New York

Ilse Getz

Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Gallery

For over 30 years, Ilse Getz has worked and exhibited extensively—if sporadically—both here and in Europe, without ever achieving the kind of recognition that an artist of her ability deserves. She has never pushed her work before the public, while she has always enjoyed the friendship and esteem of other artists. An independent woman, she has never had to prove to herself that she was either a woman or an artist. Perhaps her independence has robbed her of the credit she deserves. If she were a feminist involved in female subject matter, and not just a woman artist, she would undoubtedly have commanded more attention.

This year a major exhibition of her paintings, collages, and constructions will be presented at the Neuberger Museum at Purchase, before traveling to the Kunsthalle in Nuremberg, the city of her birth and privileged childhood, which she left in 1933 for a new life and a precarious future in America. A smaller show of her recent collages and constructions offered us sufficient material to begin to define her current artistic personality and to place her fairly beside Joseph Cornell and Varujan Boghosian, with whose work hers is inevitably compared.

Getz uses playing cards, old dolls, game boards, eggs, found objects, and fixes them in compositions which are remarkable for their delicate balance and symmetry. Her purpose, unlike Cornell’s, is not to narrate, but primarily to compose, to establish a sense of order, to control disparate elements. She is first of all a painter, and is fascinated by color and texture and shape. That the objects she employs have prior histories is important, but not paramount. It is not the individual memory which is important, it is rather the sense of a past which she can now dominate.

Unlike Boghosian, Getz rarely manipulates her objects, but presents them baldly. Boghosian’s métier is sculpture, and so many of the beautifully modeled and cast heads and limbs in his constructions are his invention: found objects are transformed. Like the new wooden bricks he uses more and more, the elements touch; they are fitted together tightly. In Getz’s work there is a sustained separation between elements, a real tension which attracts the objects as much as it is necessary to force them apart.

Rather than deny her debt to other artists, Getz replies that “none of us is innocent.” But here it is necessary to recall her childhood as a source for much of the material that now appears in her work. Her family home dated from the Middle Ages and she remembers its darkness and claustrophobia, the ancient wooden panelling covering its walls and ceilings, the small round-paned windows. She was familiar with the small portable house altars—is she the child peering out of her own constructions?—which were ubiquitous in Catholic Nuremberg. And she experienced the great Bavarian Baroque churches with their voluptuous but delicate white and gold interiors. Despite her pleasure in experiencing these remarkable places, as a Jew she must have sensed a certain alienation.

I think the way Getz has dealt with her subject matter throughout her career has followed closely upon her private progress, the frustrations and happinesses in her life. One wonders now if the eggs which have always appeared in her work aren’t metaphors for those beautiful but alien Catholic places. Earlier in her career the eggs were often smashed, and the dolls mutilated. One early construction in the current exhibition, Doll’s Head with Eggs from 1965, displays a brutality which is no longer apparent in her work today. In it a doll’s head is fixed between and slightly in front of two eggs, attached to a rough block of wood by collars of thick white paint. Rusted nails grow out of the wood, and one breaks through—violates—an egg. It is a subtle but real brutality. The serenity of her work today suggests that while she may have rebelled against her life, finally she has come to a time of peacefulness and acceptance—not resignation. It is apparent in the way that she leaves her objects undisturbed, using them as she finds them. She seems to say, “They are real, they delight me, they have survived (as I have), I can leave them alone.”

Stuart Greenspan