JUDITH VON EUER

by Henry Klein



The beauty of retrospection lies in the recognition of patterns and trajectories often invisible in the doing. Retrospective exhibitions offer artists the hindsight with which to discover underlying structures in their own work. They are also a temptation to distort the record by giving differential emphasis to particular parts of that history.

It is as dangerous a pitfall for the critic/writer as for the artist. Sometimes we impose structure where there may be little or none. Sometimes, the metaphors we use to understand the complex relations in the work obliterate other sets of potential relationship. With some trepidation, I suggest the table as a metaphorical device through which to understand
the work of Judith Von Euer.

The dining room table is literal subject matter in a surprising number of the early works (pp 7-11). In the Von Euer family environment, a two bedroom, one bathroom house inhabited by nine children and their parents, the table was the center of their collective life. Judith says that the table was the place of conversation and interaction. It was there that they were read to and did their homework. While each of the children had their separate “art box,” it was the table where they did their art projects. When I inquired about the table, she said, “The idea of the table, in my early work, is that it provides a kind of playing field for objects, brush strokes and whatever emanations of images one wants to evoke.” So the table was game board, playground, writing tablet, place of intimacy and associated with art from the very beginning.

From the adjacent kitchen, her mother could do house work and still keep track of the familial tribe engaged in activity around the table. Her mother was the social director at home and stage manager on the road. She insisted that they learn to dance. She encouraged them to play instruments. She organized her children for theatrical and dance performances for which she often made the costumes.

The daughters performed together for the USO during WW II. Judith related that later she and her sister Sonya went to Camp Roberts, Coos Bay, Delano, San Miguel and the like, accompanied by a pianist and percussionist, picking up casual jobs. Sonya, second oldest and Judith, who was the fourth, were part of Ina Rae Hutton’s Paramount All Girl Orchestra on local television. She performed as the only female with the Phil Gray Quartet, and for a few years thereafter, Judith (clarinet and snare drum) and her sister, Sonya (string bass) continued to perform at Chasen’s and other cocktail lounges as the “Coquettes.”

They were Hollywood kids growing up with their mother’s idea that they might “tap dance their way to stardom.” For Judith, the early engagement with music and dance as well as art had profound implications for her mature artistic production. In particular, it provided her with a depth of cross-artistic background rare in other performance artists.

The intimate interior environment of home and family was sustaining and inspirational – she described it as “a joyous to raucous madhouse.” But it was also compressive. Performing with the whole family got her out of the house, but it did not give her privacy. The din of family in close proximity was a challenge to a child who was already showing signs of the hearing loss that was to progressively worsen, as she grew older.

Heightened concentration was demanded in order to follow everything going on around her. Within the family her hearing problems imposed a kind of isolation that fed her introversion. It stimulated the yearning for peace and quiet. She described her early childhood as “not cerebral, but far from life.” She made paper dolls and invented narratives with them. She painted extraordinary colored pictures on empty wooden spools used for thread – left over from her mother’s sewing.

Judith literally wanted space and freedom. At an early age she escaped the confines of the house to the garden outdoors. Her mother had a “green thumb.” Judith loved the smell of the earth. She helped water and do whatever else was needed. Much later, the external world engaged her as traveler, environmentalist and landscape designer.

On the surface, the Von Euer household looked quite traditional – house and home were directed by mother, the external work world by father. He was a Safeway market manager in multiple locations around greater Los Angeles for 36 years - the “breadwinner.” But the traditional gender divide in parenting actually did not cleave so clean. Each night their father polished all of the children’s shoes. In the morning, he squeezed fresh orange juice for them and made their breakfasts. In the evening, he cooked their meals. He too, gardened. Parental love was made manifest in acts of tender labor.

The cascading presence of older siblings shouldered some of the parenting responsibilities as well. Judith’s role as daughter, sister, aunt and teacher in an extended family led to innovations in her lifestyle and artistic pursuits. There was a growing sense of connection with space, landscape and environment.

Windows are a juncture between interior and exterior. The window appears in a number of the Von Euer paintings (“Orchard Interiors”, in particular). It is a membrane mediating between an interior (often with table) and a luscious garden exterior. The window, as picture within a picture, is, of course, metaphor for the picture itself - the plane of the table turned vertical. Not surprisingly, one of the synonyms of picture is tableau. Ultimately, interiors gave way to a more expansive vision of the landscape with no further need to reference the table literally just as Von Euer’s personal horizons expanded upon her departure from home for UCLA and the commencement of teaching at Los Angeles Valley College.

Although UCLA was hardly a stone’s throw away from Hollywood, there was literally no room left for Judith in the small house that had been home. She lived in dormitories and vacationed with friends and their families. Even before finishing her graduate work at UCLA, she began teaching at Los Angeles Valley College. With a steady job, she set up a place of her own as well as a studio in North Hollywood. There, with a few location shifts, she has maintained a studio ever since. She widened the sphere of her travels to the Southwest, Italy, France and Japan. Each time the vista rather than the built environment seems to have resonated most with her sensibilities. Strongly connected to family then as now, she, nevertheless, constructed a life apart. Newfound privacy offered her sanctuary from the over-stimulation of the auditory world and a place for undistracted artistic contemplation.

Her early work evidences a deep attraction for the Fauvist interiors of the early 20th Century. They are coloristically vibrant and engage the same contradiction between pictorial illusion and the flat pictorial surface. She related to me the impact upon her of a Bonnard retrospective and a major Matisse exhibition seen at the Los Angeles County Art Museum in the early 1960s. She mentioned the powerful influence of her teachers Jan Stüssy and John Paul Jones at UCLA as well as her encounter with the Bay Area Figurists. The work of the latter explored similar concerns about interiority/exteriority and warm light. She described her “Orchard Interiors” as “erotic and sensual explorations of the quality of the late afternoon.” Certainly, they are sultry in their atmosphere.

Of course, what was happening is that the artistic horizon of her world was rapidly expanding in all directions. In particular, she was suddenly seeing a lot of art – reproductions in books, slides in lectures as well as exhibitions. In Westwood, was the Dwan Gallery where she first saw the work of Keinholtz and Oldenberg. She was digesting it, reflecting on it and reinterpreting it. Lots of connections can be made. She acknowledged a connection between her Ceiling Painting (p 25) and Andrea Mantegna’s ceiling at Mantua. She told me that she was “drawn to the simplicity and purity of fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian Painting.” When I asked her about the flat cloud forms that first appear at the top of her “Flow Inversions” called to mind certain of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings, she said that she had been looking at a lot of O’Keefe. She then pointed out the connection between the simplified vegetative forms that appear in many of the images in the cloud shape ultimately becomes the pattern of shapes that runs through all of the “Flow Inversions.” The iconographic derivation of particular details can give some insight into the experience of the artist. More interesting is the way in which the transformation of such details signs a maturing artistic process.

Parallel and apace with the expansion of her visual horizon was the expansion of her musical horizon. She was introduced to pop and jazz early in her career, then classical music at UCLA. She had begun to study Medieval and Renaissance music in the early 1960s and ultimately traveled to Europe, performing with Li Trobador group in concerts in Southern France and Italy in 1973. Encounter with Harry Partch introduced her to cross cultural music and microtone scales. In 1965, she joined the Wakita Koto Ensemble. Japanese music, dance and spatial arrangement had a tremendous impact upon her. She said that it “felt as if time slowed down and stretched out. It was very different from Early Music. The Japanese never leave the rustic and their pacing is minimalist – long tones, few tones and slight subtle variations on a theme.” She saw its significance most of all in her understanding of structure. Music and art were not separate for her. She saw music as space and architecture. Not surprisingly, her horizontal Flow Inversion, “The Commons/Flow Yard”, bears a resemblance to the raking of stones in a Zen garden.

Far different and, on the surface, contradictory to the Fauvist and pictorialist sensibility previously cited, was the influence of Marcel Duchamp. Encountering his ideas about chance through the music of John Cage, she was drawn to the idea of randomness vs. skill and organization. She used chance as a means of letting go of rigid artistic control while providing structure from which to evolve painted and performed work. Be it found scraffitto in the cave behind her vacation home and studio in Menerbes, France (the impetus for Grotto Life), or stones found on the beach at Antibes (pp 82-83), she let chance encounters provide a touchstone from which to initiate work. Then she re-imposed rigorous intellect and the self-disciplined practice of her craft to bring the work to fruition.

That juxtaposition gives one enormous insight into the contradictions that are the creative engine in her mature work. She has had a sensual, almost rapturous engagement with the plastic material of art making – the physicality of canvas, etching plates, ink and paint. At the same time, she is possessed of a probing analytic intellect that engages the modernist history of art at its most theoretical – the place where it challenges perception and our very ability to know anything of the universe in which we dwell.

Sometime around 1970, Judith Von Euer had an epiphany. That moment precipitated a quarter century exploration to which she gave the name, “Flow Inversion.” That sustained body of work took her through multiple media, from wall to floor and out into performance space and back. At its core was a profound understanding of simultaneity – the possibility of the mutually contradictory simultaneously inhabiting the same place and time. Beholding a Southern California vista, she had experienced a figure-ground reversal that annihilated space. The environment itself morphed from three-dimensions to a flattened plane and back. Perceptual psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “multistability.” Reality imitated art in a reversal of the previous century of Western painting’s quest to reconcile the objective reality of painted surface with the illusion of pictorial space. To this mix, Von Euer’s comprehension also added the element of time.

Applying the insight to her own artwork, she described it thus: “The “Flow Inversion” metaphor applied to the process of painting puts into visual form the simultaneous presence of two contradicting, mutually inhibiting and opposing properties of matter (or antimatter): that of position or location, and that of velocity or movement. Either of these two attributes must be perceived and measured individually due to the inability to perceive but one attribute at any given moment, canceling the perception of the other attribute. (If matter is moving at a given velocity, it cannot have position or location.)”

In spinning out this pictorial metaphor she expanded the scale of pictures to murals too large to be perceived in a single moment (pp 42-43). She explored multiple variations in the intaglio series, “Licorice Suite” (p 44). She rotated the arena of pictorial performance from vertical to horizontal in conceptualizing her floor piece “The Commons/Flow Yard” (pp 46-47).

visual counterpoint in her “Twelve Tone Performance Structure” (p 54). The temporal dimension of the floor pieces were expanded to become performance space in her “Four Dances from the Black Pages” (p 55) and operatic productions, “Ornette’s Way” (pp 61-71) and

which performance takes place. By then, the table had been subjected to rigorous calisthenics – stand up, sit down, stretch out, roll over – it had morphed from pictorial subject matter and personal icon to metaphor for painting and the tableland of the environment itself.

It may seem contradictory that a person with progressively deteriorating hearing should be so drawn to music and, indeed, be so good at both performance and composition. Those who have seen and heard Evelyn Glynnie, the deaf Scottish percussionist perform, know that there are many ways to hear. Sound is kinetic motion and can be felt through the body itself as conductive medium. Rhythmic structures, in particular, can be felt/heard. Complex patterns of repetition and progression can be drummed, danced or used to distribute forms across a pictorial space (“Flow Inversion/Inverted Freeway” mural and other Flow Inversions).

Judith is a percussionist, but also a tonal musician (clarinet, gamba, koto, recorder, saxophone, and shakuhachi). She is not completely deaf or even tone deaf. She is simply challenged. Possessing the inner vision of the hearing impaired while aesthetically and intellectually engaged, allows her to access formal structure with unusual clarity. Color-blind aerial-photo analysts were employed by the OSS during WW II. They were not fooled by German camouflage. Like them, Judith’s impairment allows her to hear through to the underlying structure of music. The contrapuntal interplay of patterns of both visual and auditory forms in motion that characterize her operas are a gift to us from her heightened selective sensibilities.

I first saw Judith Von Euer’s work in a faculty show at Los Angeles Valley College in 1979. She showed a large self-referential unstretched canvas wall piece which included her poem, “Baboon” (p 58).

Its primary references were to hearing loss. There was text and, most compellingly to me, a series of mask-like shapes that seemed to sign issues of mis- and missed communication, a kind of sign language (see “Sixteen Psychic States Masks (p 63). Many of the masks featured a differentially prominent organ of communication – ear, hand, mouth, and eyes. Since then, these forms have mutated into the “three fingered catcher’s mitt,” that populate subsequent work. The piece was personally revelatory, vulnerable and intellectually self-reflective and courageous. Characteristically, it was full of personal metaphorical symbols that signed more global issues.

Extrapolation from the personal to the universal is one of the most compelling aspects of Von Euer’s vision. Like the simultaneity that set in motion personal and universal – microcosm and macrocosm. She turns the table on simplistic pictorialism in order to engage the breadth of human thought.

Henry F. Klein
November 21, 2000



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