The Art of Vladimír Kopecký and the Context for Glass Art
Text by Adéla Janíčková
Fig. 1, detail of Quiet, 1986, synthetics, acrylic, linoleum, board, 175 x 131 cm, private collection. Photo credit: Gabriel Urbánek
Fig. 2, Empty Halls, 1987, rails, glass, mirror, paint, 60 x 50 x 50 cm. Photo credit: Gabriel Urbánek
Vladimír Kopecký (1931) handles paint in a manner that would categorize him as a painter, yet his capacity to master other forms of expression emphasizes his versatility of both thought and technique. His sense of spatiality and use of various media have been key for Kopecký who became a pioneer of the world movement in individual expression in glass. His singular art form has placed him among leading figures of modern art in the Czech Republic, and former Czechoslovakia. Kopecký‘s artistic career has gone beyond boundaries of convention - he emancipated colour by means of paint on glass, challenged perspective by experimenting with spatial drawing on flat background, and used materials instinctively for their intrinsic qualities. The artist transformed media according to his unique scheme of intuition and sensibility. He approached his early works in stained glass as an experience of colour in space. By painting on glass, the objects metamorphose into spatial compositions. Unusual materials are turned into instruments or into conceptual parts, such as linoleum (fig. 1) that became a base for paintings and track rails (fig. 2), which were used to smear paint and often integrated into the installation. Lines, contours and transparency all gain substance. Kopecký conceives abstraction in the form of exact geometry and parallelly applies gestural, expressive techniques, as the binaries are ultimately interconnected.
Kopecký‘s earliest professional artistic opportunity presented itself in the context of glass craftsmanship. The surrounding conditions of the 1940’s in Central Europe favoured a practical career, while Kopecký wanted to be an artist in order to find an outlet for his creative sensibilities. Kopecký’s formation began in 1946 when he enrolled in glass painting at the School of Glassmaking in Kamenický Šenov where René Roubíček taught, and later in Nový Bor where he studied under the mentorship of Stanislav Libenský. Under the educational auspices of the now legendary figures, Kopecký was introduced to glass and was led to understanding it as an art medium. The liberal approach to the transparent material picked up momentum during his studies at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague (AAAD) in the studio of Josef Kaplický, who created a free creative environment for his students, which provided Kopecký the space for his own individual creative urgencies.
Fig. 3, René Roubíček, Abstract Composition - EXPO'58 Brussels, 1958 – 59, blown and fused glass, 300 x 220 x 160 cm. Photo credit: archive
Fig. 4, Miluše Roubíčková, Gugelhupf Cake, EXPO'67 Montreal, 1966, blown glass, 23 x 16 cm. Photo credit: archive
Fig. 5, Miluše Roubíčková, Sacks, IGS Luzern'84, 1984, blown glass in wire moulds, 85 x 30 cm. Photo credit: archive
Kopecký’s individual development was supported to a certain degree by the propitious situation of Czech Glass Art, which was registering a moment of rebirth at the time. Notably René Roubíček, Miluše Roubíčková, Jaroslava Brychtová and Stanislav Libenský revolutionized the perception of the glass material and its decorative use in applied arts. René Roubíček was the first artist to make an art installation using glass at EXPO’58 in Brussels (fig. 3) and Miluše Roubíčková created her pop art objects using hot glass (fig. 4, 5), in which she drew on the domestic connotations of the material, but furthermore revised the function of glass to an independent role. Libenský and Brychtová used mold melted glass in sculptural work and in the form of architectural features (fig. 6-8), where they experimented with the matter’s transparency, optical qualities and surface. These individual innovative practices formed a creative milieu for discovering ambitious expressive qualities of glass.
Obr. 6, Jaroslava Brychtová and Stanislav Libenský, Optical Structural Walls, Brno Airport, 1967-68, 230 x 700 m. Photo credit: archive
Fig. 7, Jaroslava Brychtová and Stanislav Libenský, Throne for a Bride, 1986, mold melted glass, 23 x 45 cm. Foto: Gabriel Urbánek
Fig. 8, Jaroslava Brychtová and Stanislav Libenský, Intersection, 1997 - 98, mold melted glass, 88 x 110 cm. Foto: Gabriel Urbánek
Kopecký always tested the boundaries. Loyal to his inner feelings and intuition, Kopecký acquired a talent of improvisation, which was an important factor that helped him in resolving problems. Early on in Kopecký’s practice, the prescribed aesthetics of the socialist cultural ideology called for decorativism. However, the artist inclined towards abstraction, which he could only pursue and develop in isolation given the politics of the time and place. His visual language was taking on abstract forms, which mutated and became reduced to essence and metaphors. His work in glass matured the further he distanced himself from the education that emphasized an elaborate and patterned treatment of the surface. Nevertheless, Kopecký’s formal teaching did leave a certain effect, as his later career shows his relationship towards the outer envelope. The ”skin” remained an important principle for Kopecký. He expressed strong disagreement against the decorative aspect by means of his rather brutal approach to the ornamentality of surface. He completely negated the possibility of embellishment by splashing, spilling and smearing paint on the surface. The artist suppresses the smooth glass surface and pushes it to the background in order to use it as a transparent canvas. Kopecký is known for his statement that he wants to make “Ugly Glass“. His relationship to glass can be understood in some sense as destructive, however the process of desecration comes from the intention to liberate glass from its reputation of superficiality. As a result, the artist succeeded in rediscovering the intrinsic qualities of glass.
During his doctoral studies, Kopecký was already included in significant exhibitions such as the Milan Triennale in 1957 and his artwork was part of the award-winning Czechoslovak Pavilion at EXPO ’58 in Brussels. The latter event signified a historical moment marking the beginning of the independent art glass discipline, not only in Czechoslovakia, but as a worldwide movement. Since the second half of the twentieth century, generations of artists formed their individual creative expressions in glass and Vladimír Kopecký has been a precursor due to his strong commitment to irreverence of established artistic and aesthetic conventions. Although his trajectory to an artistic practice began with glass, he has been adapting new attitudes, perceptions, ideas and expressions that were evolving and interchanging disciplines and styles. The continual reinvention of art forms produced an unprecedented phenomenon.
During the sixties and seventies, the artist shifted his creative experimentations onto a flat plane and began to express himself in painting and drawing. The range of various approaches manifested the artist‘s universality, which demonstrated skill and novel understanding. Kopecký did not show his drawings and paintings until the end of the sixties, first sharing his accomplishments with his colleagues and then presenting the works to art critics. Jindřich Chalupecký, a leading post-war Czech critic in whose honour a contemporary annual art prize is named, found Kopecký’s innovative work a manifestation of distinctive talent. In 1970, Chalupecký prepared a solo exhibition for Kopecký at the Václav Špála Gallery, where the former served as chief curator and which is considered a significant exhibition space that contributed to the development of the Czechoslovak art scene. Chalupecký wrote:
“The possibilities of art always seem to be exhausted, there is nothing more that could be done, there is no way forward. And always, the impossible is repeated: there can still be something else than there already is. It is the greatest joy for a critic, when he suddenly comes across an artwork, where the impossible occurs again. It does not come often in his life. The last time this happened to me was in the summer of 1969 in the studio of Vladimír Kopecký … It was very interesting to observe reactions of visitors – especially of those who are well acquainted with visual art. They understood that this concerns something serious. However, they were not able to come to terms with this art.´
Kopecký’s diverse practice has been developing simultaneously – glass, painting, drawing, prints, sculpture, architectural features and other installations were shaped into their respective forms within the artist’s visual language. Moreover, there were many occasions when Kopecký crossed his own boundaries and spearheaded into untrodden territories. Reaching for unorthodox materials such as linoleum flooring sheets, Kopecký has been using anything from his external surroundings that he could identify with and which ultimately reflected the world inside him. In his linoleum work (fig. 1), he used the colourful patterning as a flat background for perspectival geometric structures as well for tachist spills and drips. For Kopecký the distinctive grid and structure of the flooring material represented a decorated surface, which he attacked and transformed similarly to the “skin” of glass. He either covered up the pattern with his own geometric grid with a perspective, which pushed the linoleum into background. Alternatively, his approach of abstract painting was disrupting the patterned linoleum even more violently. The fragment of the linoleum acting as a synecdoche of decorativism was attacked with wildly applied paint in order to be interrupted and become surpassed.
Fig. 9, Site-specific glass installation in architecture, 1968-75, technical glass tubes, relief in concrete, 600 x 1800 cm, The Kavalier Glassworks, Sázava. Photo credit: Martin Polák
Fig. 10, Funeral Ceremony, 1993-2010, glass, metal, acrylic, wood, 158 x 156 x 156 cm, Musem Kampa – The Jan and Meda Mládek Foundation in Prague. Photo credit: Martin Polák
Fig. 11, Afternoon Taboret, 1995, wood, glass, bricks, paint, 74 x 86 x 100 cm, private collection. Photo credit: Gabriel Urbánek
Kopecký deals with existential experiences. His artwork functions as a document that captures the process of how he comes to terms with an experience. He has often applied spilling, crushing, colliding, constructing or obsessive repetition. Kopecký explores different materials and different scales, combining mainly industrial media such as technical glass (fig. 9), silicon, rubber, rail tracks, bricks or wood (fig. 10, 11). He leaps from one end of the spectrum to the opposite with an unparalleled ease: from abstract, expressive painting on glass, canvas or disparate flat materials to large spatial installations of mixed media or geometric and non-perspective paintings as well as optical art (fig. 12, 13).
Fig. 12, Sunrise, 1972, acrylic, linoleum, 170 x 122 cm, private collection. Photo credit: Gabriel Urbánek
Fig. 13, Clear Sign, 2012, print on canvas, 100 x 100 cm. Photo credit: Gabriel Urbánek
Fig. 14, Planks, 1998, flat glass, red foil, wooden frame, 50 x 50 x 7,5 cm, Museum Kampa – The Jan and Meda Mládek Foundation in Prague.
Photo credit: archive
To a great extent, Kopecký’s choice of industrial materials and the testing of dimensions was influenced by the strong industrial program during Communism. Glass factories generated large quantities on mass scale and technical challenges were successfully overcome by advancement in technology, which allowed for experiment and production in various formats. In 1969, Kopecký came with an original technique of layering glass sheets and interleaving them with colourful foils in geometric arrangements (fig. 14). Exact repetition inside the structure gave glass and colour new materiality and dimension. The foils darkened with each layer and the object in its entirety formed an unusual deep perspective. This singular art form reinforced that Kopecký continued to be at the forefront of experimental glass art.
Kopecký used glass also in line with the world movement of Land Art (fig. 15) and Happening (fig. 16). In the eighties, the artist conceived his installations as spatial compositions in relation to the surrounding environment. Such work with large structures of glass and mixed media reached its apex in Seville in 1992. Over the course of six weeks, Kopecký created a monumental site-specific installation made primarily out of cut, glued and painted glass (fig. 17). It was possibly the first time that glass was included in a work of art of such scale and in such a dominant role.
Fig. 15, Blind Tracks, 1986-87, sleepers, glass, metal, paint, 100 x 500 x 350 cm, The National Gallery in Prague. Photo credit: Gabriel Urbánek
Fig. 16, performance at the 12th IGS in Nový Bor, 2015. Photo credit: IGS archive
Fig. 17, EXPO’92 Seville, 1992, glass, metal, wood, paint, 280 x 1100 x 170 cm. Photo credit: Gabriel Urbánek
In 2017, Kopecký accomplished a new series comprising of 48 unique painted glass objects (fig. 18). These are an implicit reference to the notion of “Ugly Glass”, which he has been working with throughout his artistic life (fig. 19). This series returns to the fundamental moment when Kopecký’s expression deviated from the practice of painted glass in terms of applied arts and culminated in a liberated artistic expression. The optical qualities of the thick glass walls of the vessels deform and endlessly change the colour and shape of the paint. Kopecký allowed his work to be led by the shape of the sculptures. Paint was poured and left to search for its own path along the irregular surface and thus found its own expression. Sometimes he smeared thick paint and on rare occasions, he interrupted frail drippings with a paintbrush when too much harmony occurred. Following his intuition, the final objects demonstrate a union between the free-hand sculpted glass vessels and expressive abstract painting. This series was an inaugural project under the Lasvit Art Program under the auspices of the Czech glass company. The program supports the legacy of both local and world Glass art and develops a collection alongside its collaborative projects with artist. Vladimír Kopecký’s series joins artworks by René Roubíček, Miluše Roubíčková, Stanislav Libenský, Jaroslava Brychtová and international icons such as Daniel Libeskind and the Campana Brothers.
Fig. 18, Hunched 12/12
(from the series The Dance of Tortoises), 2017,
glass paint, glass,
55 x 30 cm, Lasvit
Fig. 19, Vase, 1988, glass paint, glass, 27 x 20 cm. Photo credit: Gabriel Urbánek
Kopecký’s latest series Caravans of Monsters March Through the Silent Marsh (2018) is a contribution to the collection of glass art objects also commissioned by the creative glass company, who granted a platform for artists to reflect on the phenomenon of “monstrosity”. The subject of monsters, anti-heroes and outcasts was an impetus for Vladimír Kopecký to reinvent his orthodox abstract painting and push his boundaries towards a more figurative expression (fig. 20). At the age of 86, the artist manifested that his innovative artistic approach provides him the capacity to perpetually reinvigorate his imagination, interpretation and original conception.
Alternating between media, styles and scales, Kopecký’s art has been represented globally as part of exhibitions, institutional collections or commissions for architecture. The artist’s work, including his poetic writing, has been discussed and studied in many publications and in a number of exhibition catalogues and monographs. Kopecký’s legacy of experimental glass will continue through his undisputable influence on the generation of artists who studied at his studio at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague between 1990 and 2008.
Fig. 20, Yellow Eyes, from the series The Caravans of Monsters March Through the Silent Marsh, 2018, flat glass, glass paint, 30 x 30 x 15 cm. Photo credit: Gabriel Urbánek
CHALUPECKÝ, Jindřich. Vladimír Kopecký.“ Visual Art: Magazine of the Union of Czechoslovak Visual Artists, Czech edition, n. 7, 1970, pp. 338-341.