In much of modern Turkish painting during the twentieth century, old imagery was forgotten to make way for new techniques and subject matter. In his works Erol Akyavas sought to recover this imagery and its relevance for contemporary usage, quoting simultaneously visual references from both Western and the Islamic art to produce works which address universal issues such as space, time and causation.
Born in the newly-founded capital of Ankara, it was whilst living abroad that Akyavas became interested in the cultural heritage and traditions of his homeland, which he felt were ignored by those who had been raised and educated in Republican Turkey.
Akyavas moved through a variety of stages, from pure geometrical abstraction early in his career, to an exploration of the Arabic letterform in his second phase, then later he introduced fragments of icons, and then walls, including city walls, fortresses and buildings, before concentrating again on abstraction but sometimes employing the Arabic letterform. From 1950 to 1953 he painted in a cubist style, training first at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence and then at the studios of Andr Lhote and Fernand Leger in Paris, before leaving for America to study architecture. His fascination with constructed space can be attributed to this time, and his professional training as an architect is evident in much of his subsequent work.
In his second phase, beginning around the mid-1950s and ending around 1960s, the planes of colour in Akyavas's canvases become swarms of letters and symbols, vaguely reminiscent of calligraphy in the Arabic script, although more universalized and subtly figurative. His attachment to Western post-Cubist spatial ideas remains through his layering of shapes and symbols, differentiated by size and tone so that layers appear to float superimposed one above another. At the same time there is an awareness of the picture as a vertical surface to be adorned, as in the work of Paul Klee.
Akyavas's interest in calligraphy had much in common with the contemporaneous works by Georges Mathieu, Clifford Still, Mark Tobey and Cy Twombly. All of these artists were looking at symbols to go beyond the conceptual towards a mystical plane, searching for meaning in both the mystical and natural worlds. Even at this early stage, for Akyavas the bringing together de-particularized Eastern calligraphy and combining with the now international language of contemporary art is especially important.
Erol Akyavas was a restless artist and moved through many phases throughout his long career. Uniting each stage is his concern for the essence of things. That is why the elements in his paintings appear as symbols- Platonic rather than descriptive. These symbols or motifs often come from the canons of Ottoman art, particularly Ottoman calligraphy and miniature paintings. In his first Walls series, for example, beginning in the early 1970s, walls are constructed of regular units, but their overall structure does not conform to rational geometry. Their perspectival distortions allude to the changeable nature of space and time. In his Rooms series from the 1970s-1980s he exaggerated perspective and divided the canvases into geometrical areas. In the 1970s he began introducing brick walls, cubes, pyramids and other objects. He then switched to an aerial view, focusing on geometricized castles, the effect reminiscent of Ottoman art, especially of the sixteenth century. By the 1980s he broke away from this strict geometry to show the same structure from various perspectives at once, thus the fluidity of space/time. Between the architectural elements, the ground is often littered with detritus- fingers, hand prints, broken bones.
Akyavas is fascinated by the folk culture of Anatolia, and cannot understand the cultural amnesia of many of his countrymen.
'"In the heart of Anatolia", he says, "the folk weep a millennium later when a poem is recited about someone martyred a thousand years ago. It's astounding, and it means there's a need"' (Erol Akyavas quoted in Zeynep Inakur, 'Erol Akyavas: The Difference', in Illona Akyavas, Megi Bisar, Haldun Dostoglu and Melis Terziglu (eds.), Erol Akyavas, Istanbul 2007, p. 12).