Martha Jungwirth (b. 1940) began studying art at the Academy of Applied Arts Vienna in 1956, the year Jackson Pollock died in a car crash. By the time she graduated in 1963, two historical tendencies had started to unfold. A movement devoted to violent and transgressive performances, which would be called Viennese Actionism, was gaining adherents. Meanwhile, the rest of the art world had shifted its focus from the possibilities of automatism, expressionism, and spontaneity, as manifested in such movements as Abstract Expressionism, Art Informel, and Tachisme, to the emotionally cool work of Color Field painting, Minimalism, and Pop Art, all of which would be overtaken by Conceptual Art.
The rise of Conceptual Art in the 1970s helped further entrench the widespread belief in the “Death of Painting.” And yet—as the art world’s landscape continued to rearrange itself in response to the various seismic shifts occurring throughout the world, and the artists associated with Actionism vied with their rivals in the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism—Jungwirth had started on her own extraordinary course. Her pursuit led her to define and occupy a singular position in postwar Austrian art and—more importantly, though not as fully recognized as it should be—in the wider art world.
Jungwirth did not attain this singular place by employing familiar strategies, such as the development of a signature style or set of images, nor did she align herself with such institutionally promoted tendencies as Minimalism. Rather, she found her own way through a deep, ongoing questioning of what constitutes a picture—something we tend to think of as a static object, as opposed to a movie or a river. Moreover, she arrived at it through the unlikely means of watercolor, which many critics would classify as a minor art form. This is just part of the challenge that Jungwirth presents to viewers and critics alike.
Another integral part of her defiance has to do with subject matter. Whether Jungwirth begins with someone she is looking at, something she has seen out her window, or something more particular—what she has called a “pretext” (a fan painted by Oskar Kokoschka for Alma Mahler, a newspaper photograph documenting the failed coup in Turkey, her knowledge of Greek myths and their polymorphic figures, or memories of a trip to Cambodia), she wants to discover a perceptual zone that occurs before visual sensations coalesce into a concrete image or recognizable thing. Often, in these works, she begins with a motif but subjects it to a process that is open-ended and unpredictable. She does not want viewers to be able to consume an image in order to dispose of it.
The philosophical implications of Jungwirth’s work, which are integral to her ongoing considerations of perception, help clarify some of the reasons she has only recently gained the attention that she has long deserved. There are other factors, of course, including being a woman, but the one that stands out for me is her rigorous tenacity and how little her work has to do with art world fashions. Single-minded women artists following their own predilections, impulses, and truth-seeking paths are seldom embraced by the art world. Recognition of their genius comes late, as it did for Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Joyce Scott, and Maria Lassnig. Need we remind ourselves that none of these artists did the right thing? All of them spent decades upon decades being neglected or dismissed.
In her well-known declaration of independence, “the ape in me”(1988), Jungwirth began with this list:
the ape in me
method: back to the old brains, to the senso-motoric
to before spoken language
to before perception
to before memory
to before the obtrusiveness of objects
to before euclid where the straight lines meet at the
not thinking while painting
The “ape” in Jungwirth uses pencils, colored pencils, graphite, pastel crayons, charcoal, oil pastel, pen and ink, watercolor, and oil paint on cardboard, paper, ledger pages, and paper mounted on canvas. If she painted in oil on canvas—a Renaissance medium that traditionally demands preparation of the surface—it can be argued that she would have been untrue to a time “before euclid” and the concept of “not thinking while painting.” Additionally, by using watercolor and oil paint on paper and cardboard, with their absorbent surfaces, she knows that she cannot cover her tracks.
What comes across in Jungwirth’s declaration is her adamant resistance to both the tasteful and the transgressive, the latter having settled into an assortment of legible codifications embraced by the art world. Starting in the early 1960s, as many of these codifications began to homogenize and become commonplace, Jungwirth rejected the sureties that many viewers seek in a work of art. In a world besotted with images and commodified forms of representation and abstraction, she refused to accept what had become routine solutions. Neither reality nor perception is neat. Was it possible to stay true to a state of constant change, to interior thoughts and feelings in flux, and random occurrences, and still be able to make art?
As Jungwirth stated to the writer Hans-Peter Wipplinger, she favors things that “seem sloppy, that appear to be produced by chance.” This is not simply an aesthetic pose. Working with watercolor, she knows that she cannot erase the marks she makes. Every puddle, drip, dot, splotch, or blot is there for good. The paper absorbs and preserves them. This inability to remove what she has done seems central to her work. But executing the transference of medium to paper is just one part of what she does. Recognizing that control is an illusion, Jungwirth might load up her brush and let it drip, or make a mark whose boundaries she cannot contain. She might apply color with her fingers or spread it with a sponge. The activity is direct and physical, an action involving the body. Throughout this process, she is not courting chaos, but she is not denying its presence either. This is the tightrope she walks, and it is not the only one.
The watercolors and oil paintings inhabit a zone that pushes back against language’s instinct for naming. In order to get there, Jungwirth has to goad her images beyond the easily identifiable, as well as dissolve the border between representation and abstraction. The layered clusters, forms, and marks can be transparent, opaque, or somewhere in between, with some appearing deliberate while others seem accidental. Often, it is impossible to tell the difference. Everything she does is deposited within the plane defined by the physical edges of the paper or cardboard. She has no interest in allover painting.
Jungwirth’s drawing is further informed by her use of color, which ranges from solid to mottled to translucent, depending on the medium she uses. The colors can possess a deeply rooted, animal-like power to stir up emotion-laden associations: red can be read as blood, raw meat, or fire; black conveys death and decay; yellow or ocher is likely to evoke the sun; green calls to mind the basic elements of nature. But Jungwirth’s palette is more distinctive than these colors suggest, with her strong preference for pinks, carmines, fuchsia-reds, and violets, which she uses liberally in addition to the colors I have cited. At times, the transparent shapes and splotches are suspended between definition and dissipation. At other times, I get the feeling that she wants the sensuous, physical intensity of these colors to overflow their physical boundaries and seep in behind her eyes.
The absorbent surfaces that Jungwirth uses—paper, wrapping paper, and cardboard—are far cries from Belgian linen. Her works deny the usual signs that we are in the presence of art—she is not interested in beginning with this guarantee. Sometimes, the brown cardboard looks like something you might find on the street or in a factory dumpster. Still, she does not fetishize their industrial appearance. She has also done watercolors on used, lined ledger paper. The fundamental solitariness of her project is central to her work; we all see differently, a fact that society does its best to suppress. Society needs conformity, even in the art world.
The heads in some of Jungwirth’s “portraits” seem to have endured various sorts of pressure: the forms are blurred, diluted, partially wiped away, or entangled in a network of lines. The headlike forms seem to be undergoing disturbing transformations and deteriorations, which are never explained to the viewer. Is their state of disintegration an acknowledgment of a future we cannot avoid? I don’t think it is that simple. I don’t think anything in Jungwirth’s work is easily reducible. She does not want to make easily graspable and remembered images, because to do so effectively enables viewers to stop exploring her work; she lets them off the hook. What we are looking at are forms in the state of irreversible change; they could indicate movement, or a fragment of a memory, or something altogether apart and unnameable.
For her debut exhibition in the United States, Fergus McCaffrey and the artist selected a group of works done between 1983 and 2017, a span of thirty-five years. The earliest—untitled watercolors from the series Bride of the Wind (1983–89)—are more than twice as wide as they are high, nearly four feet tall and around ten feet across. Jungwirth’s provocative title refers to the painting Die Windsbraut (1912–13) by Kokoschka, and to the third of seven fans he painted as gifts for Alma Mahler. In English, the title can be translated as “The Bride of the Wind” or “The Tempest” or “The Whirlwind.”
Kokoschka completed The Bride of the Wind a year after he met the recently widowed Alma, whose husband, Gustav Mahler, had died in 1911. During their torrid, three-year romance (1912–15), Kokoschka painted the seven fans for Alma, six of which have survived, as birthday or Christmas presents. Walter Gropius, who later married Alma, threw the fourth fan into a fire in a jealous rage over the erotic scenes Kokoschka depicted. Compositionally, each of the fans, which Kokoschka described as “love letters in picture language,” was divided into three distinct scenes. The middle section of the third fan, done as a commemoration of their trip to Italy, became the inspiration for his painting The Bride of the Wind. In the fan, Kokoschka depicts himself and Alma lying together, naked and tenderly embracing, with Mount Vesuvius in the background, belching fire and lava. In the painting, which is more male-centric than the fan, Mahler slumbers peacefully on her side, facing Kokoschka, who is staring up at the darkness, unable to sleep.
What is it about the fan that preoccupied Jungwirth, taking up a place in her thinking until it became a passionate absorption? It would have been easy for Jungwirth to make fun of Kokoschka’s heavy-handed symbolism, but she is having none of that. In fact, she rejects the commonplace options taken by many postmodern artists: ironic citation, parody, or empty copy. And in the process, she opened herself up to a tender, erotic depiction of a man and woman embracing, overseen by a rumbling volcano.
More than the painting, the fan seems to be the inspiration for Jungwirth, partially because it was done on paper. And yet there are many differences between Kokoschka’s delicate fan and Jungwirth’s large-scale, energetic works. For one, Kokoschka’s ink drawing is about control. He did it before Alma left him in 1915, after which his brushstrokes became turbulent.
If there is a figure who is the pretext for Jungwirth’s works, it is Alma. The tension between form and dissolution, and between the stillness of the absorbed marks and the sinuous rhythm of the extended gestures, raises questions in the viewer. Is there a form entangled within the flurry of marks? Where does the form end and its dissolution begin? Are they one and the same? Is this a writhing, reclining body? Do I see two bodies or one? Are these marks dispersed across the width of the paper meant to be heads or open mouths? Are they fragments? Or are they both incomplete and complete? Each of the works provokes a different response, a different kind of scrutiny.
Jungwirth’s works transport me into a state of questioning, of watching myself scrutinize the dance between what I am looking at and my innate desire to name it. This leads to a dance between object and context. How does our perception of what we are looking at change if we think of it as an erotic encounter? How does it change if we think of it as an evocation of a force of nature, a bride of the wind? Are these two views different? And if so, how?
What does it mean to go back to words when we know the artist wants to inhabit the place “before spoken language”? This is the fault line along which Jungwirth’s work lies—the zone between speech and before speech. In order to stay with the work, and to keep looking at it, we must be wary of each attempt to encapsulate our experience in words, to name what we see. Whether working in watercolor or oil paint, two very different manifestations of materiality, Jungwirth never attempts to show mastery.
Done some two to three decades later, the watercolors in the Cambodia series (2005) and the untitled oil paintings on paper from 2017 show an artist who continues to find ways to disregard our need to feel secure in a world of named things and experiences. She might rotate the surface as she works on it, so that the drips disobey gravity and rise up instead of fall down, introducing a feeling of disorientation and vertigo. Or she might drag the brush horizontally and vertically across the surface, creating a cluster of forms that interrupts itself. Meanwhile, the uneven edges of the cardboard’s sides introduce yet another perceptual challenge into the work. And what about the colors—the fleshy pinks and violets—against the surface’s brown skin?
This apparently impossible state of seeing is what Jungwirth keeps finding ways to achieve. She calls into question our insatiable desire to name and thus domesticate the world and our experience of it. Naming is a form of possession, as philosophers as diverse as Heraclitus and Martin Buber understood. Jungwirth refuses to possess or be possessed. That is why her Bride of the Wind can never be fully grasped.
1. The text was originally published in the magazine protokolle (1988).
2. Jungwirth made this observation in a conversation with Hans-Peter Wipplinger, June 2012.