Adriena Šimotová

Veletrzní Palác

Since the ’60s, Czech artist Adriena Šimotová has been concerned with the human body-its physical presence, vulnerability, evanescence, and decay. She has worked primarily with paper since the early ’70s. I say with paper and not on it, for Šimotová uses paper as an almost sculptural medium, emphasizing its material qualities and, above all, its capacity to serve as a kind of physical allegory of human flesh.

This tightly organized retrospective prepared by the National Gallery in Prague and exhibited in the Veletrzní Palác leads off with, several paintings from 1970-73 in which Šimotová’s sensitivity to color is clearly manifest. The graphic elements of these early pictures provide an open scaffolding for the play of color against structure while suggesting a kind of generalized representation. While the space remains the flattened, shallow kind produced by broad zones of color, the pictures nonetheless evoke, through Šimotová’s abstracted drawing and use of light, the feeling of specific time and place. Despite being one of the few Czech painters since František Kupka to have successfully explored the expressive possibilities of color, after 1973 Šimotová appears to have abandoned both painting and, for the most part, intense chromaticism. (The latter would only become prominent in her work again after 1989.) Her focus became the sheer materiality of the various kinds of paper with which she had begun to work, through tearing, puncturing, embossing, wetting, inscribing, smudging, and layering. The resulting works, often of monumental dimensions, can suggest a living, physical presence pushing out from behind the plane. Šimotová frequently employs frottage, rubbing drawing media upon paper placed directly against her own or others’ bodies to produce an index of their topography. The somber feeling in her work of the ’70s relates to the tragedies suffered by the artist both public (the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia) and private (the death of her husband, the artist Jírí John, in 1972).

Especially powerful are the works from 1984 using large rolls of carbon paper. Unfurling on the wall from their original tubes and flowing onto the floor, they achieve a quality of physical presence akin to that of the work of such contemporaries as Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, and Richard Tuttle. That Šimotová developed in relative isolation from these peers attests to her independence of vision and, at the same time, the near universal significance of material presence as an issue in modern art.

The show concludes where Šimotová's work began, with a painting from 1962, Zrcadlo (The mirror), in which she employs the classic pictorial device of showing a figure and its reflection in order to depict it, simultaneously, from the front and the back. It is as though a bodily presence were somehow pushing out from behind the picture, a theme that would occupy Šimotová for the next forty years.

A late-career retrospective provides an occasion to assess not only the quality and strength of an artist's oeuvre, but also its significance in a larger cultural context. In her native land, Šimotová stands as one of the leading figures in the generation of artists that came of age in the ’60s, during that brief loosening of the social and cultural restrictions of Communism known as the Prague Spring. Thanks in part to the relative openness of that time, her work shares some of the concerns of the avant-garde in the United States and Western Europe. But in contrast to the Franco-American varieties of modernism, which pushed art ever closer to the edges of pure sensation or self-reflexivity, modernism in Central Europe almost always retained an investment in existential content and spiritual symbolism (sometimes to its detriment). Close in spirit to Italian arte povera or the mytho-poetics of Joseph Beuys and sometimes seeming to anticipate the work of younger artists like Kiki Smith, Šimotová’s work remains very contemporary.

Jeff Crane