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Reto Pulfer

10, Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers
May 29–August 23

Reto Pulfer, MMMS Reticulum Dehydrierte Landschaft (detail), 2015, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Pieces of fabric floating freely welcome visitors to Dehydrierte Landschaft (Dehydrated Landscape), Reto Pulfer’s debut solo exhibition in a Swiss institution. For the centerpiece of this show, MMMS Reticulum Dehydrierte Landschaft, 2015, the Berlin-based artist has skillfully painted and soaked these textiles in pigments, with results that in some cases appear to represent a Giottoesque sky, or the clear sky of Greece, or the absolute blue of Derek Jarman. The floor is ultramarine, and it echoes the sea.

This is painting in a state of emerging. Typically, Pulfer adopts a modest method, using simple, found materials. He also invents narratives, which he calls mnemonics, around his works. It is not hard here to find stories. At certain points in the show, the cloths coagulate to form huts, while everyday objects appear here and there on the floor. It is as if they might have fallen away from the sheets, having once worked with them to create paintings—which no longer exist, because the subjects they immortalized have fallen to the ground, losing their narrative link. Today, they are only simple things; at moments they shine, but not with their own light. Instead, they recall the blue glass beads in the chandelier seen in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s famed film Three Colors: Blue (1993).

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

Marco Tagliafierro

Vera Molnar

Selnaustrasse 25
February 25, 2015–May 10, 2015

Vera Molnar, On se promčne? (Shall We Take a Walk?), 1988/2015, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Unwritten art history holds its surprises. The ninety-one-year-old artist Vera Molnar—who was born in Hungary and has resided in Paris for many years—sold her first work, despite her continuous career, when she was sixty. Beyond France, this pioneer in joining digital art and painting, still active at an advanced age, is unknown to a greater public. It is that much more joyous the Haus Konstruktiv, in Zurich, in collaboration with the Museum für Konkrete Kunst, in Ingolstadt, Germany, has organized “(Un)Ordnung. (Dés)Ordre” ([dis]order).

Trained under the still-reigning influence of realism, Molnar early on sought out concrete, nonrepresentational forms—the free line and the square—the transformations of which she persistently holds on to this day: drawing, painting, and experimenting on a computer, taking pleasure in the provocation of the graphic system. Her delight is infectious; one feels it deeply the central work on view, On se promčne? (Shall We Take a Walk?), 1988/2015. Here, the visitor enters a dark hall and follows a sharp, jagged white line—a bit of yarn illuminated by black light—which runs like Ariadne’s thread across the walls. Molnar has also translated the handwriting of her mother into her own initials, V and M, using the algorithm of a computer, a procedure she had performed for her computer drawings “De la série Lettres de ma mere” (From the Series of Letters from My Mother), 1984, to produce hauntingly beautiful graphics. In Zurich there is an outstanding personality to be discovered, and an artist true to her principle of the controlled breaking of rules.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.

Max Glauner

Xanti Schawinksy

Limmatstrasse 270
February 21, 2015–May 17, 2015

Xanti Schawinsky, come closer, 1960, oil on canvas, 82 x 82".

The title of Xanti Schawinsky’s series “Track Paintings,” 1958–60, is to be taken literally. The artist drove a car, sometimes a convertible, through a pool of black oil paint and then back and forth across canvases that he had painted with bright color fields. Three impressive results of these actions now hang in this exhibition, the first comprehensive retrospective of a nearly forgotten pioneer of modernism.

Well positioned for his career as a designer, a man of the theater, and a teacher—first at the Bauhaus and then, after emigrating to New York in 1938, at Black Mountain College, New York University, and City College—Schawinsky was never forced to put his art on the market. This, coupled with the fact that a decades-long legal battle prevented his posthumous work from being scattered to the winds, now makes it possible for the Schawinsky estate to show his works cohesively.

It is a stroke of luck. With his “Track Paintings” as well as the preceding series of “Dance Paintings,” 1956—in which this undogmatically creative mind painted the canvas with dance steps—Schawinsky became not only an important mediator between Abstract Expressionism and Happenings but also, as his stage works from the 1920s and ’30s attest, between the visual arts and theater, between the European modernism of the Bauhaus and performance in the US. This significance becomes freshly, grippingly apparent here.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.

Max Glauner

Adam Vačkář

Röschibachstr. 24, 2nd Floor
May 30, 2015–July 11, 2015

View of “Adam Vačkář: Citizen Archivist,” 2015.

Adam Vačkář’s current solo exhibition, “Citizen Archivist,” features four tables presenting several objects, framed pictures on the walls, and a video projection—media and narrative into which the observer plunges with growing curiosity. On the tables, tall military boots catch one’s eye, as do an old globe, a teak elephant, musical supplies, and old pieces of sheet music, arranged neatly side by side. These are compositions by Václav, Dalibor, and Thomás Vačkář, the great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle of the artist, respectively. The minimal arrangement corresponds to the aesthetic of the family treasures’ profane source: Adam Vačkář acquired all of these things on the Internet. Memory materializes from the World Wide Web.

In contrast, the four-part Risograph-print series on the wall—collages of official photographs of the artist’s maternal grandparents—seems a long way off. Václav and Claudia, 2015, shows the highly decorated grandfather, who was a hero of the resistance in the World War II, and the grandmother in operetta costume. Does the viewer need to know that they lived in the Czech community in the multiethnic city of Kiev in today’s Ukraine? Their fate takes on a topical dimension by dint of the war in the Eastern European country today. But the absurdity of European history can be experienced directly through the narrative of the objects. Their interplay receives a striking image in the video Uncle Tom’s Anamnesis, 2013–15. Vačkář sets a modernist flute concerto by his uncle Thomás, who committed suicide at age eighteen in 1963, to tracking shots over highways, through street canyons and subway tunnels, interrupted again and again by harsh cuts, interference that hinders and drives forward Vačkář’s story.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.

Max Glauner

Lucy Stein

Limmatstrasse 268
June 6, 2015–July 18, 2015

Lucy Stein, Wise Wound 14, 2015, monoprint and oil stick on gessoed panel, 20 x 20".

Stepping into the white cube, one is confronted with a cycle of thirty paintings collectively titled “Wise Wound 1–30” (all works 2015), installed at the height of a woman’s womb. The aligned rhythm of these square wooden panels is broken up by three large, higher-hung canvases—Desperate (Horny); Green Goddess; Burn; and a bleach-on-denim piece titled Mermaid Carcass, which is positioned low to the ground. While the show’s title, “Moonblood/Bloodmoon,” implies associations ranging from menstruation to lunar effects, the materials staining the surfaces of these works include beetroot, baby lotion, wax, and shells.

Each of the smaller pieces suggests an exploration of formal friction with liberal sheddings of color on white, grounded supports. Lucy Stein’s raw paintings investigate the medium’s domination by myths of gendered creativity. If expressionism and essentialism marked the modernist painting discourse revolving around creative genius and production, Stein’s starting point is reproduction—in both the appropriative and the generative sense. The latter method is best displayed in Wise Wound 14, a monotype print-on-panel work of random paint patterns reminiscent of a petri dish that also traces the bearing force of women’s bodies in backwards letters, which would seem to mock the act of deciphering.

Stein’s babbling voice in the audio installation Squirming the Worm: The Wise Wound interferes with the visual and tactile surfaces around it. Rather than representing anything in particular, this exhibition frames a multiplicity of views, connecting the mysterious universal impact of the moon with sexuality to embody rhythms of life and flows of energy.

Gabrielle Schaad

Hans Schärer

May 1–August 2

View of “Hans Schärer: Madonnas and Erotic Watercolors,” 2015.

This uncanny parade takes the visitor’s breath away without fail: For over fifteen years, from 1966 to the beginning of the 1980s, the Swiss artist, poet, and composer Hans Schärer created his “Madonnas”—pastose oil paintings in various vertical formats. They depict silhouettes of masklike figurines whose grimaces and penetrating gazes do not bode well. Nearly a hundred have been collected in this solo exhibition, “Hans Schärer: Madonnas and Erotic Watercolors,” in the main hall of the Aargauer Kunsthaus.

The painter pursues his subject obsessively. Shaping it again and again, painting layer upon layer, often for months, without a version being able to satisfy him. The ghostly silhouette, the head and torso are reduced to a few characteristics—the mouths, eyes, coat, or hair resemble one another in almost unending variations of form and color. These are idols of femininity and female power, teeming with desire and threat. The densely hung watercolors in the adjoining space act this out scenically in smaller format on paper. Cheerful nudes enjoy themselves in the circus-colored, BDSM ambience.

In contrast, Schärer’s statuesque Madonnas are less an expression of seductive femininity and sexuality than a surface projection of masculine libido, fantasies, and fears. For that reason, too, they unite in Aargau as a tension-filled chorus. If one could hear them sing, Thomas Tallis’s 1570 polyphonic Spem in alium (Hope Lies in the Other) would belong in their repertoire.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.

Max Glauner

Vincent Fecteau

Steinenberg 7
April 18–August 23

View of “Vincent Fecteau,” 2015.

What visitor to Vincent Fecteau’s exhibition in Kunsthalle Basel’s skylit hall isn’t already acquainted with works of modernist sculpture that are anxious to create, via abstraction and even sheer volume, relevant forms that simultaneously engage with their sites and engross their audiences? Connoisseurs of Hans Arp or Henry Moore, for instance, soon find themselves at home with Fecteau’s work—and yet the artist is after something very different from what Arp or Moore pursued. To start with, his materials—hard foam, wood, papier-mâché, and acrylic—run contrary to those of his predecessors. From these he creates, for example, Ohne Titel (Untitled), 2012. This work, like the other sculptures in the exhibition, is presented on a pedestal, in keeping with tradition. It features a shapely, amorphous figure whose dark surfaces in contoured arcs and arches end with abrupt breaks and openings accentuated in blue. Or take another untitled work, from 2002, a ten-inch-high dome made of plaster with seashell trimming, looking as if it were an architectonic study from the hand of Rudolf Steiner.

Among the advantages of this equanimously beautiful exhibition is that it juxtaposes ten sculptures from the last twelve years, all presented on pedestals, with Fecteau’s most recent series, all untitled pieces from this year. The fifteen works—black boxes of various shapes but approximately the same size—reveal collages within, stages on which stories are sketched through newspaper clippings that speak to Fecteau’s penchant for interior spaces and architecture. Indeed, seen as architectural constructions, his modernist sculptures in the center of the Kunsthalle reclaim contemporaneity anew.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.

Max Glauner

Marlene Dumas

Baselstrasse 101
May 31–September 6

Marlene Dumas, The Painter, 1994, oil on canvas, 6' 7“ x 39 1/4”.

The Kunstsammlung in Basel possesses one of the most shattering paintings in the history of the medium: Hans Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, 1520–22. Who would guess that Marlene Dumas, another artist of the human form, always returns to this work? The scene is bleakly conjured in Dumas’s Snow White and the Broken Arm, 1988, as well as in her monumental, tender drawing in acrylic, ink, and watercolor, After Painting, 2003, which showcases her swift, diaphanous application of paint. In this work, Dumas even succeeds in surpassing the old master, in that the prostrate dead body appears as if it were wrested from the paper on which it was rendered—transience and salvation find their material echo here. It is a happy coincidence therefore that after stations in Amsterdam and London the show “Marlene Dumas. The Image as Burden” finds its triumphal close in the Fondation Beyeler in Basel.

The first three works in this show offer a painterly voyage of discovery into the abysses of the conditio humana. There is the tense self-portrait in oil, The Sleep of Reason, 2009, which contrasts the opaque purple of Dumas’s dress with the transparent streak of her hair, closed eyes, and hands. Against this, on the wall across, is Helena’s Dream, 2008, wherein a full-face portrait of Dumas’s daughter engulfs the entire image and breathes sheer, unending peace. What might these two be dreaming? An answer comes in the third canvas in the room, The Painter, 1994. A gigantic girl (or defiant gnome) stands with an oil-smeared stomach and hands in different hues, uncanny and self-confident. This opening room alone makes the trip to Riehen in Basel worth it.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.

Max Glauner

Nicolas Party

Hauptstrasse 12
June 17, 2015–July 25, 2015

View of “Nicolas Party: Panorama,” 2015.

“Panorama,” Nicolas Party’s debut solo exhibition in a nonprofit institutional setting in Switzerland, is inspired by the nineteenth-century pictorial phenomenon, a precursor to cinematography. Here, Party transforms the gallery space by constructing a wooden cube superstructure, sixteen feet high on each side, which is the support for wall paintings. He has shifted the exhibition space from inside to outside, covering the exterior surface of the cube with acrylic paint, in hues ranging from white to blue. Vertical bands in a two-tone pattern act as a background to twenty-nine unique works created over a ten-day period, which reproduce his typical subjects: teapots, fruit, and genderless portraits. Executed in a blue-tinged kind of grisaille, these images delineate the subtle boundary between two and three dimensions, shifting the artist’s interest from a typical horizontal “landscape” layout to an in-depth exploration of isolated subjects (something perhaps inspired by his previous work as a writer).

Party’s most obvious models for examining some of the formal and historical principles of painting are Giorgio Morandi’s dusty representations, Massimo Campigli’s chilly portraits, and David Hockney’s vivid landscapes—all of which are filtered continuously through Party’s personal quest for humor. He has thus erected a very low-fi, site-specific work: It is a 360-degree painting gallery that reveals his imaginative capacity to engage viewers and transport them in the work’s boundless vision.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.

Maria Chiara Valacchi