The Jewish Museum of Greece is in a pretty, salmon-colored neoclassical building with gray shutters on Nikis Street, which links Syntagma Square and Plaka in central Athens. I had passed it many times without entering. I finally did so to see the exhibition “FORM/Less” by young artist Maria Fragoudaki. “I was invited by Saranna Biel-Cohen, an American curator who works with the museum. Recently, Jewish institutions have begun to present non-Jewish artists,” she said.
The Jewish Museum, which was established in 1977, contains a rich collection with thousands of items which reflect the long history of Romaniote and Sephardic Jews. Some of Fragoudaki’s works were displayed among Jewish heirlooms, in an interesting dialogue, but the main body of work was on the top floor of the building, in a small exhibition space next to a library.
“For a month I visited the museum every day and studied the objects on display. I was inspired by the colors and the materials, such as the fabrics, the wood, the marble,” said the 33-year-old artist who lives and works in New York. “I have many Jewish friends. Working on the project I drew closer to them, I learned about their culture. A new chapter of knowledge was opened to me,” she said.
Fragoudaki’s paintings looked more like sculptures. For example, in one, sawdust formed a white wreath; in another there was string, while on another plaster took the shape of stones. It is as if the artist was fighting with the canvas, experimenting with the material.
She had been influenced by Process Art, a movement of the 1960s which put more emphasis on the production process than on the final result, the finished artwork. Many of the works in this series looked “tired.” They had holes, tears, “wounds,” they suggested catastrophe. I asked if she had been influenced by the Holocaust. “There are suggestions but I don’t want to stress it.”
While Fragoudaki has taken part in many group exhibitions in Greece and abroad, what struck me in her biography, however, was that she had studied chemistry. “My interest in matter and the constituents of colors drove me toward this science. I wanted to understand how everything around me worked,” she said. “I went to study in London. In the afternoons I would attend art classes.” As time passed, the young student realized that she wanted to devote herself to art.
Nevertheless, after her studies she worked for another five years at pharmaceutical companies, to raise money to be able to support herself. Then she returned to Greece, where she showed her portfolio to the Skoufa Gallery. “The next afternoon they asked to visit my studio. My first solo exhibition came easily.”
The artist looked sweet and fragile, but hidden behind this is great strength. “I told myself that if I sold the works in the exhibition I would go to New York immediately.” She sold all the works in three weeks and left for the US. “When I first arrived I knew no one. I used Airbnb and moved from one house to the next, on a temporary visa. I don’t know if I would have the strength to do it today,” she confided.
Early during her stay she began to attend art classes at NYU, at the School of Visual Arts and at Parsons. “It was the best move I ever made. I quickly got into the art cycle. I came into contact with artists, curators, academics. My work began to change quickly.”
In 2013, Fragoudaki had a solo exhibition at a gallery in Tribeca, on the subject of superheroes. It went well. “In America, superheroes are popular. Quite a few comic collectors came – later I learned that the father of one of them had drawn Batman. I took on the subject because I believe that for anyone to survive in New York they need superpowers.”