Inaugurating Modern Art’s new space on Bury Street is a group of recent paintings by Austrian artist Martha Jungwirth. Born 1940 in Vienna, much of her reputation, influence and exhibition history has been confined to central Europe. Although recognised during the 1960s – 1970s (she participated in Documenta 6, 1977) she had since faded from international view until 2010, all the while remaining an important figure in the Vienna art scene. This turning point is often linked to the inclusion of her work in a group show curated by German painter Albert Oehlen at the Essl Museum in Austria that year. While many of the subsequent commercial exhibitions over the past decade have presented historical bodies of work, Modern Art’s new exhibition presents paintings and works on paper from the past few years.
Jungwirth’s work elides numerous art historical genealogies while somehow standing apart from them. Studying in the 1950s and early 60s, the prevailing artistic winds of the time are evident in her handling of mark and gesture. Cy Twombly and Joan Mitchell are often mentioned, and there’s certainly a lyrical nature to her late career abstraction which might be traced to the tail end of Abstract Expressionism. Like numerous artists of her generation, the lingering presence of Surrealist interests – especially automatism and the role of chance – greatly inform her practice.
One of the most notable aspects of her work is the prominence of touch, centre stage. Her surfaces are splattered, stroked, stained, dragged and brushed into existence, while large expanses of empty sheet are left lightly touched, leaving the buff brown of the card she often uses to become a primary component of the overall personality of each work. As such, her gestures have been likened to ‘actors on a stage’: individual marks dancing with each other across the sheet.
Numerous works in oil are marked by purposefully visible, paint-y finger prints from where the artist has handled the sheet in the studio. Understood art historically, these could be seen as a sort of joke on the dogmatic clash between AbEx with Pop and Minimalism in the 1960s. Where AbEx asserted the singular authorship of the artist as a uniquely endowed creator of meaningful works, Pop and Minimalism – in line with left-leaning literary theory of the time – denied the ‘hand of the artist’ almost entirely. Perhaps given a further twist, the predominant shades in recent works are bright pinks, rich maroons, vivid reds and deep purples – a decidedly fleshy, even bruised, palette. Whether understood as a record of a performative act, or a physical encounter with the artist’s touch, the body is consistently evoked in her work as painterly presence.
The title of a solo show in 2013 at Galerie Cinzia Friedlaender, Berlin provides further insight on her views to the artistic milieu of her early career. Pädagogisch wertlos – translated as Devoid of Pedagogical Value – may refer to her ten years as an art school professor in Vienna, but could well be a rejoinder to see the value of her work in tactile, visual pleasure. Where so much of AbEx was high-minded (even quasi-spiritual in the case of Rothko) – the show title suggests that retinal pleasure is as important, if not more so, than lecturing the viewer with a diffuse, overbearing rhetoric beloved of many mid-century abstractionists. Perhaps a plea to see colour as colour, and to enjoy it as such, rather than as an existential cry into the abyss.
Guilty, like many, of coming to her work in the past decade we’ve followed this later career reappraisal with considerable attention. Market interest has become fierce in recent years, with an auction record of 80,000 EUR (with fees) set in March 2020. While her work rarely left central Europe for many decades, those further afield – such as the Rubell Family Collection in Miami – have now acquired her work in depth. Likewise a show at Fergus McCaffrey, New York in 2019 was the artist’s first commercial exhibition outside Europe. As such the current presentation at Modern Art, closing 26 September 2020, presents a cherished opportunity to see a new body of recent works in the round. Not to be missed!
Banner Image: Copyright Martha Jungwirth. Courtesy the artist and Modern Art, London.