Vaclav Pozarek, Drei Neon (Three Neon), 1988, wood, 9 7⁄8 × 29 1⁄2 × 29 1⁄2".

Vaclav Pozarek, Drei Neon (Three Neon), 1988, wood, 9 7⁄8 × 29 1⁄2 × 29 1⁄2".

Vaclav Pozarek

Galerie Francesca Pia

According to his genial Swiss gallerist, Gianfranco Verna, Donald Judd had to be dissuaded from assaulting a group of children who were playing inside one of his sculptures at the Basel outdoor exhibition “Skulptur im 20. Jahrhundert” (Sculpture in the Twentieth Century) in the summer of 1984. The furious artist could not believe that the Swiss would respond to his work by playing in it, but they did.

Vaclav Pozarek, although at the time already well into his forties, could be imagined as one of those who played. The work of this Czech-born artist who has lived in Switzerland for about half a century is scholastic in its sensitivity to the history of art. His pieces are made possible by a deep understanding of sculpture from the Baroque to Anthony Caro. And yet the tradition in which he dwells is something he has so much fun with. Humor is not a major reference point in the (mostly German) scholarship on Pozarek, perhaps reflecting an earnest concern that to emphasize the work’s wit might detract from its profundity—though in fact the opposite is true.

Pozarek makes sport of the pretensions of art history, and he does so with a warmth that leaves his self-identification with that tradition beyond question. The tasks he sets himself are not extrinsic, but internal to this tradition. They address classic questions: How can pieces of wood convey animation, or tension? How can art proceed without narrative? What arrangements of simple lines or shapes can imply a whole environment, intentionality, or even the sensibility of an author? And what happens if you add just a little bit more? Pozarek might also be an extraordinary photographer of architecture, an exceptional bookmaker, and a fine designer, but he is primarily known as a sculptor, and his sculptures from the 1980s arguably provide the best introduction to his work.

Drei Neon (Three Neon), 1988, a square box containing three truncated wooden rods, appears at first glance to be a formalist spatial study. Except the box looks like it was once a pallet used in rail goods transport, with the handles still clearly present, and the rods seem to have been cut from broomsticks and tool handles, their surfaces betraying their history of use. The entire work is so unforgettably tactile, so physical, that it torments any attempt to relate to it purely visually. As if to offer itself to the viewer more, but also to make itself more precious and untouchable, the work is propped up by four tiny wooden blocks. The piece, in short, adroitly holds just out of reach the first interpretation a viewer might opt for. The show’s curator, Arthur Fink, recounted that during the installation Pozarek fondly looked at the work and recalled that it had once been displayed at the Renaissance Society in Chicago, adding, after a pause, “on the floor.”

Or take the sculptural assemblage Löffelfrau (Spoon Woman), 1987. Made with found elements, it includes a broken tree branch and a large wooden spoon, all painted brown. It is an homage both to Alberto Giacometti’s Femme cuillère (Spoon Woman), 1926–27, and to the high-modernist steel confections of Pozarek’s teacher Anthony Caro. Under five feet tall, the plucky sculpture seems intentionally set up to fail, as if the artist wanted to do all kinds of modernism at once.

A more complex game was played out with Wandausschnitt (Wall Section), 1987, in which a copy of an engraving by Alessandro Specchi depicting the construction of Bernini’s Baldachin in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is mounted on a section of wooden wainscoting. Below the engraving, Pozarek added a “flattened” version of Duchamp’s bottle rack, a plane of wood with dowels. The conjunction was both whimsical and rigorous. The combination of the print and the rack recalled a provincial Swiss hotel with its mixture of kitsch and excessive order. At the same time, Specchi’s print translates Bernini’s sculpture from three dimensions to two, and also shows the scaffolding with which Bernini’s work was constructed. In obedient conformity, Pozarek has turned the bottle rack into a kind of two-dimensional relief, but as a representation it overachieves: It is still capable of holding its bottles.