From April 13 through September 4, 2012, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present New Work: Katharina Wulff, the first solo exhibition in a U.S. museum of the Morocco-based artist, and the first presentation of her work on the West Coast. Featuring nearly 20 works, the exhibition brings together a selection of Wulff’s paintings made over the last five years, along with several new works, that illustrate both the breadth and distinctive character of her work. Organized by Apsara DiQuinzio, SFMOMA assistant curator of painting and sculpture, the exhibition continues the museum’s New Work series dedicated to featuring the most innovative expressions of contemporary art.
Working dexterously from sources inspired by literature, Old Master paintings, and photographs in popular magazines, Wulff makes paintings inflected by wide-ranging references and in the process builds a surreal universe that moves across time periods. Within a small selection of her paintings, one can discern hints of the decorative motifs of Pierre Matisse; unsettling figures of Pierre Klossowski; otherworldly symbology of William Blake; dark satire of George Grosz; and cheerful palette of Florine Stettheimer. Despite these myriad resonances, Wulff’s pictures are decidedly of the present and together define a body of work that is uniquely her own.
“Katharina Wulff works with traditional genres of painting, mainly landscape and portraiture, yet infuses them with imagery and color that read as contemporary but also seem to exist outside of time. Each of her paintings becomes a unique protagonist so that when taken together they shape a mysterious story—one that remains just beyond the viewer’s intelligible reach” says DiQuinzo.
At turns whimsical and macabre, naïve and sophisticated, Wulff’s paintings draw the viewer into an imaginary realm diversely marked by distant locales: grassy green knolls, rocky ocean cliffs, Venetian street windows, and Moroccan terraces. Strange animals regularly populate these settings, and alluring visages depicted in close-up are frequently left half-painted or disfigured. Perspectives are often flattened, creating spaces that are compact and psychologically charged. Some canvases are heavily built up with an admixture of charcoal and oil, while others possess faint graphite outlines and thin washes. An obscure sense of narrative suffuses each of the artist’s scenes—sometimes hysteric and haunting and other times serene and inviting. Wulff moves fluidly between moods and color palettes, so that each painting seems distinct and still retains a tenuous connection to her larger body of work.
Color and setting are defining attributes for many of her landscapes and portraits. For instance, a woman is distinguished by her blazing red-orange coiffure, glistening green eyes, and crimson lips, with a brilliant yellow forest that sets her in relief. In Wulff’s paintings of the last several years, the rooftop vistas, lush riad interiors, and twisting medina alleys of Marrakech (her home) inspire the artist’s work. While certain characters reappear throughout the works, loosely implying narrative threads, ultimately each picture stands as an autonomous work—part of an incongruous, ever-shifting whole.