Magazine article Artforum International

Unica Zurn: The Drawing Center

Magazine article Artforum International

Unica Zurn: The Drawing Center

Article excerpt

This compelling exhibition reflected a growing recognition of Unica Zurn as an important late Surrealist. Her first major exhibition in the United States since a well-received show at New York's Ubu Gallery in 2005, it featured forty-nine of the German-born artist's works--primarily drawings on paper in ink, pencil, and/or gouache, as well as three paintings. None larger than a large sketch pad, the works were arranged around the blue-gray painted walls of the gallery in a generally chronological hang spanning 1953 to 1970.

Zurn had been a writer before she met the Surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer in Berlin in 1953 and moved with him, that same year, to Paris, where she became part of a circle that included Man Ray, Andre Breton, Max Ernst, and others, and was introduced to "automatic drawing." This technique was originally designed to bypass the "rational" through a passive, "nondirected" engagement of the unconscious. Successive Surrealists made the method their own developing more active approaches corresponding with a variety of quasi-ideological strategies. Zurn, for instance, adapted a technique by which natural imperfections of paper are joined together to initiate the compositional field, instead introducing her own originary marks in the form of small sketched eyes, the basic motif of many of her later works.

The "subjective" visual typologies in Zurn's work lend themselves to psychobiographical readings, and the exhibition framed the work with three ephemera-filled vitrines foregrounding her writing practice and relationship with Bellmer, who went from photographing life-size, fragmented female mannequins to taking pictures of Zurn and other real women. The abstracted image on the cover of the Spring 1958 issue of the journal Le Surrealisme, meme appears to be an undulating white landscape crossed by starkly defined lines, but is in fact Bellmer's cropped photograph of Zurn's trussed-up torso, which is accompanied by the caption stork in a cool place. In addition, something of the paradoxical day-to-day freedom of the couple's collaborations was revealed in joint, casual-seeming letters addressed to friends containing anagram poems and sketches.

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Zurn was attracted to constraints, whether in the procedural rules of the anagram poems or in the conceptual decision undergirding the drawings never to allow figuration to arrive at coherent representation. …

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