View of “Maria Bartuszová,” 2014.

View of “Maria Bartuszová,” 2014.

Maria Bartuszová

View of “Maria Bartuszová,” 2014.

Imagine a form that exudes vulnerability as well as resolve, pliancy as well as recalcitrance, that features geometric shapes and is nonetheless organic, that looks provisional and yet is timelessly self-contained, that is alive with tension but still imparts a sense of calm, that suggests the most intimate eroticism while attesting to the most refined purity. If this seems impossible to conjure, then look at the work of Maria Bartuszová. Such ambivalence is the defining characteristic of her art and probably accounts for the incomprehension with which these wonderful objects have often been met.

Born in Prague in 1936, Bartuszová moved to Košice, in what was then Czechoslovakia and is now Slovakia, in 1961 and launched her career as an artist there a few years later; she died in 1996. The era’s male-dominated Minimalism called for lucid form cleansed of all sentiment. Fascinated by the reductive nature of this movement, Bartuszová nonetheless wanted to retain an emotional connection in her work, even knowing that the Minimalists regarded the expression of feeling as theatrical and shunted it off to the allegedly feminine sphere of private life. Undeterred, she tried to find forms that would be clear and yet guided by emotion. But how to translate feelings into abstract three-dimensional shapes? Bartuszová initially sought inspiration in nature, making art out of stones, branches, sand, and—above all—plaster. As she developed an ever-keener sense for the subtle qualities of these materials, they came to define the effect of her objects. In this regard, she has much in common with her contemporary Eva Hesse.

Consider, for example, an object—like most of Bartuszová’s works, Untitled—dated 1970–87, that was shown as part of Documenta 12 in Kassel in 2007. A translucent Plexiglas panel that radiates cold, harsh rigidity is held along its sides by gentle, rounded plaster forms.The panel’s sharp edges cut into the plaster, and both components are held together with strings that carve gashes into the round shapes as though into a naked body. Could there be a better articulation of hardness and softness, compliance and resistance, submission and dominance, passivity and aggression?

With other objects and installations, that piece was recently on display in “Maria Bartuszová: Provisional Forms,” the artist’s first institutional solo exhibition outside Slovakia, curated by Marta Dziewańska. Five table-like platforms of different heights contained most of the pieces, while others were displayed on the walls. (That is how the artist presented her work in her own lifetime—mostly in her studio, since she had few exhibitions.) The arrangement, geared more toward formal correspondences than chronological sequence, highlighted another important characteristic of Bartuszová’s art: Her objects, thanks to their ambivalence, are strangely volatile. One might say that they tiptoe around an instant of discontinuity—still hard, they are softening; still resisting, they already prove pliant—a rupture the artist transmuted into form with wonderful dexterity. Yet, contrary to what the exhibition’s title suggests, these are not makeshift solutions; the works’ very elusiveness sustains a timeless equilibrium. And sometimes it takes very little to throw them off-balance, as her later objects illustrate. Round hollow shapes that were cast using inflatable balloons, these pieces have a fractured quality that seems to indicate a return into time. In conjunction with that volatility, it is the emphasis on material substance that makes the oeuvre of this underappreciated artist so relevant at a moment when new approaches in philosophy are beginning to realign our understanding of the relation between human beings and the material world.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.