Chlo Ashby visits Tate Modern to explore the life and works of this innovative Hungarian artist.
Dra Maurer's most recent paintings are nothing if not playful. In the fifth and final room of the first UK retrospective of the 82-year-old Hungarian artist, teacher and curator, colours appear to be caught mid-flight. Pink and red arcs lean towards blue and orange rectangles like flowers chasing the last of the sun. A wave of blue, green and yellow whips across one wall, while on another teeters a multihued tower.
Born in Budapest in 1937, Maurer is celebrated for her achievements as a dissident artist working under Hungary's Communist regime. This year-long, free exhibition at Tate Modern shows that, despite saying she didn't want to be a star or suchlike, she continues to be one of Eastern Europe's leading conceptual artists long after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
And so, back to the beginning. Maurer emerged in the art world in the 1960s, around the time that chaos on the streets gave birth to conceptual art. She belongs to a generation of avant-garde Hungarian artists who created experimental work in spite of the cultural policy of the Communists, who insisted on socialist realism.
Refusing to work within this official art system, these dissidents formed underground networks and exhibited in flats or student clubs. After marrying in 1967 the Hungarian migr artist Tibor Gyor, who had Austrian citizenship, Maurer was able to make fresh contacts and seek out exhibition opportunities abroad and, ultimately, to promote this informal scene further afield.
The exhibition at Tate Modern brings together 35 prints, photographs, films and paintings from across her 60-year career, many of which were made in her kitchen from everyday materials. Seven Foldings (1975), for example, an early work that reflects her training in graphic techniques, involved folding a metal printing plate seven times before coating it in ink and taking an impression. The result is a ghostly geometric image that records Maurer's action and, like all her works, is threaded with the themes of movement and transformation.
In the 1970s she turned her attention to conceptual photographic series, tracing simple yet mesmerising sequences of abstract images and common gestures. Seven Twists I-VI (1979) is a self-portrait that features a comic book-like row of six black-and-white photographs: the first shows Maurer holding a sheet of blank paper, all but one eye and hairline hidden; the second shows her holding the previous image, rotated at a 45-degree angle, revealing a touch more of her face; and so the sequence continues until we reach a hypnotic vortex of fingertips and facial features.
Maurer's exploration of movement and change can also be detected in her experimental films. She began to imagine these in the late 1960s but it wasn't until 1973 when Bla Balzs Studio, a state-sponsored film-making centre in Budapest, first welcomed artists that she had access to the essential resources.
Timing (1973-80) captures a white cloth being folded and unfolded origami-like in several variations, against an inky backdrop. Every so often, a pair of hands emerge from the shadows, but otherwise all we see is the cloth. Like her photographs, this kaleidoscopic loop creates beauty from an ordinary object.
As her work became more abstract, Maurer began to focus on painting, and in 1983 she was invited to create a site-specific painting and film in a medieval tower at Buchberg Castle near Vienna. Transferring her two-dimensional images onto the three-dimensional space (complete with curved walls and a vaulted ceiling) expanded on her interest in spatial distortions.
Meanwhile, the effect of natural light on her palette and the way that it looked on film led her to further consider the perception of colour. It was shortly after that she began to create her Space Paintings (1984-96) dynamic works achieved by projecting drawings onto wavy pieces of photographic paper. The result is part canvas, part mural, with grids of multihued lines shifting and overlapping, some gaps left blank, others plugged with paint.
Maurer approaches different media with the same intent exploring repetition, concealment and revelation and yet it's in her paintings that her equal appreciation for harmony and distortion truly comes alive. Stand in front of her spellbinding works and time appears to slow down as the eye traces lines and colours that seemingly merge and morph.
Although Maurer has said that her work isn't political, there's something quietly defiant about her playful conceptual practice effective even when created with the most basic materials. Then, and now, these transformative works find freedom in experimentation.
Words by Chlo Ashby
The exhibition runs from the 5th August 2019 to the 5th July 2020.
Image 1, 5, 6 & 9: Installation of Dra Maurer (5 August 2019 5 July 2020) at Tate Modern Tate (Matt Greenwood)
image 2: Space Painting 198496, Silver print, gouache, 100 70 cm, Private collection, Dra Maurer Photo: Vintage Galria / Andrs Bozs
Image 3: Relative Quasi Image 1996, Acrylic on canvas and wood,100 100 cm, Private collection, Dra Maurer Photo: Vintage Galria / Andrs Bozs
Image 4: Dora Maurer in 2007, Photography Fabian Evi
Image 7: Seven Foldings 1975, published 1978, Drypoint on paper, 578 x 400 mm, Tate, Dra Maurer Photo: Vintage Galria / Andrs Bozs
Image 8: Displacements, Step 18 with Two Random-Quasi-Images 1976, Acrylic, canvas, wood, 200 160 cm, Promised gift to Tate by anonymous donors, 2019, Dra Maurer