Born in 1892 to Czechoslovakian parents in New York, Vaclav Vytlacil and his parents moved to Chicago, Illinois when he was still a young boy. It was apparent from an early age that Vytlacil was especially talented in the arts, and his parents soon enrolled him in classes at the Art institute of Chicago. In 1913, Vytlacil received a scholarship to study at the Art Students League in New York. Under the tutelage of the famous portraitist John C. Johansen, Vytlacil learned to paint as an impressionist. After graduation, Vytlacil returned to the Midwest as a faculty member at the Minneapolis School of Art.
By 1921 he had saved enough of his earnings to travel to Europe to study the works of Cezanne and other artists. Eventually Vytlacil enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in Munich, Germany. When fellow classmate Ernest Thurn withdrew from the Academy in order to enroll at Hans Hofmann's school, Vytlacil soon followed suit. In Hans Hofmann Vytlacil found a cutting-edge, exciting instructor as well as friend. Later the two worked together. In 1924, Vytlacil and Thurn organized Hofmann's summer school on the island of Capri. Vytlacil became an influential advocate of Hoffman’s modernist teachings. Fundamental to his approach was an appreciation that drawing is basic to the methodology of painting, followed by later application of colors to influence space.
Vytlacil married Elizabeth Foster in Florence on August 18, 1927. Upon their return to the United States the following year Worth Ryder, a fellow classmate from Hofmann's school, invited Vytlacil to present a series of lectures on modern European art at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1929 he joined the faculty of the Art Students League in New York. After a year of teaching at the Art Students League, Vytlacil returned to Europe, where he set up a studio in Paris. Back in Europe he was greatly influenced by the works of Picasso, Matisse, and Dufy. He spent the next six years splitting his time among Paris, Capri, and Positano. At Positano he briefly established an informal art school in a villa. Vytlacil returned to the United States and began to help establish the American Abstract Artists group. His only daughter Anne, was born the same year as the opening of the American Abstract Artists Group show, in 1936. A member of the Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors, Vytlacil also taught at various schools throughout the United States including Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Queens College in New York, and the College of Arts and Crafts in California. Among his students, Cy Twombly, James Rosenquist, Robert Rauschenberg, Tony Smith, and Louise Bourgeousn would go on to have distinguished careers as influential artists. In 1946 Vytlacil rejoined the faculty at the Art Students League and remained there until his retirement in 1978.
Many critics agree that Vytlacil's work always contained elements of an emerging penchant for modernism prior even to the time he spent in Europe. Early on, his use of color allowed his representations of space to become at once, both compressed and balanced. His attention to landscapes and cityscapes in the 1930s shows the influences of Cubists principles of space, which he joined with the abstract expressionist approach to line and color. Vytlacil was so enamored with the experimental atmosphere of the modernist art world, that he even took pointers from his former student Rupert Turnbull, and incorporated Constructionism into some of his works-- sometimes adding cardboard, string, metal, and cork to his pieces. Eventually he quit this avenue of artistic exploration, finding it limited.” 1He returned to the challenges, particularly those related to the interpretation of space, which he could explore through the medium of paint. Most of his work is abstracted from recognizable subjects, rather than embracing complete non-objectivity.
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.” 2After enjoying a nationwide reputation as an influential instructor, Vytlacil died in 1984 at the age of 91 in Sparkhill, New York. Vytlacil’s legacy has been preserved through the generosity of his family. His daughter Anne donated his Sparkhill house and studio to the Art Students League in 1996. Since then, The League has used the space to establish the Vytlacil School of Painting and Sculpture.
Written by Hali Thurber
1 Virginia M. Mecklenburg. The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection American Abstraction 1930-1945. National Museum of American Art. Smithsonian Institution Press.
1892 Born November 1st in New York City
1906 Studies at the Art Institute of Chicago
1913 Returns to New York on a scholarship to Art Students League
1916-21 Instructor at the Minneapolis School of Art
1921 Travels to Paris
Moves to Munich and enrolls at the Royal Academy of Art
1924 Vytlacil and Ernst Thurn organize the Hofmann summer school on Capri
1927 Marries Elizabeth Foster of St, Paul, Minnesota in Florence Italy
1928 Lectures at UC Berkeley
Teaches at the Art Students League
1930 First solo exhibition in New York City
1931 Summers on Capri, winters in Paris
1935 Returns permanently from Paris, settles in New York
Teaches at the Art Students League
Instructor in Oakland, CA at the College of Arts and Crafts
1936 Continues teaching at the League
Birth of daughter Anne Bozena
Oxford University Press publishes Egg Tempera Painting, Tempera under Painting: A Manual of Technique, co-authored with his student, Rupert Davidson Turnball
Becomes a founder of the American Abstract League
1937 Continues teaching at League and Florence Cane School
Begins classes at the Dalton School
1940 Buys Sparkhill and converts the stable-and-carriage house into studio
1941 Comes into possession of Martha's Vineyard property
1942 Chairman of the Art Department of Queens College
1945 Teaches at Black Mountain College
1946 Discontinues all teaching at the League
Joins Feigl Gallery
1947 Accepts position as visiting instructor at the Minneapolis School of Art
1950 Teaches at Columbia University
1951-53 Teaches at Colorado Springs Fine Art Center
1957 Teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago
1958 Teaches at Boston College
1960 Spends six months in Mexico
1984 Dies January 10th
1929 Howard Putzel Gallery, Los Angeles
1930 Manfried Schwartz Gallery, New York (1933)
1937 San Francisco Museum of Art
1952 Rochester Memorial Art Gallery
1960 Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA
1982 Martin Diamond Fine Arts, New York
1975 Montclair Art Museum
1929 Women's club in San Francisco, CA
1932 Paris Exposition of American Painters at Galerie Renaissance
1942 Metropolitan Museum of Art, Artists for Victory
Carnegie International (1944 & 1945)
1946 Represented in Encyclopedia Britannica's rotating annual of 12 paintings
1947 Pennsylvania Academy Annual Show
1949 Whitney Annual
1953 Museum of Modern Art traveling show
1958 153rd Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts
1972 American Federation of the Arts
1975 University of Notre Dame Art Gallery
Kennedy Galleries 100th Anniversary Exhibition of the Art Students League
American Abstract Artists-Member
Art Students League
Federation of Modern Painters and Sculptors
Society of Independent Artists
Works by the artist may be found at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Virginia M. Mecklenburg. The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection American Abstraction 1930-1945. National Museum of American Art. Smithsonian Institution Press. 1989. pp. 179-183.
Susan E. Stricklerand Elaine D. Gustafson. The Second Wave: American Abstraction from the 1930s and 1940s. Selections from the Penny and Elton Yasuna Collection. Worcester Art Museum. Massachusetts. 1991.
An American Modernist: Paintings from the '20s and '30s by Vaclav Vytlacil. Graham Gallery. New York: April 22-June 10, 1988.
Vaclav Vytlacil: Apostle of Modernism. Graham Gallery. New York: October 31-December 15, 1990.
Order and Intuition: American Abstraction from the Patty & Jay Baker Naples Museum of Art, 1913-1954. Hollis Tagart Galleries. New York: 2008.
American Abstract Art of the 1930s and 1940s: The J. Donald Nichols Collection. Wake Forest University. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1998.
Vaclav Vytlacil: Paintings and Constructions from 1930. Montclair Art Museum. New Jersey: November 16, 1975- January 25, 1976.
Peter Hastings Falk, ed. Who was who in American art 1564-1975: 400 years of artists in America.Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1999; p.3428.