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by Ray Zone

(Louis Stern Fine Arts, West Hollywood) In a series of reductive abstractions, a core tendency of a high modernist, abstract painter is revealed in an exhibition representing a span of some thirty years of the work of Frantisek Kupka. Showcased is what one writer has characterized as his "language of verticals." The signature and seminal work on view here is Architecture Philosophique, a large oil-on-canvas dating from 1913. This piece is fittingly given an entire wall for display. It is entirely vertical in both shape and thrust. Using a simple palette of blue, red, green and black over a white field, the ascending obliques suggest the propulsive growth of modern cities in the 20th century. Twin blue towers rising from motive colored facets make one think of the two monoliths standing in Century City amid the urban array.


“Architecture Philosophique”,
o/c, 56.3 x 44”, 1913.

Kupka was a Czechoslovakian painter, born in 1871 in the small town of Opocno in Eastern Bohemia. He arrived in Paris in 1896 and for over sixty years lived at the very epicenter of all the major art movements of the 20th century. Kupka was an accomplished landscape and portrait artist who always displayed a propensity toward the scientific and the metaphysical. To support himself Kupka created illustrations in Art Nouveau style for magazines such as Cocorico and La Plume, and fraternized with Alphonse Mucha, a fellow Czech.


“Trois Violets", oc/
41 5/16 x 25 9 1/6", 1934.

By 1905, when he had his first major one-man show, a large exhibit of 50 representational oil paintings and 100 lithographs, his inclination for abstraction was evident. At the time he wrote, "It seems unnecessary to paint trees when people see more beautiful ones on the way to the exhibit." Kupka, like many of his contemporaries, was interested in the creation of a new visual language through art.

From 1909 to 1913, Kupka experienced his creative emancipation, striving to depict what he called the "other reality." He wrote an aesthetic treatise that dealt primarily with the role of the 20th century artist in the elaboration of non-figurative forms. When the first Futurist Manifesto was published in Le Figaro in 1909 the goals of the movement were intended "To do Kupka with Severini's means. Here's an ideal submission without artifice...Frank Kupka and Gino Severini would magnificently form the two columns that would hold up the whole Edifice of pictorial Art of tomorrow."

For the first four decades of the 20th century, a stunning procession of masterworks proceeded from Kupka's easel. These were remarkable paintings that explored the nature of light with echoes of impressionism, portraits and landscapes that electrified with a radical use of color and transformed representation into a luminous icon of the immaterial world. Kupka held that color alone was a separate language. In 1913, he was heralded in the pages of the New York Times as the originator of Orphism, a Paris-based school of thought rooted on the idea "that color affects the senses like music." Orphism exploited "curves--not Cubist angles."

Only one of the works in the current exhibit is representational, a luminous pastel-on-paper from 1907 titled Etude pour le Grand Nu, which suggests some of the daring explorations of color of which Kupka was capable. Other works, such as Bleus Par Plans and Points D'Attache are later works of the artist from 1945 and 1934, respectively, showcase Kupka at his most reductive. These are pleasingly minimal arrangements of simple grids and flat colors with hard edges that recall the work of Mondrian. En Degrades (verticales), with its clean array of pastel earth tones and two green standing shapes suggested nothing so much as two cactii standing in a bare garden of sand. A study for Formes Flasques, a watercolor and charcoal from 1921, with its squiggling pastel lines, has a musical quality and seems to be attempting to push into representation as an embryo or huddled figure emerges from the lightly etched lines.


“Ensemble Statique",
o/c, 28 3/4 x 33 1/2", 1934.

In his early years in Paris, Kupka was a next-door neighbor to Jacques Villon, another modernist painter and Marcel Duchamp’s brother. Fittingly, the back room adjoining the Kupka exhibit is filled with a selection of Villon's work.