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The unorthodox evolution of Judit Reigl (Kapuvár, Hungary, 1923–Marcoussis, France, 2020), with its back and forth between abstraction and representation, has often led to confusion and misinterpretation.
In recent years, her presence in New York and the United States has been relatively steady, though it seems to barely register in today’s conversations on abstract painting. Most recently, her painting “Guano (Menhir)” (1959-64) was included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2018 survey, Epic Abstraction, which followed a comprehensive survey of her work, Body of Music, organized by the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio, in 2016.
As she recounted in the French periodical Art Press in 1977, Reigl escaped Communist Hungary in 1950 on her eighth attempt at crossing the all-too-real minefields of the Iron Curtain. After a grueling trek across Europe, she settled in Paris, where her compatriot Simon Hantaï had arrived two years earlier. They had attended the same art school in Budapest in the mid-1940s. He promptly introduced her to André Breton and a short Surrealism rite of passage followed for them both.
What interested them in Surrealism was the potential of automatic writing. Unfortunately, by then Breton had already moved away from it in favor of a more literary approach. Hantaï exhibited at the Surrealist gallery L’étoile scéllée in 1953, and Reigl in 1954. She was quick to break away from the group, a few months after her own opening, and Hantaï followed in 1955. Significantly, their exit from Surrealism was preceded by their discovery of Jackson Pollock’s work, a revelation that would take a while to sink in.
Pollock’s paintings were seen in Paris for the first time in 1951, then again in February 1952. Despite this exposure, which included two group shows and one solo, legend has it that no one in Paris took notice. Indeed, perhaps the collectors and the museums did not, but for two anonymous Hungarian immigrants, these events would turn out to have a profound and lasting impact. Hantaï acknowledged Pollock’s influence in 1960, with his Mariale series, and Reigl in 1974, with her Déroulements (Unfoldings) paintings.
In her work up to that point, Reigl had alternated between abstraction and representation. In hindsight, series such as Eclatement (Outburst, 1955-58), Centre de dominance (Center of Dominance, 1958-59), Ecriture en masses (Mass Writing, 1959-65), Homme (Man, 1966-72), and Drapés-Décodés (Drapes, Decoding, 1973) all seem like a long preamble to the Déroulements of the mid- to late 1970s.
These large abstract paintings would establish her as a major presence on the Parisian art scene. With a common spirit — and in contrast with the then-fashionable practice of the Supports/Surfaces group, whose trademark became (for better or for worse) the loose and unstretched canvas — both she and Hantaï would paint on unstretched canvas and then re-stretch it for presentation.
Coming on the heels of her figurative series Hommes and Drapé-Decodé, Reigl’s Déroulements seem to come out of nowhere. What the Allen Memorial Museum exhibition in Oberlin brought into focus was how much these paintings owed to a lesser-known series of automatic drawings she generated in response to music, titled Ecritures d’après musique (Writing After Music, 1965). With the Déroulements, the application of the mark evolved from an existential gesture on a flat surface to the inscription of the body on an unfurling space.
The process that Reigl developed for making these paintings began with hanging large, loose sheets of fabric from the ceiling around the perimeter of her studio. Circling around the sheets, brush in hand, to the sound of classical music on the radio (mostly Johann Sebastian Bach), she would repeatedly mark the fabric surface with a touch of enamel paint, which slowly seeped into the surface. She would then saturate the background in acrylic washes by working on one or both sides of the fabric. She next picked the side she preferred, cropped it, and stretched it.
As reflected in the title of the Oberlin retrospective, Body of Music, music was integral to Reigl’s use of the whole body as a tool for gesture. (Baroque music especially seems to have had an important place in Catholic Hungarian culture: Bach for Reigl, Heinrich Schütz for Hantaï.)
But in the mid ’80s, silhouettes of floating bodies, reminiscent of the Homme series of the late ’60s, unexpectedly reappeared and remained in the works until her final series, Birds (2012), a development that many of her followers saw as a kind of regression in her evolution.
If Pollock extended automatic drawing from the hand to the full body, Reigl and Hantaï internalized it within the painting process through the manipulation of its materials and supports. With Reigl, the affirmation of a corporeal presence no longer depended on the projection of an anxious gesture on a surface, but on the body’s inscription within the medium itself: a very significant shift in which the space of the painting took into consideration the tactile, physical materiality of the canvas.
For Reigl, this meant working on both sides of the painting and developing an unlimited space, so that the painting, as French critics at the time framed it, now existed in the same literal space as the viewer.
In contrast to the American idea of flatness, as it was proselytized by Clement Greenberg in the postwar years and was then holding sway, Reigl approached painting in terms of volume, rather than optics; this was associated outside the US, rightly or wrongly, with American cultural imperialism. Greenberg conveniently expurgated Surrealism and the role of the unconscious from his reading of Pollock and Abstract Expressionism. But, coming as they did out of Surrealism, Hantaï and Reigl ended up with a very different reading of Pollock. Their understanding of the formal advances of the drip and allover composition internalized the role of the unconscious within the strategies of the medium and allowed them to keep the body engaged in the process.
In his essay “Art and Objecthood” (1967), Michael Fried, a staunch defender of opticality, famously chastised Minimalism for being “theatrical.” He followed up on that idea with Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (University of California Press, 1980), in which he examined opposite and coexisting categories in 18th-century painting: the introspective versus the spectacular; the contemplative versus the performative.
Reframed for today, this could be viewed as the silence of introspection versus the rhetorical noise of Formalist theatrical discourse. Fried may well have touched on exactly what separated Reigl’s and Hantaï’s reading of Pollock’s work from that of their American counterparts: the role of the unconscious versus the performative posture of action painting.
In a 2009 text, poet and critic Marcelin Pleynet quoted this small poem of Reigl’s from 1985 (here in English translation):
My body plays the game of Which I am the Rule Rule of the game, I of Reigl Resolved, Resolute. A particle of the Universe. A particle of the universe Is the Universe.
Reigl is a close homonym to the words for “rule” in both German (“Regel”) and French (“règle,” as in “la règle du jeux/je” — “the rule of the game/I”). Reigl shows here that she can certainly play French word games. But more importantly, she transgresses the implied patriarchy of her surname to break the rule of the modernist game, which predicates that abstraction should follow representation and not the other way around.
In the French cultural landscape of the ’70s, where abstraction and representation were thought to be mutually incompatible, representation coming after abstraction could only be understood as an intellectual flaw and a fatal regression. The perception of Reigl’s work has suffered greatly from the intellectual dogmatism of those times.
Like Agnes Martin, who remained ideologically true to Abstract Expressionism even as she ushered in Minimalism, Reigl remained true to automatic drawing as she ushered in a new, deconstructed haptic space. It might be worth noting that in a peculiar instance of synchronicity, the Korean Dansaekhwa artist Ha Chong Hyun, while coming out of an entirely different background and context, started pushing paint through the back of his burlap paintings in the early 1970s as well. It is very unlikely that Reigl knew of the Korean artist’s work (or vice-versa), even as she might have been aware of the paintings of Lee Ufan, another prominent Dansaekhwa member, which were included in the 1971 Paris Biennale and exhibited in 1975 at Galerie Eric Fabre.
It is particularly telling to see how older artists elect to conclude the life adventure of their work. Many artists will end up replaying their “best of” ad infinitum. Hantaï, for his part, decided to stop working altogether, while Reigl chose to follow an inner voice that led her away from abstraction — and from her audience’s expectations — back into representation, as she saw no hierarchy between the two.
Her late figurative works might sometimes be hard to look at — especially the paintings based on images of the victims of 9/11 jumping from the burning Twin Towers — but they are even more difficult to fit into the rest of her oeuvre. As she mentioned to the writer Jean-Paul Ameline in 2009, in her mind she was coming full circle to the Homme paintings of 1966-72.
Her last painting series, Birds, brings to mind the archetypes of Louis Soutter (1871-1942), the Swiss outsider artist. Come to think of it, the archetype was never too far from her mind, if you consider the torsos found in her Homme series. Perhaps Reigl’s last word in painting was to shed all aspirations of modern art for the unmediated and haunted truth of Art Brut and, in so doing, to confirm that she considered herself an outsider right from the beginning.
This would mean that affirming her heterogeneity was more important to her than securing a place in a tentative historical narrative — a reminder, if we needed one, that what interests great painters in their own work rarely coincides with what a viewer would like to project into it.