Playful Austerity: An Interview with Anna Horvath by David Richards

Anna Horvath
David Richards: In your recent show at the Clinard Dance Studio, you exhibited drawings of plants along with your more abstract work. Can you talk a bit about the connections between the two?

Anna Horvath: I’m inspired by the way plants look, how the leaf or bud or any part of it connects to the other parts. I concentrate a lot on the negative spaces. I’m interested in those wonderful connections and the distances between one thing and another.

Anna Horvath

Leaves, ink and pencil on paper, 2017

DR: You use actual plant stems in your work, like those big sunflower stalks.

AH: Yes, that started when I had this one single sunflower stem growing out of my front garden when I lived in another Pilsen apartment. After it wintered I thought, here’s this big thing sticking out of the ground, how about I pull it out? And when I pulled it out, I realized how resilient it was and how extremely light. I started to play with it and connect it to things. I stuck some pushpins through it and it was so easy to work with. I think these stems, which look like branches – there’s a natural elegance to them. They create these wonderful lines. The first things I made were kind of like three-dimensional drawings. It’s so nice to have a line in space, and then sometimes I just want to add something to it. That’s my way of doing a drawing.

Anna Horvath

Flower-Like, mixed media, 2013

Aviary, mixed media, 2014

DR: Can you say something about the colors that you use?

Anna Horvath

Aviary (detail), mixed media, 2014

AH: Colors I see in nature are really inspiring to me. I recently made this construction that has night colors, lots of deep blues and some bright, moonish silvery-yellow. I really like yellow, and a lot of blues, mainly Prussian blue and a little bit of ultramarine. It makes me happy to be looking at the sky.

Anna Horvath

Moon, mixed media, 2017, photo by Jane Kuelbs

DR: A lot of the color you use, and the moon piece is an exception, reminds me of a certain kind of light, sunlight and not necessarily from the Midwest. It’s like another place, a sunnier more cheerful place.

AH: You know, that’s interesting because Hungary (where I’m from) is sunnier. It inhabits a space that’s surrounded by mountains and is more protected. It has a lot of sunshine and that’s good for agriculture. Lots of fruit and grapes grow there. I think I miss some of that.

Anna Horvath

Pureland – Mountains, mixed media, 2017

DR: There is a playful, almost humorous quality to your work. Is there a sense of play in your process, or is that what you want to evoke in your audience? Or both?

AH: Play is part of the process for me. OK, it’s like building blocks. You have one thing and then you stick something to it and then see how it works, and then it calls for something else. We all kind of work that way I assume.

Yes, some pieces I make with an audience or person in mind, who would want to have it and who would maybe want to change it – kind of like how I make it – trying to find what works on a daily basis or maybe a weekly basis. They might want to change something. Oh, maybe this color goes with this color. I would like the person to have a relationship with it. It’s not just about what the piece dictates, but kind of a mutual relationship.

DR: That raises the question of whether there’s ever a final state to your work, or does it just keep evolving?

AH: That’s a very good point. For me, it’s never finished. I mean, I might get bored with it and just say I’m done, but potentially, I could just go on.

DR: That stacked piece, Falls, is a good example of this, because you once exhibited it in an entirely different way.

Anna Horvath

Falls, painted wood, 2015, Photo by Jane Kuelbs

AH: It was so unwieldy to transport that I cut it apart and then I realized that I could stack it. And, as I was stacking it, I realized how much I liked it, how much movement it created as I walked by with these colored bars. As I walked around it, I really liked the sense of mechanical movement, as if a wheel was turning, or as if water was flowing.

DR: Oh, like a water wheel?

AH: Yes, exactly. I titled it Falls, before that the title was Roof.

DR: The piece titled Lake-Counter reminds me of an abacus, and also musical notes on a staff. Something about the way the blocks are arranged and the distance between them is like notes and spaces on sheet music. And the “feet” are really funny. When they’re turned a little bit it makes them more “human.”

Anna Horvath

Lake-Counter, painted wood, 2015

AH: Well, I added the base, the “feet,” the day before I had to hang the show. The “human” connotation, do I really want that? It was kind of accidental. I’m not sure at this point. Lake-Counter is the title. I was living by the lake for a while and I would walk by it every morning for close to an hour. With the waves, there is this repeating, this sameness and difference, this repeating over and over and yet never the same. That was so wonderful to be around, and the light was always shifting – and there’s a little bit of shifting with these blocks – going this way and that way.

DR: The way they’re lighted can change quite a bit, and many of the blocks are moveable.

AH: Yes, and you can turn the whole thing around and get a different picture, and you can start to play around with it.

DR: It’s interesting that some of the parts are fixed and some are moveable.

AH: Yes, well, that’s the paradoxical nature of things – ha ha – and that was kind of the idea. I mean, why would you be consistent? If you notice, they (the blocks) are all drilled at different heights. And that isn’t accidental either; I wanted them like that.

DR: What was your art education like in Hungary before you came here in the seventies?

AH: I started to paint and draw very early. My mom was an art historian, so we had books up the wazoo. They were mostly in black and white, because at the time, there wasn’t that much color printing in Hungary. After high school I worked in a kindergarten, and every evening I would go from six to nine to an art studio where a lot of people were prepping to get into the art school. We’d work from live models. So I did that for two years.

DR: Who ran the class?

AH: It was run by the state. There were two artists who would come by, but it was the old-fashioned kind of thing where you would just – do it, do it, do it, do it, and the teacher would come in once a week and talk to you for about three minutes.

DR: Were there any interesting artists working in Hungary at the time?

AH: There were some people who were really interesting, like Bela Kondor. He was also a poet and similar to the “beat” poets in the U.S. His work had more of a focus on being “Hungarian” in a way, partly because it was not entirely OK to do that. As a member of the socialist camp you were supposed to have a more socialist-realist-international focus. Anyway, he ended up making these wonderful constructions. There’s a really large one in the Hungarian National Gallery that I saw a few years ago. I was astonished because it had a lot to do with some structures I had made fifteen or so years before. I must have seen some of his constructions early on, but I don’t remember at all.

Anna Horvath

Colors, mixed media, 2016

Pods, mixed media, 2016

DR: Were you at all influenced by Hungarian folk art or decorative art traditions?

AH: It’s not so much the folk art traditions, but the materials folk artists and builders used, that people in villages used: wood, mud bricks, straw, plaster, and whitewash. Also, the agricultural tools that people had been using that were not for artistic purposes: hoes or pitchforks or maybe even hammers that were really old, that had been used for forty years. They all had these wooden handles that were totally polished by the way people had been working with them: scythes, sickles or rakes. I think I might be using a lot of wood and a lot of those sunflower stalks because, in a certain way, they remind me of that. Or maybe it’s a pot that’s been stuck on top of a pole in places where people still have wooden fences. There is a very personal relationship we have with the objects we work with. I think I’m trying to make objects with a personal relationship – maybe just to me – but that, size-wise really relate to a human being. Ruth Duckworth, the ceramicist and modern sculptor, made this series out of white porcelain very late in her career, which were cup-sized. They were so damned beautiful! There’s Barbara Hepworth. It would be great if I had that incredible ability with materials that she had. Both of these artists made kitchen appliance-sized sculpture; this really appeals to me.

DR: What other artists have influenced your work over the years?

AH: People like Calder and Leger influenced me. I like that they are so light-hearted. The minimalists too, with their modular, repeated forms… though I also practice meditation, a practice of focused repetition, so my preference for the modular also comes from that. There’s Ellsworth Kelly and Dan Flavin… Flavin had this incredible show. I think it was at the MCA maybe ten or fifteen years ago. He created these environments that were so wonderful, delightful in a very spiritual sense.

Anna Horvath

Flower-Like (detail), mixed media, 2013

DR: That really makes sense in a way because, like I was saying before, the color that you use reminds me of a certain quality of light. Even though you’re not using light the way Flavin does, your work shares some of that serene spiritual feeling.

Do you bring anything into art making from your work as a therapist?

AH: That’s a very interesting question.

DR: Having worked at places like a correctional facility, an emergency room at a hospital or as a Case Manager assisting clients with chronic illnesses, it’s interesting that your work has such a light and cheerful aspect to it.

AH: I think I’ve been exposed to so much sorrow and difficulty that – at this moment – and I don’t know about tomorrow, I’m not interested in focusing my art on any of that. I already carry my own emotional/spiritual/psychic burden, just like anyone else. There is also a wonder and joyousness about things in the world and I would rather like to support and add to that. There is loveliness in each moment if we are lucky enough to be aware of it. I’m choosing to focus on something that’s wonderful, because that’s just as much a part of our being here as stuff that’s difficult. I need that balance and I have to make it myself, because it’s not coming – you know – from elsewhere, except sun, sky, water and trees.

Anna Horvath

The artist holding Pods and Plates

Top image: “Waves,” painted wood, 2014


All photos by David Richards except where noted.


Anna Horvath was born in Budapest, Hungary and currently lives and works in Chicago. She has shown at Marianne Deson Gallery, Randolph Street Gallery, Artemisia Gallery, Northeastern Illinois University, Oakton Community College and many other venues. She has BFA and MFA degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


David Richards is an artist and writer based in Chicago.