Judit Reigl was born on May 1, 1923, in Kapuvár, Hungary. After studying painting at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, Budapest, between 1941 and 1946, she travelled to Italy as the grantee of the Hungarian Academy, Rome. In October 1948, she returned to Hungary, which had been overtaken by a Soviet-style authoritarian regime. Determined to leave and after seven failed attempts, Reigl successfully crossed the Iron Curtain in March 1950 and a few months later arrived in Paris. Her earliest Parisian works, indebted to the oneiric imagery of Surrealism, include photo-collages as well as paintings of monstrous figures and of vividly colored phantasmagorical scenes, as in They Have an Insatiable Thirst for Infinity (Ils ont soif insatiable de l’infini, 1950). From 1952, Reigl started to experiment with gestural paint application that expanded on the Surrealist practice of automatic writing. By painting and scraping the canvas, she produced abstract works that featured elongated, Möbius strip-like biomorphic forms in glowing and often highly saturated colours.
In May 1954, fellow Hungarian painter Simon Hanta took André Breton to Reigl’s studio; Breton immediately offered her a solo exhibition, which she at first turned down, then accepted in November. The show took place at L’Étoile scellée, then the gallery of the Parisian Surrealist group, and was composed of both Reigl’s figurative and abstract works. After the exhibition, she dissolved her connections with Breton and adopted a purely abstract and vigorously physical approach to painting. By hurling compounds of industrial pigment and linseed oil on the canvas and then moulding them with various metal devices into explosive marks, she used her body as an instrument of painting. In resulting series such as Outburst(Éclatement, 1955–58), Center of Dominance (Centre de dominance, 1958–59), and Mass Writing (Écriture en masse, 1959–65), the streaks of pigment appear on white grounds in different spatial and chromatic configurations that suggest force fields, shaped by the kinetic energy of the artist’s body and the gravity of paint. In Guano(1958–65), Reigl recycled a group of abandoned canvases that once covered her studio floor by painting over them: the works use the waste material of the studio and, as opposed to the immediacy of her gestural works, record the passage of time through the accumulated layers of thickly textured paint.
In 1963, Reigl left Paris and moved to Marcoussis, a village southwest of the capital. In February 1966, after noticing the emergence of an anthropomorphic figure in her work, she devoted a series of monumental paintings titled Man(Homme, 1966–72) to the representation of fragmented humans, mostly male torsos. In the series Unfolding (Déroulement, 1973–85), she resumed her interest in the spatial-temporal dimension of gesture. Created by the cadences of her moving body as well as by unorthodox paint applications that provoked bleeds through the weave of the canvas, the works in Unfolding feature horizontal rows of graphic signs that are visible on both sides of the paintings. In the late 1980s, she returned to the human figure and has continued her investigation of bodies and spaces ever since.
Reigl’s work has been presented in many solo exhibitions in France. Notable group exhibitions include the Guggenheim International Award, 1964 at the Guggenheim Museum, New York (1964), as well as Manifeste: Une histoire parallèle, 1960–1990 (1993) and EllesCentrepompidou: Artistes femmes dans les collections du Centre Pompidou at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2009–11). Retrospectives were also held at the Maison de la culture, Rennes (1974), and Musée de Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse (1992), both in France, as well as at the MODEM Centre for Modern and Contemporary Arts, Debrecen, Hungary (2010). Reigl lives and works in Marcoussis.