Karel Malich

Galerie Peter Pakesch

With the democratization of Eastern European countries in the past few years, many Western eyes have looked toward “Ostkunst,” or eastern art. The term, used in a derogatory fashion for years and always connected to a regressive idea, was transformed in the Gorbachev years into its exact opposite: “Ostkunst” was “discovered” and became very hot property (largely because of a rather uncritical attraction to the exotic). That today one can see Karel Malich’s works in a Western gallery testifies to the change in our perceptions about “Ostkunst,” for now we must examine the commonalities and differences in artistic development in the postwar years.

The almost 70-year-old Malich is one of the most important Czech artists living today, and he is all but unknown in the West. In this exhibition, he presented a series of drawings from the ’80s and wire sculptures from the ’70s. The artist constructs a fragile, open structure from thin, curved wires of varying lengths; they seem like drawings floating in space. But the freedom and dynamism of the lines contrast with the tedious process of construction; the wires are painted individually, then bundled together and knotted, so that the dynamic force is broken in these places. This is really not a contradiction, as the traces of this production process (reminiscent of primitive handicraft) find their correspondence in the lines of the wires—theirs is a raw, and even expressive power. In Die entfesselte Landschaft III (The unbound landscape III, 1973–74) the heterogeneity of the line structure is evident in the primary s-shaped structure and its supporting verticals that are juxtaposed with small spiral shapes.

The use of “poor” materials like wire and rope, the openness of the formal structure, and the emphasis on organic energy place Malich’s work close to American “anti-form” or Italian arte povera. This historical coincidence is astounding given that he created these sculptures at a time of complete artistic isolation, after the Soviet troops had put an end to the Prague Spring. From 1971 to 1980, Malich was not allowed to leave the country or participate in any exhibitions. During the ’60s, however, together with Stanislav Kolibal, Malich connected with the Constructivist tradition that had been ignored in Czechoslovakia. Around 1965, after working in simple abstract structural reliefs, he began to make minimalistic objects from plastic and enameled wood. One object from 1967, consisting of two transparent intersecting pieces of Plexiglas, functions on the same formal level as a cube from the same period by Larry Bell. It seems a gigantic leap from these pieces to the wire sculptures, and in fact it cannot be simply explained as a consistent formal development. It is, rather, the transformation of personal light and energy, a vision that Malich also describes in his poetic texts. Here he formulates his ideas of the artist as a medium between the visible and the invisible. Entstehen der Wolke (Origin of the cloud, 1972) marks a transition from his Constructivist to his “formless” phase. That Malich, after realizing the formal bankruptcy of his minimal objects, could return to a position reminiscent of Lázsló Moholy-Nagy’s demonstrates the individualism of this isolated artist as well as the renewal of his own sculptural language which, had political events been different, would have had a place on the international scene.

Christian Kravagna

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.