Judit Reigl

(b. 1923)

Judit Reigl, the Hungarian-born French painter, passed away at the age of 97 in Marcoussis, near Paris, on August 6, 2020. Reigl is recognized as one of the most original artistic figures to have emerged in Europe after World War II. She was, in her own characteristically defiant words, “a woman painter who, for many, paints like a man.” Reigl disregarded the boundaries that prevailed within the avant-garde, obliterating the unitary surface of Modernism by painting on both sides of the canvas and ignoring the presumed antagonism between the non-objective and the figurative.

Judit Reigl was born in Kapuvár, Hungary in 1923. She escaped the Cold War cultural repression of Hungary in 1950, made her way across Europe, mostly on foot, and settled in Paris. There she was joined by Betty Anderson, a young English artist whom she had met on a student trip to Italy in 1947. The pair remained life partners until Anderson’s death in 2007.

Not long after arriving in Paris, Reigl caught the attention of André Breton, who declared one of her paintings a Surrealist masterpiece. Breton presented Reigl’s first solo exhibition in 1954. Reigl promptly rejected the Surrealist affiliation, having already begun to develop her own highly material and emphatically physical painting processes. She would organize her works in chronologically overlapping series. Her practice advanced from explosively gestural paint applications to compositions that began as accumulated paint drippings on floor tarps and were completed by carving and overpainting. Later she painted in a performative dance approach in which she applied paint to a continuous length of canvas suspended from the ceiling around the perimeter of her studio. Eschewing the brush, Reigl would reach for any tool at hand—a twisted length of curtain rod, the facetted stopper from a Chanel No. 5 flacon, ... Most of the paintings are non-objective, but now and again, as she put it, of its own accord the human figure would appear. As self-critical as she was independent, Reigl completed well over 3,000 paintings, of which she “approved” perhaps 1,200, choosing to destroy or paint over the rest.

In France, Reigl’s work has been collected by the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou; the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris; and the Musée de Brou. Her paintings and drawings have been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all in New York; Tate Modern, London; the Albertina, Vienna; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Toledo Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo.

A more in-depth biography of the artist is available in english and french.

2019

Weightlessness

Ubu Gallery in collaboration with Janos Gat Gallery present Judit Reigl’s Weightlessness paintings (formally Expérience d’apesanteur, 1965–1966) was the first in the United States to be exclusively dedicated to this important series. It is also the third solo exhibition presented by Ubu of Reigl, one of the most original figures of post-World War II art. Now 96, Reigl is hailed for discarding boundaries and rules once deemed absolute. Reigl defies traditional and often antagonistic dichotomies as she obliterates the distinction between the front and back of the canvas, utilizing both sides of the work, alternates between the figurative and non-objective and reconciles aspects of Surrealism and abstraction.

According to the critic Marcia E. Vetrocq, “Reigl had been working on the abstract series Mass Writing (Ecriture en masse, 1956–1966) when its jagged zones of paint began to expand and evoke fragments of the deconstructed body. She discerned the start of a new series, Weightlessness, whose abstraction then yielded to the overtly figurative paintings of Man (Homme, 1966–1972).” Rectangles of roughly 45 x 35 inches (115 x 90 cm), the Weightlessness canvases comprise the final subseries of Mass Writing. While the paintings of the Weightlessness series are readily distinguishable from the rest of her oeuvre by their relatively small size, they are also recognizable by virtue of Reigl’s use of a well-respected painter’s trick. For her earlier Mass Writing paintings, Reigl propped large, stretched canvases against the studio wall and troweled on the paint with upward motions. The ascending movement, preserved as rich texture, is accented by the occasional drip. In making the Weightlessness series, to reinforce the effect of the upward flow, Reigl applied thick layers of paint and then turned the wet painting upside down to dry, thereby adding the pull of gravity to her effort. With the canvas rotated back, the paint, flouting Newton’s law of universal gravitation, sags and drips upward. This sensation of weightlessness derives not only from the texture and the drips; the sharply divided forms of the paintings seem to rise from the canvas, equally defying the gravitational pull.

Inquiries welcome. Experiencing Reigl’s Weightlessness by Janos Gat. Exhibition catalogue available. To find out more, visit the artist’s website.

2016

Unfolding (Phase IV – Anthropomorphism), 2008, and Birds, 2012

While an upward drift is apparent in almost every Reigl composition, the pair of late series–Unfolding (Phase IV – Anthropomorphism), 2008, and Birds, 2012–treat ascendance as both subject and theme. Both bodies of work were meant to be exhibited together as integral sets. Furthermore, and not incidentally, each defiantly uplifting and exhilarating set can be interpreted as a memorial to a personal loss beyond words.

Inquiries welcome. Exhibition catalogue available. Expanded text available in english and french. To find out more, visit the artist’s website.

2015

Annus Mirabilis, Annus Horribilis. Works from May 1954 - June 1955

For her biographers, 1954 is considered the annus mirabilis in Judit Reigl’s career, the year of her discovery by André Breton. Moved by Reigl’s 1950 painting, They Have an Unquenchable Thirst for the Endless, Breton declared the work a Surrealist masterpiece and presented the artist’s first solo exhibition in Paris in November 1954 at the Surrealist gallery, L’Étoile scellée. Touted by Breton as the great hope for the future of painting—with Max Ernst lending support from the wings—her presence was finally recognized by the notables of the art world. Reigl, however, remembers 1954 as annus horribilis: a year of personal drama, the only bleak period of her life, which she writes off as chaos—a void that she had to fill with work just to remain alive.

The 1954 drawings—a series rarely seen and never before exhibited comprehen- sively—are pivotal to the Reigl oeuvre. Reigl never used preparatory drawings, but these drawings can be seen as mock-ups for the series she was to do next: the 1955 Outburst “gestural” paintings. Much of Reigl’s work is often compared to mu- sical scores, so it is tempting to see the 1954 drawings as dance notation—short- hand choreography for the eventual gesture revealed in her paintings. While Reigl’s collages edit reality, she paints as she dreams—in a state that at once dwarfs and magni es the worldly one in which we actually live. One can see the paintings as her waking dreams, induced by her drawings, which can be considered the dreams that she has forgotten.

Inquiries welcome. Exhibition catalogue available. Expanded text available in english and french. To find out more, visit the artist’s website.

2014

Drape/Decoding (Drap/Décodage)

For Judit Reigl abstraction and figuration have always been one and the same. Drape/Decoding (Drap/Décodage, 1972–73) is deliberately, explicitly both. Reigl defines the seemingly indefinable in monumental yet weightless-seeming canvases that are neither paintings nor prints. Using the least amount of pigment from an expansive palette, she transforms a field of linen threads into deep space. While often likened to the Shroud of Turin (similar size and impact) and at times to Juan Diego's apron with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe (matching technique and impact), the Drape/Decoding series has no religious connotations: the works evince a secular miracle.

The drapes of Decoding  (each measuring 140 by 96 inches) are imprints of the figures in her preceding Man series. As the artist recounted in a text for her 1973 exhibition at the Galerie Rencontres in Paris: First stage: Veil a botched painting of the Man series with a light cotton sheet. Second stage: Paint the visible side with tempera thin enough (the color, in part, traverses the fine weave and settles as a light residue, and in part clots up against the structural reliefs and protrusions of the ruined work) for the created imprint to be interior. Third stage: Unveiling. The painted side becomes the back, the imprinted the front.

The "decoding" occurred when Reigl lifted the drape and found the reverse image that had seeped through the cloth. The emergent bodies of Drape/Decoding are incomplete, transparent in areas where bare fabric is exposed. Suspended unstretched, the otherworldly figures appear to drift upward.

Inquiries welcome. Exhibition catalogue available. Further insight by Janos Gat available in english and french. To find out more, visit the artist’s website.

2013

Entrance-Exit (Entrée-Sortie)

The Entrance-Exit canvases present a portal that is centered, frontal, roughly life-size, proximate, and open. In basic formal terms, the paintings comply with modernist doctrine: each is an abstract field delimited by line and color, its flatness uncompromised by the modeling and perspectival illusionism that had reached a magical apogee in Las Meninas. But Reigl’s Entrance-Exit series also defies or—perhaps better—ignores the modernist proscription against the image. To propose a passage through the canvas is to sidestep any fretting about the falsification of depth on the surface. And why does a door exist if not for the human body to pass through it?

The audacity of painting an open doorway lies in a dual proposition: the canvas is a permeable plane and the viewer is embodied and mobile. These propositions exceed the purely visual premise that the painting is a window which frames a scene for a stationary viewer.

Inquiries welcome. Expanded text by Macia E. Vetrocq available in english. Exhibition catalogue available. To find out more, visit the artist’s website.

2010

Panta Rei (Judit Reigl or The Origin of a World)

Upon seeing works from Judit Reigl’s Center of Dominance series (1957–59), the great violist, Yossi Gutmann, exclaimed, “Here is someone who paints exactly the way I play. I don’t produce the sound; the sound carries me. I don’t change the tonality; the tonality changes me.” Judit Reigl, who often applies musical terms to painting, said she could not have put it better, explaining, “Time is given to us as a present that demands equal return. When I paint, fully present in every moment, I can live every moment in the present. What I do, anyone could do, but nobody does. I turn into my own instrument. Destroying as I make, taking from what I add, I erase my traces. I intervene in order to simplify. The control I exercise in each stroke of paint is like the pianist’s when touching a key. You are one with the key, the hammer and the wire. You are in a knot with the composer and the listener, forever unraveling. The chord matches your state and the sound your existence.”

Inquiries welcome. Exhibition catalogue available. To find out more, visit the artist’s website.

2009

Unfolding

The gallery's third exhibition of Judit Reigl, explores her Unfolding series (1974-86).

Judit Reigl executed these often monumental canvasses by walking along them, leaving graphic-pictorial traces that follow the rhythmic, continuous movement of her stroll. In a recent interview, Judit Reigl described Unfolding with the following words: "The paint that I apply in waves on one side of the canvas seeps through and appears instantly, as distinct particles, on the other. Think of the double nature of light, conforming at once to wave mechanics and to particle physics. I have arrived at a kind of cursive script, an undulating writing in which the thick enamel that I apply on one side appears dispersed on the back. This material is incompatible with the acrylic wash that I then spread over the other side of the fabric, mounted horizontally on a temporary stretcher. In this second phase the oily paint interacts with the acrylic in the way that duck feathers repel water. The struggle that takes place gives, in the ultimate phase, the amazing result with the correct view of the painting. Life is construction and destruction. For me a painting should simultaneously incarnate and obliterate itself. 'Unfolding' is the ongoing act of finding the fixed source that would allow this contrary movement.”

Inquiries welcome. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with an essay by Marcelin Pleynet in english and french. Exhibition catalogue available. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with an essay by Marcelin Pleynet. To find out more, visit the artist’s website.

2008

Man & Mass Writing

Judit Reigl’s second solo exhibition at the Janos Gat Gallery features examples of the artist’s return to figurative expression along with the abstractions for which she was previously known.

The event that redirected the artist’s practice, in 1966, was the perception of a human torso, unplanned yet discernible, within one of the abstract compositions of the Mass Writing series (1959-1966). Having used her own body as a dynamic instrument to create the swiftly marked canvases of Mass Writing, Reigl, preserving her spontaneity and immediacy, turned the body into her subject. In the ensuing Man series (1966-1972), the painted volumes appear to be in suspension, drawn upward by an irresistible force and dragged downward into a fall. The works derive their vitality and their tension from this contrary movement. Summed up in a few traces of paint, the monumental nude torsos are at once corporeal and immaterial, gravity-bound and weightless.

Inquiries welcome. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with essays by Jean-Paul Ameline, Chief Curator of the Pompidou Center, Paris and by the artist. Exhibition catalogue available. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with essays by Jean-Paul Ameline, Chief Curator of the Pompidou Center, Paris and by the artist. To find out more, visit the artist’s website.

2007

Survey

Janos Gat inaugurates his new gallery space on the Lower East Side with an exhibition of major works by the Paris-based artist, Judit Reigl (born in Kapuvár, Hungary, 1923). Completed between 1956 and l975, the paintings on view are central to an oeuvre that spans half a century and still cannot be considered complete. Ranging in size from three by four to eight by twenty feet, the paintings offer a summary of their creator's material choices and esthetic development, leading us to come to terms with Judit Reigl's complex and dynamic logic of contradictions.

Inquiries welcome. Exhibition catalogue available. Judit Reigl's first exhibition in New York is accompanied by an illustrated catalog with texts by Krisztina Passuth and Ágnes Berecz. To find out more, visit the artist’s website.