Unfolding a conversation between Jean-Paul Ameline and Judit Reigl

by Sarah Hromack
Art in America international review 04/02/09

JEAN-PAUL AMELINE: Judit, you came to Paris, at the age of twenty-seven, in June 1950. You left your native Hungary in March of the same year. What were the circumstances?

JUDIT REIGL: By crossing Europe, mostly on foot, or by means of chance, by hitch-hiking. And at times, relying on newfound friends who offered me train tickets... I always had fortune in my misfortune!

JPA: This exit from Hungary, was it illegal?

JR: Absolutely, Iron Curtain included! I actually left Hungary for the first time in 1946 with three painter friends on a scholarship to study art in Italy, but on my return to Budapest at the end of October 1948, I had to surrender my passport. Stalinism had just taken hold and they started to give us commissions in Jdanov’s socialist-realist style.

JPA: So you left Hungary for artistic reasons?

JR: 120 percent! Though actually I was full of enthusiasm: I wanted to build socialism, I was an idealist, naïve... but reality was the opposite of my hopes: my commissions from the Ministry of Culture were to paint portraits of Stalin, Gerö, and Rákosi... on their part, the French allowed me to come to Paris, but my application for a new passport to leave Hungary was turned down. And I was even denied permission to buy painting supplies. After eight illegal attempts, I succeeded, on the ninth try, in breaching the Iron Curtain, walking fifty miles across the Russian zone to Fürstenfeld in the English one... From the tenth of March to the end of June 1950, I crossed Europe with minimal help. In Switzerland they proposed that I work for a year as a cleaning lady or in a factory. I refused and asked one thing of the Swiss: that they allow me to go to the French border, but they denied me... In the end, I went through Germany and Belgium and arrived in Paris by way of Lille on the train. I exited Gare du Nord on the boulevard de Clichy on a Sunday morning and my disappointment was enormous! Paris looked dirty, ugly, miserable!

JPA: Were you expected in Paris?

JR: I was; I went right away to Simon Hantaï and his wife, who had arrived to France two years before me. Soon after, I moved into the La Ruche Studios thanks to a very dear painter friend, Antal Biro, and it was Pierre and Vera Székely who got me my first commission, a mural in a building, now gone, near the West Highway...

JPA: Is it through Hantaï that you met André Breton?

JR: Yes, but four years later. In May 1954, Hantaï invited Breton to visit my studio. That’s where he saw one of my first paintings done in Paris, They Have Insatiable Thirst for Infinity, inspired by a Lautréamont poem. Standing in front of the painting, Breton was very much impressed, even struck by the painting, and the next day he wrote me a letter in which he confessed the great emotion he had felt in the presence of this image that seemed to capture Lautréamont. He immediately proposed that he would organize an exhibition for me, which I refused as I didn’t feel ready. Also, Meret Oppenheim took me to Berggruen. In the gallery I saw Louis XV armchairs and I felt ill at ease. I no longer felt free. I preferred to continue to work in my little studio of three by four meters. Every day, I went to the meetings of the surrealist group. In July, I read L’amour fou and I was so moved. Suddenly, I felt compelled to offer Insatiable Thirst to Breton and he accepted it. (This, by the way, had a most surprising ending. Forty years after Breton’s death, when the Musée national d’art moderne at the Pompidou Center acquired the painting at the famous sale of his collection, his daughter had sent me the full, and quite substantial, amount that she had received for it¾as she did to all the other artists involved, in the spirit of her father ¾ saving my finances at that time.) In November, Breton once more proposed an exhibition and I responded, “I am ready.” It opened on the 19th of November at the Etoile Scellée. All the surrealists came... Max Ernst passed by. In the gallery there was a small coal heater, and Ernst said, “I’m looking at the fire. I’m looking at Judit Reigl’s paintings. They fit; it works.” Among the fourteen paintings in the exhibition, there were only two figurative ones, Insatiable Thirst and Incomparable Voluptuousness. The rest were abstract paintings done since 1953 in full automatism, mental and physical.

JPA: How did the surrealists view the abstract painters?

JR: A few paintings had organic forms that interested Breton. In spite of his preference for figuration, he understood their value... but the contradiction was there.

JPA: Was automatism not the source of these abstract paintings?

JR: The automatism that I practiced was total, global. But the surrealists in majority returned to imagery. I wanted to go beyond and beneath the dreams. In the beginning, with Hantaï’s help, I tried to paint using curved blades, such as razors. I couldn’t make it work. Later, on my own, I did better with a bent curtain rod that I bought at the flea market. Three months after the start of the exhibition, in December, I decided to leave the surrealist group, and I wrote to Breton. The critic Charles Estienne who invited the Surrealists to show at the Kleber Gallery wanted to borrow Insatiable Thirst. I refused. I didn’t want to show any more paintings that I felt I had surpassed.

JPA: And Breton, did he understand your approach?

JR: I don’t know. He responded with a very nice letter. Hantaï, who left the group four months later, also said that there was no other way.

JPA: Who were the artists that you felt closest to?

JR: My friend, Antal Biro, often took me to the galleries: Drouin, Maeght, Loeb. There I saw, among others, Mathieu, Tanguy, Ernst, Duchamp. Matta profoundly touched me. I was struck by his large abstract paintings, the “cosmic” ones.

JPA: And the Americans?

JR: It was around 1955 that I started to hear about them at Drouin. Later, I showed with De Kooning, Kline and other American abstract expressionists in 1964 in New York, at the International Awards at the Guggenheim Museum, then in 1967-68 at the Carnegie Awards in Pittsburgh.

JPA: Then, at the Drouin Gallery, you showed with Degottex, Hantaï, Claude Georges, Mathieu, and Viseux, in an exposition titled "Tensions". What brought you together?

JR: Mathieu was the most important for us. He painted on a large scale with the whole body, and favored quick execution without having a preliminary conception of the work.

JPA: How were your paintings executed?

JR: With neither preparatory drawings nor paintbrushes: with the two hands, walking towards the canvas, at times throwing paint from a distance.

JPA: And this is why the series is called Outburst?

JR: I felt that I was a center that had erupted. A trauma. This also corresponded to the break-up of surrealism and strangely coincided with the start of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 in Budapest.

JPA: Your next series is called Mass Writing. Why?

JR: Because the paint is laid on the canvas in volume. I bought some material used by masons: a black substance that dries slowly, from within, over years; so this way I could work on six to eight canvases at a time. Starting with a white background, I applied globs of paint to the canvas with a rounded flexible blade or at times with a plain wooden rod, and I spread it upwards from the bottom to the top, using this black material to cover the lighter colors laid underneath. I could see right away if I had succeeded or missed, and in the latter case, there was no possible correction. The used the rejected canvases to protect the studio floor. Destruction, by the way, is always integral to my work. Out of four thousand paintings, I may now have ?

JPA: What is remarkable is how the pictorial volumes behave in space: they seem to be in movement.

JR: They are weightless and we do not know if they rise or fall. This “floating” remains constant in my work up to Unfolding, between the years of 1974 and 1985.

JPA: In your writings you link your painting to the motion of the earth, of the cosmos...

JR: Nothing is linked, it is the same! It passes through me. Heracleitus was right: “ Ta Panta Rhei,” which is to say, “All is fluid.” I translated Unfolding from the Hungarian equivalent of the word, the root of which is “river” and means “ongoing movement.”

JPA: So you felt the closest to Mathieu?

JR: Yes, but with Mathieu the movement froze and the late paintings are reminiscent of forged or wrought iron. In the beginning, it was an electric charge. In 1953, one of his paintings, shown at Drouin, literally struck me: love at first sight.

JPA: After that, we come to the large formats...

JR: And me, I never had a studio sized to my liking. They were always too small. And maybe the rise and fall, the weightlessness, come from my need to escape this enclosure...

JPA: The Guano series (1958-65) also relate to the wish to escape this enclosure?

JR: The Guanos were done simultaneously with Mass Writing, starting in 1958. When I moved, I wanted to protect the new parquet floor, so I covered it with cast-off works from Mass Writing and Center of Dominance, which I walked over for years without giving it any further thought. They fossilized, and suddenly I saw them: the fallen excremental material became a marvel. One can associate these paintings with Dubuffet, in whom I was then very interested...

JPA: When did you exhibit this series?

JR: Jean Fournier, who directed the Kléber Gallery and showed my work from 1957 to 1962, presented a Guano at the Salon d’Automne in October 1962, but the first gallery to buy these works was the Van de Loo Gallery in Munich, starting in 1958. That was tremendous. Thanks to René Drouin, I showed Outburst and Mass Writing in Munich, in Lausanne, and in a solo exhibition in Fribourg-en-Brisgau, Germany, over the course of the sixties. She had also helped me participate in my first group show in a museum in Wiesbaden in 1957.

JPA: We should address one of the important moments of your work: the arrival of the anthropomorphic figurations in your oeuvre, starting in 1966.

JR: It did not dawn on me at once. When I started to sense this imperceptible presence I said, “Oh, but I don’t want to do this...” So I tried to remain with the non-figuration that had been my daily habitat for fifteen years. To my great and unwelcome surprise, it persisted. Finally, with time, I accepted, telling myself that “this thing must be very important for me; it had passed unperceived in front of my eyes, it was already there.” I have realized, from the vague to the obvious, the same thing: Mass Writing had already become, in some way, the series that I much later called, as I had no preconceived plan in this direction, Man.

JPA: The figures that appear in 1966 are incomplete: they are torsos.

JR: They even told me that they were chopped or mutilated. Absolutely not; they are only larger than the canvas. They want to exceed it and they are exceeding it.

JPA: And the bodies seem to levitate in space.

JR: Not yet in 1966. They are standing up vertically, against the void, as an answer. After, they try to break loose, free themselves, fly. They impose.

JPA: And often they are male bodies.

JR: Yes, most of them, because they make an active stand against the void. They affirm their existence, their liberation. In my opinion, this is what is required. Though I think that art is at once masculine and feminine, Yin and Yang. Between these two polarities exists a total balance and harmony. The female bodies appeared a bit later. There was no hierarchy...

JPA: Does the word “levitation” bother you in association?

JR: It comes later. You understand, first you have to stand up, fight, try to free yourself, and succeed at times, but also fail and tumble... and sometimes rise to achieve equilibrium ¾ oh, how ephemeral and fleeting!

JPA: We think about other works in the history of art where the bodies also seem to be in levitation, in space...

JR: Of course, you can imagine unconscious references to Signorelli, to Michelangelo, to Tiepolo. This I can recognize and accept.

JPA: In this series, the bodies always appear nude, muscular, robust.

JR: To unchain yourself, you need physical force. That’s why the legs and the hands are powerful. It all goes together, the mental and the physical.

JPA: The mental seems to be absorbed by the physical: bodies without faces.

JR: To bestow a face is to individualize. This is what I want to avoid, the personalization. Deep down the fundamental experience is not strictly human. This experience of existence is beneath and beyond human.

JPA: This perhaps explains why you worked on this series for such a long time...

JR: For six years, from 1966 to 1972. Eight even, if you include Drape/Decoding, where I transferred the imprints of my anthropomorphic figures to very fine, almost transparent fabric.

JPA: And in spite of this, the series Man was almost never shown, except in 1999 at Beaulieu-en-Rouergue, in the south of France.

JR: Which I regret, for the understanding of my body of work. There is a coherence to my painting now for more than fifty years that no one could see, or, at least, very rarely.

JPA: Indeed, when you move to this new phase, you distance yourself very strongly from the abstract artists with whom you were showing. That could have disturbed them.

JR: I could say, if I wanted to be honest, that there was a great resistance on the part of the people who knew my earlier work, from the moment that they considered me a “figurative” artist. Bernard Ceysson, director of the Museum of Modern Art of Saint-Etienne did not even want to see my new paintings, though he liked Mass Writing... the art critics, the dealers, the curators, they wanted me to continue with what I did not want to do anymore. All the same, I could not go making paintings just to keep them happy!

JPA: From what moment did you perceive that this series was better accepted?

JR: It was never really accepted in France, where they totally misunderstood this evolution. In Germany and today in America, it seems to go over better.

JPA: It is perhaps also because after this figurative phase you came back from Decoding to an abstract period?

JR: And yet it is one and the same! Even today France is still caught in this opposition of figuration–abstraction that I had to suffer.

JPA: And this new passage to abstraction in 1974 works itself through the experience of the Decoding series.

JR: Yes. Decoding corresponds to the imprint of my old paintings of the Man series that I covered and then picked up from the back of that fabric. I then showed only the reverse side, which corresponded to the imprint of the paint that seeped through the cloth.

JPA: And this process based on an imprint will become, for the years 1974-1986, a constant in your work.

JR: The only constant in my work is the experience of existence! If it has to be figurative, I accept it. If it becomes abstract, I accept it too. Drape/Decoding has allowed me to escape the heavy shackles of Man. Then I had to say again, “ I must free myself,” and this all came naturally, organically, ontologically, from the very qualities of the pictorial matter, from the movement of my own body that became a plain instrument, allowing me a writing as fluid as the canvas that bore it, once more like the “flow of the river.”

JPA: The Decoding series was realized without stretchers, on loose canvas.

JR: I was told that they were like veils, shrouds; they are very light imprints on semi-transparent cloth, like Indian saris.

JPA: And it was the paintings from Decoding that brought you to the Unfolding series in 1974.

JR: And Unfolding is, again, completely abstract, but why not? There is no single way of life: the unicellular did become human, and from there, God only knows...

JPA: But this time you worked both sides of the canvas.

JR: I already started it in some ways in Decoding, but until then, in Decoding I only showed the back of the canvas. In the Unfolding series, the paint appeared in waves on the front (the painted side) and atomized on the back, captured, in part, within the canvas. Modern science has discovered the duplicity of matter, conforming at once to wave mechanics and to particle physics. This has always intrigued me; one day, I happened upon an article that explained this, and I said, “Look, this is what I do!”

JPA: But the realization of Unfolding was brand-new as you stapled the canvases to the walls of the studio and painted with a brush going along the walls.

JR: Never a brush! I always made my own instruments: I fashioned a kind of firm, compact sponge that I dipped in the paint, which allowed me to paint with both hands. Also, I often listened to classical music while working. So it was listening to Johann Sebastian Bach that gave birth to a new series that I titled The Art of the Fugue.

JPA: You came to a kind of cursive script along the canvas...

JR: An undulating writing with a heavy glycerin based enamel in the front that thins out and appears dispersed on the back, passing through the canvas. Curiously, this greasy material is incompatible with the acrylic wash that I then apply the back of the painting, this time mounted horizontally on a temporary stretcher. In this second phase the oily paint interacts with the acrylic in the way that duck feathers repel water. It is a struggle that takes place between the construction and destruction and gives, in the ultimate phase, an amazing result, in which the correct view of the painting is obviously different from the back.

JPA: This is, then, a kind of work in which you exploit the specific qualities of the materials...

JR: Exactly. Sometimes I keep at the same canvas until saturation. Method, for me, is fundamentally important, from buying the canvas (a roll of cotton cloth a hundred meters long and 2.40 meters high that I prepare myself as needed) to the choice of formats, paint, and the tools with which to paint. I would not touch a brush for forty years and now, oddly, I’ve come back to it.

JPA: From Outburst to Unfolding, the change is complete...

JR: For me, it is one and the same. High noon or sunset, it is the same sun.

JPA: But this time Unfolding interested a new generation of critics and artists.

JR: The writer and art theorist Marcelin Pleynet even wrote that he considers my whole oeuvre as a series belonging to Unfolding, anthropomorphic aspects included. By the way, another painter of my generation that goes back and forth between figuration and abstraction while changing his methods and materials is Gerhard Richter.

JPA: Some, over the course of the seventies and eighties, would also link you to the painters of analytic abstraction. By the way, between 1974 and 1985, Unfolding came to be multiplied by complementary series.

JR: For me, “analytic” means nothing. My priority is the discovery, this experience of existence, the universal mode. The source of the series that came after Unfolding is also that of music and poetry, which is to say, the elementary gesture, rhythm, timing, pulse.

JPA: Outburst, Mass Writing and Unfolding share the gesture on the canvas...

JR: Yes, but not so much the gesture as the sign. And most important is the destruction of the signs that belong to the work, and this always distinguished me from Mathieu or Degottex, for example.

JPA: Could the sign itself be a limit?

JR: Life is construction and destruction; this is what my paintings reveal from the start. Degottex goes for deconstruction and “de-incarnation.” For me the painting should simultaneously incarnate and obliterate itself. Unfolding is the ongoing act of finding the fixed source that would allow this contrary movement.

JPA: In 1986, again the human figure returns, and the first series where the body appears is called Entrance-Exit... is this a break?

JR: There is no break! In 1986, the series Hydrogen, the last of Unfolding, seems to be buried under the layers of paint. They solidified into a wall that had to be breached. So I traced a kind of rectangular opening on the canvas that some called a door, and in this door appeared a human figure. Why? I have no idea. Because once more it wanted to come out of this door, out of this wall.

JPA: And this human figure is a silhouette.

JR: A silhouette that also tries to fly away. How? By destroying this door. This is how Entrance-Exit turned into Facing... because what I must face is myself.

JR: I am at the same time the image in the mirror, the mirror itself, and the viewer that sees the mirror. I am all of it together. These are the basic fundamentals that I search for.

JPA: As for the flying figures of the sixties, you mentioned Icarus. At times you use the name Lazarus...

JR: It is mostly you who used this name. It is an excellent term but it doesn’t come from me. Pleynet also noted that I have on the wall of my studio a reproduction of the catacombs in Rome, showing someone beside a grave: this is Lazarus. I still have it...

JPA: What was the critical reaction to this new work?

JR: Very limited, as they didn’t see any connection to the ensemble of my series.

JPA: That’s why, in your exhibitions, you prefer now to associate the abstract and figurative works, for example at the Pompidou Center in 1994 at the presentation of the Maurice Goreli Donation your biggest Parisian collector. Also, in Budapest in 2005 at your Kunsthalle retrospective.

JR: Yes, and this took place thanks in great part to the activity of Kálmán Makláry, my dealer, who exposed me in various art fairs since then, in Paris, in Cologne, in Moscow. And Janos Gat Gallery in New York presented my principal series in numerous successive exhibitions: in 2007, Outburst and Guano; in 2008, Mass Writings and Man; and now in 2009, Unfolding.

(Marcoussis, November 28 to December 5, 2008)
Jean-Paul Ameline is Curator in musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris