Cathy Josefowitz: Release / Hauser & Wirth Zürich

Cathy Josefowitz (1956-2014) is a New York-born, Swiss-raised artist, who created a wide-ranging ouvre spanning drawing and painting, performance and dance. The extensive range of her artistic creations is now showcased in a solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in Zürich. The show highlights Cathy Josefowitz’s evolution of portraying the human form over a span of four decades, starting from the 1970s and transitioning towards abstraction in her later works. The exhibition takes its title from Josefowitz’s choreographic piece ‘Release’ (1988), a performance replete with fluid movements that is projected on the wall of the gallery. Cathy Josefowitz: Release features numerous pieces that are exhibited for the first time and runs until May 17, 2024.

Cathy Josefowitz: Release / Hauser & Wirth Zürich, Limmatstrasse. Zürich (Switzerland), March 21, 2024.

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Exhibition text (excerpt):

The presentation takes its title from Josefowitz’s choreographic piece ‘Release’ (1988), a performance replete with fluid movements that is projected on the wall of the gallery. Drawing on the Anatomical Release technique pioneered by dance teacher and choreographer Mary Fulkerson, Josefowitz falls, twists and rolls in order to let go of tension and cultivate creativity, liberating her body and mind. This feeling of liberation is translated into her later works through the gradual shift from figuration to abstraction. Her relentless and personal quest for expression unites the various works on view in Zurich, with some exhibiting elements of self-portraiture.

Born in New York in 1956, Cathy Josefowitz spent her childhood and adolescence in Geneva, Switzerland. The artist’s lifelong fascination with the bodily experience was sparked in part by her study of stage design at the Théâtre National de Strasbourg from 1972 – 1973. After attending the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris from 1973 – 1978, Josefowitz studied performing arts and new dance at the renowned Dartington College of Arts in Devon, England from 1979 to 1983 and later choreography at the SNND School for New Dance Development, Amsterdam from 1987 – 1988. During her time in England, Josefowitz became involved in political activism, taking part in demonstrations, marches and conferences supporting both the feminist movement and the gay and lesbian liberation movement. Mirroring the increase in her engagement in political activism and feminism, Josefowitz’s art intensified its representation of female sensation and feeling.

Josefowitz’s exploration of the corporeal manifests in works from the 1970s that are filled with figures, predominately female, reclining or in varying states of repose. Her oils on cardboard, such as ‘Untitled’ (ca. 1974), are characterized by colorful backgrounds portraying domestic interiors, influenced by the artist’s exploration of stage design. The unnaturalistic color and vivid brushstrokes of this period, particularly apparent in Josefowitz’s gouches on paper, recall the work of fauvists Henri Matisse and André Derain, who rejected three-dimensionality in their painting practice.

These paintings are complemented by figurative works from the early 1990s in which Josefowitz’s visual language enters a new phase, revealing a different way of working with the body through a shift in pattern, style and form. Using various combinations of oil, gouache, charcoal, pastel or chalk, the artist’s biomorphic subjects reached a new level of simplification, becoming indistinguishable from the chairs on which they rest. ‘Untitled’ (1993) exemplifies this movement towards a more non-representational style, achieved by a focus on shape of the figure and bold planes of color. Releasing her subjects from historic depictions of the female body, Josefowitz reveals a unique awareness of and sensitivity to the physical forms of the self. The backgrounds of the works have also entered a transformation, characterized by geometric patterns and curvilinear forms, resulting in the isolation of the figure in space.

This development is also charted in her series of watercolour paintings on receipts (1988 – 1992) exploring the female nude on a more intimate scale. A travelogue of her trip from Parma to Vienna in the summer of 1988, these works exhibit elements of autobiography. Using watercolour and ink, the contorted limbs and fluid brushstrokes in ‘Le Vieux Bistrot – Paris’ (1991) evoke Josefowitz’s flexible movements in ‘Release,’ whilst the checkered background of ‘Trattoria dall’Amelia – Mestre’ (1992) alludes to her stylised domestic interiors from the 1970s and geometric patterns from the 1990s.

The figurative realm soon gave way to increasing abstraction with Josefowitz’s Prayers series (1998 – 2001). Working on the floor, the series evolved by tracing the outline of a pile of clothes on a canvas, taking particular interest in the shawl. Each canvas started with this new sacred ritual, a kind of dance with the shawl, playing with its shapes on the floor, until she found the composition she liked and traced the outlines. Josefowitz approached color in reference to people and family members, likening the work to portraiture, or in reference to places and landscapes. For example, she made work inspired by Italy and her travels to Egypt, such as ‘Parme’ (c 2001) or ‘Patisserie Égyptienne’ (1999).

These are placed in tandem with the similarly monumental Venus series (2004 – 2006). Josefowitz became increasingly engaged in the physicality of creation, intersecting her performative and pictorial practices by working on the floor of her studio instead of the wall. For these works, the artist placed her working uniform on the canvas in a dynamic position and traced around it; the resulting abstracted forms, painted in blocks of colour, express the body’s presence and represent self-portraits. The freedom and movement of these forms are juxtaposed with depictions of static reclining nudes that revist tropes of womanhood from classicism, referenced through titles such as ‘D’après I’Olympia de Manet’ (2004 – 2005) and ‘D’Après la Vénus de Titien’ (2004 – 2006).

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