Karel Malich – Cosmic coitus

by Beate Reifenscheid

Can drawing be akin to flying? That feeling of freedom and weightlessness. Overcoming the laws of earthly existence. Approaching towards an Above – coming into contact with the cosmic. Charged full of energy, the sensing of invisible forces situated between corporality and spirituality. 

As a little boy, Karel Malich already dreamed of flying and was a very passionate builder of model gliders. He tried them out on the hills of Holice, where his grandfather owned a small house. He observed the natural world – but less its laws, its transformation in the course of the seasons, than its structures. He reveals their spatial conditions for himself; he differentiates their horizontality and measures their verticality. Uniformity bores him; he seeks the energetic. Through it, he senses the link between earthly existence and the stars. Even if the cosmic is not explicitly articulated at the beginning of his career as an artist, his search nonetheless seems to be directed almost exclusively towards it.  

Through every form and in every direction there flows an energy that destroys, creates tension, draws attention away from form and that which exists (an old composition – so to speak – but concealed within it, the energy that brings about the creation of new forms, new tensions), bears within it a new possibility, a new world, that is much richer and seems to be inexhaustible.” 1

As a young man he begins to free himself from his narrative beginnings. As early as 1960, he created White landscape, in which he had given up every prior element for the sake of a pure continuum of colours that draws its power both from the broad – but simultaneously still recognizable – brushstroke and from the few passages in which he brings black up out of the depths and adds only a hint of blue and yellow in the verticals and horizontals. A two-dimensional, almost staccato-like rhythm appears in which verticality dominates and only a single, uninterrupted line transports the painting into a continuum to be conceived in terms of space. A floating diagonal cuts across the horizontal. Karel Malich translates the landscape into a timeless spatial structure that is simultaneously focussed on the essential and amasses tension, dynamism, and the air of wide expanses within itself. From then on, the pure landscape provides his theme – his exploration of the perception of the world – and it initially remains entirely earthly. His early drawings and also his drypoints recall Kandinsky, but simultaneously bear the gestural freedom of Art Informel and American Abstract Expressionism within them. Echoes of Mark Tobey, Camille Byren, and Emil Schumacher, among others, are to be found here. In the 1961 gouache Landscape in me,we can already recognize the emergence of a system of lines that both suggests something loosely landscape-like and has begun to take on an ovoid form that circles around outside an inner core. He again emphasizes horizontals and verticals – the dimensional coordinates of Being – but, at the same time, he frames them in such a way that they cannot be lost within the vague space. His reflections on the landscape are already becoming reflections on the new fathoming of the world and cosmos, and they are simultaneously understood in terms of a dialogue in the perception of self and world. For the rest of his life, it is not perception, but reflection alone that is important to Malich. At the same time, this gouache reveals itself to be a pivotal prelude to his later wire sculptures. 

The collage Untitled, which was also created in the early 1960s, shows how radical his concepts of landscape and space were.The work’s muddy grey colour – stretching across a black ground that vaguely peeks through everywhere – is confronted in the upper third of the picture plane by black circles with clear outlines. Because of the metal rings (?) that cause their outer contour to stand out haptically – cut off from the ground and marked within by an impenetrable black – the composition seems as though it were permeated with black holes. Cosmic associations are awakened. In the collages that follow he repeatedly experiments with simple found objects and materials: these suggest parallels to Russian Constructivism and, briefly, to Kurt Schwitters as well.5

In the years around 1964, the constructive-concrete aspect becomes considerably more important and moves the artist further in the direction of the architectonic interests which he would soon pursue with his urbanistic models, which are no less audacious than they are fascinating. The series ‘Spatial sculptures’ forms a precursor to the architectures that would long be of great concern to him. Here, however, he explores space by means of discs and pipes – those basic constructive elements with which surface and volume can be conceived in their most reduced form. The concrete aspect still dominates, but simultaneously bears utopian potential within it.The models of the Russian Suprematists and Constructivists from around 1920 to 1930, such as those of Naum Gabo (Construction in space with crystalline centre, 1938–40, Perspex and celluloid), Vladimir Tatlin (e.g., Corner counter-relief, 1915, and Monument to the Third International, 1920), or Alexander Rodchenko (Oval hanging construction, 1920), had already developed new approaches for dealing with space and mentally breaking through the worldly and out into the universe and its galaxies. Malich’s utopia is concerned with mobile architectures, potential concepts to render buildings within sea storms conceivable and to offer a totally different kind of flexibility. At the moment of their conception they were not yet technically realizable; however, they presage tendencies that – particularly in recent years – have come to more and more strongly define architecture and that are intended to enable both eco-friendly concepts and also construction under dramatically altered climatic conditions. But Malich’s contemporaries had already sensed his potential: Malich’s spiral expresses the dynamic nature of the world, the time-space pulse of an integrated and entropic tension. The universal technology of that spiral encloses man, but at the same time it opens the world to him in a new, unfamiliar, cosmic depth.” 7

With the creation of Suspended corridor in 1967–68, Karel Malich ventured to detach his sculpture from the ground for the first time, causing it to float in space, apparently unsupported. In itself the idea of the mobile was not entirely new, but in contrast to interconnected mechanisms (such as those developed by Alexander Calder), which reciprocally stimulated one another in their movement, Karel Malich has formulated two sculptural segments that stand in direct relationship to one another and are read in terms of a single unit: a unit of discontinuity. Here, viewers associate space and cosmic penetration with circle and sphere, on the one hand, and arc and dynamically placed and diagonally oriented rod, on the other, because they reveal that kindling of Malich’s interest in theories of the space-time continuum which was stimulated at this time.The artist had already begun investigating knowledge about and innovations in space travel early on; since his childhood he had been fascinated with flying, and he sensed that with the new foray into outer space – with the launching of manned spaceships like those sent out by the US in the 1960s – a new era had begun. On 5 November 1969 he noted: Moon landing. New situation. New relationships. We start all over again. ... A new epoch. 9

After his spirals and corridors, which – for Malich – essentially occupy the spheres of movement, dynamism, and energy in space, from 1970 onwards, Malich turns entirely to free-floating sculpture formed of light, easily bent wire. The thin wire directly underscores the flowing movement and looks like the materialization of a phenomenon that is present, but is not normally visible. He continued to pursue the idea of the corridor, a zone of passing through and across, but no longer as a statically delineated cylinder – as had still been the case in the works Blue corridor with line, of 1963–70, and Silver corridor, of 1970.10 Instead he did so in an open and fluid system on curved, wavy lines of wire resembling physical streams. An ovoid form emerged, which he referred to as ‘cloud’ and ‘egg’ and which, for its part, gave material form to phenomena related to space travel and flying. He referred to drawings of 1970 as Clouds over the sea and Energy-flow and to his sculptures of 1973–74 as Black cloud or also Light-air (cosmic egg). For him, light – particularly white light – revealed a spiritual transparency, a mythical level, which he repeatedly attempted to articulate in the sense of a translation of an experienced sensory impression.11 His sculptures and drawings reveal themselves to be a permanent exploration of the phenomenon of the investigation of space, particularly its cosmic dimensions. Clouds do not just move across the sky, they are elements of the universe and are usually charged with mixtures of gas and dust. In Malich’s work they manifest themselves in both a diffuse form and – seen from a distance – as loosely interconnected shapes. Their openness on all sides and their lines stretching out into the surrounding space, where they feel their way like tender tentacles, build up a dynamic tension that seems to gather, bundle, and then to once more release an energy of its own. These energetic lines pass through Malich’s own cosmos with great tension, as is enlighteningly demonstrated by photos taken of his studio during their creation. Completely filled with them, the studio suggests an (extra-terrestrial) place of cosmic radiation, an epicentre of loading energy and simultaneously a space of transparency and lyrical tranquillity – the studio as counterpart of the universe. 

In the second half of the 1970s, the theme of self-perception joins that of the cosmos and its impact is equally decisive. In a 1976 drawing, which he sensibly entitled Self, 12 he articulates three large flowing lines, which expand concentrically and recall a gigantic mushroom – within it, the fine branchings of horizontals and verticals become more concentrated. A rhythm of spots made up of brown, beige, and red dabs range loosely above it. Within, it becomes concentrated into a core, a centre circumscribed by a white mass of lines. Much like the cosmic wires, the lines delineate fields of energy. Malich will repeatedly attempt to establish a relationship between the within of his self and the without of the world and the universe; in doing so – in his statements, as well – he always points out that he can never perceive himself absolutely. Precisely because individual perception is guided by many things and will never be able to completely grasp the complexity of its own self, Malich sees fit to describe the focus of vision. In this context the interweaving lines are deliberately made to encompass a ‘seeing view’ – perception both in its complexity and its limitedness.13 Another seemingly extremely reductive work of the same year, The limits of vision, clearly shows the great degree to which the slightly waving wire lines that Malich has here pushed through canvas-covered cardboard thematize his own perception. Again it is concentric lines – beginning within with white and becoming darker further out – that indicate the radius. The flat, rectangular surface contradicts the undulating forms of the lines, which seek to expand, but are simultaneously held and anchored. Through Malich’s integration of the individual into his art, this enters all the more indirectly into a dialogue with the universe. Increasingly, the ‘self’ appears in a cocoon of lines: secured and woven within cosmic rays and itself related to a foreign, unknown ‘outside’ only through these. The streams of energy become ever more concentrated, revolve around the centre within, dance their way up and down, and resemble a wild coexistence that seems almost impenetrable. In this ‘within’ is the self, which reveals itself only in parts: as a smoking hand, as an arm, as a Giacometti-like head. The self is reflected in its fragmentary perception, which confronts the complexity of the cosmos: I and the one I encounter, 1976–80,14 perfectly illustrates Malich’s system. When he gives form only to individual passages of the body, he understands these not in the sense of pars pro toto, but genuinely in the way that he sees himself.15 Here it is always relations that he explores in giving form – whether the self and the cosmos or the landscape in relation to the universe. Landscape with the eternal is a circulating complexity made up of linear revolutions and convolutions in which the landscape is projected and imbedded as a coloured surface.16 Planetary orbits optically place the sculpture in a permanent motion that has no beginning and no end. Eternity finds a sensual equivalent in the eternal flow of the lines, and the white surfaces within reflect the heavenly light in its purest form: a mystical penetration of nature and cosmos, spiritually charged like a vision.17 This is a relation to be found in its purest form, above all, in Human-cosmic-copulation, of 1984–86. A gigantic cocoon floats unsupported in space, glides along an imaginary orbit as though it has done so and will do so for all eternity. A body forces its way into it like an egg cell – a body that is prepared to unite itself with the white surface within while thin black lines still stretch outwards from it and, in turn, envelop half the cocoon. An interiority within and an exterior that, for its part, seems also to be tenderly embraced: all of this generates highly diverse impressions – microcosm and macrocosm, nanoparticles and galaxies merge into one. In Malich’s work, the same energy – the force of life – flows through everything. 

Everything floats. Flies through space. Cosmos. Space-time continuum. The self in the face of the universe – physically as a fragment, restricted perception, but spiritually penetrated as a whole. In its full complexity, Malich’s oeuvre reveals itself as a collection of miraculously heightened visions full of poetic sensibility – as a soaring flight through the cosmos.

Karel Malich, July – August 1972.
2 Cf. Landscape, 1960–1961, in: Karel Malich, p. 39.
3 Cf. Landscape in Me, 1961, in: Karel Malich, p. 46.

4 Cf. Untitled, early 1960s, collage on cardboard, 67 x 49 cm, cf. Karel Malich, p. 67. 
5 Cf. Die Collagen Karel Malich, pp. 61–65.
6 Cf. Spatial sculpture, 1967, metal, height: 50 cm, cf. Karel Malich, p. 141. 

7 Josef Kroutvor, Spirála jako projekt [Spiral as a project], Výtvarná práce 9 (1970), p. 7.
8 Robert DiSalle, Understanding space-time: The philosophical development of physics from Newton to Einstein, Cambridge Univ. Press: Cambridge 2007.
9 Karel Malich, xxx (translated quotations); On 19 July 1969 the Americans Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon. 
10 Cf. Karel Malich, fig., pp. 162–63.
11 Malich talks about his perceptions, which came over him like visions, in his interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, for example; see in this catalogue, p. XX.
12 Fig., p. 257.
13 Cf. in this regard, the drawings in Karel Malich, 2006, nos 228–40. 

14 Cf. regarding this point, fig. 249, p. 286.  
15 Cf. regarding this point, the remarks in the interview with H.U. Obrist in this catalogue. 
16 Cf. Cat. Karel Malich, 2006, fig., p. 304. 
17 Malich speaks about visions, about light that seems like angels to him. Cf. Cat. Malich, 2006, p. 354.