Jan Kotik, Untitled (Guide for Realization), 1976, string, nails, chalk, acrylic, wooden plate, 35 1/2 x 25 1/2".

Jan Kotik, Untitled (Guide for Realization), 1976, string, nails, chalk, acrylic, wooden plate, 35 1/2 x 25 1/2".

Jan Kotik

Jiri Svestka | Prague

Jan Kotik, Untitled (Guide for Realization), 1976, string, nails, chalk, acrylic, wooden plate, 35 1/2 x 25 1/2".

Why are we so in love with the art of the 1960s and ’70s? Maybe because in our times of nostalgia and ironic detachment, it promises to satisfy a very contemporary desire for authenticity. Artists from that period, we feel, were exploring, not revisiting; their formal experiments were original, driven by an urgency that was fed by a belief in aesthetic, social, and political transformation. Maybe something of this utopian drive lives on in certain recent manifestations of what might be called social sculpture, but in the more object-based forms of contemporary art, this spirit seems to be lost.

This might be one reason why Jan Kotik’s oeuvre from the ’70s is so compelling, even though the phrase “object-based” isn’t quite adequate here. A large part of Kotik’s artistic project was devoted to altering the notions of painting and drawing and to abolishing the hand of the artist. Therefore, many of his works come with—or rather, come in the form of—instructions and sketches, texts and drawings, usually mounted on black cardboard, to be carried out by others: for instance, the sparse, untitled installation conceived in 1978, but unrealized until this exhibition, a decade after the artist’s death, consisting of a white wooden slat placed in front of a delicate rectangular wall drawing. Another newly realized work, this one conceived by the artist in 1976, is made of eight earth-colored strings that seem to be knotted to a piece of thread that, on closer inspection, turns out to be a line of chalk. Moving line, 1972, however, plays with the reverse effect: The gently meandering pencil line is, in fact, made out of a strand of cotton wool.

Kotik’s works often seem to deceive the eye just when they are really at their most straightforward. Possible Variations, 1975, for instance, could strike you as a piece of Op art, yet its three-dimensional effect is no illusion; the work is made from a piece of painted plywood that folds out into space. In Untitled, 1979–80, an accordion-like shaped canvas pretends to be a painterly representation of a wavy pattern with its dramatic effects of light and shadow. Kotik’s refusal to depict anything other than the constituents of painting or drawing—canvas, paper, color, lines, plane, light, shadow—is absolute. His works convey nothing beyond their own ambiguous existence and the way we perceive them.

In his conceptual severity, Kotik was certainly at the heart of the aesthetic debates of his time. Yet his insistence on an art that speaks solely of how and out of what it is made was chiefly motivated by his experience with a Stalinist regime that controlled and instrumentalized art for ideological purposes. Originally from Czechoslovakia, the artist was expelled from his home country after the Prague Spring and came with a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) scholarship in 1969 to Berlin, where he lived until his death in 2002. So when we look at his oeuvre today, we see an art that is as reduced as it is visually strong, an art that, persistently, stubbornly, turns away from narration or symbolism. This is not to say that Kotik didn’t introduce playful and mischievous moments into his deconstruction of illusionism. These works do come with a measure of deadpan humor. But we can’t look at them without romanticizing them a little, because in the art of any period, we inevitably see something of our own time, and what our time is longing for.

Astrid Mania