Abrupt strips of red, orange and black stand unyieldingly against the back wall of the White Cube Mason’s Yard main gallery space. 6 out of 5 (1979) is the painting installation from which the exhibition takes its title and is one of Dóra Maurer’s first experiments with colour and form, influenced by the Hungarian artist’s longstanding interest in Josef Albers’ practice.
Seemingly disparate but interconnected strands of Maurer’s experimental practice are on display with photography, painting, drawing and film work made over the past five decades, as well as two installations created especially for the exhibition. One of the featured photographic works will be familiar to many, after Maurer’s iconic spiral self-portrait Seven Rotations 1 – 6 was used as the main image for the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition (Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015).
But Dóra Maurer is not as well known here as she should be and it’s hard to distill the essence of Maurer’s experimental conceptual art works, even forgiving a Western art historical bias that rushes to make comparisons with more familiar movements or artists.
Maurer was born in 1937 in Budapest. After studying at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, she won a scholarship to study in Vienna in the late 60s, where she met and married Tibor Gáyor, a Hungarian artist with Austrian citizenship. It was from then that her practice evolved from printmaking and graphic design to become increasingly process-led and conceptual.
In the press release for 6 out of 5, there’s emphasis on how Maurer embraces “indeterminacy, allowing multiple possibilities and interpretations” yet concentrates on the “grammar of geometry and mathematical systems and methodologies”. From the rigidity of rules and systems though, comes a playful musicality in Maurer’s appreciation of chance, freedom of movement and observation of change.
For example, in contrast to the sombre minor key of 6 out of 5 (1979), are the dynamic painting installations which flank the main space, and continue into the lower ground gallery. Vibrantly coloured geometric paintings from the later series’ IXEK and Overlappings appear from a distance as if sculpted and in three dimensions, but exist on a single plane whereby multiple layers of colour intersect to create the illusion of depth and movement.
Downstairs, similar optical tricks put arcs and twists into the lattice of Quod Libet 39 (1999). Some of the forms appear to tumble acrobatically, at high velocity, others in softer descent. In another part of the basement space, the tempo changes again. The studies in the Reversible and Changeable Phases of Movements (1972) series are black and white photographs recording actions in sequence, such as throwing a ball or clenching a fist, broken down into a grid work of incremental change, where movement is captured to be read in visual signs.
I first became aware of Maurer’s influence on contemporary Hungarian art when I saw Timing (1973/80) in the exhibition Timebase: Time-based Media in Contemporary Art, an ‘archival perspective’ of recent film, video and performance shown in Budapest earlier this year. Timing (1973/80), one of her most notable films, shares similarities with Proportions (1979). In both films, Maurer uses the dimensions of her body and physical presence to measure change and time, through repetitive or systematic actions. There’s irony in the spacious provision of Mason’s Yard, where Maurer’s large-scale painting installations can spring to life, because Proportions (1979) is the only moving image piece in the show – slightly disappointing having seen how Maurer’s films hold such strong poetic appeal.
Nevertheless, a performative element is reasserted in this show by quietly industrious pieces such as Hidden Structures 1-6, (1977-80). Pencil rubbings on paper folded at various angles make faint impressions of geometric shapes, both a trace of what is hidden out of view, and of the activity that previously took place. Maurer invokes other organic energies directing our attention towards other, less visible, processes of chance and change. At other times she’s used natural or found objects, such as twig cuttings in Schautafel 3 (1972).
In dialogue with these older works, Stage 3 (2016) is punctuated by the ghostly graphite of hand-drawn lines, again, presumably by Maurer’s own hand. The pencil line is not so much an investigative tool here, as in the frottage drawing of Hidden Structures, but a whisper of transgression, trailing off from the artwork and onto the walls. Following trajectories implied by angles in the piece, these ephemeral markings are clues to heed; they might be rubbed out easily, they could be mistakes, or workings out, yet they are as disruptive as they are constructive.
Last year, Austin / Desmond Fine Art in London took care to show Maurer’s work from the 1970s and 80s in the context of the political climate in which she and her contemporaries practiced. While 6 out of 5 is a worthwhile introduction to Maurer’s work, unlike Austin Desmond’s Last Year’s Snow, the centrality of Maurer to the Hungarian avant garde is somewhat underplayed.
Dóra Maurer remains active within Budapest’s contemporary art scene as an artist, curator, and teacher. Having held a professorship at Faculty of Fine Arts in Budapest, she’s frequently credited as an influence to young Hungarian artists. Writing from the UK in the days following the shame and chaos of the EU referendum result this, too, is a peculiar threshold moment, with folds and unravellings to come. Maurer has often stated that she doesn’t consider her work to be overtly political, that critics have been too eager to project political meaning onto her works. And so it is, my own projected sense of foreboding on seeing borders and containment in the barcode-like structures of 6 out of 5 (1979).
With certainty what emerges from Maurer’s work in 6 out of 5 is a sensitivity to the delicate balance of things and the renewable, cyclical nature of change – in life, in art, in politics. For an artist like Dóra Maurer, perhaps creative and pedagogical work is less a comfort and more an act of survival and a type of resistance to darker political impositions, as breathing is to living.