Revival: Xanti Schawinsky is Rediscovered
Xanti Schawinsky: Head Drawings and Faces of War at The Drawing Center
September 19 through December 14, 2014
35 Wooster Street (between Broome and Grand streets)
New York, 212 219 2166
Xanti Schawinsky: Eclipse at Broadway 1602
September 16 through November 22, 2014
1181 Broadway, 3rd Floor (at 28th street)
New York, 212 481 0362
Though it hardly seems possible, digging through the art historical annals seems to always unearth the work of artists unfairly overlooked. Such is the case with Alexander “Xanti” Schawinsky, one of the original Bauhaus artists. A trailblazer in commercial advertising, pioneering theater set designer, and professor at Black Mountain College, among several other institutions, Schawinsky created a prodigious output of multifarious work in his lifetime. But since his death in 1979, his importance has gone largely unrecognized. Two shows currently on view in New York, “Xanti Schawinsky: Head Drawings and Faces of War” at the Drawing Center and “Xanti Schawinsky: Eclipse” at Broadway 1602 are of critical value in reintroducing the artist’s work to contemporary audiences.
A Polish Jew born in Switzerland, Schawinsky came to the Weimar Bauhaus in 1924 to study, then was soon put in charge of its theater department. When the school was closed under duress due to Nazi threat in 1933, Schawinsky emigrated first to Italy, and then with the assistance of Hans Albers, to the United States, in 1936. He taught at the legendary Black Mountain College in North Carolina for two years before relocating once again, to New York, in 1939. The two bodies of work on view at the Drawing Center date to the heart of Schawinsky’s years in New York during the Second World War, when he was fully involved with the city’s vibrant community of expat artists.
In the pencil-on-paper “Head Drawings” series, Schawinsky repeatedly depicted his own likeness, composed of natural and man-made objects, like a modern-day Archimbaldo. The drawings are sensitive, and very fine, and display a highly skilled hand. It would be easy to spend hours in front of a work like Jewelry Head (1941-1944) from which a face appears in an assortment of jeweled necklaces dangling from a disembodied hand. In The Lumber Room (1946), Schawinsky has drawn his face in profile. Skin sizzles with fissures and fault lines, cracked like dried mud in the sun. One side of the face has been peeled away, revealing an inner sanctum comprised only of wooden scaffolding, which retreats to a vanishing point. Whether the scaffolding is meant to support the head from the inside, or whether it is a meaningless structure, supporting nothing at all, seems to have been left deliberately ambiguous.
In the “Faces of War” series, all of which are mix media, watercolor, and black pen works on paper, Schawinsky composed human faces from military machinery and other paraphernalia used in war. They are by turns terrifying, despondent, and humorous. Unlike the “Head Drawings,” which alluded more obliquely to Schawinsky’s despair over the calamity of World War II, the “Faces of War” series addressed it bluntly. Works like The Parachutist (1942) are chilling. The artist has depicted a military parachute with a face, its eyes and nose comprised of cannons, protruding from the center and pointed squarely at the viewer. The slotted “teeth,” formulated from the strings of the parachute, resemble the mouth of a skeleton in skull-and-crossbones iconography. However, Schawinsky was not without a sense of humor. In The Admiral (1942), a heavily armored sailing vessel has two portholes making up his beady eyes. His frothy beard is formed by the churning waves beneath the boat, and punctuated by a life preserver — the confused ‘O’ of a mouth. The expression appears perplexed rather than formidable.
The anxiety and conflicting emotions Schawinsky expressed towards the war in these 1940s works on paper is instructive when examining a selection of his later paintings from the 1960s and ‘70s at Broadway 1602, for war and its threats seem to provide the link between the two bodies of work. By the time Schawinsky made these paintings, he had returned to Europe, once again settling in Italy, where he would spend the remaining years of his life. In the front room of the gallery, several paintings airbrushed on canvas render swirling, luminous clouds of paint in vivid color. In studying them, the eye sometimes begins to see in them human faces in dreamlike states — kissing, for example, or in repose. But in works like Al-di-là (Eclipse), 1965, the deep reds and oranges of the paint simultaneously suggest an alternative, and apocalyptic, proposition. The clouds come to resemble the aftermath of a bomb — perhaps the bomb — a distinct fear prevalent during the Cold War years. The canvases in the second room offer further optical illusion. The gallery is hung with Schawinsky’s stunning “Eclipses,” geometric shapes rendered on canvas. Each canvas has stretched over it a swath of gauze, separated by a support frame. The gauze has also been painted upon, but the shapes do not precisely align. Thus, as the viewer moves about the room, the forms appear to shift. The “Eclipse” paintings are more subdued than the explosive airbrushed canvases in the front room, and hearken back to the austere Bauhaus aesthetic of Schawinsky’s early career.
A small catalogue available at Broadway 1602 indicates that the work on view at the two galleries is only a small portion of Schawinsky’s varied oeuvre. Perhaps these small exhibitions will provide the spark necessary to reignite interest in this important artist’s work.