By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, December 2021
It’s perhaps to be expected in our much too interesting times that an artist’s career may develop in an unusual way. As has that of Matuschka, whose first work to be shown, The Ruins, a series of photographs of her naked body in surroundings of collapse and decay, sold well to such collectors as Henry Buhl. These images would prove eerily predictive because her second exposure came by way of an August 15, 1993, New York Times Sunday magazine cover on which she appeared, very visibly minus a right breast.
The cover brought attention both to breast cancer, the cause, and to Matuschka herself, who had taken the shot after giving the project a fair amount of thought. “I took the pictures like a Vogue shoot,” she says. “I put the lights out on the fire escape and was using filters. I knew how to balance color in a darkroom before there was Photoshop. So unintentionally I ended up being the poster girl of breast cancer, a pin-up with an agenda.” That cover did indeed play its part as breast cancer developed into a socio-political issue, and Matuschka put her energies into art, photography, but also activism for an intense ten year involvement with the woman’s health organization, WHAM!
Matuschka’s current dose of exposure is by way of forthcoming coverage in Discoveries in American Art, the on-line arts project curated by Peter Falk, and a soon-to-be-published book, The Noisy Paintbrush. Disclosure: I contributed a piece to this volume. But why wouldn’t I? I have known her since the late ‘70s when she would sweep into Elaine’s, just under six foot, in a furry waterfall of lynx when it was wintry, so it was a no-brainer that she was a model. Indeed Push Pin Studios, the Applied Art power house co-founded by Milton Glaser, design czar of New York magazine, would frequently call on her for gigs which required her either to shine in a tricky situation, be naked or, on occasion, both.
The very unalike images you see here are however alike in one highly specific way, which is that they connect directly to Matuschka’s art-making beginnings, including her very earliest. The animate blobs, shapes and quasi-figural bits and pieces that populate her abstractions, for instance, owe a debt to a childhood fixation on the TV star, Soupy Sales, who would doodle haphazardly on a chalkboard as in a classroom, then ask his audience to seek out potential images of creatures or whatever lurking in his scribble-scrabble and complete them. Thus the blobs and shapes on Roper and Mark & Maurice here and, such as, on the second canvas, ... well, just what? The flag? A slice of scrumptious cake?
It was at that age too that she would frequent the boardwalks of fun fairs like Palisades Amusement Park, and – her favorite – Coney Island and it was on such jaunts that she first saw working artists, busily catching the likenesses of fairgoers for a few dollars. She was so impressed by their bohemian dress, the way they wielded the tools of the trade and their general bonhomie, that she resolved that she too would become a cartoonist. Indeed she was soon hard at it filling sketchbooks with caricatural observations.
Other images here derive from an incident when Matuschka was thirteen and had left a newly acquired sketchbook in the room she shared with Karen, her three year old sister. Upon getting home she was angered to find Karen had doodled all over it. Irritation was replaced by surprise, though, as she riffled though the pages, finding the quickly done drawings to be poised, abstracted and – her word - magical.
The “Karen Sketchbook” has accompanied her everywhere ever since and it has been the source of many specific works, such as, right here, Karen’s Circles and Karen’s Bug.
The cartoonery Matuschka began making in childhood is also very much a part of her art, as here in the frowny profile in Mark & Maurice, but she doesn’t use the visual language of cartoonery to deliver a joke but rather exploits the witty, the observational aspects of the practice. That profile, incidentally, was made by use of one of the artist’s most characteristic devices, a coiled rope. Her preparation for the Sunday Times self-portrait had been meticulous, painstaking, but her adoption of the rope was altogether other. She was putting together a book, Bag-It, a collection of the merch-into-art pieces she was making by collaging high end shopping bags. Upon completing one such collage, she found that she had inadvertently included the rope handle. Ouch! Except she saw that the rope had imported a dancing energy to the piece. Ouch! Withdrawn. Like Man Ray’s Rayograms the rope was a transformative accident, a chance discovery which enters an artist’s vocabulary permanently and she has been having ropes dance through her artworks ever since.
There was nothing accidental though about the making of Sewer Grid, another formative work in her development. “The Sewer piece was an assignment,” she says. She was twenty, a student at New York’s School of Visual Arts, New York, and taking classes with the artist, Jennifer Bartlett, who would frequently ask her class to produce a series of paintings or drawings on a specific theme: One such theme being a childhood memory.
“All of the other kids were doing a memory of their mother, their father, a thanksgiving dinner,” Matuschka told me. “But I went to a place in my childhood I had really great memories of.” That was the sewer close to where she and the other kids would play stickball and from the innards of which they would often have to retrieve a hit ball. “It wasn’t just the sewer,” she said. “It’s the river, the woods, the railroad tracks - the whole mysterious location. Kids like those secret locations. So the sewer was the subject I chose. And maybe I made the most abstract drawings in the class. Perhaps in my life”.
Ropes are important, sewers are crucial. The sequence of pieces which was surfaced by Jennifer Bartlett’s class assignment are gridded oblongs, which have a Constructivist/Minimalist severity, but not all the artist’s sewer coverings are so shaped. In another image here, Stencil*1, so named for one of Matuschka’s favored picture-making tool, the stencil, the sewer covering is round and unmistakably made of wirework. These works are abstractions, but, as with the work of the Russian Constructivist, they channel energy from the raw realities of urban living, these here being the coverings of sewers in the actual world, such as the sewer in that enchanted place of Matuschka’s memories through which she and the other kids would make their way to collect a pink rubber ball. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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