Lukáš Rittstein

Veletrzní Palác

Challenged by the hybrid forms that often appear under the term “installation,” sculpture—that is, discrete objects that deal with issues of mass, gravity, volume, open- vs. closedness, movement, materiality, color, structure, monumentality, etc.—has had a hard time maintaining a meaningful place for itself within contemporary art practice. If painting can at least still claim a privileged place on the wall, sculpture has had to compete with all other objects that owe their form to the third dimension, where everything that isn’t art also is. All the more surprising, then, is the great success of the young Czech sculptor Lukáš Rittstein, who has managed to breathe new life into a constructivist idiom. That fresh, surprising, sexy art can still be produced in this language was demonstrated in his recent exhibition at Prague’s Veletržní Palác.

Here, Rittstein presented a number of small works composed of old pieces of sponge, plaster, fishtails, glass, wire, and other bits of detritus that one might find in the streets, attics, and basements of Prague. These works appeared completely valid in their own right yet at the same time functioned as “sketches,” or maquettes, since Rittstein, using different materials, “translated” many of them into larger pieces. Thus Kartáč II (Brush II), 1994, is a reinterpretation of Kartáč I, 1993, in which a decrepit old wooden brush has been blown up to monumental scale, with beautifully colored, light green, semitranslucent Plexiglas rods substituting for the bristles. Stuck into the old brush, the actual tail of a carp—a fish that holds an almost sacred place in Czech culture—becomes, in the later work, nearly whale-size, in gorgeous amber resin. Rittstein possesses the ability to integrate the most varied of ready-made materials so that their individual identity is retained even as they are subsumed into a larger sculptural unity.

In theory, a work like Saturn, 1997, an arrangement of both found and fabricated cylindrical, circular, spherical, and conical elements, with its part-to-whole relationships, should not be possible in the late twentieth century. After all, this kind of straightforward constructivist language was first used by sculptors nearly a hundred years ago and has been employed by innumerable artists since. Yet here we happily find the limits of art theory when confronted by an experience with an object, for the wonderful thing about Saturn, a work refreshingly free of slickness, art-historical irony, and banal social commentary, is that it convinces you by its sheer presence.

Rittstein is one of the few Czech artists of his generation to be producing first-rate art without one feeling that he is straining to conform to the most obvious trends in an increasingly international—and therefore homogenized—art scene. He also may be the first to use national identity to his advantage, shrewdly picking up on the most significant threads of Czech modernism. He seems to be taking cues in particular from Zdeněk Pešánek, the innovative futurist sculptor active between the wars (and the first artist to incorporate electric light in a sculptural object), and Karel Malich, who produced some wonderfully playful, formally elegant objects in the ’60s and ’70s in materials such as wood, Plexiglas, and colored wire. Other palpable influences include British sculptors such as Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg. All of which is to say that Rittstein has placed himself in very good company.

Jeff Crane