Rudolf Maeglin, Jüngling (Youngster), 1959, oil on board, 14 5⁄8 × 6 1⁄4".

Rudolf Maeglin, Jüngling (Youngster), 1959, oil on board, 14 5⁄8 × 6 1⁄4".

Rudolf Maeglin

Among the earliest works of Swiss painter Rudolf Maeglin (1892–1971) are portraits of dye-factory workers in his native Basel. In the 1930s and ’40s, he painted these Farbarbeiter (literally “color workers”) with their lips tinted a pale green or bare chests stained a brilliant red by the toxic pigments they produced. With these fine-featured workers rendered crudely in oil on canvas and on board, Maeglin developed a characteristic style—simple shapes, bright colors, flat perspective—in which he painted Basel’s laborers and construction sites until his death. The recent Maeglin retrospective across three Basel galleries amounted in part to a time capsule of the city, focusing on its building booms before and after World War II, the bridges built (and rebuilt) across the Rhine, and the chemical-dye manufacturing that laid the foundations for the city’s pharmaceutical industry.

But the show was above all a testament to devotion. Seemingly driven by something like a socialist ideology and a subtle homoeroticism, Maeglin’s art and life revolved around his enduring admiration for workers and the spaces they occupied. However, the dominant tone of this art is one not of glorification but of palpable gentleness. How to paint a bridge tenderly? In the oil-on-canvas Die Dreirosenbrücke mit grossem Kran (The Three Roses Bridge with Big Crane), 1933, soft lines of scaffolding support the extended horizontal form of a partially built orange bridge. The construction site envelops four figures hauling timber, their long limbs stretched in gymnastic postures. The unfinished infrastructure recalls the incompleteness of a ruin, which—like a construction site—underscores that architecture is something essentially temporal. As Maeglin returned with faithful attention to the motif of the bridge at various angles and stages of construction, the river itself remained ancillary, as if its expanse of blue were principally a contrasting color to accentuate the assembly of the bridge above it.

Maeglin consistently worked with a vibrant palette, often using shades of green and swaths of red. Do the latter indicate socialist sympathies? Alongside Walter Bodmer and Meret Oppenheim, he became a member of the antifascist collective of Swiss artists Gruppe 33, a few years after he had moved across the Rhine from Grossbasel to the industrial working-class Kleinbasel. Spending time at the Klybeck port while supporting himself as a manual laborer and by working in the chemicals industry, Maeglin immersed himself in his subject matter, possibly as a political stance and, one can speculate, in an attempt to explore his sexuality more freely. He remained in this adopted community for the rest of his life, painting dozens of portraits of people from the neighborhood in a body of work from the 1960s. The presentation at Galerie Mueller focused on this group in oil on small vertical pieces of hardboard. Many show young men set against green or red backdrops, posing with pouty lips or a hand on a cocked hip, as in Jüngling (Youngster), 1959, and Blonder Jüngling (Blond Youngster), 1960. Numerous preparatory line drawings from this series were also on view, which, with their careful attention to the male form, bear comparison to Andy Warhol’s more explicitly erotic drawings from the late 1950s as parallel forays into queer figuration. Both artists’ works feel fresh decades later. Framed by the portraits that bookend his oeuvre, the Maeglin retrospective animated his harmonious building sites as open-ended places of possibility, situated at an intersection of voyeurism and ideology. These places were his great muses, and as such were inextricably intertwined with desire.