Joska Skalník: We Don’t Have to Dance

Music posters, album covers and magazines at DOX show the underground music scene

Artist Joska Skalník is best known for his collages and artistic graphic designs. His work doing graphics for music clubs and magazines in the late communist era, and into the early post-1989 days of freedom, is usually presented as a footnote if at all.

The new show Joska Skalník: We Don’t Have to Dance, which runs at DOX Centre for Contemporary Art until June 4, examines this overlooked aspect of his career.

Skalník turns 70 this year, and he thought it was time to look back at both his work and jazz and rock music scene from decades ago. He was one of the leaders of the art group called Jazz Section, which came together around 1970.

Skalník became the father of the group’s simple graphics language used in its posters. This in part was due to the poor quality paper and printing that they had to use to promote music festivals and make magazines.

His work extended not only to music but to theater as well. He made posters for Činoherní klub in Prague and for other theaters. These used a collage style often to a surreal effect. The plays were not only Czechoslovak authors like Bohumil Hrabal but also works by Joe Orten and David Mamet.

They share the same aesthetic as pre-revolution film posters — surrealistic collages that often are only loosely related to the film or play that is being promoted. The influence of imported Western music can also be seen is some of his work, such as references to the banana image that was on Andy Warhol’s cover for a Velvet Underground album.

But even though the posters and other works were commercial in nature, meant the attract an audience, the principals of advertising were not known in then-Czechoslovakia. The posters fall someplace in between classical advertising and graphic art. Despite working under communism, Skalník had a relatively free hand to do what he wanted, perhaps freer than some graphic artists in the West who had to answer to advertising agencies and clients.

The title of the show, We Don’t Have to Dance, refers to a comment that Skalník made. In the context of the show, it means that some artists were able to work without dancing to the tune dictated by the authorities. With his art for jazz and rock bands, Skalník was dancing to his own tune.

While it falls outside the scope of this show, Skalník was active in politics after the Velvet Revolution and helped design the new seals and other official insignia for then-Czechoslovakia, without the communist star. He was also a co-founder of the Civic Forum (OF), an important political organization at the time, and an artistic adviser to then-president Václav Havel.

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