Geta Brătescu: Matrix 254

25 July – 28 September 2014, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

By Joseph Akel

Memorie (detail), 1990, 40 collages with tempera on paper, 62 × 37 cm each. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Ivan, Bucharest

Given the large scale of some recent retrospectives (Koons at the Whitney comes to mind), it has become rare to leave such shows feeling like one hasn’t seen enough of an artist’s work. But such is the case with this retrospective of Geta Brătescu’s art, the Romanian artist’s first solo exhibition at any US museum. With only two rooms dedicated to exhibiting an output spanning the decades between 1974 and 2000, the collection of drawings, collages, videos and several sculptural installations that are on view provide an electrifying, if woefully abridged, introduction to an artist still largely working in obscurity.

Based in Bucharest, Brătescu, who is now eighty-eight, lived in Romania during the brutal reign of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, whose regime terrorised that Eastern European nation from 1967 to 1989. In the 40 collages that comprise Memorie (Memory, 1990), similarly sized rectangular strips of paper, painted with black and indigo tempera, display beneath them the word ‘memorie’, handwritten by the artist. While Brătescu claims to eschew overt political commentary in her work, the conflation of the term with the repetition of opaque fields, in conjunction with the series’ production date (a year after Ceausescu’s public execution), would seem to commemorate a period of lost reminiscence, forcibly or otherwise imposed.

Among the two black-and-white films included, Atelierul (The Studio, 1978) documents Brătescu in her Budapest studio enacting a series of performances, among them drawing on the walls and floor, playfully interacting with found tools and clapping wood tablets together. Highlighting the potential for finding the fantastic in the quotidian material that surrounds her, Brătescu’s use of common objects reflects a resourcefulness born of withering state-controlled rations. Meanwhile, in Mâini. Mâna trupului meu îmi reconstituie portretul (Hands. The hand of my body reconstitutes my portrait, 1977), Brătescu’s hand, resting on several sheets of paper and shot from above by artist Ion Grigorescu, enacts a series of gestural performances (tying a knot and adjusting her wedding ring, among them). The film concludes with Brătescu tracing an outline of her hand. Asserting her subjectivity within the work itself, the literal hand of the artist is depicted as both agent and artifact of the creative act.

Notably, the anatomical hand is a symbolic form that recurs several times throughout the show. Fals Joc de-a Fapta (The False Game of Deed, 1985), a vitrine filled with lambent marbles and small, polished stones, also includes several white gesso casts of splayed hands. And in the text accompanying the black ink illustration of an outstretched hand, Mâna (The Hand, 1974–6), Brătescu notes that, at the time, ‘having a model was out of the question’. ‘I realized’, she concludes, ‘that the hand is as alive as the model.’

Brătescu’s large-scale installation Didona (Dido, 2000) pays titular homage to the lovestruck queen of Carthage. Tacked upon one wall of the exhibiting gallery, a snaking line of black felt, pinched and looped by matt black wooden clothes pegs, encircles seven felt-framed panels of household aluminium. A totemic ode to domesticity, these everyday materials, at the hands of Brătescu, ultimately transcend their utility.