Jiří Kolář

Jiří Kolář’s collages, the artist explains in his Dictionary of Methods, “are made to be laid out flat, to be seen from all angles.” But, he adds with typical true-false naiveté, “they can also be hung.” The fifty-odd works in this exhibit are indeed hung, but they have been guaranteed a horizontal existence as well, figuring as they do among the 110 collages in the recently published French translation of the Dictionary of Methods (written in French in 1983 and already translated into English, German, and Italian) True to its title, the Dictionary consists of 118 alphabetical entries, from “Agit-Prop” to “Voiles” (Veils) which offer technico-philosophical commentaries on the various categories and subcategories of collages that Kolář has invented over the last forty years.

By virtue of proximity—entry on one page, collage facing—the collages could be said to illustrate the text. But the reverse is also true, and the dictionary format—as opposed to the wall—implies not only a different relationship to gravity, and to time (the life of an exhibit versus that of a book), but also a different reading of what Kolář has always conceived of as his “visual poems.” On the wall, the individual works belong to a common visual field. They are all relatively small; they are meticulously executed, and almost without exception, they consist of a patchwork of printed words—snippets of texts in recognizable but not necessarily readable languages and scripts (including musical notation and braille)—overlaid in turn with reproductions of the old and newer masters, maps, magazine ads, and/or everyday objects like shirt-sleeves or keys. The overriding impression is just that: a series of variations on a theme of self-questioning that has to do with language, art, and the elusiveness of meaning.

In the Dictionary, by contrast, the collages assume a discrete and sequential existence within the conceptual field of Kolář’s texts. Written in the first person singular by someone who has known poverty, political dissidence, grave illness, and exile as intimately as he has studied the old masters, these entries not only permit but ensure that each work will “be seen from all sides,” visually and otherwise. Take for example what Kolář has to say about the Jalousie-Franges (Jalousie-fringes, 1981, in this instance out of a reproduction of Ingres’ The Turkish Bath, 1859–63, which now flutters like a curtain over a map of the constellations): “[An] idea whose first glow sparkles between the fringes of old napkins. To which is added the desire to penetrate the impermeable. Then the feeling of my own permeability every time I’m caught in a lie, an injustice, or dishonesty. Finally, the conscience of a foreign penetration and a demented accusation during interrogations and moments when I found myself exposed to the most stupid reproaches on the part of my enemies or, also, inclined to receive anger, tenderness, enthusiasm, disappointments.”

Essentially, Kolář’s “methods” are latter-day tropes, figures of speech (or more properly, perhaps, figures of vision) through which he seeks to explore and express the world around him. In fact, he came to collage not from the visual arts but from literature, through the successive catalysts of Futurism, concrete poetry, the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia, and a late ’50s visit to Auschwitz: “In the face of the evidence of the concentration camps,” he writes in another Dictionary entry, “practically all of literature strikes me as senseless rambling.” Ever since, he has pursued the Sisyphusian task of destruction and construction, literally tossing about words and images in order to create some kind of meaning for himself and others who are willing to take the risk. As he writes in the entry on “Froissages” (“crumplages” in English, made by crumpling images that have been soaked in water): “The analogies offered by life, analogies with events and explosions of fate that crumple human beings so suddenly and so profoundly that they can never be flattened out again, . . . have in themselves persuaded me of the usefulness of my work, the possibility of arriving at new knowledge.”

Miriam Rosen