Amalie Rothschild has been an abstract artist for so many years that one simply does not expect a realistic representation of the human figure from her. When this Baltimore artist does render a figure it is likely to be as geometric forms brought together with mathematical precision: the geometry of the human body, if you will.
That makes her "Artist and Model" series at the C. Grimaldis Gallery an interesting demonstration of how her recent return to figuration was very much done on her own abstraction-oriented terms. The exhibited oil, ink and watercolor studies were executed over the past couple years. Each study is devoted to a particular modern artist she admires, so each represents both her emulation of and response to that artist's style.
It is worth noting that these are modestly scaled and rather quiet works on paper, because they encourage the eye to wander a few inches and then pause at the next reference to images and tactics associated with each artist.
Her Picasso tribute, for instance, incorporates a Picasso self-portrait, a female figure whose bodily form is defined by mathematics as much as by muscle, and other line drawings that evoke Picasso's revolutionary development of cubism. It seems significant that Rothschild's drawn allusions to cubism are to Picasso's early, more intellectualized analytic cubism rather than the more decorative synthetic cubism that followed it.
In paying homage to Picasso and other modernist giants, she wants to explore how the human figures they used as models can be reduced to their definitional lines. Likewise, she wants to show how the models can be thought of as compositional elements rather than as psychologized beings. This point is certainly brought home in her response to Matisse, whose female models were themselves props amidst the vibrant zones and striped patterns of color.
Because the nature of Rothschild's series recalls the traditional placement of a model in an artist's studio, she is able to have some fun playing with compositional figure-ground relationships. Her Braque study, for instance, features a foregrounded nude woman reclining on a yellow blanket. Propped against the studio wall behind the model is an evocation of a still life painting in which the yellow lemons echo the color of that blanket and hence make us aware of this as a unified environment.
Although in most cases the depicted models seem oblivious of the assorted studio props and artistic allusions surrounding them, in other cases there is witty bonding. From the wide-eyed model in the Miro study there extends a --ed line down to the eye of one of that surrealist artist's nightmarish biomorphic forms. Thus do model and monster meet.
One of the most engaging of all these works on paper is devoted to another artist who was no stranger to the existentialist worries that come from a surrealist-tinged youth: Giacometti. The three arches in the background serve as an idealized, semi-surreal architectural backdrop for the sleeping nude to one side and the famous Giacometti images of a loping dog and an angular man to the other side. Especially welcome here is the notion that the sleeping figure is dreaming the rest of what we see.
Other artist heroes to whom Rothschild turns her own imagination include Nevelson, O'Keeffe, Brancusi, Klee and Mondrian.
While it would have been even more stimulating to see some of these homages also worked up in paintings, the exhibited works on paper are a cohesive whole that will delight those who care about modernist abstraction. Art students in particular will come away feeling they should receive a college credit for this 20th century survey.
Amalie Rothschild shows at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, at 1006 Morton St., through Sept. 28. Call 539-1080.