Curated by Philip Larratt-Smith, ‘The God that Failed’ explores the thematic and formal links among three important artists from the New York School: Louise Bourgeois, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.
Bourgeois’s Personages from 1946 to 1954 are placed in dialogue with paintings and drawings by Newman and Rothko from the same period. All three artists knew each other, showed together and participated in talks and panels in the 1940s and 1950s. All three would make the pivot in their work from biomorphic figuration to abstraction and geometry. The title of the exhibition refers to a crisis in the concept of authority, be it the father figure, abstraction, psychoanalysis, the sublime or the emancipatory promise of radical politics, and more generally to the postwar atmosphere of existential angst.
‘My work has to do with the testing of authority (emotional authority symbolized by geometry). The god that failed.’—Louise Bourgeois
Bourgeois, Newman and Rothko arrived at artistic maturity after having absorbed the impact of Primitivism and Surrealism. This led to groundbreaking formal inventions—Newman’s zips, Rothko’s floating rectangles, and Bourgeois’s radical installation of her sculptures. For all three artists, the relationship to space (both real and symbolic) and architecture was crucial in that it foregrounded the experiential nature of art, the range of meanings produced through the viewer’s interactions with it.
The pictorial elements in the paintings of Newman and Rothko show affinities with the way in which Bourgeois’s sculptures were exhibited as environmental installations at the Peridot Gallery in 1949 and 1950. The distance between things—between the Personages dispersed in a given arrangement, or blocks of color hovering over one another or skinny zips separated by a vast expanse of color—distils the tragedy of the human condition.
Image: Installation view, ‘Louise Bourgeois: Sculptures’ at the Peridot Gallery, New York, NY, 1950 © The Easton Foundation / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: Aaron Siskind
‘What is the explanation of the seemingly insane drive of man to be painter and poet if it is not an act of defiance against man’s fall and an assertion that he return to the Garden of Eden?’—Barnett Newman
At the same time, it creates a space for the construction of a new order out of the wreckage of the old. A shared biomorphic iconography—plant forms, flowers, seeds and pods, found in works such as Newman’s ‘Genetic Moment’, Rothko’s drawing ‘Untitled’, or Bourgeois’s ‘Spring’—bears witness to this possibility of rebirth.
If Newman and Rothko (both of whom were Jewish) felt they were making art about man’s spiritual nature, Bourgeois was more concerned with her unconscious processes. Her forms retain vestiges of the body and often have subtle sexual connotations. Newman and Rothko were preoccupied with the ‘metaphysical secrets’ that lie beyond the visible. To them art was an attempt to attain to the transcendent and the sublime; to her it was a form of acting out.
‘I’m not an abstractionist. I’m not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, emotion, doom, and so on.’—Mark Rothko
Bourgeois’s monolithic Personages and Newman’s zips affirm the primacy of the vertical, perhaps an expression of the fragile and isolated individual alienated from her surroundings. Her segmented Personages, which are more purely abstract and geometric than the monoliths, align with Rothko’s stacking of rectilinear stains. In this subgroup of Personages, Bourgeois’s organization of discrete segmented elements into a whole bespeaks a desire to reconcile the individual with the collective—a desire she shared with Newman and Rothko.
© The Easton Foundation / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich © The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich
Footer image: Louise Bourgeois with her sculptures ‘Quarantania III’ and ‘Brother & Sister’, New York NY, 1979 © The Easton Foundation / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: Eeva Inkeri
The God that Failed
Louise Bourgeois, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko
On view now through 16 September 2023 at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, Bahnhofstrasse.
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