Mária Bartuszová

Mária Bartuszová was little known outside of Slovakia until a cross section of her works from 1970 to 1987 was presented last year at Documenta 12. Born in Prague, Bartuszová spent most of her life in the city of Kosice, in the east of Slovakia (almost on the Ukrainian border), and died there in 1996, at age sixty. Her works are typically amorphous, globular plaster of paris forms fastened by cords to holes in Plexiglas plates. The encounters of the malleable plaster objects—their surfaces painfully choked by twine—with the hardness and inflexibility of the plate evoke not only vulnerability, but also a kind of sexually conditioned violence, the violence inflicted daily upon the female body. Curated by Slovakian art historian Vladimír Beskid, this singular exhibition confirmed that independently of Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois, in distant Eastern Europe, questions akin to theirs were being explored concerning the properties of material and the effects of form.

In her early work, Bartuszová used materials such as twigs, stones, sand, water, or plaster. The pliable and the mutable, and the vulnerability particular to the delicate plaster and dried twigs, especially attracted her. Space was also her subject. Bartuszová did not regard her works as autonomous objects created for museums and galleries; rather, they were to flow together with their environment, a part of nature and of the space surrounding them. In this vein, Bartuszová gradually transformed one of the trees in her garden into a sculpture with plaster and cords.

In 1963, Bartuszová started working more consistently with plaster. Forms of tender fragility emerged. Shapes and their effects interested the artist first and foremost: “I think that shapes on their own have a strong psychological expression through which they operate—for example: rectangular, sharp, inorganic shapes—coldness; round, organic shapes—warmth; round touching shapes can convey the feeling of a tender touch, or a hug—and maybe also erotic feelings,” she once said. And in fact, here as in Kassel, the objects radiate eroticism. But not an obliging, seductive, foregrounded eroticism; instead, one that leaves behind scratches from cords pulled too tight around the body, indentations left by a grip too firm. Yet despite this subliminal sense of pain, the white forms come across as pure, untouched by their injuries, no matter whether they sit on a wooden board, hang stretched between sheets of Plexiglas, or fill a window of the gallery like a spider’s web of string and small plaster balls.

From 1986 until her death, Bartuszová also shaped fragile ovoids of all sizes by pulling plaster over inflated balloons. After the removal of the balloon, thin walls remain, often broken, damaged, torn, much like eggs from which a living creature has just recently sprung. These objects, too, are not without erotic effect, though they are more like wrappings, promises, seeds of creation. Bartuszová assembled them, sliding them into one another or placing them on piles of sand; others are individual objects on bases, perforated, split, or fettered by a cord. They are singular objects of such frailty that one’s breath stops. Bartuszová lived in isolation from the international art community, but her work merits its attention.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Diana Reese.