Vaclav Vytlacil


The best-known Vineyard artist most of us have never heard of.


On the road into Squibnocket there is a house of ells and angles that sits overlooking the pond and the beach, its bright blue door a spot of color amidst gray shingles and fog. I’d always seen it, and eventually I found out that it was the house and summer studio of Vaclav Vytlacil, a New York painter of some note. 

Vytlacil acquired the house in  1941; he had been a friend of the owner, Helen Wheeler, and had painted her portrait in 1915. It is a lovely, rather traditional painting of a pretty young woman dressed in white, sitting at a table in a room of warm and cool grays. The light is coming from behind her and off to the side, so her face and much of her figure are in shadow. It is a study in values from her dress, pure white where the light hits it, to the dark wooden table and her black hair.

The Wheeler portrait is typical in technique to much of Vytlacil’s early work. He believed in the importance of drawing. Many of the paintings of this period were beautifully designed and drawn, rendered in a loose Impressionist style. There are landscapes, some looking as though they could have been painted on the Vineyard. One in particular, just titled Landscape, 1915, is of a long view sloping away from the artist and viewer to tidal rivulets, beach, and the ocean beyond. It looks very much like Squibnocket or Blackstone Valley landscapes that could have been painted today. Complementary colors, broken brushwork, softened edges, all spring pinks and soft greens.


Born in 1892 in New York City, Vytlacil moved to Chicago with his family, began his studies at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1906, then returned to New York on his own as a scholarship student at the Art Students League. He traveled extensively through Europe, studying art and culture. He was attracted to the work of Paul Cezanne for the way Cezanne broke up space and images, often creating an almost pixelated effect that is obvious in many of Vytlacil’s paintings from the 1940s on. Studying the work of Braque, Picasso, Matisse, and of course Hans Hofmann, he was able to incorporate and personalize what he saw as he developed his own visual language. 

He had studied with Hans Hofmann in Germany, and convinced his mentor to come to New York to teach with him at the Art Students League. Placing Vytlacil at a point on the artistic continuum between Hofmann and the artists listed above, it is clear that he was a seminal figure in the development of 20th century modernism. Had he only brought Hofmann, whose teaching principles are credited with the Abstract Expressionist movement, to New York, he would have had a major impact on American contemporary art. Besides Vytlacil, Hofmann acolytes included Wolf Kahn, Helen Frankenthaler, Nell Blaine, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Richard Stankiewicz, Larry Rivers, Louise Nevelson, Willem and Elaine de Kooning. Abstract Expressionism became the first art movement of America, and had a major impact on contemporary art that followed.

For many summers he invited to Martha’s Vineyard students from the Art Students League, where he taught on and off beginning in 1928 until his retirement in 1978. Looking at the names of some of his students, I can imagine stimulating conversations and norm-shattering art created during those times. Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Louise Bourgeois, Clyfford Still, and Tony Smith, familiar and respected names in the art world, were among Vytlacil’s students.

“Donald Poole, 1947” Mixed media, 22 x 19 inches.

Vytlacil must have been a voracious appreciator through his travels, as influences abound. A series of figures called Tribal Series, painted only using black and white, have the look of African masks, and some of his dancing women seem to owe a debt to John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo. There is a delicacy of line in his drawings of classical-looking figures reminiscent of Picasso’s and Matisse’s similarly rendered figures. They remind me also of Cy Twombly, whose work combined the classical references of much of Vytlacil’s figurative work with the gestural mark-making that became Twombly’s signature. 

Vytlacil also created figures that were monumental, sculptural, many referring to the classical draped figures of ancient Greece and Rome. Then look at the series of Women paintings that Willem de Kooning made, great, dominant figures filling the canvas even as their edges dissolved into the dancing brushwork of the background, in and out painted edges, visible and disappearing, all energetically rendered. I cannot imagine Matisse’s Blue Nudes or any of his Dancers or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon not influencing a young, eager art student. 

Over his years of Vineyard summers, one can see the progression of style from Vytlacil’s early paintings to those owing much to his study of Cubism and proceeding through America’s more modern styles. There are landscapes that remind me of Milton Avery, with broad, flat painted areas and oddly decorative patterns within. Many of his Menemsha Harbor paintings feel as active as something by Stuart Davis or Piet Mondrian. 

By the period from 1940 on, when he primarily painted on the Vineyard, his brushwork was almost invisible, nothing like the broken, interconnected brushstrokes of his early paintings. They became very flat, with a lot of what I would call “back-painting,” (my own made-up word) — painting flat, descriptive or tidying-up areas over whatever was painted beneath, tightening the image by softening or sharpening its edges, simplifying the overall picture. He often uses a color that is just a shade off what’s underneath, so the over-painting or back-painting is clearly intended and observable.  He so obviously relished the use of negative space. The subjects of his paintings are described more by the negative areas than by outlines, by broad swaths of color with which he often conceals the more recognizable objects beneath. Most of the linear drawing in his earlier work has disappeared by this time; line has become more a device of rhythmic patterning.

“Menemsha Swordfishing Vessel” 18×14 inches, mixed media.

He is a master of design, using the space of his matrix completely, as though his subjects possess an energy too big to be contained. His fishermen, boats, gulls, and landscapes are drawn out to the edges. He distorts perspective and ignores the viewer’s senses. Boats are subsumed by the sea. Objects pitch and bob with no restraints, or trail off the page on their sides. In what appears to be a bird’s-eye view, Vytlacil has given part of the picture a sense of deep space while other parts feel right under the viewer’s nose. He has reduced the importance of whatever objects are in his paintings to make the paint become the subject. The use of paint, its colors and movement and qualities, is the subject of Abstract Expressionism, and eventually of Color Field painting. Here are its beginnings in Vytlacil’s work.

Vytlacil was a familiar figure along Squid Row, reputed to have traded sketches of Menemsha with returning local fishermen for fresh fish to bring home to his wife for dinner. Many of his sketches are mixed media, painted areas over pencil or charcoal drawing, small and breathtakingly rich.

Vytlacil also painted some of the local fishermen. A portrait of Donald Poole from 1947 was featured in a retrospective exhibition, “Vaclav Vytlacil: Rhythm and Color,” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in 2017. There are others just called Fisherman, of no specific person, but perfectly capturing the attitude of a wader-clad fisherman with his catch. 

Besides teaching at the Art Students League and at other schools, Vytlacil was a co-founder with Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning of American Abstract Artists in 1936. He was always mindful of his role as an educator, and the mission of that organization was to help educate the American public regarding this new art movement. 

“Storm Over Lucy Vincent Beach” 1968, 14×16 inches, mixed media on paper.

He was a founding member of the Martha’s Vineyard Art Association in 1934, and an early artist in residence at the Old Sculpin Gallery, where he continued to teach summer art classes and give lectures for many years. The Old Sculpin held a memorial show in his honor in 1984, and has regularly exhibited his work since then. In February 2011, then gallery director Melissa Breese gave a talk about his work and the art movement he helped create. “Unwrapping the Enigma Behind an Abstract Artist” and a concurrent exhibition of Vytlacil’s work at the West Tisbury library brought him once again to the attention of the Island community. Breese had catalogued his work for the Vytlacil family after his death. She was a helpful and informed source as I began my research for this article.

“Landscape” 1915, 12×15 inches, oil on linen.

Vytlacil’s work is represented in the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery, the Phillips Collection, and others, as well as our Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and the permanent collection of the Old Sculpin Gallery. The Granary Gallery’s August 2018 show paired Vytlacil with Thomas Hart Benton. Several of the paintings referred to in this article are on the Granary Gallery website.

Kib Bramhall has painted the Vytlacil house twice, saying that it appealed to him for itself as the subject of a painting, and also as a bit of old Vineyard history. Both of Kib’s paintings were done in winter from a low viewpoint, looking up to the structure, new snow covering the landscape. One painting is a night scene painted from a distance, of the house with windows lit and smoke curling from the chimney. The other is of a bright day, the artist closer to his subject, a cloudless yellow sky enveloping the house that looks closed up against the weather. It seems rather fitting for another artist to find Vytlacil’s house and studio an interesting subject.

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