I can't imagine what it must have been like to be a female artist in communist Hungary in the 1970s – state controls and sexism, lack of information and very few opportunities to exhibit – so I must confess to being a little nervous about meeting Dora Maurer. The 78-year-old Hungarian artist is someone I'm a fan of, but also slightly scared of. In photographs she has a stern look that seems to be challenging the camera. Luckily for me, in person she is engaging, funny, smart and informed.
I first came across Maurer's work in an excellent article by Mark Rappolt in Art Review in 2012. I'd never heard of the artist (my failing), but now her work is supported by collectors and institutions from Tate to MoMA. We meet hours before the opening of her largest show to date. The show was curated by Katharine Kostyal, whose husband Carl Kostyal had previously shown Maurer's work (the art world being at once small and global). There was an interpreter present, who is at times quoted here, but her English is excellent – I think it's more my northern accent that confuses.
Darren Flook: What is the process you go through to end up with the coloured, shaped works? Do they start as drawings?
Dora Maurer: I start always from my last finished work to create the next – that is how I see the possibilities of what can happen in the next one. I begin, as everybody, with drawing and painting, and then I come to the printed graphic. I search not only for themes, but also for changing the technique. I come to a kind of action graphic where the plates, the graphic plates, the copper plates, are not only carrying pictures, but are also active parts of movement. These plates are falling down from very high and they are disturbed coming to the earth and so it was possible to make one print as a documentation from the crumpled thing. This is just an example – there are endless possibilities, which naturally I didn't try to bring to an end.
Talk to me about the piece on the end wall – the red and orange.
Yes, this is a piece from five squares coming out, six rectangles and it is rhythmic, the two things are confronted with each other. It was a way of counting, of very simple mathematics. I wanted to find out the primitive mathematic of things. This started in 1972 and went on with time. Everybody knows what time is, but to have the feeling of what time it is, can be expressed with these visual elements.
Do you make your art in the studio? Or is it designed in the studio and made somewhere else?
No, they were made in the studio. I make everything with my hands.
Really? Some of the pieces are so big.
In the last year I've gotten more room because we bought a second apartment, and it's empty. But before that I made this large, high piece in my bedroom in smaller parts.
Have you always been based in Hungary?
I was for thirty years, often going into Vienna. I have dual citizenship, which was necessary to have in the late 70s and early 80s because hopping abroad wasn't possible.
Vienna has always had a very strong art scene.
In Vienna we were very active. When I was there in the 60s it was...Vienna was sometimes sympathetic to me and sometimes it wasn't. It was political, often around my gender.
Reading about you, it strikes me that there isn't a break between your life and your art. It's continuous.
Thank you. I think that is so.
Your early work has an element of performance to it, like Ball Piece. You're very present in them too – you can see your hands and face. But with your newer, abstract works do you still see them as relating to performance?
Yes, naturally. They have to do with performance but also the desire to make something alive. Movement is necessary to life, both in the sense that people move – from one country to another – and within themselves. Everything is movement. For me, it's a continuous hope that things are changing – it's not just physical.
Have you ever taught?
A long time ago, yes. I was a private tutor for the young and then I worked in a state school with another Hungarian artist. Somebody invited us to work there and we did what we wanted to do. Then I lead a course for fourteen to eighteen year olds in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest – from drawing shadows to making small films with photographs. Then I was invited to be a teacher, leading a class in the Academy of Fine Arts. It wasn't painting; it was very inter-disciplined. There were poets and musicians and everybody.
Were there many opportunities to exhibit in 1970s Eastern Europe? Was there a supportive museum structure?
There wasn't political freedom but it changed a lot since the 1960s. There were no galleries. Later there were some but they were heavily influenced by the state. For example, if you wanted to exhibit, you had to apply to the Ministry or Artist's Association and they would often reply, "You are too young" or "Okay, but only this part" or even "These two are ugly. You cannot show it."
But in the late 80s there were a few more freedoms for young artists. For example, I knew someone in a different district, a young art historian, who ran a cultural place but he was thrown out after the second exhibition, so that ended that.
So having a dual nationality must have been helpful for an artist?
Yes, I mean, I must say there were also museums which were very advanced. For example in Pécs and Székesfehérvár – far from Budapest, from the centrally controlled areas – artists were working and could manage. The first Hungarian avant-garde exhibition took place in the 70s in Pécs. It was called Movement. Then in the Bureau for Architecture in Budapest there was a pop art exhibition in the late 60s. My husband and I went abroad often and organised exhibitions in Germany and Austria. Often bringing colleagues' artworks without permission!
In your luggage?
No, we had a minibus and got past customs!
It's been a long drive for Dora Maurer, but personally I'm glad she and others like her made it across borders.
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For more information, please visit tate.org.uk.