”The long way of the line” – on the œvre of painter Otto Zitko

Herbert Lachmayr

A line drawn by Otto Zitko when he paints continues the line which the artist began a long time ago. It is the line which accompanies him 'on the road' as an artist following nomadic principles, as an artist who literally drafts a path in maze-like networks and then pursues it (or proceeds first and then re-traces his steps), as an artist who places two-dimensional lines in existing spaces with space-occupying gestures of painting/drawing, thus giving the spaces dynamism, removing their boundaries and enriching them by undreamt-of depth which hints at the dimension of time.

When Otto Zitko stopped painting in the late eighties, this act did not reflect a kind of manifesto – something along the lines of "painting is dead for me, too"; he did not abandon painting, thus seemingly transcending it, the decision was paradoxically based on the self-critical and purifying reason that the only way to further develop painting is to pursue the line. The artist was not concerned with a kind of graphism as a fundamentalist ideology after the end of painting; much rather, Zitko uses the long way of the line (the title of a 1987 drawing) to leave a trace that precedes all painting. He prioritised drawing, which to him is the current form of painting, the flow of the continuous line, while ruling out that he is finally rejecting conventional painting.

As a non-painting painter who elevates the area-dividing boundary in the shape of the space-dividing – and also space-constituting – line to the status of a programmatic principle, he precisely turns into a reality of art what is paradoxical and impossible as a utopia. As the line embarks on its way to become an area, a state which it will never entirely reach in spite of all concentration and intensification, Zitko's consistent idea and intention becomes clear: to bring out the processual character of art production in such dynamically enhanced graphism, thus identifying it as the dominant feature in the result itself. Using the 'principle of the line', the artist succeeds in applying this one-dimensional means in such a way that he reaches all further dimensions. In any event, the line, being the eccentric centre of his art, used, as in Otto Zitko's case, as an artistic element of form, as an existential image or psychological metaphor points to a multiplicity of directions. For example, delirious as a term for psychological states is a word denoting something precarious, or behaviour that does not correspond to a norm; in a similar vein, borderline case stands for a person in a state on the edge, somebody who might go from one extreme to the other, or does not know where he/she belongs, who is unreliable and cannot stand strain etc. Literally, delirious is derived from the Latin de linea ire which means 'to cross the line', an act of psychological border-crossing in a figurative sense. Using the word line in this specific sense, as in delirious thinking, one enters the realm of the borderline, one dwells in a psychological no-man's-land, an in-between where the rational domestication of the conscious and the uninhibited wishes of the unconscious meet to conspire.

The artist has a predilection for networks. For him, as an artistic figure, the metaphors of travelling, of being on the road is a fascinating model of existence – movement from place to place, from station to station, is something that continues in his drawings; involuntarily, one is reminded of Martin Kippenberger's underground stops. Otto Zitko's line, driving and being driven, is also an existential symbol of himself as an artistic figure, and it does not end in an area; much rather, three- and multi-dimensional phenomena are created as existing spaces are destroyed. Raving mad lines deconstruct existent spatial structures such as those in Venice and Linz, thus creating new, multi-layered spaces. For the Biennial, the artist produced condensed lines which were to counteract the concept of this large-scale exhibition with its honeycomb-like set-up of transit: space was to become a world in the minds of the beholders, at least for a few seconds before they proceeded through the exhibition maze.

In Linz Zitko caused the unadorned stairwell of a gallery to 'disintegrate' in his concentrated linear graphism as he covered edges and corners, making them disappear and generating a view into new spatial depth through a tangled network structure: the beholders were literally in the picture, they actually 'proceeded' to the first floor in it. At the same time, it was no longer the functionally exhaustive purpose of the stairwell to help someone reach a higher level: much rather, it served the equally liberating and oppressive feeling of vertical motion in this spatial picture. As important as the space-generating and concomitantly space-destroying ductus in the process of painting may be to Zitko when the creation of lines is tantamount to the creation of time, the artist's perfect presence in absolute presentness, the way the beholder experiences his picture spaces, is at the same time a chance for perfect perception where conscious and unconscious exist on a par. For Zitko, the production of his works is a psycho-physical extension of his body as an instrument in the process of painting, his attention is mentally and profanely-spiritually focused on what is actual, he devotes himself to an excess of the here and now, which is transported by the labyrinthine line.

In the Kunsthalle Bern Zitko worked for three days and nights without stopping, completing five rooms, facing the inevitability of the situation from stage to stage, room to room, his artistic activity coming out of an intensified state of being to which he owed his energy, out of a heightened awareness of life – aesthetic decisions are taken in an instant, out of the tension of the moment in which the pointed expression of the temporal now imagines a spatial here and makes it materialise. The contemplative core of such an artistic activity is quasi psycho-technically disposed and grounded in the aesthetic strategy of production in that the respective complex artistic act is executed up to the minute and specifically geared to each situation, not based on long-term conception and planning. Hence the artist comes up to his ambivalent ideas in an immediate way, exposing himself to them, confronting them and finding a solution in no time at all, thus preserving the structure of tension involving his own contradictoriness. From this angle, Zitko is something like a realist abstract artist of ageing modernism, an avant-garde artistic figure working in a perfect not-yet using the acme of that which has never been reached and that which remains incomplete. In this sense, he is also a romantic: the reality of his line is tantamount to the dream of travelling on and in it.

The factors of movement and acceleration form the "time core" (a term coined by Adorno) which Zitko's works enshrine as if these were held spellbound in the result, the so-called artwork, due to a magical process of production which is to be taken in by a congenial beholder in this dynamic state, thus being newly actualised. "What makes the artworks rustle is the sound of friction of antagonistic moments which the artwork is seeking to bring together; not least is it writing because, as is the case in the signs of language, their processuality is encyphered in their objectification. The processual character of artworks is nothing but their time core." (Th. W. Adorno) From this point of view, Zitko's lines are also calligraphic expressions of non-literal writing, as well as psychological engravings of a sedimentation of temporality, traces by their very nature, thus serving as a kind of notation so that the artwork up for reception can be performed, or better: experienced again. What makes Otto Zitko an avant-garde artist is the fact that in his aesthetic interventions per lineam he pursues the aim of extreme subjectivism, an attitude towards artistic production which opposes so-called objectivity in its highly subjective view and reading of the real conditions that form the framework of our lives – such as areas and spaces.

At a time when spaces seem to be generally available, as is suggested by the multi-media presence of cyberspace, Otto Zitko's art of the open line – deconstructing spaces and re-creating them in subjective quality – is yet again becoming more current. What tempts us into individual passiveness in the digital media due to the technical perfection of its givens becomes a high degree of activity and pronounced subjectivity in Otto Zitko's art as he applies the line to give time a site. This is in sharp contrast to the passive users of digital media spaces whose virtuality has very little in common with the worlds of possibility opening up in Zitko's creations of picture spaces. Their visionary character relies on the imaginative force of individuals and their vital and sensitive creativity that enables them to design environments after the world in their heads, or rather: to appropriate them. From this angle, the line is a natural space-divider, generating space; a dot placed in a void makes space emerge – it is this fascination with artistic creation as an almost archaic-looking achievement of human originality that Zitko's obsession with the line is grounded in as the art of painting in our times.

This text was published in: Otto Zitko. Cheim & Read Catalogue, New York/Vienna 2000.