Martha Jungwirth, Untitled, 2013, oil on paper on canvas, 56 1/8 × 76 5/8".

Martha Jungwirth, Untitled, 2013, oil on paper on canvas, 56 1/8 × 76 5/8".

Martha Jungwirth

Modern Art Vyner Street

Martha Jungwirth, Untitled, 2013, oil on paper on canvas, 56 1/8 × 76 5/8".

Martha Jungwirth’s first exhibition in the United Kingdom coincided with a period of broader international rediscovery. The Viennese septuagenarian was the only woman in the loosely gathered, short-lived Wirklichkeiten (Realities) group that exhibited together in 1968–72: The figurative painters offered a counterpoint to the prevailing Minimal and Conceptual tendencies of the era as well as to the local Vienna Actionists. But until lately, her expressive paintings have rarely been shown outside of Austria and Germany. This exhibition consisted of thirteen works made between 1998 and 2015, in oil or watercolor, mostly on paper mounted on canvas. The most striking quality of these pieces was their evocation of the artist’s innate sense of touch and materiality. Mostly painted flat on large sheets, they convey haptic sensations through brushstrokes, splatters, drags, scrapes, and stains. The presence of fingerprints and scratches also adds to a sense of primal action. Yet the physical intensity of the artist’s hand is balanced by a delicate sensitivity. The tall Untitled, 2013, for instance, has all its gestural intensity confined to the upper half, leaving an airy spaciousness through tracts of empty brown paper. Subtle dabs of lime green at the top anchor the predominantly red, pink, and white painterly swipes. In Jungwirth’s earlier works, there are more figurative allusions: Portrait-format canvases contain distorted, de Kooning–esque heads and bodies, for example. Though not apparently figural, her more recent paintings still conjure a sense of the body, especially when their color suggests flesh and blood, while the finger marks dotted near the paper’s edge index the artist’s corporeal engagement.

Jungwirth draws inspiration from her surroundings as well as from the body. Here, two large horizontal watercolors (both Untitled, from the “Naxos” series, 1998) were inspired by Cycladic idols the artist saw on journeys to Greece. The gentle dynamism of the watery green-brown stains on smooth white paper conjure a pastoral feel while merely teasing at form. Like a Song-dynasty painter, Jungwirth does not labor in situ, preferring instead to work in the studio. More defined forms appear in the two pieces from the “Fundraising” series (both Untitled, 2013), their central shapes created by broad, curving sweeps of white oil paint, around when more softly colored flurries of painted events occur. This series was sparked by an invitation card for an institutional fundraiser, which depicted a gathering for a meal.

What makes Jungwirth an expressionist of an unusual sort is her way of balancing the spontaneity of mark making and painterly accidents with an awareness of her supports. The creamy-white or brown ground of the paper or canvas creates a stage on which her touches of color interact like characters in a play, while their delicacy is counterpointed by the implacable expanse of the surface. As in Harold Rosenberg’s conception of action painting, each of Jungwirth’s works can be construed as the relic of a performative act, providing a document of her actions, but with results somewhat reminiscent of Cy Twombly’s paintings of the 1960s. Recording a temporal act of painting stroke by stroke, the work nonetheless coalesces into a single self-contained moment under the viewer’s gaze.

Sherman Sam