Judit Reigl, Corps au pluriel (Body in Plural), 1991, mixed media, 74 3⁄4 × 74 3⁄4". From the series “Corps au pluriel,” 1990–92.

Judit Reigl, Corps au pluriel (Body in Plural), 1991, mixed media, 74 3⁄4 × 74 3⁄4". From the series “Corps au pluriel,” 1990–92.

Judit Reigl

I asked a young painter to join me on my first visit to this survey of five decades of Judit Reigl’s work. Though my friend’s art jumps between figuration and blankets of monochrome color, she was surprised that the large gestural canvases hung in the street-facing space of Kamel Mennour’s newest gallery had been made by the same artist as the series of small abstractions that lined a long hallway and the large, cleanly figurative compositions presented in two white rooms at the very end. This sense of surprise is common in encounters with Reigl’s work.

In telling the story of her escape from her native Hungary in 1950, occupied since the end of World War II by Stalin’s Communist forces, Reigl would emphasize that she succeeded only on her ninth attempt. This determination is echoed in her activities as a painter. She worked in series, not because of some Conceptual interest in repetition, but out of a lived practice of psychological persistence and physical endurance. And narrative enters even into her most abstract compositions. Here, for example, on a nearly square 1961 canvas from the series “Écriture en masse” (Mass Writing), 1959–65, fiery-orange and black oil has been worked with a palette knife, apparently at great speed. Made just five years after the violently quashed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, these paintings continue to struggle with the uprising and bloody repression of Reigl’s generation.

In Paris, Reigl had made her way to La Ruche, “the Beehive,” a dynamic community of artists’ studios on the Left Bank. Fellow Hungarian Simon Hantaï introduced her to André Breton’s Surrealists. Through her own automatic intuitive process, color and beauty would emerge. Likewise, the male figure would find form in Reigl’s canvases, starting with her “Homme” (Man) series, 1966–72, represented here by canvases composed in black oil paint on a white background from 1964 and 1966. In one, a man’s midsection, as if seen through his own eyes from above, morphs into an anguished face. Consistently nude, Reigl’s male forms, which would soon disappear from her work only to return at the end of her career, are often alone—less sexual creatures than terribly vulnerable human beings.

This exhibition’s title, “Je suis la Règle,” plays on the resemblance of the artist’s name to the French word for rule, or ruler, which stems from the Latin regere. The line comes from a poem Reigl wrote in 1985, when she was in her early sixties. “My body plays the game,” she begins, “Ruled by ‘I’”—in French, Je suis la règle. It is a manifesto not only of independence, but also of discipline. Never an anarchist, she was the independent ruler of her own artistic domain, the inventor of her own language. “Fragment de déroulement” (Pieces of Unfolding), 1974–2010—a series she returned to multiple times before her death in 2020, represented here with small canvases from 1974, 2009, and 2010—reveals this in written form through a process she developed as “paint-writing.” Using a sponge dipped in pigment to create horizontally running passages of calligraphic strokes (often on the back of the canvas before washing the front in a single pigment), Reigl brought a musicality to the rhythm of her marks, though linguistically they were nonsense.

Inky black is prominent in the artist’s works, even if many of her male figures drift in washes of blue and green. Two works here from the series “Face à . . .” (Face to . . .), 1988–90—individually dated 1988 and 1989—showed Reigl’s male forms, as alike as two canoes, adrift on washes of deep sea green. The sketchy contours of her human forms are nearly as feathery as a forest of kelp. A 1991 work from Reigl’s later “Corps au pluriel” (Body in Plural) series, 1990–92, moved a more crisply defined male silhouette to a celestial stage, placing a body whose color is the green of spring leaves on a background of blue sky, pale clouds, and a white rectangle. This geometric form frames Reigl’s nearly life-size male figure and echoes the shape of her canvas. It could be a doorway, a stone tomb, or a picture of an eighth or a ninth attempt at escape. For Reigl, painting also seemed to have become a way to take flight.