The New York School rules at Hauser & Wirth Zurich

THREE of the most influential artists of the twentieth century are celebrated in a new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, which opens in time for the Swiss city’s Art Weekend (9 – 11 June). ‘The God that Failed’, showing at the gallery’s Bahnhofstrasse space, explores the connections between Louise Bourgeois, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, all of whom were central figures within the New York School – a loosely connected group of artists who worked in New York during the 1940s and ‘50s.

Associated with the birth of Abstract Expressionism, these groundbreaking artists helped to make the American metropolis the centre of the art world in the post-war era. The title of the exhibition refers to an overall sense of crisis that prevailed during this time, in relation to the notion of authority, as well as the atmosphere of existential angst that took hold.

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1953. Bronze. 150.5 x 21.6 x 21.6 cm / 59 1/4 x 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 in
© The Easton Foundation / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich. Photo: Christopher Burke.

Louise Bourgeois, Untitled, 1954, Painted bronze and stainless steel, 141 x 55.2 x 30.5 cm / 55 1/2 x 21 3/4 x 12 in © The Easton Foundation / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich, Photo: Christopher Burke

While Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko became known for their monumental paintings, which explored colour and scale, Louise Bourgeois established herself primarily as a sculptor. A selection of works from one of her most important series, Personages, made between 1946 and 1955, are included in the exhibition. These totem-like wooden pieces allude to various individuals and speak of those who were important to the artist, specifically friends and family she left behind in France (Bourgeois moved to America in 1938). A striking painted bronze, dating from 1954, is also on view, along with a beautiful work made from a cluster of parts (Forêt (Night Garden), 1953).

The range of Rothko’s practice is highlighted through two compositions. A delicate ink-on-paper made in 1944 reveals the artist’s beginnings as he explored narrative scenes. Just over a decade later, in 1957, he was making No. 40 (Blue Penumbra), a deep burgundy canvas measuring nearly six feet, replete with hazy brushwork and expanses of black.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (White, Yellow, Red on Yellow), 1953, Oil on canvas, 231 x 180 cm / 91 x 70 7/8 in
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich, Private Collection

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1944, Chalk, watercolor, pen and ink on paper, 66 x 99.1 cm / 26 x 39 in © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich, Private Collection. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth Collection Services

Newman, who invented what he termed as “the zip”, meaning a narrow vertical stripe on the canvas that would divide one area of colour from another, is represented in the show by some standout pictures. The Name I (1949) is a grey canvas that has been dissected by numerous red lines of various widths, creating a sense of space that is in motion. In an untitled painting from 1955, the canvas has been completely saturated in royal blue, with one pale grey line cutting across the surface to provide some relief.

Barnett Newman, The Name I, 1949, Oil and Magna on canvas, 122 x 152.5 cm / 48 x 60 in © The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York / 2023, ProLitteris, Zurich, Courtesy: A selection from the Daros Collection

Bourgeois, Newman and Rothko were peers, exhibiting together and participating in talks during this period. ‘The God that Failed’ draws on the similarities in their work, specifically highlighting how each artist’s ideas relating to the abstract led to such powerful outcomes.

by Derby Jones

The God that Failed: Louise Bourgeois, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko runs at Hauser & Wirth Zurich until 16 September.