Daniel Pitín: Mr. Merta, when we spoke together recently in my studio, I thrust upon you the idea that you were bound together by a common enemy in the period of communism and that therefore your artistic position was clear. I said that today it was hard to find such solidity and unity in anything. Your response sounded less romantic. Could you please reformulate what you said? What’s your experience from that time in comparison with today? Did something change for you in your relation to your work?
Jan Merta: A common enemy bound us together. The autumnal actions had a great atmosphere about them. Only the political position was, of course, clearly given. There was no sense using art to pit oneself against “official” art. It was no longer social realism at that time, but a stale rehash of modernism. After 1989 it was evident that resistance still did not ensure artistic quality and cohesion of our art. Even in today’s democracy you have to create resistance against different enemies and temptations, and today as before, you have to build and defend the necessary degree of freedom. An artistic position is never clearly given. You’re always clarifying the reason why and how you do it. This is the basis for the solidity that cannot be dependent on enemies. Unity becomes more an internal category. Don’t fall apart. On the contrary I welcome diversity, openness and insecurity as a highly constructive state. If we must insist on some form of external unity, then it would have to be solidarity.
DP: Let’s return now to the present. You’re certainly aware of the fact that art is affected, or at least it was, by the art market. Although it’s true that in the Czech environment this is still more theory than practice, you certainly have some experience with this. Fifteen years ago you almost never sold a single painting and now you’re extensively represented in German galleries. Did this change have a strong influence on you?
JM: Little has changed in the way I work since then, although the forms of depiction change through time. An essential point is that we’re no longer in isolation and we exhibit in comparison on a broader scale. That can even have an adverse effect, but I feel that the result is positive. I wouldn’t change. The fact that I exhibit and sell works in good galleries (I’d like to point out that I began in Prague’s MXM) has increased my confidence, but it doesn’t have much influence on creating the pictures themselves or their number. I’ve seen for myself that the artist has little effect on the workings of the classic law of supply and demand. Production doesn’t interest me; I’m interested in finding the correct form of the painting. There is always some pressure, but the galleries respect my ways. It’s important that we don’t just speak of business, but perhaps even more about art, and that we have a friendly relationship. We don’t have enough space here for general thoughts on the market and art.
DP: Recently you were a member of the commission for the Jindřich Chalupecký Prize for artists up to 35 years in age. Do you meet with young artists? What do you think of the generation that is now coming onto the scene? Do you see anything specific, any shared or unifying feeling?
JM: I meet with a lot of young artists. But I’d need more knowledge and greater critical distance to evaluate the up-and-coming generation. It’s interesting that different art generations have a similar number of standout talents, as if the human population had limits given in advance that change very slowly.
Nevertheless, I try to characterize younger artists, sometimes even by defining them in comparison to older generations. The young generations have shown a considerable tradition of conceptual thinking, a broader information capacity, broader ideological and formal tension and an earlier capacity to implement and develop new media. On the other hand, somehow everything is a lot more diluted. Plural diversity is already a completely intrinsic value to the young generation, and unfortunately this applies in academic forms as well. The imperative of experiment and innovation is already cliché. When it comes to dramatic positions, we don’t feel the existential burden as in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Young visual art is more aesthetic than symbolic. There’s more play and mixing as with contemporary music. More gender, explicit sexuality, social projects, politics. International language, open forms, connecting with the surrounding world, linear and non-committing, along with the desire to once again change the spiritual and social reality. That’s a bit over the top! How am I to have a unifying feeling from that?
DP: Sometimes I have the feeling that we should strictly divide the influences that we all bring to our work; try to intensify the form or position more and seek what is intrinsic to us. There aren’t many people who are educated in art and require a certain originality and individual approach, and certainly not on the institutional level. I think that that then creates an atmosphere in which nothing really matters since ‘official art’ is once again bad and can’t be changed. So it’s like we’re continuing in the underground tradition. I know that these external influences shouldn’t play such a role in art, but unfortunately I have the feeling that they play a larger role than we’re willing to admit. I’m not talking about mass interest in art, but only that communication is important on a certain level. Especially now that no one is banned from it. What’s your opinion? How can we address the European public?
JM: I think that the ‘underground instinct’ is appropriate, even though — or because — you and I are now on the official side. The desire to be elsewhere and under different circumstances corrects our possible stiffening. You can free yourself from the clutch of ‘officialness’ if you thoroughly watch your own tracks. You can be part of the establishment and still be alive. This entitles you to communicate on an appropriate level. I said that I don’t really like fairs and large viewings (to tell you the truth we still haven’t seen a fair), but biennales are one possibility of communication. It’s certainly true that these events paradoxically bring art closer to people since they are visited by people who normally wouldn’t go to small galleries. It would be difficult to offer Europe a national specialty of sorts — or a Prague or Brno-school for that matter. And I’m not at all bothered by this. We only have to make sure the art is of high quality.
DP: Let’s get back to painting itself. What or who has caught your attention in painting in recent years?
JM: What’s caught my attention in painting is that it still has a vast possibility for expression and testimony. I like to think back to the exhibitions of Viktor Pivovarovo, who doesn’t have the need to fervently innovate, and yet he doesn’t disappoint; of Vladimír Skrepl at Pleskoto; to the latest pastel works I saw at Adriena Šimotová’s; to the exhibition of Petr Písařík at ad astra gallery; to the paintings of Josef Bolf… The Czech scene aside, I haven’t seen any originals of my favorite Luc Tuymans since I don’t travel that much, but I can see from reproductions that it’s a position that’s close to me. I was captivated by the Neo Rauch exhibition at the Rudolfinum. In Berlin I saw a good exhibition of Norbert Schwontkowski’s work. The window by Gerhard Richter in the Cologne Cathedral. You may say that this isn’t painting — that it’s a window pane. But it’s painting with color and light.
DP: Over the course of your career painting has several times come out into the sunlight and submerged back into the shadows as an obsolete medium. What have these changes brought to you? In what do you see the real strength of painting and its distinctive qualities?
JM: First I’d like to say that I don’t think it’s about maintaining painting as an active medium at all costs. If it’s on the cards for painting to disappear, then let it disappear. For some a hand-painted picture is something like a journal and electronic media is something like typography. It’s clear, however, that this comparison does not hold water. Electronic and painted pictures have their specifics and both can work according to need and circumstances. It’s still about the picture. In religion and in art there have been more radical tendencies that knocked down the picture as such. Artists have the tendency to generalize their personal development. Ad Reinhardt announced the end to painting in this spirit (in 20th-century modernism). It became evident that that was an individual end; the logical end to a certain trend. In the ’70s it seemed as if painting was passé. Progressive art as minimalist in space, conceptual, land art or body art. Joseph Kosuth considered the ensuing wave of new painting of the ’80s as the business strategy of gallery owners. In the Czech Republic a number of people painted without the chance to exhibit and sell in galleries. What was happening here then? Merely a much slower development? In the early ’80s when painting was done with full vigor and intensity (that was when my doubts about painting were strongest), it was because the shirt of modernism was already too small for us. We sought a new expression derived from a linear development in which old general truths were replaced with a new universal truth. At one time painting was more something of the past, less so at other times. Labile theoreticians reflected this, but these mood changes taught me that a painter (if he arrived at the decision to use paint and canvas) cannot let this get him down. It doesn’t depend so much on the medium used, but on how and why it was used. Painting has the advantage today that it has to hold its own amongst a large number of new media and trends. It has in common with the photographic and electronic image the fact that it’s reduced to a two-dimensional organism, and yet it can live. It’s possible that it now features something that it never did at any other time. It’s a specific transmission of a certain type of thinking, feeling and intuition, through a body (instrument) and paint to the surface. It’s a considerably physiological process, which children and history can attest to. Painting and drawing are still irreplaceable and exciting.