Helena Kontová/Martin Dostál: Your work won international recognition right back in the later 1960s and 70s. That was something really unusual after the years of total isolation. You had contacts with important institutions and important people in the world of culture and art, like the curator Edward Fry from the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Japanese curator Yusuke Nakahara and the Italian critic and historian of art from Turin, Paulo Fossati, and the artist from the well-known Forma Uno group, Achille Perilli from Rome. Perilli wrote a text about you for the catalogue of your exhibition in the Gallery Marlborough in Rome, one of the leading galleries in Europe. What did international contacts mean for you in this period?
Stanislav Kolíbal: We have to go back a little further, because although my generation had been suppressed by the regime, it had been getting itself together as early as 1957. That was when an exhibition of young artists was permitted in Brno, in the House of Art, which was run at the time by the poet and translator Adolf Kroupa. Then various creative groups started to emerge, and these eventually formed a whole block, and it all led to victory at the congress of fine artists held in December 1964 in Prague in the “Russian” Hotel International. We managed to get a new leadership in place with Adolf Hoffmeister as the president of the union and other modern artists and theorists at the top. This enabled Jindřich Chalupecký to come to the fore too. He ran our small publishing house, but then left it to manage the Špála Gallery on Národní třída Street. It became a real centre of contemporary art. For example the Japanese group Gutai exhibited there. And how many Gutai group exhibitions were there in Europe back then? I think they only had exhibitions in Turin and in Paris, and that was all. And then they were in Prague.
HK: So the artists were actually among the first to start the liberating cultural process which culminated in the later 1960s? Why do you think that it was fine art that played so important a role?
SK: In the 1950s a whole series of talented people emerged here. That was the first thing. The second thing was the long-frustrated hunger for contact with real art, because we had been cut off from it. That created the will and the strength to change the conditions.
MD: Western critics and western curators started to take an interest in Czech art. How did that really begin, and what mainly interested them?
SK: I don’t remember that too well, but it’s true that in 66 (I think) the international critics’ association AICA had its congress here. And the Václav Špála Gallery in Prague was made the main exhibition space for it. So it was there that western critics were able to get to know the standard of Czech art for the first time and to start taking an active interest in it. I think one of the most active was Pierre Restany. But I had already been chosen in 1965 by the curator Edward F. Fry for the exhibition Sculpture from 20 Nations in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, which took place in 1967.
MD: Speaking of Edward F. Fry, he chose you and Karel Malich for the exhibition in the Guggenheim. That must have been quite a radical move, because the Czech art of the time had a different image, dominated by the Informel generation.
SK: Of course. It’s good that you’re asking me that question. I started to do abstract sculpture in 1963 after certain changes in my life. I got involved in collaboration with architects, sending in designs for competitions such as the project for our embassy in Brazil, and I was asked for a design for part of the Pankrác metro station. So I suddenly found myself in the company of sculptors of my generation, who were of course trying to express themselves in modern ways, but unlike me or Karel Malich could hardly help showing in their art that they were trained at UMPRUM or the Academy as traditional sculptors. That was true of people like Palcr, Chlupáč, Zoubek, Kmentová or the Janoušeks. I was fundamentally different. Then when Edward F. Fry turned up here, he naturally asked the National Gallery to recommend and arrange visits to studios for him. He visited around 20, but didn’t pick what the National Gallery believed were the best. When he came to my studio and saw my things, he asked me for photographs because he needed them for juries. I didn’t have any because it had never occurred to me that I might ever need them. At the time I was just finishing Stůl (Table), Labil (Labile) and other abstract sculptures. So I had to find a photographer to take the pictures and develop them fast and then I took them to the hotel before Fry’s departure. I was surprised that it was I who was chosen, and not Janoušek or Nepraš or other admired sculptors. But they decided on me and for Malich, who also wasn’t considered a sculptor at all. In its way this greatly influenced our situation for the good. Suddenly the others could start to wonder whether there wasn’t something in this country that we here didn’t fully see yet.
MD: But this interest from the outside world must have confirmed you in your belief that this was the right path?
SK: Exactly. The positive response from outside, which we didn’t get here but were getting in the west, kept us going in our desire to carry on.
HK: Abroad your work was often interpreted with reference to minimalism or Arte Povera. How did you see the artistic trends of the time? For example, in Italy you had contacts with Marco Gastini, a representative of the New Painting, which was close to American post-minimalism in painting.
SK: We were working our way in that direction but by our own route. When Frank Stella visited my studio in 1969 on the occasion of the Prague exhibition of contemporary American painting, The Disappearance and Reappearance of the Image, I showed him my 1963 design for the wall for the embassy building in Brazil; it’s close to his art. But back then when I did it I had no idea that Stella was doing something similar, because he didn’t exhibit it until 1964, with Leo Castelli. I showed myb design to him because it was interesting that just when he was producing his geometric works I had hit on this style too. Of course, my starting-point had been a situation in space – I developed the diagonal bof the staircase as a way of tackling the relief of bthe back wall. Stella was surprised and said, “Well, you were on a good path back then, but later you still detached yourself from the purely geometrical problem and picked up the European tradition again. Because I can see that this is full of the philosophy, the poetry, of contents.” I think this was quite accurate about my situation. Actually I was pleased and answered, “You know, I’m not an American. I’m a European”.
HK: And were you already familiar with Arte Povera at that time? Had you met their most important representatives?
SK: No, I didn’t know Arte Povera artists at that point. But in 1967 when I was in Turin and Milan for the first time I had a meeting I regard as one of my most interesting experiences. I had the chance to visit Lucio Fontana, just half a year before his death.
HK: Later you had an exhibition in Rome in one of the most important of European galleries – the Marlborough Gallery. What did they write about your work at that point? Did you get the impression that your work was properly understood? Or are we running ahead of your Japanese experience?
SK: In 1970 I received an invitation to an exhibition of conceptual art in Tokyo. It was called Between Man and Matter. But it was already too late for me to be able to go. I was pleased, though, that after being included in the historic exhibition of Sculpture of 20 Nations in the Guggenheim, and alongside the oldest then living artists such as Picasso, Calder or Fontana, in Japan I got to be included in an exhibition presenting the coming generation. The point of my work wasn’t any minimalism or problem of form. It was about a completely new approach in fine art. I was tackling the problem of time. How something will break off and something continues to grow, how something is being attracted and will fall or will not fall. Or that there is a square here, which fills the form of a preceding square and will suddenly end at a certain moment. In a certain moment it will collapse. Paging through the catalogue of this exhibition, you see that Carl Andre was there, but with rather different work than is usually associated with him, and that it was here that Daniel Buren appeared for the first time with his stripes, which he also put round the town, in the metro for example. Dibbets, Flanagan, Fabro and Hacke, On Kawara, also participated. Maybe I felt a little different there, because I was using more traditional techniques than they were. Kounnelis put poles in front of the entrance into his room and put out the lights there (he was used to this kind of provocation – it was after he had exhibited the horse at Sargentini’s in Rome). Sol LeWitt wanted to make a big drawing there but they didn’t allow it, and so he used a group of students who stuffed coloured bits of paper into holes. It was there that maybe for the first time Mario Merz used his Fibonacci sequence. Bruce Nauman came there with television screens. Pennone used mirrors, setting them up in the park in a way that meant that one could always be seen from the one before.
MD: What effect did the contemporary exhibitions of the time and the artists represented at them have on you? To what extent did you absorb the trends of the time? Or did you – on the contrary – start defining yourself in opposition to them?
SK: What I saw never inspired me to imitation. Or to following up. In fact, when one time I found out that Robert Morris had done a similar set of two horizontals and two verticals, I destroyed my work. So nobody could say I copied that.
MD: But the beginning of the Seventies saw a certain change in your work. How did that happen?
SK: After my things arrived back from Japan the situation in Czechoslovakia had changed so much that there was no longer any hope of my being able to exhibit here. In 1970 I had an exhibition in the Špála Gallery, but that was soon halted. A new artists’ union was created, and we were no longer members. All we got was a card saying that we were engaged in a free profession at the Fund of Fine Artists. In short, everything confirmed that this was the end. The end of freedom. What happened here forced me back into the studio. There, in isolation, things started to emerge on my walls. It’s very possible that it was precisely then, when I was going to me studio as if it were my gallery, my museum, that I developed an intense existentialist feeling. I made my things there, and got Jan Svoboda to photograph them, and then I took them down again. And it was just at this point that I found myself continuing lines by using strings and threads that could be broken off and suddenly destroyed. I think that the main point is here, in the moment when I used string instead of a line.
HK: The Americans were using technological materials – for example I can think of Fred Sandback using elastic coloured wires in his installations.
SK: The reason I used string was because it can be broken. And then it can hang freely from a nail like a kind of fragment. But I didn’t have to draw that fragment; I didn’t have to create it because it emerged in reality. In other words I was moving from the artificiality of art towards the real world. And also towards the object. The floor too became a potential element for an artwork. I drew in chalk around some element on the floor or linked points between the floor and wall with string, and this generated something that no longer had anything in common with traditional sculpture. Later, when I exhibited it in Rome and then in Dublin, Marina Vaizey wrote in the Times that there should be more things like that and that they were installations. But at that time people hardly every talked about installations. It was the terminology of a later period.
HK: So far we have talked about the relationship of your work to space and your attitude to sculpture and architecture, but what was your attitude to minimalist painting? Did you have information about Robert Mangold, for example, or Ed Reinhard, or Robert Ryman, in painting, where as in other areas of the arts there was a pronounced process of dematerialisation.
SK: I couldn’t have a view of them, because I had no chance to encounter them. In that period Margit Rowell once turned up in my studio with her husband Noel. I then drove them back to their hotel and I remember that as I turned off the main roundabout towards the Castle, she asked me, “Have you ever been to New York?” I answered, “No”. “That’s a good thing, you know, good. Today in New York there are so many young people who are inexperienced, immature. Artists ought to go there only when they’ve found their own bearings, a firm footing, know what they want and can’t be influenced.” Back then Margit Rowell was employed at the Guggenheim and I also had very good relations at the time when I could go to New York.
MD: In this context I have to ask about the O.K. Harris Gallery in New York. You first went to the USA in 1979, as an artist with a solid footing – to quote your dialogue with Margit Rowell, and then in the 1980s you had four exhibitions at O.K. Harris. What did that mean for you? Exhibiting in a well-known gallery in New York with a distinctive programme. Didn’t you feel a certain pressure from the side of the gallery?
SK: First I should make it clear that Art Centrum had ceased to come under the Ministry of Culture and been transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Trade. And the latter was mostly interested in hard currency. That meant I could send my things abroad again but Ivan Karp, the director of O.K. Harris told me, “Please don’t send me anything spatial. It should all be hung pieces, because it’s easier for me to sell those.” Actually he had things that were not for sale in the gallery too, like work by Richard Nonas or the Englishman Richard Smiths. Even though Karp was the most orientated towards hyper-realism.
MD: Tell us about the course of your collaboration with Ivan Karp.
SK: In 1979 I just showed him photographs. Back then I had been invited to enter the competition for a Czech chapel in Washington. Nothing came of that but the positive thing was that I got to know Karp. He then came to Prague, because when he saw the photos he said, “This is interesting. I have to see this at first hand.” And in the autumn of 1979 he really did turn up in Prague and in February 1980 I already had a date at his gallery.
MD: Did you get a sense of being part of the New York scene?
SK: No I didn’t. Of course I was glad to be in a wellknown gallery. I was a bit restricted by the need to exhibit hung work, but it helped to be there with Ivan Karp – for example he lent my things to an exhibition of sculpture and painting in a museum in Indianapolis.
HK: What impact did the exhibition have on you?
SK: I didn’t see it. I only got the catalogue.
MD: Today there’s a perceptible revival of interest in the 1960s and 70s, in radical modernism or the last phase of modernism. This means that you are constantly up to date. Is that how you see it?
SK: My priority is to carry on with what I’m doing. I create art for my own needs, and the problems I’m tackling have been embodied in water colours and subsequently in black and white reliefs. In the case of my most recent reliefs with thick black lines I am actually ending with drawing.
HK: Have you ever had the feeling that if you had lived somewhere else, your path in art would have been rather different and you would have achieved even greater success?
SK: Maybe I would have been better known or more in the swing of life in the arts but I don’t regret having stayed in Prague. Because it’s precisely this place, and precisely also the difficulties of life here that have given me the material for the art that I have made.
Stanislav Kolíbal (1925) is an artist who works in Prague. He is a key figure in European art.
Martin Dostál is a script writer, director and curator.
Helena Kontová is co-publisher of the magazine Flash Art International.
Stanislav Kolíbal Black Relief I, 1999, 156 × 179 cm, wood, black putty, private collection Prague. Photo: artist’s archive.
Stanislav Kolíbal In Memory of my Friend Z, 2010, wood, putty, aluminium, 214 × 191 × 5 cm. Photo: artist’s archive.
Something Will End in the Middle, 1970 wood, plaster, string, thread 76 × 69 cm.
What is whence and what is whither, 1975 wood, waxed canvas, drawing, string, 183 × 183 cm.
Between Man and Matter, view into the installation with objects by Stanislav Kolíbal, Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, 1970, photo: artist’s archive.
Black-and-White Suggestion 3, 2014, wood, stucco, iron, drawing,80 × 58 cm, photo: artist’s archive.