Letterist Eduard Ovcacek Continues Into the Digital Age


By Katerina Kyselica | Since the 1950s, Eduard Ovcacek has worked in almost every artistic medium, including painting, sculpture, installation, photography and performance. In terms of printmaking, he has covered intaglio, lithography and screen printing, and now, he indulges his pursuits in the digital realm. Throughout his extensive journey, Ovcacek has been exploiting the single smallest unit of the written language system: the grapheme. When I was invited to peek into his studio, I arrived curious to find out what feeds this artist’s energy and fascination with letters, numbers and symbols.

This was the second time I met with Ovcacek, one of the foremost progressive Czech printmakers, but it was the first time I visited him at his home in Ostrava—the third largest city in the Czech Republic, located in the northeastern area about ten miles from the Polish border. The artist’s home houses his studio. I couldn’t help but smile when I noticed the sign posted at the entrance of the house—a simple, template-based, three-digit black number, appearing in the same style found in Ovcacek’s works. Ultimately, he is a letterist. Outside, it was a sweltering hot summer day, but as I sat sipping Mrs. Ovcackova’s freshly made apple juice within the Ovcaceks’ modernist home protected by the crowns of mature trees, it felt like I was in an oasis.

As Ovcacek and I launched our discussion about art and printmaking, I was impressed by the enormous scope and diversity of his work and involvement in creative endeavors. For someone whose catalog raisonné (2007) totals almost 700 pages and whose resume lists countless awards, exhibitions, texts and publications, Ovcacek’s studio seems to be of a rather modest size. As we walked through the house, before entering his studio, we stopped in a medium-sized room that holds an archive of his works on paper. There, Ovcacek showed me a number of his prints, from his early structural creations to his new, large-format black-and-white series of digital prints—a mere fraction of his combined work. I was invited to experience the surfaces of the pieces, to touch their texture and deep reliefs, and to absorb their colors. His structural prints were typically printed in small editions (only 35 prints) from a single plate. Ovcacek detailed the technical process behind his works, like applying layers of varnish onto cardboard, affixing fabric such as ladies’ pantyhose punctured with holes (reminiscent of human skin when printed) and impressing razor blades to create textures and intriguing structures similar to his earlier informel paintings.

Views of Eduard Ovcacek's structural matrices, neatly framed and ready to be exhibited when the occasion arrives. Photographs by Katerina Kyselica.

View of Eduard Ovcacek's studio in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Photograph by Katerina Kyselica.

Ovcacek is regarded as a pioneer of letterism and a creator of visual poetry in the former Czechoslovakia. His printmaking experiments with graphemes date back to the time when he was teaching printmaking in the city of Olomouc (after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, he also co-founded the printmaking department at the University of Ostrava). During his tenure there, Ovcacek stumbled upon an old collection of letterpress type blocks, which he immediately adapted into his printmaking practice. He incorporated letters into his structural prints and etchings, pressing them as stamping blocks into varnish or dipping them into liquid ground and pressing them onto metal plates. When placed in an acid bath, the area around the letters would get etched. Numerous ready-made objects followed: house signs, bus timetables, circuit boards. It was a joy for me to see the original matrices, now neatly framed and ready to be exhibited when the occasion arrives. Letters, numbers and symbols have remained an integral part of Ovcacek’s work to this day. In his introduction to the aforementioned catalogue raisonné, artist and curator Jiri Valoch defined Ovcacek’s graphemes as “not just any element, but elements from the realm of utilitarian human communication, they were ‘freed graphemes,’ which through their mere presence referred to the world of language communication, written or printed, yet at the same time functioned as a sort of aesthetically relevant structure on its own.”1

As we continued towards the back of the Ovcaceks’ house, large paintings, paper objects and sculptures could be seen overflowing the individual rooms. Stepping into Ovcacek’s studio felt like entering a depository.

“I think I need to re-claim my studio,” he noted, meaning that he might look for a larger space to practice his art. In his present setup, behind all of the past and recent works, carefully wrapped paintings and paper molds of female torsos enclosed in glass display cases, there was a single square table positioned by the window. Despite the calming view of the garden, energy was hovering throughout the room. Templates of the number three were resting on a new canvas that Ovcacek had gessoed and covered with an orange under-painting, ready for his next action.

Although a significant portion of Ovcacek’s prints were made using traditional techniques—collagraph, etching, blind embossing, even screen printing—making things by hand has not been, to my great surprise, the driving force in his practice. Now mainly focused on screen and digital printing, he does not miss using his hands as much, but rather enjoys the faster, less time-consuming means of production. Looking back at the trajectory of his work, I realized that his preference makes perfect sense. Ovcacek has always searched for technologies to test and discover new modes of expression for his letterist works. As soon as the technology for screen printing became available in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s—although its use at the time was rather limited—Ovcacek tested it, liked it, and adapted it to his practice. At the same time, he also incorporated the use of photography, developing his own method of superimposing one image over another. Right when computers arrived in 1990s, he rushed to explore their potential—and he keeps doing so today. Jiri Valoch’s observation further illustrates Ovcacek’s tendencies to exploit technology: “For his entire creative journey, Ovcacek has remained faithful to the phenomenon of letters, being aware of their importance. Yet he is capable of modifying this fundamental focus in a very sensitive way in connection with changes to technological possibilities as well as to the ‘spirit of time.’”2

I was grateful for the short but meaningful time I spent with the celebrated man of letters, numbers and symbols, talking about the past as well as his latest series of digital prints. Here are some of his thoughts.

Katerina Kyselica (KK): Even though you studied monumental painting and your artistic practice encompasses many media, printmaking has always held a strong position in your work. Why does this technically difficult medium attract you?

Eduard Ovcacek (EO): My interest in printmaking and its techniques began already in the 1950s and continues to this day. I also have a close relationship with other artistic media which I use to test the ability of my work to withstand artistic reflection. In addition, poetry, literature, drama and music greatly inspire me and are sources for my understanding of the surrounding world. Poetry in particular stimulated me in the 1960s and directed my efforts to visual and experimental poetry. Most importantly, poetry led me into letterism. Of the classical media, I also enjoy painting, burned collages, sculpture, working with wood, metal, handmade paper and performances with fire. Printmaking has been for many years my preferred medium also due to the fact that as of the 1960s sending prints by mail allowed me to have direct contact with many artists from abroad. Long-lasting friendships were formed this way.

KK: How and when did you realize that letters and numbers are your means to visual communication? What inspired you?

EO: As I mentioned, it was modern poetry that had a defining impact on my artistic practice. Similar to printmaking, visual poetry allowed me to make many contacts abroad in the 1960s. Using a 1924 Underwood Standard Portable Typewriter, I created my visual and experimental poetry, which I sent abroad to colleagues who shared similar interests—a general and simple understanding of poetry on any parallel. I corresponded and exchanged visual poetry with Pierre Garnier and Henri Chopin of France, with Ian Hamilton Finlay of England and with many other personalities. The world movement of visual poetry spread to almost all continents including Europe, Asia and the United States. In the former Czechoslovakia, there was a very strong group of several tens of artists who practiced visual poetry in the 1960s. Many exhibitions of visual poetry were organized abroad, with accompanying publications which included numerous Czech authors. The movement inspired my letterist works, particularly the letterist structural prints and screen prints of the 1960s, but also burned letterist collages, paintings and letterist objects.

KK: Your early printmaking is based on the structural matrix. Instead of engraving into the matrix, you were building upon matrices from the bottom up.

EO: Structural printmaking wasn’t my invention. I only expanded on existing structural printmaking approaches with new letterist varieties, created by pressing letterpress type blocks into the surface of the plate. The first artist to use structural printmaking, and active printmaking, was Vladimir Boudnik. This new printmaking technique soon found fans and became quite popular during the 1960s.

Image: Eduard Ovcacek, Three Shapes, 1961, structural print, 11 x 8 inches (28 x 20.5 cm), photograph by the artist.

KK: Experimentation seems to be an integral part of your nature; you search for something, and when you find it, you move on. You also work with photography. What exactly is photographics?

EO: Photographics is my own specific medium discovered in 1964. For a short period of time, I was exposing photographs using a “sandwich technique.” I layered film positives or negatives with my visual poetry onto photographic paper and then exposed on them my images of nudes using the Magnifax 3 enlarger. Another area of my work includes burned letterist wooden reliefs and handmade paper. I started burning letters and symbols, using hot letterpress blocks, into wood. Then I thought of applying the method to handmade paper. The only difference is that the type blocks were pressed into a wet mass of paper.

KK: That’s a lot of playable and attractively tactile materials. In the last few years, however, you have been devoting your time to digital printmaking.

EO: My interest in digital printmaking started after 1990 when the first computers were being imported. It’s true that even in my computer work I tried to replicate the haptic surface of my earlier work with an optical structural visualization of the surface using multiplication and shifting graphemes within the print’s plane. I also intentionally worked with the possibilities of geometric solutions for graphic compositions.

KK: You initiated many important group exhibitions at home and abroad, such as the iconic Bratislava Confrontations in the 1960s. You were a founding member of the Club of Concretists, and you have taught printmaking. Which of these engagements do you value the most?

EO: During the period of normalization under President Husak, the totalitarian regime purposely limited and tried to eliminate our communication with the world beyond the Iron Curtain. After 1968, I was expelled from the official art organization, the Association of Visual Artists, without any chance to exhibit my work or publicly express my opinions. The 1970s witnessed a rise of opposition and alternative structures in the arts. With other colleagues I organized a series of unofficial exhibitions and events in the city of Ostrava and neighboring cities, featuring both Czech and Slovak artists. I was very much familiar with the Slovak art scene from my studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava, so I served as a liaison for the events and exhibitions. We were able to prepare several portfolios of unofficial contemporary art which we published as samizdat format.3 The most important portfolio was the one from 1976.

In Portfolio 1976, we were able to publish the prints of almost 70 politically repressed Czech and Slovak artists—almost the entire alternative scene.4 We managed to exhibit the prints in West Germany and Krakow, Poland. However, as a consequence of our actions, controversy and a series of endless investigations by the state Secret Service followed. My engagements in unofficial organizations and happenings were a logical reaction to the circumstances, particularly after 1968 when we were occupied by the Soviet Army as a result of the Warsaw Pact. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989 things started to change. I returned to Ostrava from my exile in Prague and began searching for support to create an independent art program at the newly established Faculty of Arts at the University of Ostrava, where I consequently have taught for many years and even became a professor.

Image: Eduard Ovcacek, Plates 1, 1965, etching, 8 5/8 x 6 inches (22 x 15.3 cm), photograph by the artist.

KK: What are you working on these days?

EO: For the last three years, I have been mostly working on medium- and large-format black-and-white prints. I print not only on paper but also on canvas. I call this extensive cycle Black and White Series & Constellations (2013–present). Rarely do I revisit color printmaking these days. In the last few decades printmaking has not enjoyed the much deserved attention this traditional medium merits in the Czech Republic. Instead, fashionable trends in visual arts, which, to a great extent, only imitate trends of the 1960s, are preferred. I would say that the current output is mostly academic production which doesn’t hold my interest; one can see too many speculative subjective aspects.

The cycle of Black and White Series & Constellations draws upon aspects of minimalism leading to the monumental printmaking form with an emphasis on latent artistic potential of text and symbols. These aspects led me to a reduction from color to black and white. The visual perception is purposely stripped of any psychological attributes corresponding to color combination and is clearly directed toward the resulting illumination of the energy of the graphemes. Content-wise, the series is a sort of reminder or reflection of the current state of globalization in the world. The content is expressed as an association and as such it provides viewers with enough space to form their own interpretations of the constellations of graphemes. My current work is not aimed at any particular events. The series keeps growing and continues.

KK: Thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts.

Notes:

1. Jiri Valoch, “Czech Letterist,” in J. Valoch, J. Machalicky and J. Mojzis, Eduard Ovcacek Works from 1956–2006, (Gallery: Prague, Czech Republic, 2007), 50.

2. Jiri Valoch, “Czech Letterist,” in J. Valoch, J. Machalicky and J. Mojzis, Eduard Ovcacek Works from 1956–2006, (Gallery: Prague, Czech Republic, 2007), 9.

3. Samizdat was a clandestine publishing system within the Soviet Union, by which officially banned literature was reproduced and circulated.

4. All these activities have been subjects in the publication: Janousek, Ivo, Karel Bogar and Kamil Drabina. SITUATION—Czech and Slovak visual arts in the 1970s and 1980s in the Ostrava region, exh.cat. (Frydek-Mistek, Czech Republic: Museum Beskyd, November 1991), 60.

This interview appears in the print and digital edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.1 No.1, published in October 2015.

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EDUARD OVCACEK (b. 1933 in Trinec, Czech Republic) received a Master’s Degree at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava, Slovakia (1963). He works in printmaking, painting, collage, sculpture, visual and concrete poetry, letterist photography, performance and installation. Together with artist Milos Urbasek, Ovcacek initiated the formation of the Bratislava Confrontation (1960), an independent abstract art group in Slovakia. He was one of the signers of the pro-democracy civic initiative Charter 77 (1977). Ovcacek has participated in a number of international group exhibitions and art symposiums throughout his career. From 1997–1999, he organized screen printing workshops in Ostrava. His prints have received many awards, including the prestigious Vladimir Boudnik Award (1998) for his lifelong contribution to Czech printmaking. Ovcacek is a member of the Hollar Association of Czech Graphic Artists and Art Beseda.

KATERINA KYSELICA is a visual artist, designer, curator and lecturer. She received a BFA from VCU School of the Arts in Virginia and a Master’s Degree from Charles University in Prague. Her prints and works on paper, represented in private collections, have been exhibited in solo and group shows in New York, Paris and the Czech Republic. She organized and curated the Celebrating Print Exhibition (2013–2015), a survey of contemporary prints from Central and Eastern Europe. Kyselica’s articles on art, printmaking and design have appeared in Czechdesign.cz, Design Magazin, MF DNES, Celebrating Print and the Journal of the Print World.

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