Monday, May 11, 2009
Unica Zürn: Dark Spring reviewed by Joshua Mack in Time Out New York
Unica Zürn: Dark Spring
The Drawing Center, through July 23
In 1953, following a series of self-induced abortions and a brutal divorce, the German poet and novelist Unica Zürn (1916–1970) moved to Paris with the artist Hans Bellmer, and began making art using the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing. Replete with snakes and leering eyes swarming in linear networks, her output reflected the influence of Bellmer’s circle—from Henri Michaux’s mescaline-induced drawings to Wols’s agglomerations of insectlike creatures. But as pieces and documents assembled here clearly indicate, Zürn’s agitated facture and nightmare imagery also evinced a keen understanding of pictorial composition, and suggest miseries like ceaseless itching and sleepless nights.
They also presaged trouble. In 1960, Zürn suffered a psychotic incident and was in and out of institutions until her suicide, in 1970. Following her initial breakdown, her touch became more flaccid, and her imagery gave way to doodlelike renderings of faces and birds that seem repetitive and decorative in contrast with her initial efforts.
More compelling is the backstory told by the ephemera on display. Zürn wrote several experimental texts, including the grimly autobiographical Dark Spring. In one passage she described the enormous pleasure she derived from rope cutting her flesh. A set of photographs of her bound torso, taken by Bellmer, indicates that the couple practiced BDSM, while his notation to crop her visage from the images hints at deeper efforts at effacement.
That’s not all. Her psychiatrist traded her drawings for cigarettes, and it was Michaux who had arguably put her in the hospital by giving her mescaline—raising the troubling prospect that Zürn’s life was a hideous coincidence of art, madness and abuse.—Joshua Mack
Monday, May 04, 2009
35 Wooster St. (212-219-2166)—“Unica Zürn: Dark Spring.” The story of Zürn’s life threatens to overshadow her work: in 1970, the fifty-four-year-old German artist, who suffered frequent bouts of depression, jumped to her death from the Paris apartment she shared with her lover, the Surrealist Hans Bellmer. This absorbing show, organized by João Ribas, reveals a gifted—and, yes, tortured—artist, who merits more than the footnote she’s been allocated in the annals of Surrealism. (Zürn may be best known as the author of the cult roman à clef “Dark Spring.”) Intricate works on paper, made using the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing, are filled with fantastical creatures that curl into and out of patterned abstraction. Vitrines in the middle of the gallery contain printed matter, including an exhibition catalogue of Zürn’s work with an introduction written in illegible glyphs by Max Ernst. Disturbing photographs of the artist’s body, bound into grotesqueries with cord, look uncannily like Bellmer’s dolls, transforming a model and muse into a masochistic collaborator. Through July 23. (Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 6, and Saturdays, 11 to 6.)
Unica Zürn: Dark Spring is a Lauren O'Neill-Butler Critic's Pick at Artforum.com:
35 Wooster Street
April 17–July 23
The black-and-white photographs of Unica Zürn’s body—bound by string, coiled, and reduced to a sack of bulbous flesh—are some of Hans Bellmer’s most admired works and, until recently, her mere cameo in art history’s canon. As a remedial course, perhaps, this elegant show offers a bounty of Zürn’s automatic drawings, a few shimmering paintings, and some brilliant pieces of her writing (for which she is most regarded). Although it reprises themes set forth in Ubu Gallery’s similar 2005 show, the Drawing Center exhibition thoughtfully and tenderly examines her short career and mental illness without didactically trying to “rediscover” her and without mythologizing her suicide at age fifty-four or her interest in sadomasochism. The tranquil sea-blue walls and the thick black frames here temper the hotness of these issues, and so do the sweet, nearly oceanic and biomorphic forms in her finely detailed renderings. These creatures hover at the center of her pages, bearing multiple countenances, breasts, limbs, and orifices, though, unlike a Bellmer "Poupeé," rarely do Zürn’s striations recall actual bodies. Instead, forty-nine mostly untitled works here offer roving, repetitive deviations: delicate lines, smudged ink, and twisting spirals appear as faces, then just shapes, and finally as faces, again, through an echolike effect. Intense and otherworldly, they offer a window into a mind that contemporary artists––particularly those invested in psychedelic motifs––should investigate. For some, her work might feel like the sun against their eyes; for others, a beacon in the distance.