Zbyněk Sekal, Kopf, 1962, oil on canvas, 10 × 10".

Zbyněk Sekal, Kopf, 1962, oil on canvas, 10 × 10".

Zbyněk Sekal

The Belvedere 21 building was originally designed for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels by Austrian architect Karl Schwanzer (1918–1975). It was reconstructed in Vienna and repurposed as an art museum in 1962—the process made possible by its modular system and steel-skeleton structure—and again relocated and remodeled in 2011. The main exhibition hall on the ground floor is an expansive open space, and its four sides, three of which face the outdoors, are almost entirely constructed of glass. The structure’s organizing principle is the grid, through and through, down to the floor, which is paved with square stones. This building symbolizes postwar optimism in industrial progress (open plan, natural light, prefabricated materials) like no other structure in Vienna.

Entering this survey show of the work of Czech artist Zbyněk Sekal (1923–1998), curated by Harald Krejci, one is immediately struck by the formal reverberation between the displayed objects and the space that houses them. Take, for instance, Untitled, 1990, one of the first pieces to greet the viewer. Above the lower, more slender half that functions as a base is an elegant structure with an open wooden cube at its top, framing three vertical boards of rustic wood that form a U shape suspended in its center. Other works are likewise configured as architectonic sculptures in the shape of well-proportioned wooden frameworks with abstract forms placed inside them. The formal reciprocity between these pieces and the modernist building significantly enhances the viewer’s experience of both. And from the titles Sekal chose for some of these works (Dwelling, 1958; Vault, 1967; several works titled Shrine, etc.), it is clear that he was conscious of the affinity between his output and architecture. Moreover, the area surrounding the museum, visible through the windows, is currently being redeveloped, with many new structures going up, so the grids and lattices that start from the sculptures seem to expand into the urban setting, evoking a sort of architectural Russian doll.

Yet there is also unmistakable divergence between Schwanzer’s ethos and that of Sekal, who was only five years younger. While the architect embraced the grid as the symbol of modernity and openness, Sekal appears to have regarded it as trap or prison, an instrument of alienation. No wonder he professed affinity with the writings of Kafka and Sartre. The artist’s worldview is understandable given his biography: He was imprisoned in the Theresienstadt and Mauthausen concentration camps during World War II and went into exile soon after the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968. It is interesting to muse on the difference between the two men, born around the same time in proximate Central European capitals. While Sekal greatly suffered from the events of the twentieth century, Schwanzer—who was able to complete his studies and launch his career in Vienna under the Nazis—came out fairly unscathed. The glaring contrast in their approaches to the same geometric form encapsulates the convolutions of history.

Claustrophobia and a sense of entrapment are particularly evident in Sekal’s wall-based works, whether paintings or reliefs, with their often densely packed picture planes. In Kompozice 1969 and Kompozice II. 1969, both 1970 (kompozice is Czech for “composition”), small pieces of wood are neatly assembled to form squares. They resemble exquisite parquetry but picture an architecture without an exit. No window, door, or corridor leads one outside. Each work seems a section of a floor in a locked room—perhaps Gregor Samsa’s. At the same time, they clearly correspond to the language of formal abstraction. Sekal synthesized modernist geometry with existentialist anguish to produce an oeuvre that is at once graceful and disquieting.