Hugo Demartini was one of the most important representatives of constructivist tendencies in Czech art of the sixties and seventies. However, his work resonates beyond this, beginning with Art Informel and ending with monumental sculptural installations. Demartini received a classical education in sculpture. He began his studies in stonemasonry at the well known Otakar Velínský workshop, after which he studied at the Prague Academy with Professor Lauda. In 1956, after completing his military service (part of which he spent at the Military Art Studio, including two months in Brno with Vincenc Makovský), he completed a cycle of plaster bas-reliefs on a Christian theme, the first of his works displaying a strong, original creative intelligence. Geometric compositions of collages made from coloured paper survive from the end of the fifties. At this time he was also creating traditional busts, though at the turn of the fifties and sixties he moved definitively over to the position of the creative avant-garde of that time and joined the strong current of informal abstraction. His most important contribution is a series of low reliefs created by imprinting small elements in clay and then casting them in plaster, to which he then adds bright red paint. We can interpret these pieces as absurd schemes or as models of the kind of labyrinth we encounter in the work of Sekal. At the same time there is clearly a movement in the direction of a geometric dictionary. This becomes fully apparent in 1964, when the issue of Art Informel was pretty much burned out. A basic surface usually in the shape of a square is divided by a regular grid. Relief elements are inserted in individual cells. At the beginning these are variously cut truncated pyramids, subsequently they are exclusively spheres. The first reliefs are made of coloured plaster, but when chrome plates appear he works only with them. The chrome spheres become the symbol of his creative output. Chrome corresponds more to the impersonal character of the artistic intention which lay behind constructivism, while at the same time expanding possibilities. On the one hand it is a reference to the world of technology, to the “second nature” as it was dubbed at that time, and therefore to contemporary visuality. More important is the element of mirroring, both of the viewer, which establishes a new relationship between viewer and work, as well as of the individual elements themselves, which enter into a mutual optical interaction. Demartini cuts the spheres in various ways, sometimes cutting convex and concave semi-spheres in serial works. At the same time he makes the spheres larger and begins to experiment with various types of boxes in which to insert them. However, the most fundamental experiment involves drawing the spheres out from the purely geometrical background of the underlay and gallery environment and taking them into the landscape. Photography captures the composition of several perfectly burnished chrome spheres on deserted paths or fields.
In the same year, 1968, Demartini created a second series of experimental works. These events, entitled Demonstrations in Space, involved throwing items (cylinders, skewers, confetti, etc.) in the air and capturing their random configurations both during freefall and on the ground where they fell. The output of both events is documentation in the medium of photography, though both still relate to the world in question and the space structured by it. Even though they belong to the sphere of conceptual art by virtue of their thematicisation of chance, it is clear that they were created by a sculptor. Demartini did not continue down this path of radical dematerialisation, though it was one of the most up-to-date and interesting strands of Czech art of the time. Over the next few years he developed the previous problematic of minimalist reliefs.
Somewhat later, in 1973, Demartini began a series of objects entitled Out of Bounds, which links directly up to the second of the experiments referred to. These objects involved the careful attachment of items (usually cuttings from models of public events, which at the time represented his means of support) thrown over a hardboard base (most often in the form of a square 110cm x 110cm in size) on this base. The theme of chance links them with the shift taking place at that time in the work of Zdeněk Sýkora, who had at this time moved over to his stochastically generated lines. The works again take the form of a relief, only occasionally intended for horizontal positioning. This corresponds to the process of their creation, a fact which anticipates future works.
In 1978 one of the reliefs of this cycle – this time under a name that would be often used later, Model – is supplemented with a careful illusion of ruins and decay. This was to become an important element of Demartini’s sculptures, which Josef Hlaváček succinctly described as “geometric formations in various states of disintegration”. The artist first constructs planking, which he covers with plaster. He destroys the resulting shapes with a hammer and immediately fixes the shards – similarly to the way that previously sticks had dropped onto the base – through smearing them with plaster. Certain models, especially those from around the turn of the seventies and eighties with their motifs of hanging drapery, give the impression of stage designs for theatre of the absurd, which incidentally was one of the main inspirational sources of Demartini’s generation. The author then follows these themes of architecturally structured space and disintegration in the final period of his life, which he spent in a rural studio in Sumrakov, not far from Telč.