I first saw Maria Bussmann’s work in a group exhibition at the James Nicholson Gallery in 2005, where she showed two very different sets of drawings. One was of freely associated images done in pencil on rolls of cash register paper, which were hung from the ceiling and trailed to the floor. These “litanies,” as the artist called them, were made at Exit Art earlier that year as part of a performance event called Prayer Project.
The other set was composed of selections from a series of 92 drawings (1996-99) based on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) — one of several such series taken from philosophical texts (Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Baruch Spinoza, Maurice Merleau-Ponty) that can include more than 100 individual works.
Bussmann approaches philosophy from an insider’s perspective, holding a doctorate from the University of Vienna, and hardly regards it as sacrosanct. In a profile published in the February 2007 issue of The Brooklyn Rail, I wrote that Bussmann “does not treat philosophy as subject matter or propose to outline a philosophy of art” but instead “creates a densely woven iconography — which she regards as a commentary on or ‘addendum to’ the text”:
Despite their heady pedigree, the pictures themselves are loosely structured, playful, even funny. Images roam across the page like drawings from a loopy treatise on physics or botany, combining studies of observed reality with seemingly random pictograms, numbers, words, lines and arcs.
Still, as a German who currently spends most of the year in Vienna, Bussmann is acutely aware of the scourge of history and the insidious uses to which the science of thought can be put — a subject she explores in a seminar on Heidegger that she conducts at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts. Ethics and its relationship to aesthetics (encapsulated in Wittgenstein’s dictum that the two are “one and the same”) is an ever-present concern.
In Either Way, her current solo show at Frosch&Portmann on the Lower East Side, Bussmann again presents two distinct series, the Concordance Drawings (2013-ongoing), which mark a return to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and a quirky sculptural hybrid called Lucky Numbers (2015-16).
The Lucky Numbers are triangular drawings, resembling pennants, done in colored pencil on the same lined flip chart paper that she used for her series Drawings Dedicated to Hannah Arendt, which were shown at the Deutsches Haus at New York University in 2012. The pennants are considered individual artworks, but they can be grouped, as sculptural objects, in endless configurations.
In one arrangement they turn into a downward-pointing triangle, forming an enormous, aggregate pennant; elsewhere they hang from a wire curving upward across the wall, accentuating their decorative aspect. There are also two pieces, each bearing the number 8, that are mounted horizontally and paired at the base of their respective triangles to create a diamond shape. In the process, the 8, turned on its side, is transformed into the symbol for infinity.
These accidental infinity symbols suddenly feel of a piece with the truncated filigrees and geometric designs lining the pennants’ edges, prompting potential connections between the numbers and the abstractions. There are, for instance, V-shapes adorning one of the 5s — are they referring to the Roman numeral? But then there are three circles surrounding another 5, as well as a 3: is that because 3 and 5 are both prime numbers?
Or is there nothing connecting them other than randomness, or luck — the same luck that allows one to live in New York or Vienna and not Mosul or Raqqa, or to be born in Bavaria in the 1960s instead of the 1930s? Luck, or fate, is as inescapable as our DNA, defining what we know, who we love, when we die. The more one thinks about these sunny works, the more they edge into the penumbra between light and darkness.
The conceptual malleability of the Lucky Numbers is traded for a critical specificity in the Concordance Drawings. Unlike her previous ventures into philosophical texts, in which the artist would accrue her images by concentrating on a particular phrase, these drawings, executed in pencil on gridded paper, focus on individual words (which appear in the upper left corner of the sheet) copied from a concordance to the Tractatus.
This approach may sound dry and forbidding, but it’s not. The images are sometimes straightforward, as in “abbilden” (“depict”), in which Bussmann draws two sets of hands, both wielding pencils: one sketches a tiny vase of flowers in the upper right corner, while the other puts the finishing touches on an iPhone displaying the same vase of flowers on its screen.
But for the most part the drawings take flight from conventional definitions, entering an associative realm that is as raptly mysterious as it is luxuriantly beautiful. For “Auszug” (“abstract”), rather than resort to the obvious, Bussmann presents a steep mountainside littered with dozens of pieces of luggage, their extended handles reaching toward the summit like pilgrims’ arms beseeching a saint for a miracle.
Conversely, she veers toward complete abstraction in “Antwort” (“answer”), in which a flat, blade-like shape points to the top left corner, while beneath it a form resembling a crown molding recedes in deep perspective into the bottom right. In other works, the picture seems to simultaneously acknowledge and contradict the word, as in “abgrenzen” (“delimit”), where a cyclone fence near the top of the sheet is all but lost in a detailed landscape dominated by a riverbank, where a moored canoe bobs in the water — signifiers of freedom and escape.
In an interview I did with the artist for Hyperallergic Weekend on the occasion of her show at Deutsches Haus, Bussmann underscored the importance she ascribes to Arendt’s concept of natality, “the state of being born — which is the opposite of Heidegger’s mortality, with its implications of destiny, hopelessness and darkness, of endings and what comes after death.”
The Concordance Drawings are openings rather than endings; the images may be enigmatic, if not unfathomable (even the seemingly forthright “abbilden / depict” is flecked with ambiguity, incorporating unexplained numbers on the flower petals), but they are never hermetic or opaque. Rather, they invite the viewer to travel the imaginative pathways that Bussmann’s deep understanding of art and philosophy have cleared for her.
As the images leap from an oval-framed thunderstorm (“Abenglaube / superstition”) to a paved-in canal (“Ableiten / derive”) to a faint faux-imprint of the artist’s hand (“andeuten / imply”), each drawing becomes another stage in a limitless stream of possibilities — “the gift of beginning again,” as the artist describes natality.
But the fluidity of this domain is delineated by the crispness of a vision tethered to hard, unyielding reality, offering a glimpse into a dream state that is at once starkly alien and intimately familiar, where freedom is grounded in responsibility, and fate is tempered by acceptance.
Maria Bussmann: Either Way continues at Frosch&Portmann (53 Stanton Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 17.