When someone looks at a 20th-century artwork and says “that could be done by a five-year-old”, they’re trying to hide a fear: that an adult is supposed to interpret art, but here they don’t know how. Mária Bartuszová’s plaster sculptures, which dominate this absorbing Tate Modern survey, prick up, then refuse to assuage that very anxiety. It may even be, they whisper, that interpretation isn’t what you need.
Bartuszová worked from the early 1960s to the late 1980s in Czechoslovakia. Her pieces tend to be white, smooth and rounded; many resemble eggs or water-drops. The plaster works, which predominate here, were made through one of two processes: “gravistimulation”, filling (say) a balloon then letting it hang and stretch, or “pneumatic casting”, pouring plaster over the same – then (in either case) removing the inflated skin. The latter way leads to bewitching beauty: we see hollow objects with surfaces missing and shadowy voids revealed.
Bartuszová spoke of “nature”, “germination” and “cells” as her governing metaphors. But these don’t amount to intentions, and – since her works are often titled Untitled – the show can be challenging. A sinuous form entwined with a rock, or an ovoid bound in a web of string, can flicker between opposite moods: now they seem to speak of constriction, now of serenity. Large plaster sheets with slits in their centre suggest both violence and calm release: unmaking and making at once. The Tate’s curators have allowed these complexities to emerge; nearly all of the plinths in the centre contain a work in aluminium or bronze, which, against its smooth white siblings, adds further contrasts of light and line.
Sometimes it’s all too elusive, and you’re stuck with opacity: for all the charms of Bartuszová’s plasters, her aluminium reliefs are just inert. Still, that has always been the risk and reward of abstraction: it refuses to correspond easily to fruit bowls, or trees, or aristocrats. You won’t be fed subjects here; you must learn to see feelingly.
That’s the other reason adults look at art and brandish the “childishness” metaphor: children, they worry, might be able to grasp abstraction better than them. Bartuszová worked with kids throughout her career; she made “haptic sculptures” for the blind to play with, and designed playground furniture. She even cast a bronze fountain for the Institute of Physically Disabled Children in Košice, which you can see in a photograph. It’s elegantly distended, a lovely polished mystery; you can imagine an adult approving, then asking what idea it represents. Those children, meanwhile, offered their feelings. They said it reminded them of tears.
Until April 16 2023. Tickets: 020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk