Miriam Laufer: A Retrospective
Essay by Diana Manister (1981)
Miriam Laufer's paintings are notable for their intensity of feeling, the vibrancy of the brushwork and color, and the fluid handling of the paint. Attraction to strong colors--red, purple, blue, green, yellow, orange—and an avoidance of muddy and subdued tones is characteristic; a color sense reflecting her own abundantly energetic, outgoing nature. Equally predominant are the recurrent female figures--sensuous, revealing nudes and self-portraits in oil as well as the many ink and wash drawings that she did from models. Overall, her work involves the integration of an expressive concern for figuration with an underlying commitment to pure form and color.
Laufer's work evolved over the years from the portraits, figure studies, and abstract landscapes of the 1950s and early 1960s, through to the complex figurative work of the late 60s, and on to the autobiographical paintings on windshields and the large geometric abstractions of the 70s, which are primarily concerned with the push-pull contrast of hard-edge geometric forms with loose brushwork and organic forms.
Several critics have commented on Expressionist traits in Laufer's art noting similarities with that movement's often jolting color combinations, bold linearity, and tempestuous brushwork. Her style also integrates other influences: Matisse, the Fauves, geometric abstraction, as well as the American abstract art movements of which she was a part. Like many of the artists who came to New York City in the 1940s and participated in the famous Tenth Street days, she brought with her an adventurous artistic spirit and a strong cultural heritage. Laufer saw many of the works of the German Expressionists first hand during her formative years in Berlin. She was also familiar with the work of earlier German artists that had inspired the Expressionists. Several of her paintings are divided into triptych panels showing the influence of Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece and other altar-pieces which she admired. Laufer's work underscores again the German Expressionist roots of Abstract Expressionism. Her subject matter, too, is often in the Expressionist vein. While she could paint light-hearted "joie de vivre" pieces, more frequently the imagery, as well as the brushwork and color, express tension and anxiety.
The Bathers, a mural-sized triptych exhibited at the Phoenix Gallery in Laufer's 1962 solo show is one of her major works. The division into three panels functions as a definite expressive element. Is each panel a different picture of the same scene, much as snapshots record the same persons in different poses? Or do the panels comprise a single panorama of figures in a landscape?
In the first panel, a nude female figure listens, as a satyr plays the pipes seductively. In her hat, with her hands clasped in front of her primly, she hardly seems interested in a bacchanal. She appears to be stopping out of curiosity. The satyr, all swarthy earth-browns, his horns protruding, grins. The second panel is composed of three female nudes in different postures. The massiveness of their bodies weighs them down: one squats, while another stares straight at the viewer, standing on tree-trunk legs that seem to grow out of the earth. The third turns and looks into dark space. This trio stands almost as an answer to the treatment of the female nude by modern male artists. These are not the distorted women of Picasso, nor De Kooning's women, with lipstick mouths from fashion magazines. Laufer paints them as they are to themselves.
In the last panel, the monumental female nude displays herself in front of a green faceless figure who seems to be related to the satyr of the first panel. Is the standing figure the same women who listens to the music, and who has now been seduced?
In these three panels Laufer portrays the stages of woman's life: the time of innocence, seduction, birth; and the final phase where she looks into the darkness beyond. The artist has created primeval women, who are as much a part of nature as trees. They have not fallen into dissociation from their bodies or from erotic life.
Yet this is not a sentimental pastoral; this garden also has harsh realities. In the last panel, woman faces the not always benevolent force of nature unafraid. This picture offers us an awareness of the joyful and the frightening qualities of experience, but for all that, it affirms life.
The arrangement of groups of figures in Figures in Space, 1963, invites a symbolic reading, much as does Edvard Munch's painting Stages in Life. As in The Bathers, the passage of time is suggested, but more directly. Knots of people are placed in steps, from background to middle and foreground. The figures that are farthest away, hazily visible, and those in the middle distance, wearing old world costumes, seem to exist only in memory. One group consists of a male, a female and a third person, strongly suggesting parents and child.
The foreground nudes are more substantial and detailed than the others, suggesting that they are not memories, but exist in the present. The artist employs a sketchy, spontaneous brushwork that does not bog down in the rendering of extraneous details. Her figures are abstract in the sense that they are not particular people, but are rather symbolic ones.
In the center of the painting, a matriarchal woman in black holds the composition together. She is kin to many strong female presences in modern art: Gorky's portrait of his Armenian mother, Van Gogh's Woman Rocking a Cradle, and even Whistler's The Artist's Mother. Everything in the picture revolves around her. She is a reminder of the importance of maternal influence on early life and its persistence in memory.
In Figures in Space, Laufer locates her personal story in the larger whole. This is a painting about the "old world" of early experience and its importance to the individual's sense of self. The notion of identity is expanded to include memory and ethnic heritage; images from the past still exert a magical power, but they exist in peace with the present.
Stripes, included in Laufer's strong solo show at the Phoenix in 1968, at first glance seems playful and tongue-in-cheek, but it has serious undertones. It confronts not only a schism in modern German and American art but also a split in modern consciousness.
The clean, geometric compositions of much Bauhaus art and design were a response to the flamboyance of the Expressionist movement. In the 1920s, Joseph Albers, who taught at the Bauhaus, was especially prominent in advancing the tradition of rigid geometricism. This conflict of sensibility repeated itself in America when the loose painterliness of Abstract Expressionism confronted the flat, unmodulated and hard-edged "post-painterly" abstraction. Laufer's later abstractions grew out of an effort to map out this split.
Stripes is a parody of Albers' Homage to the Square. Figures doff their hats to a yellow square, centered in the canvas in the Albers manner, but glowing as ominously as a furnace door. Black and white stripes establish a one-two marching rhythm, much as the bands of black do in Robert Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish Republic. The rigid bands so pressure and restrict the organic shapes that the juice of life is squeezed from them, in the form of drops of paint dripping down the canvas.
Laufer has the bands leading in an unrelenting march to the square. They march over the figure on the left, forming a uniform that covers even his head. This seems to be a commentary on any rigid system of thought that treats the individual as an anonymous unit, stripped of humanity. While the two figures on the left pay obligatory homage, the one at the right howls in protest. Laufer here has created a figure that is both naked and nude. That is, it has no uniform or clothing in which to hide; it is vulnerable.
Our Lady of the Flowers, 1965, again uses the three-panel divisions as an expressive element. A massive odalisque reclines across the bottom of the hinged screen. She is in the foreground, and as we have seen in Figures in Space the artist sometimes uses this area of the picture to depict events occurring in the present, while the background contains objects and events that exist only in the mind, as memory or fantasy.
Behind the foreground figure, in the first panel, sits a frankly sexual woman with all the physical assertiveness of a Maillol sculpture. Facing her is a dark figure, drawn into herself. The latter seems soiled and scratched, and apparently has fallen into uncaring hands.
In the second panel, a portrait of a woman stares ambiguously from its frame. It too is fragmented into separate patches of jolting, expressionistic color combinations. The breasts, lips, eyes and hair are accentuated. These are the parts of women that are often the subject of erotic fantasies, romantic literature and advertisements.
The third panel is dominated by a piece of parchment bearing a hand-lettered excerpt from Jean Genet's Our Lady of Flowers. It is significant in this connection, that the artist was a highly skilled commercial calligrapher and letterer.
A field of black surrounds all the forms, and in each panel the word "Reject" has been stencilled, as on a packing crate. The selection from Genet contains the following words:
Another aspect of Laufer's work, which requires separate description, is the development of abstractions during her career. Laufer's early abstractions are based on landscapes. There is an explosive quality to Elements, 1963. Bright flame-like yellow and orange strokes seem to grow out of and assert themselves against the black, gray and blue of the background. While this work seems to be largely abstract, some of the forms suggest a fire or a sunset above a bridge (note also the suggestion of a house in the upper right-hand corner). The drama of these works centers around color, rhythm and movement.
In the figure paintings of 1970-74 for the first time, hard-edge areas infiltrate and break up the nudes with jagged shapes asserting themselves both against the figure and against the large areas of gestural strokes. Laufer's figures,characteristically rounded and whole, have here become flattened and fragmented. These works form a transition from the artist's figurative mode to the series of large-scale abstractions executed from 1974-80.
In these works, Laufer plays off painterly areas against flat expanses of hard-edged color. Red, Blue, and True contains the visual equivalent of a "play within a play." An asymmetric form passes through the center of the picture; within this shape, a painterly drama is depicted whose tonality, brushwork and mood are in striking contrast with the rest of the painting. The painterly area, which is turbulent and atmospheric, is rendered in vigorous brushstrokes, while the brightly colored, hard-edged, flat forms which frame this area seem static. A strong split is suggested by the separation of the painting into painterly and unmodeled, flat areas. Laufer is playing off principles of harmony and dissonance with these works--in which the spontaneous, gestural, and emotive power of her brushwork is contrasted and contradicted by its possible antithesis—a series of flat, geometric forms which subsume and subdue the more vigorous. rapid and urgent strokes. Both forces gain strength from this fusion which sets up coloristic, gestural, and spatial incongruities and marks a movement forward into an area filled with possibilities for both discord and unity.
The creative oeuvre of this artist contains works of depth and significance. The history of Western art is glaringly deficient in works that express the unique vision of women artists, and Laufer's contribution is valuable in providing an alternative to the partial image of woman created by male artists. Her work expresses a vision of life that contains a knowledge of evil, but which is not destroyed by it.
Around 1972, Laufer executed a series of behind glass paintings that have origins in the religious icons of European folk art and the art of stained glass. She rendered her images on automobile windshields, giving them a uniquely American "on the road" quality. In Double Portrait, two women stare through the windshield. Beyond them the landscape is besieged by tempests, and a white aura seems to subsume them from behind. Each face is split down the middle with a heavy line, and separates into different aspects. They are scratched. seeming to be scarred by experience. Color in the true expressionist manner functions as a carrier of emotion. This windshield, like much of Laufer's work, is an expression in visual terms of the positive, optimistic vision of the artist. Whatever befalls these women, they will go on, travellers to new realms of experience.