French Evolution

Paris
10.25.09

Left: Centre Pompidou curator Bernard Blistène with Pompidou president Alain Saban. Right: Dealer Chantal Crousel. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)


I HATE TO SOUND like an ugly American who can’t go abroad without wishing it were more like home, but the French really are a myopic lot. First of all, they want everyone to speak French. Then their art institutions produce exhibition brochures only in the native language. Of course, this makes it just like New York, but who wants everyone to be like us? Not me.

Yet it was the lingua franca of contemporary art that created an atmosphere of puzzlement at the Jeu de Paume last Monday night, when Parisians in furs and feathers drifted through the opening of three wildly disparate shows devoted to three wildly different mythologizers: Federico Fellini, Francesco Vezzoli, and Tris Vonna-Michell.

The Fellini show was the main event in this odd trio, filled out by the filmmaker’s caricatures of his friends with photos, movie posters, and films. Vonna-Michell, given a pocket space in the basement beneath a staircase—location, location, location—supplied a voice-over to an impossibly prolix video (in murmured English) about Henri Chopin, while Vezzoli contributed a cultural critique on the branding of art in the form of a fake commercial for an imaginary exhibition based on La dolce vita. “They don’t get it,” Vezzoli said of the befuddled French, who tend to take everything seriously, particularly parodies. They certainly were absorbed by the video Vezzoli made of the star-struck staged reading of a Pirandello play he directed at the Guggenheim two years ago, which at the time had been roundly greeted by yawns. The French were glued to their seats.

Left: Artist Francesco Vezzoli. Right: Dealers Philomene Magers and Sean Kelly.


Chantal Crousel has a theory. “Art fairs reflect their host cities,” said the Parisian dealer, when I stopped by her thoughtfully curated booth in the Grand Palais during Wednesday afternoon’s VIP promenade through the thirty-sixth Foire International d’Art Contemporain (FIAC). Crousel has been participating in the fair, on and off, since 1982. “FIAC offers more to chew on than Frieze,” she said, moments before Amanda Sharp, a director of the London fair, swept through on a two-hour stop in Paris.

Crousel was referring partly to “The Modern Project,” a new addition to FIAC that sent its organizers into promotional overdrive and spurred visiting collectors into dreams of grandeur (easy enough to come by anyway in a city of such operatic grandeur as Paris). Sharing a specially designed booth at the back of the center aisle were ten galleries showing museum-caliber paintings by Picasso, Léger, Mondrian, and the like, with price tags of up to forty million euros.

Not all the twenty-four works offered were for sale, but the experience of seeing Picasso’s Femme ecrivant (Marie-Therese) or Francis Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer Talking or Warhol’s Green Disaster (Green Disaster Twice) in the context of a fair created involuntary frissons, even if they did come from unsurprising sources like Richard Gray, L&M Arts, and Gagosian, respectively. Malingue, the Paris gallery that had orchestrated the project, brought an especially attractive Surrealist painting from 1938 by Yves Tanguy, and PaceWildenstein had a knockout Roberto Matta, Splash, dated 1960–70.

Left: A view of FIAC. Right: Louvre director Henri Loyrette.


From there, it seemed the fair could only go downhill, but French dealer Almine Rech’s booth was jam-packed—with art by Don Brown, Mark Handforth, Anselm Reyle, and more, as well as plenty of collectors, most of whom appeared to be French. Equally busy was Emmanuel Perrotin, who had commissioned artist Daniel Arsham to design his booth. It suggested an igloo whose doors had been punched out with dynamite, but maybe my impression stemmed from the pronounced chill in the unheated Grand Palais, which may have sent shivers up everyone’s spine but did not slow the shopping.

The artist most prominently featured was George Condo, apparently a heartthrob in Paris. His paintings turned up in three different booths: Sprüth Magers, Simon Lee (showing only Condo works on paper), and Jérôme de Noirmont, Condo’s Paris dealer. “I’m not worried,” de Noirmont said with a shrug. “We’re used to that.” I heard the action was just as swift at the Cour Carrée, the part of the fair reserved for younger galleries at the Louvre, but because a snooty French guard sniffed at my press badge when I arrived for a preview and blocked my way, I couldn’t verify.

Instead I headed for the Pompidou, where its director of cultural development, the curator Bernard Blistène, was leading a tour of installations by Carsten Höller, Manfred Pernice, and others inaugurating the museum’s first annual New Festival. The opening of this five-week conflagration of art, performance, video, and theater attracted a crowd at least one and maybe two generations younger than that at FIAC, and were they ever an eager bunch. Some sat, completely rapt, in a space with a proscenium distinguished by a deformed theatrical mask that suggested a melting Casper the Friendly Ghost of monstrous proportions designed by Sophie Perez and Xavier Boussiron. Under it, New York musician David Moss was performing; at the same time, another performance was going on in a tentlike room designed by Jorge Pardo, but here, too, a guard prevented me from entering.

Left: Gagosian Gallery director Stefan Ratibor and artist Maina Karella. Right: Artist Joseph Kosuth.


Undaunted, I listened to artist Ben Kinmont, an expert on the history of cooking who works at the Bibliothèque Nationale, explain his rather fascinating recipe-as-art project, a collaboration with seven Parisian chefs whose restaurants artgoers can visit for samples. On the basement level, where dance videos were playing, I found a stretch of floor designed by Vincent Lamouroux that rises and falls in several smooth humps. “You’d be surprised how much good it does for the body,” said Lamouroux, who was on crutches. Here again, though I wanted to try it, guards stopped me, explaining that they had to keep the floor clean for a dance performance that was about to start.

But I had only one day in Paris to see everything, so I raced out to catch the opening of Joseph Kosuth’s ni apparence ni illusion (neither appearance nor illusion), a neon text installation in the medieval bowels of the Louvre. This was truly fabulous, a perfect marriage of concept and execution, with warm white neon lines stretching, at intervals, along a thousand curving feet of the museum’s original, twelfth-century sandstone walls. Kosuth’s words, translated into French of course, actually address their surroundings with more poetry than they do in English. (THE WALL IS THE SURFACE OF ITS OWN SUBMERGED HISTORY, one sign begins.)

His installation, curated by Marie-Laure Bernadac, is the second entry in an ongoing project that Louvre director Henri Loyrette has instituted to contemporize a museum that state law prevents from acquiring art dating later than the nineteenth century. (Anselm Kiefer was the first; Cy Twombly is next.) “I’m just reviving a tradition of involving living artists,” Loyrette told me at Kosuth’s dinner at the Louvre’s Café Marly, explaining that artists, including Géricault, had made work for the museum during their lifetimes. “It’s important to renew traditions,” he added, as I took a seat opposite Bernadac, who really should be heading up a French art museum herself. Alas, the boy’s-club tradition still thrives. At least no one stopped us from eating.

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Dealers Stefania Bortolami and Jake Miller. Right: Dealer Thaddaeus Ropac.


Left: Dealer Nicole Klagsbrun. Right: Artist Vincent Lamouroux.


Left: Artist and designer Daniel Arsham. Right: Dealer Doris Amman with consultant Rosaria Nadal.


Left: Curator Marie-Laure Bernadac. Right: Dealers Monika Spruth and Philomene Magers.


Left: Artist Ben Kinmont. Right: Artist Kimsooja.