Martha Jungwirth, Untitled (2017)
Thick layers of purple paint sit atop splatters of red, orange, violet, black, and white. Untitled gives new life to the would-be detritus of Martha Jungwirth’s studio; splattered brown paper that once covered her studio’s floor and carries drops of paint from previous compositions was lifted from the ground to become the foundation of Untitled. The primarily vertical and horizontal strokes of paint are concentrated right of center, leaving large sections of this paper to stand out, untouched. Jungwirth notes that she was drawn to the imperfections and wrinkles from this used material, as well as the unique temporal connotations it carries. She creates a new work on a material that bears physical reminders of past paintings.
“It was never important to me for people to recognize things in my pictures,” she said in a 2018 interview. “I wanted to paint in such a way that things can’t be identified that there is room for something different, that the gestural aspect and my own personal nature come to expression.” Untitled represents this detachment from representational imagery in favor of abstract brushstrokes that put emphasis on the texture of the paper and paint as well as Jungwirth’s process. Clumps of oil paint capture the texture of the materials in some places while in other parts of the composition, the paint has been watered down to create nearly sheer drips of color, producing visual depth and textural contrast. Jungwirth’s physical experience with this work is embedded in the very splotches, shoeprints, and fingerprints woven into the painting. She has described violets and reds as “an inner model,” further pointing towards the way Untitled engages with Jungwirth’s interiority and physical process alike.
Jungwirth’s process is informed by a deep interest in social sciences. She describes her methods in her 1988 essay, “der affe in mir” (the ape in me). Inspired by the experiments of Desmond Morris, a zoologist and surrealist painter who had apes paint, Jungwirth hopes to leave behind pre-determined ideas of art in order to access what she refers to as an “implicit knowledge.” The inclusion of fingerprints among the gestural brushstrokes that track the physicality of their making relate to the kind of bodily knowledge and physical artistic impulse that Jungwirth draws from Morris. She also looks to Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who has researched various stages of child development. Piaget points to the third month of an infant’s life when children begin to recognize objects; Jungwirth paints with this neurological understanding of meaning and recognition in mind. Her focus on Morris and Piaget can be understood as a nuanced attention to the ways that the human mind perceives art, beauty, and objects over time. Jungwirth seeks to visualize this understanding and the psychology involved in her art making.
Untitled gestures towards the cognitive and physical processes of memory. This connection emerges through the striking similarities between Untitled and Jungwirth’s 2017 series Vladimir Nabokov: Erinnerung, sprich (Vladimir Nabokov: Speak, Memory). The series is named after Nabokov’s memoir, which focuses heavily on his childhood and resonated with Jungwirth’s interest in child development. Like Untitled, the works from Speak, Memory feature purple, pink, and red oil paint on the brown paper of her studio floor. In summer 2017, Jungwirth visited Nabokov’s home in Saint Petersburg. The back courtyard of the home had been painted over and worn away, leaving a myriad of pastel colors that intrigued the artist. Her selection of purples, pinks, and reds are inspired both by the colors of Nabokov’s home and her own association of purples and interiority. In this way, Untitled considers the role of memory and of physical aging; these colors only emerged at Nabokov’s home after years of weathering and rust brought them to the surface.
The concept of wear over time interweaves with Jungwirth’s choice to use paper that once covered the floor of her studio as the base for Untitled. The paper physically evokes memory through the traces of past paintings. Jungwirth is also deeply interested in chance, likely contributing to her interest in the kind of wear that this paper displays. The splatters of paint from other compositions fell randomly, but their placement and shades guided Jungwirth’s choices in Untitled. Moreover, Jungwirth never works from sketches or plans her paintings. She uses the paper as both her palette and her canvas, often blending the paints on the same surface to which she applies them, further investing the material with physical marks of her process. These layers come together in the final composition, evoking memory and temporality. Indeed, the visualization of memory that Untitled gestures towards is tangled, spontaneous, and worn.
Courtesy Thaddeus Ropac Gallery | London · Paris · Salzburg · Seoul
Portrait Martha Jungwirth, 2021. Photo © Shawn Dell
Austrian, born 1940
Prominent in the Viennese art scene since the 1960s, Martha Jungwirth (b. 1940, Vienna, Austria) has only recently begun to gain international recognition among contemporary abstract artists. Jungwirth studied at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna from 1956 to 1963 and soon after began exhibiting in a variety of media, such as pencil drawings, watercolors, ink, and oil painting. In 1968, Jungwirth became the only woman to join the loose coalition of six artists known as Wirklichkeiten (Realities). The group had little in common except for their resistance to dominant artistic styles, thus highlighting Jungwirth’s independent style and launching her reputation as a trailblazing woman within the hyper-masculine Austrian art scene of the 1960s. However, after marrying prominent museum director Alfred Schmeller in 1969, Jungwirth’s work began to face additional scrutiny. The gender-based criticisms of her art that emerged after her marriage have contributed to the belated international recognition. In 2018, Jungwirth received the Oskar Kokoschka Prize, the highest distinction for an Austrian artist, marking her recent yet overdue ascent.
Relentlessly independent, Jungwirth prefers not to identify with any particular movement or style. Inspired by the freedom of abstract artists working in America such as Willem de Kooning, Jungwirth has cultivated her unique practice by prioritizing spontaneity and personality. She describes her method in her 1988 essay “der affe in mir” (the ape in me). “Back to the old brains,” she writes, “…to before memory… not thinking while painting.” Never working from sketches or prepared reference materials, Jungwirth searches for a primordial impulse in art that gives shape to instinct. Her art is as much about the process of painting itself as it is about the myriad of sources from which she draws inspiration, such as the body, memories, and literature.