balzer projects are pleased to announce the gallery’s representation of Vera Isler’s estate in collaboration with the ART-Nachlassstiftung, Bern. As having exhibited Vera Islers work for the first time in 2013, the gallery is honored to regularly present Isler’s œuvre and to ensure that her valuable artistic input will not be forgotten. Vera Isler was a great artist and political activist, her enthusiasm, creativity, relentlessness and optimism was inspiring and should be remembered long beyond her death.
Polish-born Swiss artist Vera Isler (*1931 – 2015) never had permanent gallery representation and a significant part of her artistic practice has never really been brought to a wider international audience. This is primarily a result of dominant attitudes towards women in art and the fact that she was an autodidact with no professional training. She managed some of the hurdles quite successfully, others, however, turned into permanent stumbling blocks.
Vera Isler’s biography is marked by tragedy and hardship. Together with her two sisters, she came as a young child from Berlin to Switzerland with the Refugee Children Movement in 1938/39. Her parents – Eastern European Jews – unsuccessfully tried to apply for immigrant visas to the United States and were subsequently murdered by the Nazis in the Bełżec Extermination Camp (Poland) in 1942. The girls survived the war in an orphanage. As a child, Vera Isler was already interested in art, but chose a career as lab technician for economic reasons. Still passionate about art, she started to teach herself to make art in the early 1960s. She won numerous awards, showed in many international institutions (museums, art galleries, fairs, etc.) and published in renowned magazines.
Vera Isler drew her inspiration and creative energy from moments of spontaneous discovery – whether materially, visually or intellectually. “She has created a language that is modern, in the sense that it appears determined by technology. She deals with this technology in a playful way. It is a game, which, in turn, illustrates the relativity of perception (completely different perceptions appear through changing the viewing angle or light). They are not rigid, unique formulas, but associative processes, development of forms and resolutions. These processes are testimony to the artist’s special sensitivity, which testifies to and demonstrates a vital sense of rhythm and also a clear concept.” (P.F. Althaus, in Swiss Art / Art Suisse, No. 4, 1973, p.11)
The style and content of Vera Isler’s works from the late 60s to 70s can be incorporated into “Concrete Art”. An essential feature of “Concrete Art” is the complete disconnection from natural phenomena. This art form does not provide an image or symbol of reality, because “nothing is more concrete than a line, a color, a plan,” according to concrete-style artist, Theo van Doesburg, one of the original formulators of this artistic language. In this context, the works of Vera Isler seem easily accessible at first glance. What is initially observable is a superficial mathematically translated form, but in fact, her work has philosophical content. There are also seemingly geometric surface and/or shapes, most of which are mostly set intuitively. Serially applied colors or monochromism characterize the appearance of the works. For this purpose, Isler used industrially-processed and manufactured materials and substances, such as PVC and aluminum.
Isler’s experimental curiosity and her fascination with technology is evident in the variety of materials and her innovative methods of production. The international avant-garde proved the artist’s point here. As a design tool, Isler does not use color and painting tools exclusively (she is not a trained painter), but light and air, as well as technical and industrial materials such as aluminum panels, glass, mirror, cardboard and product waste. Her works maneuver freely across media, but always hover on the verge of three-dimensionality. With her series Genetics, Vera Isler reveals the aesthetic dimensions of genetic engineering for the viewer. What fascinated her was not the double helix of the DNA strand as much as the visual, meaningful representation of the chromosomes as such, the X and Y, male and female chromosomes. Isler’s work was controversial, not only visually but also thematically. She touched heated issues on the ethical debate surrounding genetic research as well as the feminist discussion of the late 60s to 80s.
The ethical questions in genetics and genetic engineering of humans and animals are even more relevant today. Topics such as the relationship between men and women, sexism, and the equality of women in the workplace are more important today than ever. Isler’s works contain an enormous political and social explosiveness. “Custom-made human beings – Bioengineers control the creation – Should human test tube embryos be released for research purposes? – What status does an embryo have? (…)” These are quotes from the key work, Headlines from the years 1982/83. For the development of this work, Isler collected press headlines on the topic of genetics for a year, and stamped them into a large-format lead sheet.
Like panels that are reminiscent of a special person, event or place (think of the Holocaust memorials, or grave stones) – the artist reflects on genetics and their chromosomal references in the power of people to influence human fate through their technology. Isler takes a very neutral point of view, leaving the viewers to form their own opinions. That has always been a key Isler characteristic: taking the perspective of an investigator.
The early 1980s mark a turning point in Vera Isler’s career. By the late 80s, any other methods of art-making had been abandoned and Isler gained broad recognition for her photographs of renowned international artists (in 2012 she was shown at the Tinguely Museum in Basel). Isler worked as documentary photographer, focussing on social contextuality, such as US gay culture in the 1980s, or precarious youth culture on the periphery of a middle class city environment.
Isler soon discovered her unique talent for portrait photography as well as its economic potential. In fact, as a feminist and proud of being an independent and self-reliant woman, Isler realized that portrait photography for her was the key to artistic and economic independence. Numerous national and international commissions from companies, magazines and newspapers were followed by actual book publications with renowned architects, writers and artists. (The publications are available as hard cover printed versions only and can be supplied to the committee upon request)
Vera Isler’s approach to portraiture revolutionized the way in which artists are portrayed. It was also characteristic of Isler’s highly structured methodology and approach. She worked according to a strict scheme: the artists she portrayed always faced the viewer, they were portrayed in their studios in company of their own work, detached, relaxed while looking at the photographer. Isler was concerned about creating a narrative web that becomes denser and denser as the number of portrayed artists grew. Her goal was to make stories visible, centering at the view of the artistic personality, physiognomy and facial expressions.
Vera Islers oeuvre is marked by its complex thematic and artistic diversity. Her work has already won numerous awards in many international institutions (museums, art galleries, fairs, etc.) and been shown and published in renowned magazines. Vera Isler’s artistic practice covers almost five decades and is marked by its complex thematic and artistic diversity. Her approach has always been experimental and transformational. She drew her inspiration and creative energy from incidental discoveries, mostly in science and technology. She was interested in genetics, mainly chromosomes – the X and the Y, the smallest modules of the genetic code. She transformed them into sculptural reliefs, collages, ceramics, prints, script images and photographs. Until now, this period of her artistic endeavors still remains largely undiscovered and her lead embossed large-scale print reliefs from the Genetics series, the central and most important works from that period (1978-1984) lay dormant in archival drawers and storage shelves.
Isler was always conscious about her biography and her Jewish heritage (although she was not a practicing Jew and married a Roman-Catholic). Unlike her sisters, who rejected anything German and never set foot on German soil again, Isler returned to Berlin often in search of her family history. She was politically aware and historically interested. A big ceasura was her 1998 diagnosis with breast cancer. She insisted on having a mastectomy of both breasts and subsequently “decorated” the scars with a flower garland tattoo. In 2000 she completed her biography entitled Auch ich (Me as well). Her family history and her involvement with the new Jewish Museum brought her to Poland in 2002. The film Where are the ashes of my parents, PAL 29′” (Poland: Auschwitz-Birkenau – Bełżec, Spurensuche) was released in 2003. In 2011 Polish film makers Daria Kolacka und Piotr Dzumala made a documentary about Vera Isler’ life. In 2014 Isler’s cancer reoccurred; she died in September 2015.
After Isler’s death in 2015, her estate and archive was handed over to the ART-Nachlassstiftung in Bern (www.art-nachlassstiftung.ch; www.art-nachlassstiftung.ch/index.php/2015/08/27/vera-isler/ )