Geta Brătescu, Mrs. Oliver in her traveling costume, 1985, gelatin silver print, 15 1/2 × 15 1/2".

Geta Brătescu, Mrs. Oliver in her traveling costume, 1985, gelatin silver print, 15 1/2 × 15 1/2".

Geta Brătescu

Geta Brătescu, Mrs. Oliver in her traveling costume, 1985, gelatin silver print, 15 1/2 × 15 1/2".

“Geta Brătescu,” the artist’s first solo exhibition in the United States, gave a pithy introduction to this pioneering figure of Romanian Conceptual art. Organized by Apsara DiQuinzio as part of the MATRIX program at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, this succinct survey, which spanned the years 1974–2000, included two films, a collage series, a photograph, a drawing, a sculpture, and a textile wall piece, all of which cumulatively managed to convey the crux of Brătescu’s artistic concerns. Poetic transformations of objects and materials pervade the artist’s investigations of self-portraiture, the studio, female gender, and memory tropes particularized by the social and political conditions of Communist and post-Communist Eastern Europe.

Many of these themes were evident in Brătescu’s Atelierul (The Studio), 1978, an eighteen-minute film for which artist Ion Grigorescu acted as cinematographer. A kind of intimate “portrait” of the artist’s studio as alter ego for Brătescu herself, it opens with a view of her sleeping on a cot as the camera meanders through the lived-in space, panning over surfaces cluttered with art supplies and domestic items and peering inside cupboards like a nosy guest. Brătescu, appearing to awaken, begins to engage with the architecture, marking on the wall and floor two squares, scaled to her own height. She then attempts, futilely, to span this measured area diagonally, stretching her body across it but failing to reach either corner. This notion of space as not merely a fixed geometric volume but also a subjective and representational field of possibility becomes more palpable as Brătescu interacts with various props. With a Chaplinesque sense of comic timing, she mimes imaginary scenarios: A set of simple wooden tablets becomes a path of magical stepping stones; a three-legged stool becomes a dance partner; and, blouse covering her face, Brătescu finally transforms herself into a headless apparition. The artist’s playfulness—a kind of joyful self-abandonment—is also apparent in another short film that was on view, Mâini: Mâna trupului meu îmi reconstituie portretul (Hands: The Hand of My Body Reconstitutes My Portrait), 1977. Here we see Brătescu’s disembodied hands as they touch and inspect different objects and lastly each other, becoming simultaneously agent and object of tactile exploration.

Brătescu’s investigation of the studio called to mind contemporaneous inquiries into this traditional site of artistic creation by Bruce Nauman and Joan Jonas, at a moment when its meaning and function were being challenged by the rise of post-studio practices and institutional critique. Yet within the context of postwar Romania, the artist’s studio played an additional role as a “secondary public space,” which, along with private apartments, offered a respite from the fear and repression of the highly surveilled public sphere. The political situation of Communist Eastern Europe likewise inflected Brătescu’s approach to gender, and her disavowal of feminism (which she has referred to as a “uniform” to suggest its ideological aspect) in favor of an archetypal notion of the feminine was here evidenced by Didona, 2000, in which garlands of black felt were strung across a wall as if tracing the epic journey of the ancient warrior queen Dido, implicitly referencing a universal or mythical female power apart from any specific social or political agenda.

“Memorie,” 1990, a series of forty nearly identical abstract collages, allegorizes the turbulent past of the artist’s homeland as a kind of absence that can be accessed only obliquely, if at all. Each is constructed of two pieces of paper that are crumpled and then flattened out, painted black, and superimposed on larger white paper boards, before being hand-inscribed with the word MEMOIRE in graphite. The repetition of these black-on-black forms gradually accentuates subtle differences among them: variations in texture and value, slight irregularities in the hand-torn and creased shapes. Produced the year after the Romanian revolution, the piece alludes to the darkness of the Communist era but also suggests that new forms of artistic communication and visibility were invented despite—or perhaps even because of—creative censorship under Communism. This show certainly attested to such innovation, and thanks to DiQuinzio’s work at the Berkeley Art Museum, Brătescu’s oeuvre has itself come to light for a wider audience.

Gwen Allen