Guano is an abstract painting by the Hungarian artist Judit Reigl. It comprises a dark grey band around its outer edge and with a lighter, striated khaki section in the centre. This section overlays the darker one, but both are textured with marks left by the artist as she worked and reworked the paint on the canvas. It is one in a series of similar works that take the title Guano.
Guano was made from rejected canvases Reigl laid down to protect her studio floor from the blobs and sweeps of paint that fell as she worked. As the artist stood on the sheets and moved across them, the drips and splashes were impressed into the surface. In 1961 she returned to the encrusted surfaces and, seeing them as artworks, began to work with them, scraping the paint away and forming the striated markings that undulate across the canvas. As Reigl has written, the canvases were ‘Completely ruined as paintings, they excelled in their very self-negation, becoming fertile ground’ (Judit Reigl in Maison de la Culture 1974, cited at http://www.judit-reigl.com/?english/1958-65-guano.html, accessed 9 June 2016). The rhythmic patterning in Guano is suggestive of the repeated brushstrokes required to build up a painting. However, the lines also resemble geological layers pointing to the fact that the canvas is made up of fragments of other works, as well as suggesting a relationship to the Peruvian islands of Chincha, famous for their encrusted layers of bird excrement used as a highly fertile manure and known as guano. The texture of the paintings also evoke urban surfaces like pavements, ancient walls or graffiti and therefore, metaphorically allude to embedded histories. Reigl has compared this series to the work of the French artist Jean Dubuffet – see, for instance, Large Black Landscape 1946 (Tate T07109) (see Judit Reigl in Jean-Paul Ameline 2009).
The process of painting was central to Reigl’s work throughout her career. The reach of her arm span and the rhythm of her movements around the canvas, rather than a preliminary sketch or a perspectival system, determined the composition of works like Guano as well as Mass Writing 1961 (Tate T12310). These paintings contrast with her earlier work depicting fantastic landscapes or brightly-coloured elliptical forms, characteristic of the Parisian surrealism. Those figurative or image-based paintings developed from Reigl’s interest in automatism: a kind of creative practice in which mark-making came directly from the unconscious of the artist and which was important to surrealists such as André Breton and Max Ernst (see Forest and Dove 1927, Tate T00548), both of whom Reigl knew. Despite the differences between the earlier and later canvases, automatism remained an important touchstone for Reigl, although extended from the psychological to the physical. As Reigl explained: ‘I work with my entire body, “à la mesure des bras grands ouverts”’ [to my full arms’ reach]’ (quoted in Czerba 2005, p.37). In this way her work has also been associated with gestural abstraction. Reigl broke with the surrealist group in 1955, although her move toward abstraction was evident earlier in her 1954 exhibition at the Galerie L’Etoile scellée in Paris. This exhibition, organised by Breton, included the work Torch of Chemical Weddings 1954 (Centre Pompidou, Paris), in which veils of paint move across the canvas tracing the artist’s reach. After 1955 Reigl became associated with the tachiste group and through the artist Georges Mathieu, shared an exhibition with the painter Simon Hantï in November 1956 at the Galerie Kléber. While Reigl’s use of her body as an instrument for painting confirmed her reputation as a significant abstract artist, the figure re-emerged in her work of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Born in Hungary in 1923, Reigl studied at the Budapest Academy of Arts. In 1946 she won a scholarship to study in Italy, although this was curtailed in 1948 as the political climate in Hungary became increasingly hard-line. Reigl’s time in Italy was deeply significant, exposing her to a variety of Renaissance art and enabling her encounters with other students including the British painter Betty Anderson. Returning to Hungary with the belief that she could contribute to the new post-war republic, Reigl found that her surrealist-influenced work was ill-suited to official demands for socialist realism. With restrictions in place and without her passport, which was held on her return to Hungary, she made several attempts to leave culminating (on the ninth attempt) in crossing no man’s land to Austria in 1950. Stateless, she made her way overland to France where other Hungarian artists had gathered. She was introduced to Breton in 1954, who offered her a show at the Galerie L’Etoile Scellée and to whom she gave They Have an Insatiable Thirst for Infinity 1950 (Centre Pompidou, Paris), a surrealist image of apocalyptic riders. In 1963 Reigl moved to live and work in Marcoussis, a small village southwest of Paris.
Judit Reigl, exhibition catalogue, Maison de la Culture, Rennes 1974.
Julia Czerba, Reigl, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle, Budapest 2005.
Jean-Paul Ameline, ‘Judit Reigl and Jean-Paul Ameline’, Art in America, 3 April 2009, http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/interviews, accessed 9 June 2016.