“I don’t want to be a star or suchlike. I’m not the type,” says Dóra Maurer, with typical assertiveness, as we talk in the Budapest apartment-studio she shares with her husband, the artist Tibor Gáyor. She’s being characteristically modest. Or perhaps characteristically contrarian. While she may not yet be a household name to international art lovers, Maurer is a well-established star in Hungary. As one of the leading artists of the avant-garde since the 1970s, as a teacher (she is currently a professor at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, Budapest) and as a curator (among other things, Maurer is a member of the Open Structures Art Society, which puts on three exhibitions per year, featuring both Hungarian and international artists, at Budapest’s Vasarely Museum), Maurer has been decisive in shaping contemporary art in Hungary. And she continues to shape it today. Even at the age of seventy-four.
Maurer trained as a graphic artist and, until the late 1960s, worked mainly in printmaking. Subsequently, her work has incorporated film, photography, collage – sometimes of found natural materials (twigs, grass, etc) – painting and various types of performative works. In short, she’s not easy to pin down. Indeed, it’s typical of Maurer, and of her work, that much of what I asserted in the previous paragraph she would deny. When we discuss, for example, whether she feels that her work falls into a category that might be identified as ‘Hungarian’, her response is both quick and direct: “There is no necessity to characterise artworks on their nationality. As I know, Hungarian fine art has no special character, it was and is European. A Czech art historian said as she saw my Space Painting made in Austria that it is a typical Hungarian work. Since that I have seen similar colourful installations made by a Czech artist. That I am a Hungarian painter or artist, no. However, I am not an Austrian [although Maurer does have dual Hungarian and Austrian nationalities], not a Norwegian, not an American. I am a human being.”
Much to Maurer’s evident amusement, and particularly since her critically acclaimed presentation at last year’s Istanbul Biennial, she’s now becoming a more widely recognised fixture in the international (for which read American/ Western European) art canon. Indeed, she is currently showing alongside the likes of Nauman, Ruscha, Baldessari, Matta-Clark and Polke in Light Years: Conceptual Art and the Photograph, 1964–1977, at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Since a few years ago,” she says, “everybody has been interested in my work from the 1970s. Everybody wants to talk about these works and to see them. The administration involved in this disturbs me in my current work.”
I don’t apologise for my part in this disruption. It’s clear that Maurer is more entertained than irritated. As she later explains, the photograph that she created for the cover of this magazine, in which she’s holding images from a work titled Seven Turns (1977–8) – a selfportrait that begins with the corner of her face poking out from behind a square of white card and continues with her holding the previous portrait in the series rotated 45 degrees, culminating in a dizzying spiral of hands and peeking eyes that’s vaguely reminiscent both of peering through a kaleidoscope and of certain Hindu gods – in part expresses the fact that a work from 32 years ago took so long to become iconic (and the signature work of the 12th Istanbul Biennial). Nevertheless, with its play of revealing, concealing, shifting and manipulating, Seven Turns is as good a work as any with which to introduce Dóra Maurer.
Despite the fact that many of Maurer’s works spring from a process of calculation, they are always incredibly seductive in the purest of terms
As she continues to discus her feelings about the newfound interest in her work (as opposed to the excitement with which the newly interested treat their ‘discovery’ of it), I can’t help thinking of the catchphrase deployed by the American comedian Chevy Chase – ‘I’m Chevy Chase… and you’re not’. I’m certainly not Dóra Maurer, I’m not old enough to remember much about the 1970s and didn’t experience the circumstances – political, social or otherwise – in which works like Seven Turns were made. But that never seems to matter. Perhaps the real irony is that much of this has to do with the fact that Maurer’s work – even if it includes portraits of what to her is recognisably a younger self – is essentially timeless to everyone other than her. I can’t pretend that I always know exactly what is going on in them, but I can say that I always want to know them better. Which, I believe, is the essence of what most people describe as seduction: a process of deliberately enticing people to engage with something. And despite the fact that many of Maurer’s works spring from a process of calculation that most people would normally associate with a certain cold inhumanity, they are always incredibly seductive in the purest of terms.
During the early 1970s, Maurer produced a series of studies titled Reversible & Changeable Phases of Movement. Each contains an action, broken down into a series of movements (either three or five), captured photographically, that make sense when read both forward and backwards. The photographs are then arranged in a manner similar to a magic square. For example, Etude 4 (1972) shows the catching of a ball reduced to five movements. Which might also be the throwing of a ball when read backwards. Etude 1 (1972) contains a photograph of an empty corner space, of a hand holding a stone in midair and of a stone sitting in the corner space. Read one way the stone is being placed, read the other way the stone is being removed. Or in another combination – space, hand, space, for example – the stone was inserted into an empty space but not placed. ‘I did not regard these photos as images,’ Maurer wrote in 1975, ‘but as signals that can easily be interpreted.’ A single image tells you nothing; a sequence allows you to trace a human intention.
Such works are universal, or easy to interpret, because they record actions that anyone might perform: we identify with them (presuming, in the last case, that we have a hand) on a physical as much as a visual level. We enact them as much as we read them (the same could be said of Seven Turns). This is the seductive bit at work (the bit that most of the ‘conceptual’ artists I run into these days forget to do). In essence, such works are readable because they’re so human, because they describe a certain beingin-the-world (and, without wishing to project too much Heideggerian thinking onto this, because they interpret that world – optimistically – as one full of possibilities). According to Maurer, the series as a whole could be described as a ‘novel in pictures’. ‘Using letters of the alphabet instead of photos would have oversimplified the meaning of the images,’ she wrote, ‘and often graphic symbols would have been too difficult to comprehend.’ It’s a rare artist that can make conceptual art both human and comprehensible. And it’s precisely because her work so evidently seeks an ease of communication that her professed irritation with the current interest in it is so deliciously ironic (and brings comedians to the mind of certain writers). Which is to be expected, of course; a sense of irony and of humour play no small role in Maurer’s output. The works above don’t simply describe a movement, they encourage us to read them as a movement. They foreground a shiftiness of language, the potential of codes and ciphers, and while one way to look at this is to say that such works articulate a rich world of possibility, they also invite an interpretation as a reaction to a life that was, in Hungary at the time of their making, controlled and restricted by an overwhelming socialist regime. As such the works may be read (as most people once more are prone to do in these current turbulent times) as political.
But of course Maurer has something to say about that too. Her work was political only because at the time she made it everything was political. As an example, she refers to a work titled What Can One Do with a Paving Stone? (1971), which consists of four rows of three images (that, once again, can be read forward and backwards) showing the artist variously tying/ untying, dragging, caressing, wrapping/unwrapping and throwing/ retrieving the titular stone. “A paving stone is the material of fights – street fighting and so on – and what can you do with a paving stone? Here I made some examples of what I can do with the paving stone. It is ambivalent. You can consider it is as political. Mostly it is shown in women’s exhibitions, with which, as you know, I do not identify myself.”
The late Dieter Honisch, a long-serving director of Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie, once wrote that ‘Dóra Maurer is not interested in art, but in reality, and the constantly-changing manifestation of reality’, and if her ability to do this is, on the one hand, what makes her art so easy to access, it is also what allows viewers to extend its implications into political arenas. Or to put it bluntly, if, for most people, art is something that happens within the privileged and safe confines of a fancypants gallery that both preserves it and limits its effects, Maurer’s work suggests that this is not the case. And in an age when taking it to the streets is back in vogue, this, I would argue, is a strong factor in Maurer’s new appeal.
That said, since the 1970s, Maurer’s work has developed along less conventionally literal lines. Increasingly her ‘alphabet’ has been one of colour and form, rather than direct actions. While definitely evolving the concepts (among them ideas relating to the connection of one work to the next, as a means of capturing motion and potential energies through a series of works) on which earlier works were founded, the later works develop a focus on geometrical and mathematic relations, via processes such as folding (as seen in Hidden Structures, 1977), displacement and distortion. Like the works described previously, these have an emphasis on fluid processes rather than definitive endgames, and continue to develop the artist’s fundamental interest in exploring language in its most direct and elemental form.
The Handmade Fractal Paintings (1988–95), each of which is composed of painted lines of 3mm width rendered in eight different colours and deployed to create an overlapping series of squares, explore transformations produced by enlargement: each new painting renders a detail from the previous painting while maintaining the restriction of being constructed of 3mm lines. The result is a series of works (looking almost like enlarged fabric samples – particularly because those 3mm lines don’t run to the edge of the painting, but leave a sort of ragged edge around the image) that relate yet evolve from one to the next.
More recently, in Maurer’s Overlappings paintings of the 2000s, the artist’s morphological investigations continue to focus on the lexemes of colour and their potential to influence our perception of the world. In these works, overlapping, seemingly translucent squares or gridded outlines of colour provoke an impression of depth, making the squares appearing to flicker between two and three dimensions. The inclusion of occasional distortions to the squares (curving their sides so that they appear weightless and almost to flutter) only enhances this feeling. And yet despite their apparently complex structures (the paintings come close to looking computer-generated), such works seem to express the same interest in deploying easily comprehensible symbols (flat colours and forms) and enriching them through context (combined, these forms suggest three dimensions) with which Maurer’s work of the early 1970s started out. More important than that, these latest additions to Maurer’s oeuvre continue to unite the concrete and the conceptual in a manner that suggests that art can be both complex and thoughtful, and yet also find a relation to everyday life.
Dora Maurer's Seven Turns (1977-8) are featured in The Adventures of the Black Square at the Whitechapel Gallery through 6 April; she also has a solo show at Karl Kostyál, London, through 1 March, and at Museum Ritter in Waldenbuch, through 19 April.
This article was first published in the March 2012 issue.