Though Czech artist JirË?í KolárË? (1914-2002) eventually migrated from poetry to collage, he was always a wordsmith, inventing names for the gestures and elements that inspired his process: crumplage, confrontage, chiasmage, ventilage, magrittage are a few that read like single-word poems. Each was explicated in his 1986 Dictionary of Methods, one of the 40-odd pieces of art and ephemera from the ’60s to the ’80s in the jarring, often droll exhibition “The Poetics of Silence.”
Already an accomplished poet when the Communists rose to power, KolárË? was jailed briefly in the 1950s for his writing, spurring his shift to work almost entirely visual. He was active in avant-garde groups in Prague before moving to France in 1980. By then, his art, influenced by Dada and Surrealism, had already been the subject of major exhibitions, including a 1975 retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
In 1972-73, KolárË? devoted a major cycle of 56 collages, “Les Fleurs du Mal,”to Baudelaire and his 1857 cycle of poems on decadence and eroticism. Two examples were exhibited at the gallery. Charles Baudelaire: Hymn, a large (393⁄8-by-275⁄8-inch) collage on board, is KolárË?’s erotic take on a chaste love poem. Half the surface is composed of dozens of tiny orange-colored scraps containing the face of Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque and cut to form the side-view silhouette of a breast. Its nipple pokes into a sea of similarly cut-and-pasted images of Baudelaire’s face, tinted blue.
KolárË?’s dimensional use of cut-up text on flat surfaces or 3-D objects was often elegant and sensual, as in A Page from the Chronicles (1971), a crushed can coated with newsprint and anchored to a word-collaged canvas; the piece looks almost antique in its yellowed, arrested state. He cranked up the volume in his use of artwork by old masters. In If Eyes Could Scratch (1970), he nested a color reproduction of Goya’s La maja desnuda in a dizzy display of cutout musical notes and scratched out her lips, nipples and pubic hair. Audubonlike naturalist prints serve as a backdrop in the series “Birds (Untitled),” 1968-75, 29 striking collages, each about 12¼ by 8½ inches, in which pelican, raptor and shore-bird bodies are inhabited by details from well-known paintings.
The exhibition’s showpiece was Mona Lisa Environment (1964), a mixed-medium tableau in which Leonardo’s icon and domestic images from ’60s magazines were torn into tiny bits and wrapped over a cutting board, rolling pin and globe on a dressing table, with a collage on the wall behind: kitchen meets boudoir in a feminist satire almost as trenchant as the near-contemporary collages of Martha Rosler.
KolárË?’s vivid compositions are never mute. To crumple, to vent, to confront: his gestures are keen reminders of the kinship between poetry and collage—of the power of juxtaposed, altered imagery, and its lasting sting.
Photo: JirË?í KolárË?: Birds (Vermeer), 1970, collage, 121⁄4 by 81⁄2 inches; at Pavel Zoubok.