Art Historian Marta Smolikova talks to Robert Horvitz
for GRAPHEION magazine (published August 2000, pages 56-57):
SMOLIKOVA: How did your interest in drawing begin?
HORVITZ: With calligraphy. I went to Hebrew school and found Hebrew a wonderful alphabet for calligraphy. Later, when I was a teenager I worked as a sign-painter for 3 summers. Then in 1965 an event occurred that sent me toward drawing.
A rock-and-roll show was coming to Akron and I had to paint signs for it. The design included a thin straight line under the names of the performers. There were about 30 names, so the line was nearly 5 meters long. But it was Friday and I wanted to go to a party that night in another city, so I had to get the signs done fast. This led to the discovery, quite by accident, that by painting faster than I could consciously control, I could make a line that was much straighter than by doing it carefully. When you paint carefully, you tend to overcorrect and that makes the line waver.
Gaining control by giving up control - that was a paradox - very Zen. It completely changed my approach to sign-painting, and drawing seemed like a better way to explore that experience.
SMOLIKOVA: How did you develop the technique of using just one kind of mark?
HORVITZ: It happened gradually. When I got out of college I tried quite consciously to re-invent drawing, to find a way of working that was based on real needs, not just appearances or precedents. I drew with my eyes closed for about 6 months - swirls, zig-zags and scribbles that didn't add up to anything, but at least I found out what felt right. Gradually my vocabulary got smaller and simpler and eventually just one type of mark remained. It was the briefest gesture I could make with the pen. I put the pen on the paper and flick it. That makes a comet-shaped track about 1 or 2 cm long. The start is the widest part, and then as the point accelerates, less ink reaches the paper, so the mark tapers until it breaks into tiny dashes, and then disappears as the point leaves the paper.
The important thing about this mark is that it's completely reliable. I can make it without any thought at all. It gives my work a consistent, quantified base, and it's fast. I've used just this one mark since the summer of 1970.
SMOLIKOVA: Was that when you began exhibiting your work?
HORVITZ: Yes. I had something in the New England Drawing Society's biennial in 1970. My first solo show was 1971 at the school where I was teaching. That winter I made my first trek down to New York City. The Museum of Modern Art took one of my drawings for their lending service. I had two solo shows the following year, started writing for Artforum magazine and did an album cover for Keith Jarrett. So I had relatively quick success. Too quick. By 1975 I couldn't start a drawing without thinking, "How much is this going to be worth?" So I stopped selling my work. I didn't stop drawing, I just stopped selling. A year later, I left Artforum and eventually stopped showing my work in public.
HORVITZ: I got fed up with the artworld. The games you had to play were so juvenile, and the egos so inflated. I felt it was more important to protect my relationship with drawing and the way to do that, I thought, was by keeping it private. The fact is, I don't work for viewers and after a while I couldn't think of a good reason to have my work seen. Now I'm much older and more relaxed about these issues. Somehow it's become interesting to get reactions from other people, so last year I started showing and selling again.
SMOLIKOVA: When I first saw your drawings, I thought they were quite hermetic. But if you really look at them, they are direct and easy to read.
HORVITZ: I'm completely unguarded when I draw.
SMOLIKOVA: This quite surprised me, because if you know Czech art, it inclines very much toward symbolism and hidden meanings. In our history it was quite difficult to express oneself openly. So I was very surprised to see that it is possible to express ideas so directly.
HORVITZ: I'm trying to get close to the language of thought. It's hard to put into words what the mind does, but drawing can map those processes better than anything but music. It's so agile. It's like a cloth you put over some complex object and it takes on the shape of the object exactly.
SMOLIKOVA: Do you sketch the picture ahead of time?
HORVITZ: Never. I never pencil in an area to see how it might look, or use guide-marks or rulers. That's cheating. I enjoy the risk of working in ink with no "safety net."
SMOLIKOVA: Do you make mistakes?
HORVITZ: I usually don't make physical mistakes, like smudges or drips. When I make a mistake it's because I didn't think through the consequences of my choices carefully enough. If that happens, I have to abandon the drawing.
SMOLIKOVA: In the catalog of your retrospective at exhibition hall Manes [Prague, December 1999] you write alot about your personal life and how that is connected to creation. What were the most important times in your life that influenced your work?
HORVITZ: I hate to say it, but I do my best work when I'm hurt. It's Freudian, I guess. There have been a few times when I did good work while being happy - one time is now, the other was during the early 1980s. I can't explain the relationship between quality of life and quality of art.
The core of my work, you know, is my diary. It started in 1970, and there are about 45 drawings in the series now. The great thing about having a long-term record like that is I can see the major episodes of my life so clearly. I don't know if they're clear to other people. Usually I see a shift in the drawings long before I can feel it in daily life.
SMOLIKOVA: Can you give an example?
HORVITZ: From 1970 to the end of 1972 I was in a rapid growth phase. It was exciting and wild and the drawings show that. They're just bursting with energy. From 1973 to 1977, I was consolidating what I learned during the earlier phase, so my work is more systematic, more analytical. The innovations are intellectual, not psychological. My work from 1977 to 1984 gets much more expressive and organic. My mother died from cancer during that period, so I was thinking alot about life and death. 1984 to 1987 was dominated by "Nova," and then I quit drawing for 9 years. In the 1990s...I don't know yet how I would characterize this period.
SMOLIKOVA: Why did you quit drawing for 9 years?
HORVITZ: Well, I never wanted it to become a job, something I had to do, like homework for school. I've always tried to treat each drawing as the last I'll ever do, and I don't start a drawing until I'm convinced it'll be better than the most recent one. Which means that after a really great drawing, it might take a while for an even better idea to come. And that's what happened with "Nova." "Nova" was the most intense and essential drawing I'd ever done. I just couldn't go back to lesser projects. I waited for something more profound to come, and it did finally, but it took 9 years. I haven't attempted it yet, but I'm preparing for it now.
SMOLIKOVA: Can you talk about it?
HORVITZ: It's about having a child. I witnessed the birth of our son, Sasha, and that's where the idea came from. I know how the drawing should be organized, but I don't yet have the right metaphors for putting it on paper. I'm still thinking it through. All the drawings I'm doing now are steps toward rendering that idea.
SMOLIKOVA: You briefly mentioned the Jewish tradition earlier. Can you talk more about how that influenced your work?
HORVITZ: I don't know that it did. I'm glad I learned to write in Hebrew, but under different circumstances, if I had been born Moslem, I would have gotten the same benefit from Arabic. All the Semitic languages are designed for calligraphy in a way that Latin is not.
I never think about being Jewish. I'm not religious. Judaism traditionally is opposed to representational art and I feel that way, too, so maybe that's an influence. I know how to draw people and objects but it doesn't interest me. We have machines for that now.
SMOLIKOVA: How do your drawings relate to your work in electronic media and with the Soros foundations? Did your experience with computers influence your drawings?
HORVITZ: I first tried to draw with a computer in 1970. It was pathetic. The languages were so primitive, the hardware was even worse. But more to the point, the value of drawing comes - I think - from the experience of the making. When you make the marks yourself, you get much more feedback, more insight than when you work through a machine. You feel the stresses and possibilities more sharply. For me, drawing is still the superior technology.
But in fact, my work is algorithmic. I organize systems of rules for making decisions, and that does resemble computer programming, with an important difference: my systems provoke human judgment rather than eliminate it. I want to see how goals change as I approach them. Often I set conflicting goals. That would drive a machine crazy, but people have to deal with conflicting and changing goals all the time. I'm sure it is possible to program a computer to make drawings that look like mine, but why bother? The computer can't learn what I learn. And it's the insights that are important, not what the drawing looks like.
But there's another side to the question. I hope I can say this without sounding pretentious. For artwork to be important - not just beautiful or interesting - it has to resonate with the production methods that define that era. The symphony orchestra reached its peak while factories were replacing small workshops. That's no accident. Today you can feel a similar resonance in the science fiction epics of Hollywood - "Star Wars," "2001," "Mission to Mars," etc. Drawing by hand on paper simply doesn't represent the type of media that make our time unique. It's great for some kinds of expression, some kinds of learning. But we shouldn't be surprised that few people take it seriously anymore.
I'm glad I stopped drawing long enough to get involved in electronic media and the changes after Communism. But I've made my home in drawing and it has become quite irreplaceable. It may not define our era, but it sure has proven its value.