Robert Horvitz – interview

by Mark Stroup, 8th November 2022

MS: I met Horvitz at Galerie Reunion in Prague’s New Town, where he had just opened his exhibition “Drawings Long and Small.” The Lennon Wall‘s Eryn Taylor-Freeme wrote in her review of the show: “Horvitz pulls you into his work, submerging you in an infinite fluidity… the energy it has once you take the time to draw near is not unlike the fascination of looking at an invisible world beneath a microscope.” His ink-on-paper drawings are created with simple pen strokes, all alike, which merge into complex organic patterns.

In addition to teaching earlier in his career at Yale University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Rhode Island School of Design, Horvitz was the art editor of CoEvolution Quarterly and the Whole Earth Review, offshoots of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Horvitz came to Prague thirty years ago to become an electronic media consultant for the Open Society Institute. Now he teaches at Prague’s Anglo-American University. In a manner kindly, self-effacing and irreverent, the white-haired American eminence spent some time discussing his past, Prague, and the past and future of art. This interview has been edited for order, clarity and length.


MS: Does your work particularly speak to what’s happening in Prague and Central Europe?

RH: It does, in a very obvious way. The first time I saw Prague I thought: Wow! This is like a living version of one of my drawings, because of the details in the Baroque and Gothic architecture. The craft and frills on the buildings are so close to what I’ve arrived at as subject matter that I just felt at home here immediately. Many Czech artists try to emulate global art styles, what they see in art magazines and on websites. I regard those models as totally irrelevant. The local visual environment is what I find inspiring–I mean very local: what’s going on in my head mainly.

MS: Do you find Prague and Central Europe evocative in a way that’s different from the rest of the world?

RH: I do, but I think it’s specific to Prague. So much of the architectural past has survived here–not just the huge number of buildings that weren’t destroyed in wars but also older ideas about how a city should be organized are still intact here. Prague is an historical anomaly, like Dubrovnik: a well preserved older conception. The city center mostly still reflects a pre-automobile understanding of streets: oriented toward the pedestrian experience, with buildings at a scale that’s not intimidating. In my opinion, the smaller cities in Central and Southeastern Europe have preserved more of what a city should be than can be found elsewhere. The Mediterranean towns of Croatia and southern Italy–that was the peak of urban design, you know? Six hundred years ago.

MS: What’s your general take on the art scene in Prague?

RH: Well, there are a tremendous number of visual artists here but hardly any collectors. That means the art scene is less competitive than other places. Generally that’s a good thing, but it also means there aren’t a whole lot of ambitiously original artists. Most galleries show work that hardly matters.

MS: What are your thoughts on literary events, like a literary festival for Prague?

RH: I regard myself mainly as a reader, even though I do write and have written for a living. But not in genres like poetry, fiction or novels. I don’t have any aptitude for those forms. I’m looking forward to Moving Center as someone who doesn’t know alot about belles lettres but who enjoys reading.

MS: It fascinates me that you had first-hand experience of the 60s counterculture. Can you talk about that and how it affects your work?

RH: There’s still a strong flavor of psychedelia in my drawings even though I have other sources now, too. I went to college in the late 60s, so like most of my classmates, I majored in anti-war demonstrations and drugs. But I never had much contact with the literary side of the counterculture. I worked for the Whole Earth Catalog as a writer and editor for many years, but my domain was mainly visual art and then wireless communication. In fact, the Catalog didn’t give much page-space to poetry or novels–except for Ken Kesey’s because he was a friend of the editor’s–plus some science fiction.

Cover of the Whole Earth Catalog

MS: Can you say more about the Catalog and your work there?

RH: The Catalog started in 1968 as a service for people living in rural communes. Its main purpose was to recommend good tools and useful books, and then help people get them. An important feature of the Catalog was that it carried no advertising and most of the recommendations came from the people who used the Catalog. That made it a community effort rather than a marketing vehicle for vendors. And it had a clear agenda: promoting tools for self-reliance and an ecologically responsible life-style.

In the beginning a truck would drive around, like a general store on wheels, so people could see samples of the recommended products. But soon the Catalog‘s distribution became wider than just the areas where the truck went. Its real impact came from being so efficiently designed and well-edited that it became a publishing phenomenon, selling millions of copies. Stewart Brand, the Catalog’s creator and editor, said at the very beginning that he would only do it for five years because he didn’t want to get locked into a task that would become repetitive and boring for him. And he really did try to end it in the early 70s. But public demand was insatiable. The Catalog came out every three months. It had to, because there were always price changes to report, address changes, things going out of stock, new editions of books appearing and so on. Stewart began to see the quarterly updates as opportunities to include original writing, so in 1974 the supplements became a magazine, CoEvolution Quarterly. CoEv got better and better very quickly, but it had one odd weakness: their coverage of the arts was weak to nonexistent. So I wrote to Stewart saying your readers need to know about “earthworks,” a new kind of sculpture where the Earth itself is the medium, and I enclosed documentation of a few projects as examples. About a month later I got a postcard back from Stewart saying that they loved everything I sent, how would you like to be our art editor? Of course I said yes, and then worked with his crew for the next 14 years.

MS: What’s the Whole Earth Catalog’s legacy?

RH: Many people say that their eyes were opened or they first got interested in something by discovering it in the Catalog. So at the individual level we can say there are millions of legacies. In terms of social change, the environmental movement is to some extent a legacy of the Catalog. But it didn’t establish a new genre: there haven’t been similar publications updating people about useful tools and deep insights. What we have instead are self-help books, which are like a commercial cartoon version of what Whole Earth was about. That’s not good enough. But then of course we have the Internet, which does something similar and a whole lot more.

MS: In the heady days of the 60s and 70s, our ideas what art was or could be expanded. Do you see anything that would cause similar changes today?

RH: The standard version of art history is that in the 19th century there was Impressionism, then there was Expressionism, then there was Fauvism, then there was Cubism, then there was Surrealism and Dada, then Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism and so on. This is a totally misleading analysis. I would put it this way: first there was sculpture and then painting. Then there was photography. Then there was cinema. Then there was broadcasting. Then there was digital graphic animation, and sooner or later there will be something like immersive virtual reality. We have to stop thinking about art in terms of what galleries and museums show, because the important changes are happening outside that frame.