Arman is known for his assemblages—grand, collagelike works that look like orderly junk piles of the world’s remnants: spools of thread, typewriters, camera parts, all the pieces of a single smashed chair, and so forth. As a primary member of the Nouveau Réaliste movement of the late ’50s and early ’60s, Arman made works that were occasionally interesting and sometimes even enchanting, but in the short-lived period of French Pop art that followed, the works that he produced were simply anomalies. Here, in a return to the medium of paint for the first time in twenty years, Arman presented a baker’s dozen of flamboyant mixed-media paintings on canvas (all but one from 1987). Each of these works consists of scores of paintbrushes splayed across the surface of the canvas and jutting beyond its edges, the brushes fixed in place as if they were stuck at the end of the swaths of paint that they appear to have just deposited there. These grand “depictions” of process, in the mock-heroic mode currently in fashion, evoke the tragedy of gesture, for they all come across as completely dead. What you get here is a giant palette and nothing more.
In the catalogue essay accompanying the show, the critic Pierre Restany, an old friend and champion of the artist, wrote that “Arman has begun to paint and it is really about paint, both physically and objectively.” One would tend to agree. These new works absolutely (and literally) reek of paint, not in the manner of a Lawrence Poons “slop” painting but like a pile of old paint cans (complete with noxious fumes). The differences among the works—installed with no breathing space in between them—were only in the number of brushes on the canvas and the color(s) of the paint. So you had a black one called Black Crown with a lot of brushes, and a white one called Achrome with a few more. Then there was a huge multicolored one called The Battle of San Romano, which had more open space filled with paint. Etc., etc., ad nauseam.
This show made me nostalgic for the days before I was born. Even as Pop parodies of action painting, Arman’s new works are abysmal failures. If Pop was about anything, it was about retaining the freshness of the image, even if you’d seen that image a hundred times before. (Warhol had that gift—just think of his soup cans, Marilyns, and Jackies.) Arman, on the other hand, thinks that by presenting a random collection of useless objects, or multiples of a single object, he has shown us an interesting work of art. This may have been true to a certain extent when his objects were spools or cans or buttons, if only by virtue of their allure as tchatchkes. But now that he has decided to tackle something more “important” and has given us paintbrushes literally dripping with symbolism (i.e., the semiotics of paint), the entire idea goes out the window, where it falls flat. Arman thinks numbers are impressive, and if that’s the case, then Camaieu Red must be the most successful painting in this show; there are a lot of brushes on it; I stopped counting after 100.