PRINT Summer 1986

On the Trail of Jean Le Gac: The Case of a Painter Who Never Paints

JEAN LE GAC'S “PAINTER” is a scheme, a stratagem, a device employed to develop a discourse on art. Less an identity than an image, he first appears, in 1971, as a Sunday painter, endlessly in search of his proper vocation—a dabbler in his métier. The hero of romantic stories, he climbs cliffs, rides horses, travels to distant lands, and engages in extreme exploits patterned on adventure tales from the ’30s. His demeanor too is formulaic, for he traffics in paint pots and berets and affects 19th-century dialects. Everything about this painter seems to issue from another century, including the sense, known as predestination, that he is fated to become “a very great artist.”1 However, his career—distinguished by ambition, sincerity, and estheticized lore—is marred by one ragged element: the painter never paints.

Le Gac does not paint either, although he describes himself as a painter: “I am a painter of photographs and texts that one hangs on the wall.” Art is defined here by context, not medium. By interrogating the genre of painting through the medium of photographs and text, Le Gac locates his practice as an inquiry into traditional categories of esthetics. For some 15 years this French artist’s practice has fronted as painting, in an elaborate ruse or camouflage. At first glance, his work is difficult to describe (although some have tried: witness the ill-fitting label “Narrative Art”). All that one can say is that it forms a cluster of fragments grouped into series; that it juxtaposes typed texts to photographs or, more recently; pastels; and that it concerns, as a whole, the tale of a painter equivocally related to Le Gac. Beyond that, it inhabits an uneasy territory between language and metalanguage, story and critique, using stereotyped phrases and quotations from popular literature or “high” art to advance the purposeful duplicities of its plot.

Le Gac’s art develops from the crisis in humanist thought that occurred in France in the late ’60s, and that put in question the premises of painting. His renunciation of painting in 1967 is a reflection of that context. But although he elaborates certain themes born in the period, notably the death of the author, the ascension of language, and the passage from work to text, his practice is deconstruction with a difference—a double-edged subversion, primed against the knowledge acquired through analysis, which affirms our pleasure in the image of the artist, that solitary, strutting figure who patrols the terrain of meaning. Le Gac’s work concerns the paradox of the absent artist whose presence yet remains immanent in art. His first works following his renunciation of painting were manipulations of nature (planting sticks, laying stones in a circle, and so on), all of them documented by photographs. They are works that seem to have emerged mysteriously, without motivation, and to exist only on the plane of the image. While many of Le Gac’s activities conform to others of this period, his concept of them does not. Speaking of the phototexts in his mail art of 1969–70, he notes that although the works in these photographs were generally “not executed,” they were “verified on the level of language and the networks of meanings it establishes.” These verbal “networks” introduce the idea of fiction as an independent level of language; Le Gac’s theme of fiction is distinguished from the more common one of illusion versus reality in that an objective level of verification (reality) is discounted.

Le Récit (The narrative, 1972), for example, consists of a series of reviews of Le Gac exhibitions in which the artist has deleted his own name and inscribed another, Florent Max. It is as if Le Gac were stating that artists can be located only through accounts—through stories and myths—and that the fictions of their heroic exploits comprise the reality of the artist in our culture. In many of his early phototexts Le Gac poses as the painter while the role of the observer is given to a camera positioned in the foreground. Le Gac is thus both subject and object, critic and artist, collapsing standard oppositions. Moreover, such self-reflection, as he later noted, was a means to observe the behavior of a painter “from whom I meant to keep my distance.” The camera is implicit in Le Peintre (The painter) of 1973, which describes a failed landscapist, haunted both by the dream of painting and by his failure to produce an oeuvre. Much as his figure is a parody on painting’s privileged role as the central implement of humanist esthetics, so his activities are a rendition of the ’60s redefinition of art as a practice, no longer bound to the production of objects. Most importantly; the image of the painter initiates the play of substitutions that delineates the process of Le Gac’s work. The phototexts take the place of paintings, and in this manner allude to the painter. All the paintboxes, easels, and rags that litter Le Gac’s work acquire meaning as attributes of the artist—indices of the artist’s presence and role. Similarly, the figure of the artist substitutes for an actual oeuvre. But just as we approach this origin—the identity of the artist—so it proves just another trapdoor, since the hero of many anecdotes is modeled on police tales from the ’30s.

The police references throughout Le Gac’s work indicate that his practice can be likened to a detective story; in which we search for clues to the artist’s identity. It is an inquiry, then, into our means of artistic definition. However, the problem is compounded because Le Gac’s painter is a man of many identities, who assumes over 25 names in the course of the work. For example, he is Robert Nerac (Le Tableau II, une introduction aux oeuvres d’un artiste dans mon genre [The painting II, an introduction to the works of an artist in my genre], 1980); Asfalto Chavez (Asfalto Chavez, peintre, 1978); Ramon Nozaro (Le Paysagiste Ramon Nozaro [The landscape painter Ramon Nozaro], 1975); Francis Benedict (La Fausse Ruine et le peintre [The fake ruin and the painter], 1976–77). In a 1980 series he masquerades under a near anagram for Jean Le Gac, “Ange Glacé.” In recent works he is L., whose sleeping reveries produce re-creations of illustration. Each name, then, is a stand-in, a lie, a fiction. And inasmuch as a name refers to a person or thing, denoting it with a fixed, immovable label, so Le Gac’s strategy can be said to problematize reference, to destabilize the illusory closure it presumes. For each name only gives onto another, and fails, in this play of opened doors, to devolve upon a secure identity; a label that coheres.

Le Gac’s play with nomination invokes the principle by which the name is equivalent to the signature and bears with it the meaning of art. So strong is this equation between name and stylistic identity that Western esthetics has been described as an esthetics of the proper name; it is inhospitable to those like Roger Nerac, who signs with multiple pens. In view of this linking of style to identity; Catherine Francblin has described Le Gac’s plays with multiple attributions as a meditation on the “uncertainty” inherent in the proper name2 (in French, nom propre). Her discussion merits extension, since the word nom in French means both name and noun, suggesting that all definitions are questions of language. In French, as in English, propre bears intimations of cleanness and correctness, of an entity that does not sully the boundaries of definition; it implies the order of closure, of everything present and in place. As Geoffrey H. Hartman has commented, it is through this idea of a “clean fit” between sign and meaning that Western thought has valorized the terms of plenitude and immediacy, of “original” speech, and of the completeness of an expression that conveys the meaning intended.3 On another level, “proper” has connotations of property or possession—of one’s singular and inalienable own. However, such completeness and propriety have recently been questioned by a number of thinkers in a broad critique of the Western metaphysics of presence, a critique that examines the failure of language to re-present its absent objects and to coincide with its meaning in a closure of expression. This slippage of sense—familiar to us all as the inability to say what we really mean—underlies the illusory, equivocal, uncertain quality of words, which pretend to truth at the same time that they approximate, put off, or defer meaning. It’s a complex argument, but it serves to show that language is inherently duplicitous, always dividing us farther from reality, and that its deferrals command in us a deference to language, which comes to mediate experience, robbing the author of the sovereignty—or authority—that was once a fundamental property.

The major analysis of the philosophy of presence is found in the writings of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and it is significant that one of his main texts, Glas (Knell, 1974), begins with a disquisition on the name. In this parody of originality, Derrida stresses how the duplicitous doubling of language sets up its own patterns of associations because, when words stray from their meanings, they entertain relations with other words, which, in that all these words have been used before, can only be rhymes, reflections, palimpsests. In this world of equivocal meanings, each word is only the distorted, “differed” repetition of another—a phenomenon that led James Joyce, as Hartman notes, to describe literary language as Echoland. Interestingly, many of Le Gac’s statements seem to echo Derrida’s ideas; for example, when he speaks of the “grafting [greifage] of his works on others” he calls up Derrida’s definition of literature as a fabric of grafts (tissu de greffes), an intertextual production. Moreover, by suggesting that all representation is inherently languagelike (“Images without words do not exist and never existed”), he condemns artistic practice to the same incertitude as the proper name. In one of his autodefinitions in Ange Glacé, 1978, he describes the “components of a creator’s identity” as “Narration. Literary Imperfect tense. Fiction. Painter without Oeuvre.” To invoke the past imperfect tense in French is to deny the immediacy of the present, much as to speak of a fictive identity is to imply illusion, irreality, the multiplicity and mutability of meaning. And to deny the oeuvre is to reject the closure or resolution of the work. Thus if Le Gac alludes to the metaphor of depth that supported 19th-century esthetics (“One day things no longer coincided with the memory each had retained of them. And so . . . they began to dig. . . . ”), it is to suggest that the artist’s occupation is endless: as soon as one sets out to describe “reality” or suggest presence, one passes along a path of mediations, feints, and substitutes for the absent object. Much as the artist’s identity is uncertain, so the real is irrecoverable, a void.

This world of fictions or duplicitous doubles indicates that the copy is the condition of creation; similarly, all production is reproduction, a system of images opening onto and echoing one another. The echo paradigm goes far in Le Gac’s early photonovel, Jean Le Gac/Florent Max, 1971. Significantly, the book is an appropriated one, involving a novella, La Rumeur dans la montaigne (The murmuring in the mountain), published by Maurice Renard in 1958. Renard’s story relates the love of Florent Max, an unsuccessful landscape painter, for an echo heard in a mountain ravine, and recounts his attempts to acquire (or “properly” possess) the property from which it emanates. Much of the narrative dwells on Max’s frustrated efforts to locate the origin of the echo, and the fascination the sound exerts on him is a function of this failure. It’s a somewhat silly, charming tale, written in an archaic, 19th-century style, and stocked with all the paint pots, easels, and appurtenances of the Sunday painter associated with Le Gac’s own work. Moreover, since Le Gac posed for the photographs in his version of the book, to which he also affixed his own name, he can be perceived as the “echo” or double of Florent Max. But the echoing resonates on many levels: it commingles emitter and receiver, staging a collapse between artist and observer. Similarly, it implies a critique of origins, for the echo elides the distinction between original and copied sound, destroying singularity in the play of multiples. If Le Gac doubles Max, the Sunday painter, who are the many who precede Max?

Le Gac’s main contribution to our endless disquisition on quoting may be his suggestion that its foundation lies in language. By appealing to the paradigm of language, he also appeals to its underlying structure of desire, which is forced away from its aims and into displacements, substitutions, metaphors. Le Gac would seem to suggest that such figural devices are the means by which art is accomplished, and that this infinite deviation is all that an artist can do. The painter, like Sisyphus, is condemned to dissatisfaction, and such incompleteness ensures the irresolute nature of art. The painter’s actions, Le Gac implies, “mean” nothing, but serve to keep the story moving—to push the paint, as it were, along. In one work he compares himself to a “painter-archaeologist” seeking to “revive the ruins of his artistic vocation.” Another serves as a kind of creation myth founding Le Gac’s calling; it tells of a box of watercolors the artist glimpsed as a child, and “rediscovered” only years later in the Parisian flea market at St. Ouen. This box submits to many variations in Le Gac’s work, reappearing in myriad images of paintboxes and, most recently, in the pastel crayons, found moldering in his daughter’s drawer, which “inspire” the images, copied from children’s books, in the series “Les Délassements d’un peintre parisien” (The diversions of a Parisian painter, 1983–). But even this tale has only dubious claims to originality, for it too is a variation on another, the founding incident of Henri Matisse.

Not surprisingly, Le Gac has much to say about repetition. In Une Photo Amateur (A photo lover, 1971), the painter emits a sort of plaintive sigh: “Perhaps I will content myself to repeat only! The loss of meaning occurring through this process is so important that I think being personal is no more than a form of empty language.” Repetition, we know, loosens the sovereign sway of the author. But in 1983 the tune has changed, as Le Gac describes his creative method as the “migration of images and stories”: “New meanings are brought to light through the simple deviation of a captivating repetition [répétition ensorçeillante], the illustrator before [the artist] having cut into a tale and he, in turn, into an image.” All that is singular in such work consists in minute inflections, in resonances similar to those produced when words stray from their acquired meanings into “differing” reduplications. Moreover, such rearticulations produce wonder, for in a text in the “Délassements” series, which juxtaposes hand-drawn works with photographs of the sources from which they are copied, the artist is likened to an oriental calligrapher or medieval monk, “meaning a painter ‘whose greatest pleasure consists in endless recopying.’” A painter, then, whose pleasure lies in the performance, for if repetition depletes meaning, it also produces visions, the blissful zeroing caused by incantation. In this process, the painter’s color-drenched rag becomes the “object of a cult”; his table, weighted with pencils and pots, yields a fantasy of shimmering strokes and incandescent hues, resulting from accidental elisions of meaning. For Le Gac, then, art is a function of inflection, of intonation—the brief caesura posed between what once existed and what never was before. In the terrain left barren by the myth of originality, the painter is left to repeat, to echo—and to find in the tremulous strayings of those echoes the source of artistic pleasure.

Le Gac’s painter has been asleep since 1981. Few pictures of him emerge now; in rare images we find him recumbent in the landscape or sacked out in a couch, returning in reverie to a creative career now punningly defined as “recreation.” In general the photograph has been replaced as the artist’s medium by pastel copies; it makes a last major appearance in 1980, in an image of the painter figured in memoriam as a hero. In a symbolic staging of the death of the author, Le Gac is photographed surrounded by cemetery statues; in his hand, as the attribute of the artist, is the camera. It’s a suggestion that the painter can exist only in representation—as an effect of language, produced by images and words—and that we write the forms of individuality that give the author definition. But Le Gac’s merit lies in showing this figure lovingly, as he slouches toward the end of the century encumbered by the paraphernalia of myth and lore—the tattered and shabby clothes inherited from his 19th-century image. What distinguishes Le Gac’s work from other deconstructions of the author? Perhaps, the nagging, fragile sense that something in art survives its demystification. It’s the feeling, described by Roland Barthes, that in our reading of the work we desire the author, need his presence, require the ruse of his figure to lend coherence and pleasure.4 The very truth of our frailty serves to keep a myth alive.

Kate Linker is a freelance critic who lives in New York.



1. All quotations of Jean Le Gac, whether from his texts or from published interviews, are translated from the French by the author.

2. Catherine Francblin, Jean Le Gac (Paris: Art Press-Flammarion, 1984). Some of my interpretations of Le Gac’s relationship to language are informed by Francblin’s excellent book. For another study, see my “Enigmatic Images of Jean Le Gac,” Arts vol. 51. no. 7, New York. March 1977.

3. I am endebted here and in my citations of Jacques Derrida to Geoffrey H. Hartman, Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

4. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), p. 27.