This exhibition (on view through June 25, 2023) marks the first major show in the U.K. of works by the extraordinary Slovak artist Maria Bartuszová (1936–96), whose abstract plaster sculptures are replete with organic forms both fragile and solid, sometimes tortured and always corporeal. Her experimental approach to plaster casting evolved from her early practice in the ceramic studios at the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design in Prague and developed into unique techniques and working methods, which she called “gravistimulated” and “pneumatic” casting. From small-scale objects to public commissions and works in the landscape, her sculptures consistently reflect an intense interest in biomorphology.
Bartuszová spent most of her career in Košice, in what was then socialist Czechoslovakia. Working in fairly secluded conditions with few opportunities for exhibition or exchange, she pursued a unique and persistent vision. In the 1960s, inspired by playing with her young daughter, she began pouring plaster into balloons and molding it. This act precipitated a mode of sensory sculpture as she pushed the possibilities of plaster and gypsum, contrasting positive/negative, full/empty, and rounded/concave, investigating the touch points of these opposites. As she explained it, “The softness and fluidity of water juxtaposed with the angularity and hardness of stone.”
The tactile quality of Bartuszová’s sculptures dominates the exhibition. The works are understandably housed in vitrines and placed out of reach because they invite, almost demand, physical contact. Visible traces of the artist’s touch reinforce that impulse to handle the forms. Bartuszová’s sculptures are born of gesture—she pushed, pulled, and pressed them into shape with her hands. Later, she would burst balloons to create cocoon- or nest-like works. More unusually, she would shape a form with her breath. For Bartuszová, the breath was “part of the universe pulsating,” and so we can understand these sculptures as containing life. This makes sense in terms of her early works, which take their forms from nature—a water droplet, a seed grain, a plant bud, anything evoking cellular division or natural growth and movement.
Tactile sensory sculpture related to natural growth was central to Bartuszová’s involvement in two series of workshops organized by the art historian Gabriel Kladek for blind and partially sighted children in 1976 and 1983. Bartuszová created hand-size or enlarged sculptures that could be handled, deconstructed, and reconstructed by the participants. Kladek’s documentary photographs capture how the children joyously explored the sculptures, touching surfaces, comparing different sorts of shapes, experiencing how their bodies moved in relation to the objects and each other. For Bartuszová, this project continued another early interest; in the 1960s, she began working on models for children’s climbing frames and slides, which were completed in 1970. These were works that, despite the strictures of the Czechoslovakian socialist regime, afforded her freedom to experiment.
More than objects for learning or play, Bartuszová’s sculptures are biomorphic explorations of human life and experience that instill a sense of gentle caress or erotic touch. Whether bound by the constraints of human relationships (articulated in wrapped and pressed forms) or freed by nature (with stones and branches integrated into the works), Bartuszová’s works express the whole range of human experience and emotion. It is such a pity we cannot touch them.