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April 20 - July 20, 2002 at Louis Stern Gallery, West Hollywood

by John O'Brien

"Composition," 1922, oil on
cardboard, 14 1/16 x 11 5/16".

"Composition," ca. 1925, oil on
board, 12 7/8 x 9 15/16".

"Landscape with Road," 1915,
watercolor, 10 5/8 x 14 9/16".

"Violet Landscape," 1917, oil on
board, 11 13/16 x 15 3/4".

János Mattis Teutsch and the Hungarian Avant-Garde was fortuitously timed to coincide with LACMA's Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation, 1910-1930. This is fortunate because it focuses art viewers, historians and collectors on this distant but significant period of art history. The exhibition is centered on Teutsch, who is a lesser-known member of the Hungarian avant garde, along with 13 other artists--pre-eminent among them is Làszló Moholy Nagy--who worked out of Budapest, Hungary in the early 20th century. The exhibition examines the results of their poetic shifts and movements due to contact with the various currents of the European avant garde during this tumultuous period.

In painting, artists were moving away from naturalistic or impressionistic studies of nature. The Hungarian avant garde, as reflected here, was beginning to ally art with reason and a faith in the strength of objective truth. Their pictorial results were formalized nature studies, which echoed the work of Cezanne. Differences between foreground and background are nearly obliterated as all is subtexted to structure. The partitioning of space derives from reason and measure rather than from empirical observation. This style, in which formalism was given supremacy over subject matter, also referenced a utopian and even socialist impulse towards order concurrently emerging in literature and political science. While distant from our contemporary sensibility; the succinct, abbreviated gestural strokes, the bold and streamlined forms and vivid colors with which these artists chose to represent the world around them are easy to appreciate.

Teutsch, like many of the other artists here, oscillated between the cultural epicenters in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, namely Budapest, Munich, Berlin, Vienna and Paris. His frequent travels and the vitality of these art pockets cross-pollinated the styles found in these artists. Their palettes underwent shifts due to the impact of changing fashions and different art movements; their compositions became more severe or more lyrical, embracing or rejecting prevailing taste.

Teutsch’s work makes up more than half of this show, and he ultimately remains a painter of landscape. His experiments, gleaned from the vaious guises of the European avant garde, never dilute the artist’s love of the Hungarian countryside. The rigor of his compositional filter keeps the sentimental at bay and exalts the power of color. In the print work it is the flow of the land masses that is emphasized. Composition (1925) is a vertical array of suspended blue semicircles connected by lighter blue funnel-like shapes, all surrounded by rectangular fields of varying greens. This study, whether it is intended to represent a waterfall, a river bank or a nonobjective color field, remains equally successful whatever the interpretation. The subtle pleasure of viewing this artist derives from the way he mediates between the imperatives of his own sentiments about his native landscape, and the broader imperatives of historical avant garde art making.