Among the impressive list of artists who spent time working on the Vineyard (Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock among them), one name — Vaclav Vytlacil — may not be familiar to most. However, Vytlacil was one of the most influential American artists and teachers of his day, and his work hangs in such renowned institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art), and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum is giving the artist his due with a new exhibit featuring over 20 paintings completed during the early to mid-20th century, including many Vineyard scenes. All of the work in the show is on loan, gathered by the museum from private collectors and the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association (MVAA).
“Years ago we did an exhibit featuring work from the Art Association,” says museum curator Anna Barber. “His [Vytlacil’s] work just stayed with me. I wanted to know more about him. He was so different from the other artists.”
Vytlacil’s style is what set him apart from other artists who were working on the Vineyard in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. In one of the oral history recordings that accompany the exhibit, Joe Hazen, a contemporary of the artist and a fellow member of the MVAA, recalls, “It was that kind of art, which I didn’t understand.”
Mr. Hazen was not alone in this opinion. Vytlacil [full name pronounced Vah-slahf Vit-lah-chil] was one of the founders of the American Abstract Artists group, whose style was groundbreaking in its day. Vytlacil, who was of Czech descent born in Chicago, traveled, trained, and worked extensively in Europe before returning to the U.S., where he taught at the Art Students League in New York and at other schools around the country. While in Europe, Vytlacil studied under Hans Hoffman and was influenced by such painters as Picasso, Matisse, and Raoul Dufy. German-born Hoffman, whose work is also included in the MVAA collection at the Old Sculpin Gallery, was a pivotal figure in Abstract Expressionism.
Vytlacil’s roots are clearly in evidence in many of the paintings included in the museum exhibit. Some of his work, the portraits especially, are done in a cubist style — ranging from the fairly representational “Girl with Cat 1” to the more abstract, almost surrealist large “Fisherman” paintings that are featured prominently in the exhibit.
The paintings cover a wide range of the artist’s career, dating from 1915 to 1970, and his evolution as an artist is well represented. In a publication for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art, Virginia L. Mecklenburg writes of Vytlacil, “His work in the 1940s and 1950s went through a transition away from the structure of form and a new fascination with how to render the energy of his subjects. Whether it was landscape, still life, or human figure, Vytlacil’s work at this point took on what some might call an element of spontaneity.”
Ms. Barber explains that from 1941 until his death in the 1980s, Vytlacil spent summers at his home in Squibnocket, and much of the work in the exhibit features seaside scenes, gulls and roosters, fishermen, and other common Island images.
The artist was a member of the MVAA, and taught at the association’s Old Sculpin Gallery. He was friends with Benton and other renowned artists who also summered here at that time. He is remembered by a handful of Islanders in the exhibit’s oral histories, collected and curated by the museum’s Linsey Lee.
Mary Coles, a fellow artist, recalls Vytlacil fondly: “He was very handsome and he used to dive wonderfully off a raft down at the bathing beach, across Chappaquiddick.” These types of recollections add a very personal touch to the museum’s exhibit.
Despite his innovation and accomplishments, Vytlacil never became as popular as many of his contemporaries, or even as well known as some of his students, including Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, and Louise Bourgeois.
“He helped open people’s minds up to abstract art,” says Ms. Barber. “He was at the forefront of the abstract movement in this country, but never got the same credibility as some of his peers and contemporaries.”
Ms. Barber notes that a few years back, the Ashley John Gallery in Florida hosted a Vytlacil retrospective. The exhibit was called “Famous, Forgotten, Found.” “I think that was an appropriate title,” says Ms. Barber.
Luckily, thanks to the MVAA and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Vytlacil will not be forgotten on the Vineyard. The new exhibit, titled “Vaclav Vytlacil: Rhythm and Color,” offers a great opportunity for visitors to admire the work of a very influential American artist, and also to appreciate the Island’s rich history of attracting and supporting artists in many disciplines.
The exhibit will be up through Dec. 23. Visit mvmuseum.org for more information.