Seasonopening in Zürich: Big Bang!

Ewa Hess am Donnerstag den 4. September 2014

The summer, Dear Readers, was how it was. Whoever stayed at home spent the days in the museums. That’s fine, because nothing whets your appetite for art like great art. Welcome to the new season!

Where: Zürich

When: Freitag, 29. August

What: Saisonstart der Galerien

Es geht los! Selfie vor dem Löwenbräu (links) Ein Objekt von Slavs and Tatars in der Kunsthalle, die schmale Löwenbräu-Treppe
Crowd on the stairs (left), an object by Slavs and Tatars in the Kunsthalle, double-selfie in front of the  Löwenbräu.

From Wednesday onwards, there were openings every evening in Zürich. You had to be in good form to follow the hot art trail. I was excited because one of my favourite artists was in town: Judith Bernstein. More about her and her fantastic show at Karma International later; she was one of the reasons why this seasonopening has been so oversexed. Ladies and gentlemen, all this exposure and body parts and postures … It wasn’t just Judith, who can be described as a female Homer of the genitalia, but also Dorothy Iannone in the Migros Museum; the minstrel of love in all its forms. And let’s not forget Peter Hujar at Mai 36. If Bernstein‘s genitalia depictions have somewhat heroic and Iannone’s sexy drawings tell tales from 1001 Arabian Nights, Hujars nudes are like sonnets – simultaneously melancholy and powerful.

«Organsmic Man» von Peter Hujar (links), Judith Bernsteins Werk "Birth of Universe: Gold Cunt" (2013, Mitte); «I Was Thinking of You» (1975) von Dorothy Iannone
«Orgasmic Man» by Peter Hujar (links), Judith Bernstein’s work «Birth of Universe: Gold Cunt» (2013, in the middle); «I Was Thinking of You» (1975) by Dorothy Iannone.

On Friday the Löwenbräu was crammed full. The naysayers, who predicted that it would never be ‘like before’ after the renovation, were proved wrong. The architects were smart to have left the main stairs to the building as narrow as before. Vernissage visitors are herd animals too. Such body to body contact when going up and down increases the sense of community.

Künstler Bruno Jakob und Galerist Peter Kilchmann in der Ausstellung «All is All» (links), Fabian Marti vor seinen Werken «Many Ouroboroi Magenta and Blue» (Mitte), Marina Olsen und Karolina Dankow von Karma International mit dem Sammler und Art Broker Manuel Gerber
Artist Bruno Jakob and galerist Peter Kilchmann in the show «All is All» (links), Fabian Marti in front of his work «Many Ouroboroi Magenta and Blue», Marina Olsen and Karolina Dankow of Karma International with the collector and art broker Manuel Gerber.

Most people have already met each other the evening before. For example, at Peter Kilchmann Gallery, where Fabian Marti is showing works in polyester – a novelty in his oeuvre. The material, which looks so clean, gleaming and appetising in its final state, must be really disgusting to handle – Marti cast it in moulds for his objects. Sticky and stinky. Like primeval soup! Marti’s ‘eggs’ and ‘vide-poches’ are teeming with symbols of rebirth and fertility. But maybe this inspiration resulted from a biographical coincidence because this bearded lucky devil is to marry beautifull Karolina Dankow, cofounder of Karma International, in a few weeks.

But anyway, I wanted to tell you about Karma and Judith Bernstein. The New Yorker got my attention at an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth. She was almost 70 years old then. The daughter of the Californian artist Paul McCarthy, Mara, was presenting US artists from the 70s. They had been brought to her attention by her dad, who was then the most unconformist amongst unconformists. Of course McCarthy is very famous now, an his works sell for large amounts, meaning that he can allow himself to shock the world (‘Don’t bring the kids’, wrote the ‘New York Times’ during his big retrospective). That he didn’t forget some of his less successful friends and that his daughter arranged an exhibition for them, is rather lovely and strengthens the belief in the goodness of the world. Anyway, the thing hung in this show, which bore the name ‘The Historical Box’ – a monumental penis in black coal, obsessively scrawled with circular lines; both realistic and surreal at the same time. You couldn’t look away. By chance that evening I sat in the ‘Kronenhalle‘ next to the artist who had painted it: Judith Bernstein. She smiled at my admiration and said dryly: ‘The exhibitors have been lucky, I rocked the show.‘

You also have to know that Judith Bernstein was one of the aspiring young talents in the wild seventies, with huge potential for international renown. Bold, gifted and engaged, she developed a powerful painting style with great originality. Her pictures from that time are furious. She wrote ‘Fuck Vietnam’ or ‘Jackoff Flag’ under her images, which had been inspired by bathroom graffiti from the men’s toilets. There were a lot of dicks in her pictures back even then. She called one ‘Fun gun’ and expressed not only her fury at the male dominated power politics but also the self confidence of female desire.

Judith Bernstein in den 70-er Jahren (links, vor ihrem Werk «Horizontal Plus #3»), Bernstein-Gemälde «Jackoff Flag von 1975», Judith heute mit der Sammlerin Gitti Hug
Judith Bernstein in the 70eies (left, vin front of her work «Horizontal Plus #3»), Bernstein’s painting «Jackoff Flag», 1975, Judith Bernstein now with the collector Gitti Hug.

At the end of 2011 I visited the artist in her studio in New York. It was in the middle of Chinatown, right at the top of a house that would be considered to be a ruin in Switzerland. Massive rooms, almost unheated, stuffed full of old furniture. And there were these canvases and coal drawings on the walls, under the sofas, on huge shelves, just everywhere – the most magnificent, vibrant, expressive and simply the most wonderful works. Judith Bernstein, long legged and full of youthful energy with 70, shooed away the cats that live there with her in large numbers and showed me the works. She also laughed her head off about the life that she had led as an art teacher for almost half a century – ‘Can you imagine? Thousands and thousands of slow pupils!‘ Then it began to go well for her. Afterwards everything came at one: a large individual show in the New Museum, Gavin Brown Gallery, ICA London, Studio Voltaire…

How could the world overlook a painter of the calibre for all these years? A mystery. In 1974 an exhibition of feminist art ‘Women’s Work’ took place in Philadelphia. When the curators, a man and a woman, saw Judith Bernstein’s ‘Horizontal‘, this monster of a black phallus, they immediately took the work down. Protests from Louise Bourgeois and Clement Greenberg were of no use. At the opening everyone walked round with a badge, on which it was written: ‘Where’s Bernstein?’ A good question. One that has retained its validity for all these years.

She was between two fronts. Her symbols were perhaps too manly for the feminists. And for men it was simply too shocking that a confident girl from New Jersey usurped their best piece so boldly. Yet people are finally seeing the power hidden in her work. Funny and deathly serious, with psychological subtext and enormous power of expression. She has never stopped even though the mainstream intentionally overlooked her all those years. How does she put it herself? ‘It’s political. It’s sexual. And it’s right in your face.’

Die chinesische Sammlerin Gina Kuan mit Art Consultant Thomas Stauffer (links), Künstlerin Mia Marbach, Galerist und Künstler Mitchell Anderson und Jungkuratorin Lola Kramer vor Bernsteins Werk «Birth of the Universe #2» (Mitte), Wirtschaftsjournalist Beat Schmid vor «Gold Cunt»
Die Chinese collector Gina Kuan with art consultant Thomas Stauffer (left), artist Mia Marfurt, galerist and artist Mitchell Anderson and the curator  Lola Kramer in front of Bernstein’s work «Birth of the Universe #2» (center), journalist Beat Schmid in front of «Gold Cunt».

At the opening on Friday at Karma, collectors were flocking around her. Manuel Gerber (nephew of the legendary Bernese collector Toni Gerber) and the lawyer Gitti Hug (connected to Musik Hug) viewed Bernstein’s old penises and new vaginas with desiring gazes. No wonder! The newer works, in which Judith Bernstein now celebrates the female genitals with glowing enthusiasm, reflect the universe: the Milky Way, the galaxies, the Big Bang phaenomenon. You fall into these pictures like falling into strange depths, in which nuclear powered artistic passion effortlessly overcomes light years of hardship. A great start for the art season: Baaaaaaang!

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