Prague

Stanislav Kolibal

Veletrzní Palác

In the former Czechoslovakia, the work of early Modernists such as Vaclav Spala, Emil Filla, and Otto Guttfreund was anathema to the Communist regime. Modernism remained politically adversarial during the forty years of Communist rule, making de facto dissidents of its practitioners. Stanislav Kolibal began working almost immediately following the end of World War II and the Communist accession to power, thus his production evolved in the context of this historical rupture.

Kolibal’s career was recently traced in a comprehensive retrospective at the Veletrzni Palac, the enormous Functionalist “Trade-Fair Palace” that opened in December 1995 as the new home of the National Gallery’s collection of Modern art. Formally, there are clear affinities between his work and that of Barnett Newman, Richard Serra, and Donald Judd. The difference—the central difference between American and Czech Modernism—is that while American Modernists became entrenched in the specifics of materials and materiality, Kolibal’s work from the ’60s has more to do with the poetics of narrative. His work exemplifies the Czech approach to abstraction, in that shape, color, line, and edge are almost never perceived as wholly self-sufficient; instead, the work tends to take the form of a site of a particular moment or event (i.e., growth/decay, construction/destruction). The theatrical and existential aspects of object-making are thus emphasized over the formal. Underlining this tendency, neither the exhibition labels nor the catalogue entries indicated the materials of which the objects are made. Titles like that of At a Given Moment II (What Comes Apart), 1969—a vertical “zip” in obdurate steel that appears to be spliced by a length of delicate cotton twine—also invite a narrative reading of the work. Where to, there isn’t Anywhere to Go, a polished slab of stainless steel from the same year, lies on the floor like a fallen monolith, but one end seems to have splashed into the wall, where the metal has become a molten mass. Such gestures evoke absurd states of being, a frequent theme in art created in the Communist bloc.

There is a sense of belatedness to the work Kolibal produced between 1988 and 1997. Classical in its simplicity, it eschews some of the metaphysical content of the work of the ’60s and ’70s, and demonstrates a kind of stoic dignity. These pieces are conceived on paper and then elevated into three dimensions in wood or steel, so they are sometimes more satisfyingly viewed from above, an opportunity one was given here thanks to the museum’s enormous atrium. Kolibal seems to have trouble penetrating the transversal axis, however, and many of these works seem overly composed. His constructions arc more successful when they are compact, as in Construction II, 1988, which has a sense of unity lacking in some of the other pieces.

Kolibal’s planar language recalls utopian visions from the early years of the century, by artists like Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, or Kasimir Malevich. His work represents, however, the personal utopia of an artist who feels that art springs from an inner need—a belief that was “politically incorrect” for forty years.

Jeff Crane