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Vaclav Vytlacil

(1892-1984)

American Modernist & Art Educator

by Jessica Seaman

Vaclav Vytlacil was one of the forerunners of American modernism, working hard to bring autonomy to contemporary art forms like Abstract Expressionism in the United States. As a student of Hans Hoffman and a teacher to such famous artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Vytlacil was at the center of a revolutionary assemblage of talented painters, all of whom contributed immensely to the progress of American art in the twentieth century.




Table Of Contents

I. BIOGRAPHY

Vaclav Vytlacil, the son of Czech immigrants, was born in New York on November 1, 1892. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1906, and in 1913, he earned a scholarship to study at the Art Student League in New York under the direction of Luminist painter John C. Johansen and Realist Anders Zorn.

In 1921, after five years of teaching at the Minneapolis School of Art, Vytlacil decided to travel to Europe. He visited Paris and Prague, but eventually formed an artistic alliance in Munich with Worth Ryder and Chicago-born artist Ernest Thurn. As foreign students, they were forced to enroll in a school recognized by the Ministry of Culture, so they matriculated at the Bavarian Academy of Art. Thurn transferred to a nearby school run by Hans Hoffman and Vytlacil later followed suit. Hoffman provided wisdom and guidance for the young artists struggling with the challenges of the post-Cezanne era in painting. Over the six years that Vytlacil remained in Munich, the travels and discussions that he shared with Hoffman would prove to be monumentally influential in his artistic career.

Vytlacil married Elizabeth Foster in Florence on August 18, 1927. They came back to the United States for one year when Ryder, a professor at Berkeley, asked him to teach a lecture course called The Modern Painting and Sculpture of Europe. They returned to the States permanently in 1935, when Vytlacil began to teach at the Florence Cane School in Rockefeller Center, New York City. Throughout his life, Vytlacil would also teach at the Art Student League, Black Mountain College, Queens College, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Cy Twombly, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Tony Smith, and Louise Bourgeousn were among his many students.

In 1936, Elizabeth Vytlacil gave birth to their only child Anne, and Vaclav co-founded the American Abstract Artists Group with Arshille Gorky, Byron Browne, and William De Kooning. He was an active participant for many years and proved to be a strong voice in the emerging era of American Modernism. He was also a member of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors. In search of a change in environment, he purchased a home on the Martha’s Vineyard. The island’s seascapes inspired an oceanic theme in much of his later work.

Vaclav Vytlacil died on Thursday, January 5th, 1984 in New York at the age of 91. In 1996, Anne Vytlacil Williams bequeathed his house and studio in Sparkhill, New York to the Art Students League, which in turn founded the Vytlacil School of Painting and Sculpture. The school offers high caliber, yet affordable classes to many of the city’s artistic residents.

II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK

Throughout his career, Vaclav Vytlacil took inspiration from studying the works of the masters. The various periods in his collection often correspond with his molding a certain artist’s style into his own.

Vytlacil traveled to Europe in the early 1920’s to study the paintings of Cezanne. The angular deformations and interrupted planes that typified Cezanne’s later work began to play a part in Vytlacil’s own still lifes. In Munich, Hans Hoffman encouraged his student’s entrance into the world of abstraction.

When Vytlacil returned to New York in the 1930’s, he sought to bring the modernism that he had discovered in Europe to the United States. Upon founding the American Abstract Artists, he continued to support a truly American identity in the modernist world. His still lifes and figures began to reflect the cubist rhetoric that he had studied in Paris in works of Mattisse and Picasso.

In an interview conducted by Bruce Hooton in 1966, he stated,

“…everyone turned to geometric painting. I think for the first time there were constructions made. I know I did eight or ten. I believe these were some of the very first constructions done in New York City on the basis of modern abstract sculptural form. Mine were sort of hard to describe- things hung onto a door- I mean various objects. I also did a three dimensional structure and had a great desire to go on with the three dimensional, but we were living in two rooms with a newly acquired family. So my wife instructed me ‘No more three dimensions’- and that was the end of the phase.”

In the late 30’s and early 40’s, Vaclav’s painting came closest to being non-representational. The collection housed by the Caldwell Gallery includes a number of pieces from this period, including one called “Untitled Abstraction” from 1938. With mixed media on paper mounted on panel, the work showcases unusual forms, both sharp and organic, floating in an overlapping atmosphere of black, white, brown, and dark blue. In homage to his mentor, Hans Hoffman, and the emerging American Modernism, he often incorporated unexplainable biomorphic and geometric forms into his compositions.

Throughout the next decade, Vytlacil’s returned to more representational elements but maintained an interest in modernist space. He developed freer brushstrokes and was less discriminatory in his choice of subject matter. This is evident in his paintings from Martha’s Vineyard. He used a predominantly cool palette of sea greens and blues with interjections of red and yellow. Though the subject of the painting is clear, the execution is abstracted and the lines are more loosely applied. His gouache “Fish in Net” from 1948 realizes the subject of the title, if unconventionally. The bodies of fish are outlined with simplistic, almost childlike lines with quick gestural strokes to represent the gills, the eyes, or the string of the net. They are laid flat against the canvas, and, without the suggestion of depth, they appear to be floating in space. The fish and the surrounding background are colored in with a myriad of unexpected tones further abstracting the forms. Other paintings like “Fishing Harbor” (1947) and “Two Gulls” from Martha’s Vineyard deconstruct their subjects, boats and seagulls respectively, in the same way.

Vytlacil maintained an interest in abstraction throughout his life but stopped short of achieving pure nonobjective art. His true gift to the art world lay in his continued advocacy of modern painting. Through his work and lengthy teaching career, his cutting-edge ideas reached a wide range of viewers and influenced an entire generation of younger artists.

III. COLLECTIONS

  • Boca Raton Museum of Art, FL
  • Caldwell Gallery, NY
  • Chicago Municipal Collection, IL
  • Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, CO
  • David Findlay Jr. Inc, NY
  • Dessau Museum, Germany
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
  • Milwaukee Art Institute, WI
  • Neuberger Museum of Art, NY
  • New Jersey State Museum, NJ
  • Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, PA
  • Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
  • Rochester Museum of Art, NY
  • Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, NE
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
  • University of Notre Dame Art Gallery in South Bend, IN
  • University of Wyoming Art Museum, Laramie, WY
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
  • IV. AWARDS

  • 1913 Prize, Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1936 Gold Prize, Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1936 Gold Prize, France
  • 1914 Honorable Mention, Society of American Artists
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1913, 1914-1920, 1936, 1937-41 Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1915, 1945-64 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Annual, Philadelphia
  • 1916-49 Corcoran Gallery Biennials, Washington, D.C.
  • 1917 Society of Independent Artists
  • 1936 France
  • 1914 Society of American Artists
  • 1938-62 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
  • 1942, 1944, 1945 Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh
  • 1944 “Artists for Victory,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • 1955 Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington, D.C.
  • 1951 Feigle Gallery in New York, NY
  • 1975 Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, retrospective
  • 1980-81 Diamond Museum of Fine Art, NYC (solo exhibition)
  • V. EXHIBITIONS

  • 1913, 1914-1920, 1936, 1937-41 Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1915, 1945-64 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Annual, Philadelphia
  • 1916-49 Corcoran Gallery Biennials, Washington, D.C.
  • 1917 Society of Independent Artists
  • 1936 France
  • 1914 Society of American Artists
  • 1938-62 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
  • 1942, 1944, 1945 Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh
  • 1944 “Artists for Victory,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • 1955 Phillips Memorial Gallery, Washington, D.C.
  • 1951 Feigle Gallery in New York, NY
  • 1975 Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, retrospective
  • 1980-81 Diamond Museum of Fine Art, NYC (solo exhibition)
  • VI. Bibliography

    1. 1. Askart.com
    2. 2. Ebony, David. “Vaclav Vytlacil at David Findlay, Jr.” Art in America, April 2002 v90 i4 p154. Brant Publications, Inc. 2002
    3. 3. Falk, Peter Hastings. Who Was Who In American Art 1964-1975. Vol. III: P-Z. Sound View Press: CT. 3428
    4. 4. Glueck, Grace. Art in Review: ‘Vaclav Vytlacil and the Advent of American Modernism: 1920-1940.’ The New York Times, January 21, 2000.
    5. 5. Hooton, Bruce. Interview with Vaclav Vylacil, March 2, 1966. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
    6. 6. “Vaclav Vytlacil (American 1892-1984)” Gene Shapiro www.geneshapiro.com
    7. 7. “Vaclav Vytlacil, Artist; Began Abstract Group.” The New York Times, January 11, 1984.

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