Friday, April 23, 2010

An Artist's Artist

by Drew MartinI have always liked the idea of the artist's artist, the actor's actor or the writer's writer, etc. This person might not have a very big mainstream audience or enjoy the financial benefits of success in his or her field but the status is maintained by the sheer respect and sometimes awe from his or her peers. He or she pursues obscure themes and projects that can be far from the marketplace.

When Prague was still a mysterious and roguish place, there roamed the artist Petr Vaněček (I think that was his last name). One night he invited me to his attic flat. As a gift, I brought with me some old black and white photographs of a great fire that had engulfed parts of Prague from what appeared to be the first half of the 20th century. He examined them for a long time, as if he was remembering this event well before his birth. His flat was Bohemian in every regard. His toilet, for example, had a bucket next to it and instructions above it of how one needed to fill it with water and empty it into the toilet in order to flush. We sat in two arm chairs: his had a broken armrest, which he casually lifted and slid toward me, explaining that it effortlessly detached so he could easily and passionately advance on a young women who might be sitting in my spot. When I acknowledged his maneuver, he returned the armrest and leaned back, happy with himself. He was in rare form that night.

Well after midnight, we left his flat and wandered the streets, stopping off at various clubs. As we walked, he told me that during communism, young women would lean out their windows and over their balconies and call down to him (or any other man they fancied). If such a meeting advanced, the woman would toss down her apartment key and he would ascend. The night ended as it might with Fellini: the morning sun spilled its light over the shadows of the evening and the sobering hustle of the new day sent the night creatures back to their hiding spots. I recall Petr pointing to a woman in a new car who had stopped at a traffic light next to us. He said it was the daughter of Jan Saudek, the famous Czech photographer. At that spot we went our ways and I never saw him again.

I do not remember much of Petr's work, only that he was that kind of mythical artist's artist. The one thing I have fond memories of, however, (I visited him during various stages of it) was his obsessive painting of triangles on the walls of the café Velryba (Whale), which was just opening at that time in the early 1990s. Recently, I heard that some people thought it was my own creation (as I was also doing some artwork for clubs and cafés) but I could never be that genuinely manic. Now it comes off as simply decorative but when he was consumed with it, it was more like Friedensreich Hundertwasser's The Hamburg Line - The Growing Red Sea, which was the endless line he set out to draw with Bazon Brock and Harald Schult at Lerchenfeld Art Institute in Hamburg in 1959. After performing the endless line, he was asked to leave his post. The line was ten miles long and took two days and nights to make. Petr's triangles also remind me of Hundertwasser's dislike of the straight line:

The straight line is ungodly

The straight line leads to the downfall of humanity

Years after our evening, I tried to visit Petr but he had been kicked out of his flat. In the stairwell of that building, I met a nice, clean young couple with a baby girl who told me this news and gave me quite a look of guilt by association. I don't know what happened to Petr but I think there is part of him still roaming those streets at night.