Previously an Edge was also fascinating as a reproduction (in the literary magazine Plamen).
Thanks to the Károlyi Foundation at the beginning of 1968, Kolíbal was invited to take a three-month creative fellowship in Vence, where he developed his theme of the instability and relativity of form not only in sculptures and installations, but also in drawings. He had loved white since his childhood in his native city of Ostrava, and it as, of course, the most logical possible mode of simplification and purity. At this point, he was moving even closer to trends on the international scene, where he was beginning to be recognized as an important artist. His reduction (described above) retained its semantics, which, with a certain degree of simplification, we might call existential, but at the same time it showed a surprising correspondence with the minimal and conceptual art of the time.
In 1988, we organized Kolíbal’s first retrospective occupying the whole of the House of the Lords of Kunštát, thanks to its director Karel Moudý. With the onset of the repressive ‘normalization’ period, Stanislav Kolíbal had become more or less officially undesirable in our country, although in 1973 we had still managed to publish a limited edition of his drawings, and our colleague Zdenka Čepeláková from Ostrov nad Ohří had exhibited a representative selection of his work as early as 1985. The suppression of his work at home made him all the more welcome in free countries – firstinItaly, thenin the German Federal Republic, where he was promoted by the Munich Walter Storms Gallery. He then found major partners in the USA as well, starting with the OK Harris Gallery in New York, and also in Poland, thanks to the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz.
The Brno exhibition started with examples of his symbolic reduction of the human torso from the second half of the 1950s. We then presented many of his now classic works of geometric reduction with their contemporary semantics, for example the programmatic Labil from the mid-1960s. In contrast to the already existing stabiles of Alexander Calder, Kolíbal’s work presented a truly unique and key theme: the geometrical order of sculpture and its disturbance – instability as a conceptual theme in its own right. In the 1960s he articulated this in white, mainly plaster spatial pieces and drawings. In the course of the 1970s less traditional materials found their way into his realizations; fragments of his favoured plaster remained, while relief compositions defining the paradoxe sof human perception projected into space. At the end of the 1970s the installations that had been dominating his output were again complemented by drawings in which the theme was the paradox of the ‘pictorial fiction’,perhaps due to that very artistic depiction. The Brno exhibition ended, in semantic terms, with the first series of Geometrical Exercises (1987) and an object with the theme of the relativity of perception. Geometrical Exercises strongly prefigured his subsequent work. Here he focuses on relationships, using relief compositions of geometric forms and lines created by the insertion of dark metal bars, as well as by sketched connecting lines.
Awarded a DAAD fellowship in West Berlin, Kolíbal at first responded with an even more economical exploration. The relationships themselves between lines connecting individual points when dividing the edge of the paper, as well as hesitation, doubt and the possibilities of different options, which he then created as a stronger line, a coda, turned out to be a rich seam of inspiration. What is more, Kolíbal was once more expressing a certain decisiveness, an urge to complete, to bring the whole visual composition to a finale.Soon,his outstanding talent for working with space also reasserted itself. He understood that these drawings could be conceived as ground plans sui generis: all that was needed was to erect on them tangible, spatial elements – straight panels and curved plywood. It was surely not only due to the location in which they were made that he labelled them with the German term Bau (construction). These were constructions – buildings dedicated to the paradoxes of human perception and the human capacity to discover, when walking around the objects, all the different relations that the artist has materialized from different observation points. Once again this was a matter of original conceptual thematics – and the Berlin period also in a way verified the artist’s position in a broader context. I must admit that from the beginning I regarded this new chapter in Stanislav Kolíbal’s work as so extraordinary and beautiful that as early as 1995 I organized another exhibition for him occupying the whole first floo rof the Brno House of Culture. These spaces best facilitated walking round the pieces and perceiving the multiple relationships that they offered the viewer.
I still very much regret that I underestimated the preparation of the retrospective of drawings by Stanislav Kolíbal offered at the last minute by Václav Malina in the Plzeň City Gallery in the summer of 2011. It genuinely showed all the aesthetic and communicative qualities of this artist, above all as a draughtsman, starting with the aforementioned white drawings, through the spatial paradoxes of perception, up to a series of fascinating watercolours created only in Payne’s Grey – the theme of which is again layering. The structures of the various geometrical elements create subtly but perfectly distinguished planes. This might also be regarded as Kolíbal’s contribution to the theme of the monochromatic, which is rare indeed in this country, and also testimony to the new power of communication he found in the relationship between the subtlety of the shades of the chosen colour and the discovery of individual places during its layering.
Also premiered in Plzen were the new Geometric Exercises and a set of other drawings which ‘reflect’ several of his earlier themes in a new and unique syntax, for example previous pieces that no longer exist, but survived in his sketchbook, or were never realized and were only now given their final form. And because times had changed,after all, naturally so too had Kolíbal’s thinking – and for this reason these drawings have different communicative qualities and are a new articulation of the search for and disturbance of order. While in the 1960s this was a matter of intervention in simple geometric forms, now it was more a matter of subtle intervention in the chosen syntax.
Since 2012 Kolíbal has been creating more reliefs in this way, in a new creative chapter in his work that is completely comparable to his achievements of the preceding decades and just as valuable for our art culture. Some of his Black Reliefs partly develop on preceding freer groups of identical forms, and so too does Lenten Picture (2010), exceptional for its localization, size and above all its emphatic presence, its sanctity, as it were.
The series of twenty four White Reliefs (2011) again highlights the artist’s highly individual theme of the articulation of relationships – here brought back from the spatial (in this respect from the supreme Bau set) to the surface. Each relief is composed of a set of several geometrical figures,overlapping in various ways, with further interpretation introduced by lines – with a double material, and therefore also semantic effect. He first used dark metal bars in Geometric Exercises. Here there are also other relationships, which are formed by pencil outlines. It is well worth perceiving the details of every one of these reliefs as a new order, as an autonomous composition. White Relief XIX is dominated by two dark metal parallels inset between a set of various geometrical, spatial surfaces and linear interventions. This naturally reminds us that in the Berlin Drawings one line (or a simple set of lines) was always substantially thicker than the others, which I sometimes call a coda or a punch line. Now this dark line has become an even more coherent part of the whole, but its significance is evidently the same. In some works the dark line is single, for example in White Relief XVII, where is becomes the materialization of the central axis, while in White Relief XIII it is ‘merely’ a fragment of a diagonal, hinting at the presence of a square in the background, but for us visually obscured by a semicircle and three-quarter circle. In White Reliefs VII, VIII, IX and X there is always just one metal line providing a counterpoint to various white geometrical compositions, while another ‘Zwischenspiel’ is played by other outlined constructions. White Relief XI consists of just two short lines of equal length on the very edges, but derived from the relationship of a circle and rectangle in relief set into it along the axes. At other times this intellectual and also visual construction is even more complex and operates in a different part of the field: in White Relief IV the relief structure of three evidently differently-sized, superimposed squares is provided with a ‘coda’ by black lines terminating each square. In White Relief V the black metal lines ‘copy’ the relief triangle, but the horizontal directly touches it, while the diagonal is dislocated to the sketched axis of a relief square divided by a triangle, and so forth. I have tried simply to suggest the reason for the localization of the thicker, metal black lines. The lines made in black pencil also create new connections, since most of them, continuing on from the Berlin Drawings, generate previously unnoticed contexts. Let me at least offer a few examples that have truly fascinated me: White Relief XXIII is dominated by pencil diagonals derived from the initial configuration;in White Relief XVII the bearer of the composition is the pencil construction of the whole, which also visualizes two possible centres inside the whole construction; in White Relief I the horizontal and vertical division of the whole surface directs attention to the basic dividing diagonal of the whole surface, and so forth. White Reliefs are another major chapter in Kolíbal’s work and confirmthathecontinues to be fascinating and that his creative development is far from complete. In 2012 he started on his Grey Reliefs, which carry the ideas of the earlier reliefs forward.
Since the 1960s Stanislav Kolíbal has been a significant figure in Czechoslovakart and he soon stepped beyond this regional border. His work remains original and contemporary, always bringing fresh approaches that spring from his earlier vi-sion of conceptual themes, which he constantly enriches with new and specificelements. For many years now, his work has been comparable with the best created abroad whenever a chance to compare has arisen. And his work truly remains fundamentally valuable for our art culture!
Jiří Valoch (*1946) is an artist and is also active as an art theorist and critic. He, and lives and works in Brno.
Stanislav Kolíbal (*1925) is an artist. He lives and works in Prague.
White Relief no. XI, 2011, wood, varnish, drawing, iron, 150 × 108 cm;
STANISLAV KOLÍBAL, Labil, 1964, plaster, 38 × 53 × 53 cm.
White Relief no. XXI, 2011, wood, drawing, iron, 150 × 108 cm. Photo: collection of the artist.
STANISLAV KOLÍBAL, The Rule of Mutability, 1975, installation, wood, mastic, net, drawing on wall, string, 221 × 1 cm;
Geometric Exercise No B/V, wood, mastic, iron 63 × 61 cm, photo: author‘s archive.