Ladislav Novák spent almost the whole of his life in Třebíč, though from the end of the fifties made regular trips to Prague. There he met with his friends Jan Kotík, Mikuláš Medek and Jiří Kolář, to whom he was especially close in the early years. Both artists were operating on the boundary of poetry and fine art, and their paths met for several years before they gradually drifted apart. Jiří Kolář in later years was to back away from ideas linked with surrealism and seek a different kind of order based on various rules. Though Ladislav Novák also adopted new methods, he never completely abandoned the inspiration of surrealism. However, he was one of the few who knew how to put it to his own unmistakeable ends until an advanced age.
The first of his experiments took place at the end of the fifties. He himself relates how he heard a programme on Pollock on Viennese radio. The latter’s action painting, though Novák only knew it through words, attracted him so much that he resolved to try it out for himself. However, he used the structure of poured paints in much more chamber-like works, usually on smaller-format paper. He quickly began to combine this approach with others, for instance collage. In this way various times and meanings began, as in the case of Kolář, to blend into one another.
His “maps”, created at the beginning of the seventies, are impressive pieces. He supplements topographic accuracy with free gestures and a constantly developing imagination. Zena’s Poems are elegant, linking ink blotches in gum with the lines of gestural drawing. The artist’s fantasy grew from blotches supplemented with letter-like symbols. He also interpreted various reproductions using ink blotches or inscriptions in a picture so as to create different levels of meaning. In the cycle “Quartered Poems” Novák created a collage from rhythmical scraps of test, music staffs, and drawn recordings, thus availing himself of the breakage of certain wholes in order to create unexpected relationships in their destruction.
At an early age Novák made some remarkable technical discoveries. One of the most significant was “alchemage”, in which he chemically interfered with printed texts and pictures or transferred them to other contexts. Sometimes alchemage was combined with action or gestural painting and with collage. His sense of experimentation, which went back to the inter-war avant-garde, integrated him into a relatively large group of Czech artists, who, though severely isolated, were reaching similar conclusions as their colleagues in the free European countries.
He soon moved to assemblage or objects, in which dripping is interspersed with textiles and sodium silicate, as well as other procedures and materials. From the beginning of the sixties until his later period, with certain breaks, he worked on the well known “Roses”, formed from fragments of fonts, reproduced images, music scores and other elements. Various motifs are reflected in these, including the Erotic Rose, the Rose Today and Forever, the Rose for Jiří Kolář, etc.
Novák used chance in what is known as his thrown poems. He pasted scraps of paper so as to cover handwritten letters, he interpreted texts in ink, cotton wool or products of nature. The delicate series Butterflies includes decals, previously used by the surrealists.
A topological series of drawings occupy an important place in his development, in which the lines were not allowed to cross and in which a sort of record of rhythmically arranged characters took place. In the early seventies the artist created charming drawings using the smoke from candles, which he called “fumage”. It was an interesting discovery which, possibly independently of him, had been used by other important artists, for instance in the work of Jiří Georg Dokoupil, who creates technically perfect, larger compositions, often featuring realistic motifs. However, for Novák this involved experimental procedures. He often combined his methods whenever it helped him express his ideas.
Novák’s most important original method was froissage, which he developed in various cycles and variations until the end of his life. Froissage consisted of folding up paper, then flattening it out again and using the creases for drawing by pen or pencil in ink combined with aquarelle. In the lines that resulted Novák discovered the fantastic forms of strange monsters, ridiculously deformed elves, knots of abstract elements and a variety of symbols. Sometimes the froissage attains subtle colour tones, at other times it remains in monochrome shades of grey, while still offering equally strong expressive possibilities. Over the course of almost four decades froissage underwent an interesting development in combination with other techniques (e.g. alchemage and collage). In the last few years of his life the artist returned to poured ink, which linked up to his former fascination with action painting. The possibilities of chance are combined with an endlessly developing imagination and its orientation.
Ladislav Novák worked intensely in smaller towns and yet maintained regular relationships, not only with the Prague scene but foreign cultural centres. He found many admirers, mainly in France and Italy. They often invited him there, organised exhibitions of his work, and published catalogues and compendious books on him. Important collectors and art theoreticians took an interest in his work. In this country undoubtedly his most perceptive interpreter was Jindřich Chalupecký. Chalupecký was attracted to Novák’s conceptual method of working and creating, which operated on the boundary of two artistic spheres, i.e. fine art and poetry. Arsén Pohribný, a well known Czech historian who lived in Italy and then Germany after emigrating from Czechoslovakia, compared the work of Jiří Kolář and Ladislav Novák in an interesting way, and arranged joint exhibitions of the two artists.
More detailed books were first published abroad about Novák than in his own country, a monograph in France and a second in Italy. Eventually he visited Italy, where he was regularly invited to creative stays in the last years of his life, shortly before his death on the occasion of a relatively large exhibition devoted to his work at the Museum of Modern Art in Orvieto (it was on this occasion that one of the monographs containing works from the Italian collections was published). Shortly after his sudden death the Brno Gallery Aspekt published a sober catalogue to accompany the exhibition in the Pyramid, Prague. So far the largest exhibition was undoubtedly that organised two years after his death by the National Gallery, Prague. The retrospective was held in Kinsky Palace in spring 2002 and the most compendious monograph so far was issued on the same occasion and contained a text by Jiří Valoch, who had been involved with Czech and foreign experimental art for decades and had followed Novák’s work since the sixties.
Author of the annotation
Group exhibitions included in ARTLIST.
Action Word Motion Space