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One eye is faded, while the other stands out plainly, a hyper realistic sparkling agate disc. It is attached only loosely to the eyelid, almost drop-ping out of the face. The blurred mouth is fused to the surface of the face, the nose is eroded down to its foundation, and the hair is a silhouette from earlier days. This face has traveled a long way: Monica (2018) cannot be swiftly deciphered. Wide-awake, the glittering stone of the eye burns into the person facing the picture, unmoving like a camera. Burned-out by the strains of the world, the other eye is seemingly blind at first glance, but the more one looks, the more it possesses a diffuse, inescapable intensity. One wonders which of the two eyes sees more accurately, and which of them is in a position to take in more of the outside world. Each eye is, in its own way, focused: as we turn from one to the other, neither will let us go. Occasionally, our gaze alights upon the mouth, the better to establish this person’s state of mind, to identify it more precisely. But our gaze shies away, somewhat shocked. The mouth has an outsized appearance, and protrudes from the massive face just a little, finding itself interwoven with the face. It has no wish to further articulate itself, let alone to provide information. And yet it begins to speak, quietly, even though it continues to be silent: within it, one can read a shy withdrawal and undefined fears. The former joy of living has fled from these voluminous lips, and their redness has paled. The doughy face—forced out of shape in an unlovely manner—has lost its symmetry, and one could even describe it as jellyfish-like, or ugly. The chain—decoration and ornament of former times—no longer beautifies, and is itself subject to turbulence.

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Margot Bergman, Monica, 2018, Acrylic on canvas 40 x 34 inches. Courtesy the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago and Anton Kern Gallery, New York.

Margot Bergman shows herself to be a master of the conditio humana, of the circumstances of life and the nature of the human person. Monica is typical of the portraits that she has painted in recent years (1). Our face is the location where our biography can be read, particularly with increasing age. While this is surely true, Bergman goes a decisive step further. In her new images, we see a human life in condensed form, but we also see a meeting of the different ages of life: the child, adolescence, the adult, and old age. Bergman not only knows how to present all the ages of life in a single face, she also knows how to bring this to life through the perceptions of the viewer. On the time axis, these things are distributed across several past decades, and yet here they are brought together in a single image. We are viewing an entire life: when we look at Monica, we see the child, the adolescent, life’s first questions, all the hopes and disappointments, shining through in age. In the pictures from recent years, the people depicted by Bergman have reached a certain age. And yet age, life experience, and the many bitter moments do not dominate the face, as they do so often in reality, when we become old and frail. Suddenly, we cannot simply alter our expression, and when we try to do it, our faces run the risk of falling into a grimace. For Bergman, childhood and adolescence play a significant part in the forming of the person, of that person’s face, and thus of the image through which we are placed in the position of seeing the ages of life brought together in an archetypal person. This is a wonderful metaphor for the course of a life, as changes ravage and displace, step by step, the beauty of youth. 

The face is that narrow knife-edge upon which the inner and outer worlds balance as they struggle with one another. In the same moment, the physical and psychological injuries of past years and the fragility of increasing age look back at us. Surely it is the subtle childlike quality in the artist’s portraits that really allows the vulnerability of those pictured to truly sink in for the viewer. There is no self-confident pride, and certainly there are no staged poses, no attempts at self-stylizing. There is no suggestion of the clinically smooth, eternally young faces seen on the ever-revolving carousel of advertising, films, or social media—something that can be attributed to globally operating politics and economy, and equally to the international art business, which rolls out the red carpet for the rich and beautiful. There is nothing of the kind to be seen here. In this sense, Bergman’s female subjects are true anti-heroines. They are refreshing in that there is nothing heroic about them. They are not warlike Amazons, not speeding Furies, and not emancipated ladies in the wake of 1968 (in purely biographical terms, this could be well-suited to the artist). Bergman’s women do not embark on campaigns to shout their opinion to the world angrily. Quite the reverse in fact. The faces look quiet, unassuming, quizzical, bewildered, fragile, sometimes at a loss. Side by side, we look with them—and they with us—at the strange world out there. While their faces may have been distorted by life in unlovely ways, these women stand before us with a quiet matter-of-factness, asserting themselves. Paradoxically, the fact that they plainly decline to fight makes them all the stronger, lending them an inner power that is more effective than any grandiose sociopolitical accusatory statement. This is how they make their statement about society, which one must look twice to see. One regularly sees an element of cheery sparkle, even a subtle mockery, and sometimes a concealed frivolous look. Typical examples of her early pictures include Blossom (1996), Lee (2001), and Nanette (2003), whereas Amos and Annie (2017) are representative of her current work. Bergman’s bringing to life of a simultaneity of the non-simultaneous that is striking and touching in equal measure in her canvases from recent years is not calculated. Her pictures are not an arena for intellectual construction or deconstruction of human biography. Instead, they represent a place where the intuitive and empathetic capacities of the artist can be expressed without inhibition, as color and form. Their fascinating emotional aura reveals the full energy of unspoiled painting. The same is true of her earlier portraits from the 1990s and 2000s, which show a certain affinity with French Surrealism and Art Brut. The sensual presence of earlier and current portraits is impressive. They radiate a playful eagerness and childlike carelessness that is immediately transferred to us and is infectious. The psychological expressions are as differentiated as the use of paint is fluid and intuitive, and as the facial features are sometimes strangely “askew.” And this is achieved without the pictures having to depend on a large or even outsized format to achieve their effect. During the twentieth century, large formats became widespread—not to say politically misused—as powerfully effective shorthand for “overwhelming.” Prior to 2013, however, the works of Bergman were strikingly small, seldom achieving any edge length greater than thirty to fifty centimeters (or twelve to twenty inches). Similarly, her current artworks rarely exceed an edge length of one hundred and twenty centimeters (or forty-seven inches). 

Margot Bergman, Amos and Annie, 2017, Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago and Anton Kern Gallery, New York.

The portraits from the 1990s and 2000s started as images created by unknown artists discovered by Bergman at flea markets: most of these are landscape pictures, within which the artist perceives a large face (3). She uses partial overpainting to distil, as it were, this painting out of the landscape. The overpainting may assume a very different scale: Blossom leaves visible all the essential elements of the dramatic Native American bison hunt. The face is created by producing gaps, generating a doubled visual paradigm: the pupils of the face’s eyes are formed by the heads of the two horse-riding Native Americans, who are highly focused—eyes wide open—upon intervening to keep the attacking bison away from their fellows. The overpainting in Glenda (2002) is more minimal still: large areas of the landscape remain visible, while Bergman merely adds a few physiognomic details to turn the somewhat empty idyllic landscape into a female face with a shocked gaze. In the artwork created from a still life image of fruit entitled Nanette, the original picture is far more closely fused with its overpainting. It takes a second glance to distinguish the different authors of the fruit. Lee takes this a step further: aside from the branch attached to the head, there are few indications of the original picture. In addition to their singular technique, these portraits are characterized by a concealed humor. As if they themselves are a little surprised and amused by the circumstances to which they owe their existence, these women look out into the world with a curious and amused air.

Margot Bergman, Grace Jane, 2012, Acrylic on found canvas 24 x 18 inches. Courtesy the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago and Anton Kern Gallery, New York. 

Bergman’s overpaintings exist within a discourse on the theme of appropriation, erasure, and rediscovery that is constantly reignited in the history of art. A young generation of artists is taking the questioning of authorship still further: how much authorship is permissible? Perhaps it is more authentic if one vanishes entirely as author? Arnulf Rainer (b. 1929, Baden near Vienna) is considered one of the first and most significant artists to engage with the subject of overpainting, exerting a lasting influence on his contemporaries and on subsequent generations of artists. He has been overpainting paintings (primarily black-and-white portraits) since the early 1950s. At the heart of this act is an existential (if not positively anarchic, and occasionally inflammatory) gesture, one that rests upon the effects of assertion and destruction. This is a sometimes aggressive encounter between the “you” and the “I,” between subject and object, in a struggle to justify existence. Gerhard Richter (b. 1932, Dresden) takes an entirely different approach. In the small-format, gestural overpaintings of his own photographs that he first started making in the 1980s, he investigates the relationship of the photograph’s subject to the ornamental sensuality of pastose paint, which he spreads over the photograph with a palette knife. He uses photographs—largely of landscape subjects—and draws upon them in large numbers as possible models or starting points for creating pictures at a later stage. The photographs are in the ten by fifteen centimeter (or four by six inches) format, like pictures in private photo albums. Bergman operates quite differently to Rainer and Richter. She recognizes something new in what already exists, conjuring it forth from the landscape in the form of an emotional, unaffected face and showing plenty of pleasure in the playful transformation. In so doing, she performs a magical metamorphosis: influenced by color and form, the artist transforms the landscape into a face. The painted image of nature always contained the “genes” of this emergent figure, and itself provides the occasion for the creation of a new picture. The seismographic, intuitive gaze of the artist develops a new face from the canvas of past days.

While the portraits are certainly distinguished by an unfeigned pleasure in painting and in playful processes of discovery, these properties are still more apparent in a group of works featuring childlike hares. This is partly due to the fact that the figure of a hare—or rather a rabbit—is in itself an endearing image to adults as well as children, in that it is a sweet and furry little creature. On the other hand, Bergman uses abstraction and her choice of colors to take this highly symbolic animal—one thinks of the expression “to breed like rabbits” or the Playboy bunny logo, loaded with sexual connotations and still commonly seen today—into the realm of comics, graffiti, and Pop Art. In a humorous and artful game of concealment, the rabbits cheerfully dodge our identifying gazes, achieving a series of surprising escapes. Sometimes, as in The Lookout (2008), they disguise themselves as abstract silhouettes, sometimes one of their hopping forms is the frame that creates a face, as in Opal (2009), and sometimes a rabbit silhouette is fused with an opulent floral still life to create a sensual face with large, seductive lips, as in Peony (2008). One quiet and self-contained hare looks almost “alien” among this lively group: it appears to be a successor to the famous watercolor Feldhase or Hare (1502) by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). While the outlines of its crouching form are clear, it also forms half of a female face, with its eye giving the face a second eye: Night Listener (2010). Listen to the night? Is this possible? It goes without saying that the night does not speak, but if it did speak, what would it tell us? As we look at Margot Bergman’s portraits, we listen to the night in our own lives, the mysterious magic of our existence, our past. Memories of childhood, adolescence, and other moments from our biography appear in the painted forms that we see, even though we are not the ones depicted.

 

 

1. “The persons in the new paintings are fiction. There may be one self-portrait, a painting from 2010 called Room (see p. 52). The rest of the figures in the paintings are invented....They’re not from life, but they are from psyche. I paint them from inside my body.” Margot Bergman in an e-mail from November 1, 2018, to the author.

2. “When I saw these paintings at the flea markets, I was immediately drawn to the heartfelt work. I felt their abandonment and the need of people to express themselves and it touched me very deeply.... I occasionally continue, if I find the right painting. It’s increasingly difficult to find good flea market paintings. When I started, I had a rule that I would not spend more than $40 on a painting....These works were started in the mid 1990s. I have always been interested in collage, and my early works from the 1950s incorporated images that pretended to be collage. And at a later date, I began to paint over my own photographs. Upon reflection, I see now that I frequently addressed opposition from one thing to another. Dualities seem to be an ongoing interest of mine.” Margot Bergman in an e-mail from November 1, 2018, to the author.

3. Asked whether she had any scruples about overpainting pictures by other artists, Bergman responded: “I have had hesitation in going forward but ultimately realized that while I benefited from their work, they went on living because of me.” Margot Bergman in an e-mail from November 5, 2018, to the author.