Anita Leisz, Untitled, 2016, gypsum, fiberboard, 10 1/2 × 43 3/8 × 4 3/8". Photo: Tina Herzl.

Anita Leisz, Untitled, 2016, gypsum, fiberboard, 10 1/2 × 43 3/8 × 4 3/8". Photo: Tina Herzl.

Anita Leisz

Anita Leisz, Untitled, 2016, gypsum, fiberboard, 10 1/2 × 43 3/8 × 4 3/8". Photo: Tina Herzl.

Visitors were greeted with an open view, free of dividing walls. Anita Leisz had even covered the large gallery’s single window to turn the chamber into a blind white cube: high ceilings, volume, pure space. It had been a long time since Galerie Meyer Kainer presented itself full-width and so maximally receptive. The gallery pulled out all the stops for this solo show by perhaps the most rigorous and unrelenting among its artists. And she rewarded them with an unprecedented mise-en-scène, tempestuous and suspenseful, sparse and unsparing. Sculpture has rarely been thematized with more self-reflexive wit, more earnest urgency.

Leisz works with industrially manufactured gypsum fiberboard produced for interior construction applications. The boards are made entirely of gypsum reinforced with cellulose fiber, and measure fifty by 108 inches. They spend a long time in the artist’s studio, and while the work is in progress, someone is sure to walk across the material wearing a pair of sturdy shoes, or at some point Leisz might drop her screwdriver, or a nail might scratch the surface. The boards are accidentally relieved of their flawlessness, but Leisz uses them to create incredibly beautiful, severe sculptures. She paints their surfaces with tinting color, then washes it off so that some pigment remains in the depressions where the surface coating has been compromised by ordinary occurrences during transport and storage, leaving behind dark crevices and scrapes in the dull gray expanse. They evoke the body and its handicaps, cuts, abrasions, and wounds. The marks of tire treads or shoe soles, on the other hand, introduce notions of the urban, of civilization.

The works in this show, all untitled and with one exception from 2016, were constructed with the utmost care and precision. Leisz’s method of joining together the individual boards, the frame constructions made of wooden slats, the mitered corner treatments, the seamless transitions, all reveal masterful craftsmanship and know-how. Leisz’s working process is to be read in the finished object, even if the artist occasionally allows herself a bonus aesthetic effect: Screws are submerged in spray paint, emerging when the paint is removed; a blowtorch is brought in to fill corners with soot, creating dramatic depths.

Material, form, and proportion are traditional concepts in sculpture. Yet Leisz is more interested in formats and their relationships to one another, to the viewer, and to the surrounding space. Her fixed archetype is a shallow cuboid, closed at the top, always open at the bottom, the front edge either closed or open. She operates from that starting point using scale and opposition: inside/outside, surface/volume, open/closed, large/small. Decisively distributed around the room, the pieces had the presence of actors onstage. An imaginary vertical led through the white cube of the ground floor up to the mezzanine, and on to the gallery’s secret center on the second floor. It’s a bar. The architect Erich Boltenstern, a Viennese postwar modernist, built it in the 1950s for the Austrian Association of Engineers and Architects. The original interiors have been preserved down to the details. After openings, people meet here for a drink and conversation. Leisz is also thinking about social spaces and the role works of art play in them: If two sculptures hang vertically, they are behaving socially, the artist told me. One might speak of character studies, of psychologically differentiated figures in an art milieu.

For years now, viewers have thought of Leisz as a belated Minimalist. This exhibition clearly showed that her eccentricity and humor put her in a different category. If you need to cite a precursor, think instead of Franz Erhard Walther. His “Sculpture as a Form of Action” has become her “sculptural action.”

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by O. E. Dryfuss.