Erna Rosenstein

Once Upon a Time

Hauser & Wirth
32 E 69 Street
New York
Upper East Side
Sep 30th 2021 — Dec 23rd 2021

Find out more

The triptych that opens Erna Rosenstein’s exhibition “Once Upon a Time” at Hauser & Wirth blooms with jewel-like colors arranged in a constellation of spattered and burst forms. Peek around the bend of the wings, though, and you’ll see a set of ashen faces—effigies of the artist’s parents, who were murdered during a skirmish during the second World War. Rosenstein’s paintings and sculpture constitute a dark fairytale distilling a lifespan of rage, processing and longing.

Born in Poland in 1913 to a secular Jewish family, Rosenstein came of age in the wake of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In defiance of her upper-class upbringing, she became a vocal Communist activist around the same time that she became an artist. She remained in the country, committing to rebuilding Poland, and joined the Kraköw Group, one of the country’s foremost avant-garde art collectives at the time. At Hauser & Wirth, Rosenstein’s abstract landscape paintings from 1950 to 1968 are fanned out in an accordion formation inspired by scenography that Tadeusz Kantor, a fellow member of the Kraków Group, proposed at the National Gallery of Art. Prześwit (Clearance) (1968), has the pink-red palette of the cartilaginous underside of flayed skin. A striated white shape at the center recalls a dawn breaking, a dual-winged angel or a ribcage.

Like many women, Rosenstein blurred the line between art and life. Her Warsaw apartment doubled as her studio. Accordingly, Szafa (Cabinet) is dated not to a single year, but a 40-year range. Over decades, the work became an ever-evolving assemblage including postcards, a comb, reproductions of paintings and the sole of a shoe. Upstairs, the artist’s alchemy reaches its apotheosis: in a correspondence with a friend, she described herself as “Fairy Rosenstein” who transforms garbage with her “magic wand.” In her whimsical sculptures, a gutted telephone unfurls a claw; a matchbook grows teeth.

This fairytale-like aura permeates even her darker works. Północ (Portrait matki) (1979) is a portrait of the artist’s decapitated mother, who smiles slightly and serenely. Indeed, the portrait’s power lies in its uncanniness; beyond mere horror, it marks Rosenstein’s mother as a subject of awe. She is more than her gored corporeal form, beyond the conditions of her tragic demise, more powerful and perhaps even more terrible. One is reminded of the feminine and not entirely earthly figure of Lady Lazarus as imagined by Sylvia Plath: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” —Lisa Yin Zhang

Erna Rosenstein, Osobna pora (Separate Season), 1971. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 29 x 23 7/8 x 1 inches, 30 5/8 x 25 5/8 x 1 1/2 in (framed). Photo: Thomas Barratt

  • Through
    Jun 6th

    A traveling exhibition of 69 oil paintings, watercolors and works on paper aims to chart Milton Avery’s trajectory and contextualize his work for a new generation.

  • Through
    May 29th

    Inspired by fractals, Renee Cox’s deity-like collages of Black figures constitute an Afrofuturist creation myth.

  • Through
    Jun 6th

    An economical survey of Jonas Mekas, “The Camera Was Always Running” serves as a touching introduction to the Lithuanian filmmaker and champion of avant-garde cinema.

  • Through
    May 22nd

    Exhibited with melodic sight-lines, Mary Manning’s “Ambient Music” hums with the background noise of the subconscious.

  • Through
    May 28th

    The words masterful and mastery assert themselves the instant one encounters the works in “My Body,” both for Nancy Grossman’s command of a wide range of skills and her active state of dominance, identity and selfhood.

  • Through
    May 23rd

    Full of whimsy and delight, Fernanda Laguna’s work in “The Path of the Heart” cuts an incisive critique of sociopolitical issues in Latin America.

  • Through
    May 28th

    The work in Valentina Vaccarella’s “Bless this Life” rests on a simple irony: monogrammed, embroidered French bridal linens pulled taut across stretcher bars and besmirched by rough images of modern madams.

  • Through
    Jun 6th

    Daniel Lie’s “Unnamed Entities” at the New Museum challenges the antiseptic aim of curation and conservation by imagining a different kind of organic art that needs to be nurtured rather than preserved.

  • Through
    Jan 2nd 2023

    The sonic encounters provoked by Camille Norment’s elaborate acoustic artworks serve as agents for social consciousness.

  • Ongoing

    Day’s End, an elegiac memorial to and stubborn ghost of eras bygone, will also serve as silent witness to the inevitable changes to come.

  • Ongoing

    Dia’s recent acquisition of works by Charles Gaines forms the basis of this survey, which includes the artist’s first forays into mathematics-based grid drawings and other early experiments in medium and form.