PRINT February 1977

Waiting for Gloire

FOR THOSE WHO, LIKE THE French, thrive on contradictions, the new Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou—42 x 166 x 60 meters of glass and concrete embraced by a brilliant exterior network of late-Léger colored tubes—is a plump subject for dissection and the ideal occasion for a flood of glittering paradoxes. Flayed and challenged in the press, attacked by left, right, and center, burdened by the onerous ambitions of an unresigned cultural establishment still chafing at the post-World War II ascendancy of New York, and afflicted by the weak credibility that clings to government-run institutions among French intellectuals, the Centre Beaubourg yet manages to be a focal point of attention and a source of hope for the Parisian art scene—or, at the very least, for that part of the French art world with any interest in the art market.

As if to symbolize its analeptic function, the insolently modern center is located in the fourth arrondissement to the east of the Boulevard de Sébastopol, about midway between the gaping hole that was once les Halles and the ancient quarter of the Marais. There it provocatively intrudes itself into one of the oldest, least redeveloped sections of Paris, a former ghetto of prostitution, a dilapidated and overpopulated area of narrow streets, small factories, manual workers, wholesale leather goods, sex shops, and lower-class apartments, a neighborhood that for the past three or four years, however, has been in the metamorphic, traffic-disrupting, ear-splitting process of becoming a high-rent location for editorial offices, publishing houses, architects, and boutiques. Most notably, it has become the prime area for a growing throng of galleries, so many of which have moved to or newly opened in the quarter that good space and tolerable rents are now said to be impossible to find. And all in anticipation of the excitement to be generated by Beaubourg, and to take advantage of the irresistible craving to possess art that is presumably about to be stimulated by the visual arts program of the center.

As contradictory as the exhibitionistic innards-outside structure of the building itself (the Piano-Rogers design has been called “the anatomy lesson of architecture”) is the fact that this agglomerative, unavoidably centralizing institution should have been built by a government so recently dedicated, at least in theory, to an active program of cultural decentralization. Michel Guy, the former spendthrift Minister of Culture just replaced by Françoise Giroud, confronted the apparent contradiction in typical bureaucratic fashion by naming Beaubourg “une centrale de la décentralisation.” This verbal salve has failed to soothe irate leftists and others who wish to deconstruct the weighty, stultifying, conservatizing, and traditionally consolidated cultural institutions of the French government, rather than to bolster that force.

Aside from its inevitable role as a cultural power base, Beaubourg strikes at decentralization by absorbing exaggerated sums of money from the total government allotment to culture (55%). In addition to enormous initial costs—reportedly between $180 and 200 million—the center will require in annual operating funds more than has customarily been allocated to the entire list of French museums run by the Réunion des Musées Nationaux. There is obviously no way that provincial institutions and smaller cultural centers can avoid being hurt by the effects of such concentrated spending. And it is particularly ironic that the opening of Beaubourg should coincide with a moment when the French people are experiencing a severe economic crunch, when unemployment is high, when both government and industry are being asked to fight uncontrolled inflation, and when national economic problems have provoked such belt-tightening measures as the stringent Barré plan.

Beaubourg appears on the scene at a time when the idea of the museum itself is viewed as a contradiction in terms, when French museums continue to be attacked, and not only from the left, as outmoded institutions or repressive forces. Symptomatically, curators in France feel obliged to offer apologies for the potentially co-opting roles they play when, for example, they organize exhibitions of avowedly antiestablishment art. (The catalogue of a recent show in a provincial museum contained the following curiously touching statement by the curators:

Favorite target of the ultra-left, typical ideological apparatus of the state, the Museum is indeed that temple born along with the arrival to power of the Bourgeoisie in which the latter preserves that which it accumulates and exalts as universal cultural patrimony. But who can be called pure of all contradictions? And isn’t it possible for the museum to be the critical place to reveal the ideological functioning of the culture as a repressive apparatus or as a means of liberation?

Clearly, Beaubourg is attempting to be responsive to such undercurrents of feeling. It will function (in Pierre Schneider’s words) as “la grande surface culturelle,” not as “le Temple du Beau”; it will emphasize changing exhibitions and contemporaneity rather than its collections and the past. Pontus Hultén, director of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, has already expressed his dislike for the word “museum.” Spectacle and activity will substitute at Beaubourg for reverence and silence. Glass walls will invite the public and welcoming “hostesses” will replace suspicious guards. Yet—and this particular contradiction has provoked anxiety and disruptive activities among past donors and others committed to preservation of the “cultural patrimony”—Beaubourg is a temple, for it must also house, protect, and conserve the extensive collections of the MNAM.

But perhaps most controversial is the role the new Centre Beaubourg is expected to play on the contemporary French art scene—i.e., as a catalyst for reinstating Paris as the center of the world, or at least the European, art market. An aggressively optimistic tone now characterizes certain segments of the French art community. When I visited Paris this past fall, for example, FIAC ’76 (the International Fair of Contemporary Art) was being promoted by French art dealers such as Daniel Gervis with exactly that enthusiastic tremor of hope. The government’s support was apparent; for the first time the Minister of Culture had given permission to FIAC to use the prestigious location of the Grand Palais for its commercial activities.

FIAC’s flyers to the press were very upbeat: they acknowledged the 30-year supremacy of New York, only to discover a significant economic fragility in the American art market, and, consequently, a golden opportunity for Paris. They cheerfully detected a hint of exhaustion in current American art production, whereas in Europe, and particularly in France, they had noted the rediscovery of (unnamed) artists of quality whose work had been overlooked during the remarkable period of “the American explosion.” They further observed the emergence in France of young artists who had successfully assimilated “the American lesson.”

Without spelling out the significance of the relationship, FIAC linked world-wide art gallery interest in the 1976 Paris fair with the imminent opening of the Centre Beaubourg and its coming exhibition, “Paris–New York–Paris,” thus implicitly lending credence to recent allegations in the French Marxist journal, La Nouvelle Critique, that Beaubourg would be the “locomotive d’état” for art dealers, a direct tool for market speculation, and the means of whipping up activity for the entire “ensemble of commerce in contemporary art in France.”

Within the context of such high commercial expectations, the contemporary Parisian art scene, though by no means lacking in interest, has to seem anticlimactic. Unlike some dealers, French artists themselves appear committed to a conspiracy of self-deprecation. No matter how determined they are to live in France, they are likely to deplore local art and to lament the artistic poverty of the scene. They speak wistfully of their last trip to New York, to Germany, to Italy, to Poland, anywhere. Typically, the three contemporary art dealers most often described to a visitor as “important” happen to be those who handle very few French artists. When asked, artists themselves seem hard-pressed to come up with more than one or two French colleagues whose work they admire, though all know worthy foreigners. (The syndrome is depressingly familiar to anyone who lives in the provinces.) Nor is one surprised to discover that, nevertheless, and in spite of defensive disclaimers, there is art to see, there are pockets of enthusiasm and corners of interest, and that, as everywhere in the contemporary art world these days, the diversity is infinitely more striking than the degree of innovation.

Paris today is in fact as overgrown with art tendencies and plural trends as any other major occidental art center. Anne Tronche, in her 1973 L’Art Actuel en France, was able to distinguish about a dozen new movements within the past decade, and no doubt she missed a few. Almost all, however, are international in flavor, and most, in spite of French names, are without any discernible French inflection in style. Amidst the plurality, though, there is one distinctively French movement that has emerged since the end of the ’60s—the movement originally called “Support/Surface,” but now absorbed into the larger category of “la nouvelle peinture.” As a group, Support/Surface was so riddled with contradictions and torn apart by internal dissensions that it may better be described as an anti-movement. The term “Support/Surface” continues to have wide currency in France and many artists are still so described, but the original group, whose members had all emphasized their différences rather than their affinities, no longer exists. Today the style itself is referred to disparagingly by some as “academic” (a number of the original members are art-school professors) or “official art” (the government has patronized the movement) and cynically described by others as being in its second, third, or even its fourth generation. It is therefore amusing to discover that Support/Surface did not make its first Paris appearance until an autumn 1970 exhibition of that name at A.R.C., a group show presenting the work of six abstract artists: Vincent Bioulès, Marc Devade, Daniel Dezeuze, Patrick Saytour, André Valensi, and Claude Viallat.

That exhibition seems to have taken Paris by surprise, since it represented an unexpected (and not entirely welcome) revival of abstract painting among young artists after a decade in which avant-garde art in France had been dominated by the Neo-Dadaist, pop-figuration of the “Nouveau Réalisme.” Between the 1970 show and an important 1974 exhibition at the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie of Saint-Etienne entitled “Nouvelle Peinture en France: Pratiques/Théories,” the group was racked by schism and plagued by political controversy and angry resignations; during that period, four of the original members started an important journal, Peintures: Cahiers Théoriques, which is still active today, though now edited by only one of the earliest Support/Surface artists, Marc Devade, with a later member of the group, Louis Cane.

Much of the early Parisian antagonism to Support/Surface may have stemmed from the provincial origins of the movement. Primarily composed of artists from the south of France, Support/Surface members initially showed their work in “manifestations” outside the ordinary gallery-museum circuit. In the summer of 1969, they used the streets of the Basses-Pyrénées town of Coarraze as their showcase, and, during the summer of 1970, Dezeuze, Pagès, Saytour, Valensi, and Viallat took their art to the woods, fields, river banks, harbors, and quarries of villages from Villefranche-sur-Mer to the Catalan frontier. Although Dezeuze has recently spoken of those early open-air events as simply anti-urban, “Rousseauiste” expressions by artists who in those days felt ill-at-ease in the Parisian gallery world, rather than as political attempts to devise a solution to the art-market, art-distribution problem, the early Support/Surface gestures were nevertheless read by the French art world as implicitly anti-establishment. And the movement itself, in spite of its fairly traditional look, was from the beginning accompanied by a post-May 1968 political consciousness, by Marxist, and then Maoist, denunciations of economic and ideological aspects of the art world, as well as by acts of political radicalism.

Support/Surface is the first French movement to reflect the direct influence of American color field painting. It has been described as a synthesis of the pictorial données of such Americans as Newman, Reinhardt, Louis, and Noland with the analytical, conceptual stance of a short-lived preceding French movement, “le groupe B.M.P.T.” (i.e. Daniel Buren, Oliver Mosset, Michael Parementier and Niele Toroni). Eschewing the fin de l’art assumptions of B.M.P.T., but adopting something of their reductive tactics, Support/Surface has produced, in addition to paintings, works which we would more comfortably classify as sculpture, construction, wall-hangings, floorpieces, and banners.

To American eyes, the color-painting genealogy of the painting wing of Support/Surface is its most immediately obvious trait, but one is also reminded of Robert Morris, Alan Shields, Eva Hesse, Richard Tuttle, Sam Gilliam, and Robert Rohm. Unlike its American antecedents, Support/Surface is a two-sided movement: “pratiques/théories.” Most of the artists have written accompanying texts which they consider essential, and it is by means of its theoretical side that the movement asserts its distinctly French identity. For if much Support/Surface work looks like barely digested American art of the ’60s, it sounds inescapably like French structuralism, Jacques Derrida, and, more recently, like Lacan and “French Freud.” Peinture-Cahiers Théoriques has, from its inception in 1971, been closely associated with and is sometimes referred to as the “pictorial arm” of the important French left-wing literary-philosophical-critical review, Tel Quel. Marcelin Pleynet, editorial secretary of that magazine, is also one of the important critics of “la nouvelle peinture,” a theorist of “le nouvel espace,” and a frequent contributor to Peinture.

Taking their cue from structuralist thought, Support/Surface artists approach painting as a “pictorial code,” a language with its own peculiar history, but parallel in its structure to other languages of the culture, and equally as susceptible to “deconstruction.” Once the code has been disassembled into its constituent terms, it becomes possible to analyze and recombine those terms, a demythicizing process which presumably begets a new or more advanced form of “pratique.” Equally relevant to Support/Surface theorizing has been the Saussure-derived and Derrida-elaborated notion of binary opposition and “différence.” According to Derrida, that which is absent asserts its “co-presence” as strongly as the visibly present—an idea particularly useful for enriching the lean product of a reductive esthetic, and Support/Surface theorists have made much use of the dialectical opposition between absent and present terms of the pictorial code.

Claude Viallat, who as a teacher in the south of France is periodically responsible for sending up to Paris new “generations” of Support/Surface artists, is himself one of the original members of the group and a key figure in the movement. Viallat’s representative enterprise involves the deconstruction of both the materials and the setting of art. He dissects painting, for instance, to discover the physical components of canvas, stretcher, and color. His next stage is the exploration of color, which he applies variously to lengths of sheetlike material “liberated” from the stretcher; subsequently, Viallat attacks setting, contriving to have the viewer encounter his work in unexpected places. Another branch of his investigation grows out of the deconstructed cloth and stretcher, both culturally freighted terms which he atavistically returns to a “natural” state in order to reveal a new jumping off point for a series of works. Cloth, for example, is the source for Viallat’s extensive studies in ropes, nets, and knots. His texts include elaborate illustrated analyses of deconstructed and recomposed materials, as well as speculative notes on such arcane subjects as the canvas and stretcher considered as a couple.

Daniel Dezeuze takes the denuded stretcher as his point of departure. Using malleable materials like laminae of wood, he staples, paints, and arranges these strips, creating openwork Minimal forms based on framelike concepts. Sometimes his works trail casually across the floor in careful disorder; elsewhere they are rolled into sturdy-looking laddered columns. He has placed trellislike constructs against an outdoor bush and stretched expandable lattices over the ground. More recently, his colored “triangulations” have hung on a gallery wall, a deconstructive ploy which is equally decorative.

Other Support/Surface artists have addressed themselves to different aspects of the “pictorial code,” some in that process reducing their act to a craftsmanlike manipulation of basic materials or the trivia of passementerie. Many work on unstretched canvases, which they variously fold, dye, crease, weave, crumple, plait, or sew. But by far the largest number have chosen American-inspired color as their subject. Vincent Bioulès, for example, divides conventionally stretched canvases into thickly painted, often bright-colored, vertical bands; his intention is to explore color as a physical entity, separated from its previous role of clothing form. Marc Devade, who works with bipartite compositions and simple color juxtapositions, nevertheless discusses his subject in complex psychoanalytic terms. Louis Cane, in conjunction with his painting, writes subjective divagations on color. He works subtly, staining unstretched, layered canvases and exploiting the idea of internal framing. Early brilliant-colored paintings occupied both the wall and the floor space in front but recently Cane has become somber, devoting himself to Reinhardt-like darks in an irregular format. Pincemin, who also uses multilayered canvases, applies numerous layers of paint and works in simple, door-like rectangular forms. A host of others, including Martin Barré, Pericaud, and Meurice, roam other spaces somewhere between Noland, Stella, and Morris Louis.

Most recently, a self-conscious brand of Minimalism seems to have become de rigueur among some of those committed to “la nouvelle peinture.” The new idols are Brice Marden, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, and Robert Mangold. Marcelin Pleynet, who has been the guiding spirit behind several exhibitions of Minimalist painting at the Galerie Rencontres and who wrote the introduction to a 1975 show at A.R.C. called “Tendances Actuelles de la Nouvelle Peinture Americaine” (an anthology of the latest reductivist art), has been concerned with elaborating a Minimalist esthetic. In France at the present time the reductive mode is not, however, conceived of as an art-for-art’s sake formalism. Everywhere it is colored by “traces” of cultural history, dialectics and psychology: contradictions, binary opposites, and repressed sexual urges fill the theoretical literature.

Among French artists now investigating different versions of a pared-down abstract style are Alain Kirili, Christian Bonnefoi, Bernadette Bour, Judit Reigl, and Dominique Thiolat. Kirili, who exhibits sculpture and drawings, explores parallel compositional ideas in both mediums. He has a particular sensitivity to the uses of line and the instability of physical events. His earlier metal sculpture consisted of unjoined units that, although destined for each other, had failed or were no longer able to connect. In a show this last fall, Kirili dealt with reticent lines that travel across dangerous spaces to exist in a delicate and contradictory balance with uncertain rectangular shapes. Christian Bonnefoi, too, works with lines in space. He uses an edge of paint, translucent “silk-paper,” glue, and the walls of a room, striving to achieve the paradoxical goal of defining real space without benefit of a physical surface. Bernadette Bour prepares huge paper quilts—evanescently painted works composed of stitched sheets of tissue or blotting paper, in which the only pattern is her repetitive all-over stitching. Her works may be Minimal paintings, but at the same time they allude to such extra-formal subjects as the female history of sewing and the cultural mythology embodied in the “thread of life.”

In France it is widely assumed that Beaubourg will pay much attention to the Support/Surface painters and their lineal descendants—i.e. that “la nouvelle peinture” will be accorded pride of place among contemporary trends. But if two shows of contemporary French art mounted by the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou this past fall are prophetic, they present conflicting evidence. The closing exhibition offered by the Musée National d’Art Moderne at its old 1937 exposition headquarters just before the move to Beaubourg would seem to confirm the general belief; it was a giant retrospective of the work of Simon Hantaï, an older Hungarian-born painter who has lived in France since 1948 and whose work since the early ’60s seems to predict and then parallel certain Support/Surface concerns. Hantaï, initially a surrealist and then a large-scale, all-over gestural abstract painter in various styles ranging from Pollock to Tobey, began in 1960 to use an innovational method of folding and creasing his canvas before painting it. Some of the more interesting results of this pliage were the creation of all-over color fields broken by sharp-edged shards of light, an angular kind of abstraction that alternately suggests kaleidoscopes, winged birds, and split rocks. Later there is a period in which his method becomes even more decorative—the whites are now spiky leaves and Hantaï’s flat color assumes the light-hearted flavor of decoupage or textile prints. In preparing his most recent work, the artist, before painting, knots up huge lengths of cloth; afterwards, the unfolded, unstretched mural-size canvases are marked by quasi-regular grids of white and repetitive patterns of colored squares, an outsize fusion of Matisse and, say, Agnes Martin. Although Hantaï’s work does not come accompanied by a deconstructive theory, his physical manipulation of the canvas is understandably read in France as a Support/Surface strategy.

A second exhibition that might be expected to reveal the French government’s artistic inclinations is entitled “06 Art 76.” Organized this past fall for the United States, and in fact the first “itinerant” exhibition sent abroad by Beaubourg, this group show manages to present an unduly morose view of contemporary French art. The occasion for the exhibition is our own Bicentennial and “06 Art 76,” selected by Jean-François de Canchy of MNAM and currently touring the United States, is the visual arts section of the so-called “French Weeks” cultural programs gifted to our country this year. Pontus Hultén, who writes a brief introduction, offers no apologies, no explanations, no reservations: “this exhibition marks our desire,” he says, “to make French painting better known in other countries. The artists represented belong to very different trends and the techniques they employ are likewise varied. . . . The exhibition thus offers samples of the newest contemporary trends in France. . . .” What this uninspired show may do instead is to reinforce the gloomy speculations of all those other French Beaubourg-watchers who, rather than dreading a deluge of Support/Surface, fear that Hultén will not be interested enough in contemporary French art to organize any impressive exhibitions of such work, and who fully expect Beaubourg to ignore local production since World War II in order to concentrate on American art instead.

As a historical survey of the past decade, “06 Art 76” is spotty, non-inclusive, and inexplicable in several of its choices. As a sample of the “newest contemporary trends,” it is (aside from one contribution) simply behind the times. De Canchy’s selections include two well-established, “first generation” Support/Surface artists, Viallat and Rouan; their work would have been “newest” in 1970. There are two quasi-political realist’s, Aillaud and Erró—artists well known in France since the ’60s; the political content of their work—at least in the paintings presented—is tepid, if not negligible, and both labor in uninvigorating styles. Another realist included is Titus-Carmel; his tour de force wall of variations on a single theme—drawings of an hermetic object called the “Pocket Size Tlingit Coffin”—is impressive, but his manner represents a timeless trompe l’oeil skill and a surrealist mentality rather than an especially vital current trend, and he also is a familiar talent in Paris since the ’60s. On the other hand, a newer and more idiosyncratic mode is represented by the husband and wife team, Anne and Patrick Poirier, who here exhibit a portion of their impressive giant construction-in-progress, a mock-archeological reconstitution of a fictional, burnt-out ancient town called Ausée. Finely executed in charcoaled wood and set in a room-size moat filled with inky water, the Poirers’ construction was dramatically installed (at the UC Berkeley Art Museum showing of “06 Art 76”), in the shadows of a scarcely lit gallery. Though not included with this exhibition, the complete construction will eventually be accompanied by a series of equally fictional texts, putatively written by scholars in different disciplines, in which various attempts are made to explain the life, architecture, moeurs, history, psychology, and the eventual catastrophic end of the Poiriers’ town. Ausée is meant to be understood on several different levels, including the symbolic, i.e. as a representation of the human unconscious, an archeology of the mind.

The Poiriers’ work is indicative of one increasingly important line of mid-’70s work in France, a newly subjective, lyrical mood in French art which might have been more extensively explored in the government show. De Canchy, who explains his choices as representative of “different ways of thinking about reality,” had several alternatives for selecting a stronger show. Since the exhibition was intended for Americans, most of whom had scarcely heard of Support/Surface, he might have chosen that one important (though already historic to a French audience) movement for an in-depth, retrospective presentation starting with Viallat and including Rouan, but also presenting other essential figures, basic texts, and indicating the recent evolution of the movement.

Alternatively, De Canchy might actually have attempted to present “the newest contemporary trends.” Such a show would have indicated the appeal of Minimalist painting and sculpture in certain avant-garde quarters of Paris, as well as the mood of narcissist interiority and the emphasis on the past that characterizes an important contingent of the art world, a tendency which is apparent not only in the autobiographic, nostalgic work of intimist artists, but may also be understood as the latent content of many of the psychologistic texts now accompanying strictly formalist art. De Canchy might have imagined a show something like the various interesting presentations of a young curator in Bordeaux, Jean-Louis Froment, who during the last three years has mounted a series of exhibitions in the labyrinthine interior of a former warehouse (now officially converted to Bordeaux’s Centre d’Arts Plastiques Contemporains). Froment’s exhibitions, such as last year’s “Identité/Identifications,” have been heavily devoted to recent work in the subjective line (the mode has been called “Cold Romanticism” by Jean Clair), primarily emphasizing artists fascinated, as the Poiriers are, by the flotsam and jetsam of our cultural past, by archives and archeology, as well as by the memories and souvenirs of a more personal past—the artist’s own history.

Pour Mémoires,” a show organized by Froment in 1974, presented a cast of nine working in the personalist genre; among those included were Jean Le Gac, the intriguing narrative artist who smoothly blends nostalgia, photographs, and texts; Christian Boltanski, an autobiographical artist who finds his material in his attempts to recreate childhood experiences; and Jean-Marie Bertholin, a fabricator of pseudo-archeological objects. The idiosyncratic, subjective mode also encompasses the environments created by Jean Clareboudt, an artist who uses a personal, primitivistic symbology in rituallike performances and mysterious installations. Clareboudt fuses dreams and raw materials from nature to create his personal system of star-flecked imagery. The series of tarred environments called “Blackouts,” by Turkish-born artist Sarkis, similarly relies on a personal symbology, drawn in this instance from the experience of war, but metamorphosed into a series of antitheses juxtaposing light with darkness, inside and outside, vision and blindness, present and past.

If we can believe W.J. Bate, a sense of belatedness, the feeling of having arrived in one’s culture after everything has been done, has haunted the Western world since the end of the 17th century. Bate in fact argues that “the remorseless deepening of self-consciousness before the rich and intimidating legacy of the past” is the great problem of modern art. Whether the generalization holds or not, the past—France’s own intimidating legacy and that of the recent “American explosion”—surely haunts contemporary French art. The main artistic tendencies that I’ve described above may be seen as mutually contradictory attempts to engage with that sense of belatedness by using whatever weapons the culture will provide: on the one hand, the analytical weapon of “deconstructing” the overwhelming evidence, of attempting to reduce it to some manageable, if unreal, beginning; on the other, the nostalgic romanticism of brooding on past history and making the burden itself the subject of one’s art. Sartre once spoke of Faulkner’s characters as riding full-speed ahead while facing to the rear. The past, that heavy burden that can hazard the future of men and art, can also bring into existence new museums—and then turn them inside out.

Nancy Marmer