A Swiss painter who came to prominence in the early 1970s in Europe, where he is better known than in the U.S., Franz Gertsch is the subject of the exhibition “The Seasons.” Four expansive canvases depict a patch of sloping woodland near his house in Rüschegg, as it changes over the course of the year. Each work, at approximately 11 by 16 feet, is based on a photograph. Three works are acrylic, a fourth (Spring) is egg tempera, and all are on unprimed cotton canvas. The surfaces are matte.
The vantage point is middle distance. There is no deep, perspectival space, no horizon line, little sense of foreground. Whether budding, yellow-green branches in Spring (2011), the full, deep-hued leafage of Summer (2009) or withered leaves in Autumn (2008), vegetation is obsessively transcribed. In Winter (2009), snow foregrounds a complex linear network of black branches and tree trunks. In all the landscapes, despite (and in part because of) the density of detail, the visual field is relatively undifferentiated; these are, in their own way, “allover” paintings. Enhancing this effect is Gertsch’s fastidious blurring of the closest plane of leaves and twigs, to approximate a photograph’s imperfect depth of field.
Filling out the exhibition are two other types of work: realistic, close-up portraits of young women, about 10 feet high, and woodcuts, printed on very large sheets of handmade Japanese paper, in which the imagery is so subtle that the works tend to read, at first, as monochrome fields. Some of the woodcuts portray young women whose faces materialize gradually from a cloud of tiny dots; others study the surfaces of leaves or bodies of water in black and white, with an atomized subtlety reminiscent of Seurat’s drawings.
The exhibition is installed in five big squarish rooms set in a row. After an introductory gallery containing mid-1990s images of ribbonlike grasses, the viewer moves through a theme-and-variations series of visual juxtapositions. In each of the four subsequent rooms, a “Season” painting occupies a principal, central wall and is confronted by the forthright stare of one of the painted-portrait subjects hung opposite. (Three portraits represent the same woman, Silvia, in 1998, 2000 and 2004). On the side walls of each room the woodcuts appear, often portrait faces as well. Autumn is flanked by Natasha IV (1988), seen four times, printed in red, green, blue and orange. The “Seasons” embody nature’s cycles. The women are emblematic of a transitory phase, too, their serene, watchful faces as yet unmarked by life. In a three-panel woodcut in the final gallery, a nude on the forest floor (the sole full-length figure, and the show’s only instance of a foreground image) spans the print’s entire width.
Gertsch’s early Photo-Realist paintings mainly chronicled young, glamorously scruffy “counterculture” types, both male and female, closer to his own age at the time (he was born in 1930). Although the young women in the newer canvases and woodcuts have a contemporary look, all the works on view at the Kunsthaus exist in an unspecified temporal moment, encompassing a range of artistic predecessors. My encounter with “The Seasons” immediately brought Brueghel to mind, and the exhibition’s catalogue corroborates Gertsch’s interest in that majestic precedent.
Photo: Frank Gertsch: Winter, 2009, acrylic on unprimed canvas, approx. 10 1/2 by 15 3/4 feet; at Kunsthaus Zurich.