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PRINT November 2003

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Pierre Restany

“PIERRE RESTANY? A MYTH.” That was Andy Warhol’s laudatory reply when asked his opinion of the inventor of Nouveau Réalisme, who died in Paris in May. Restany was much more than a curator or a critic as we understand the terms today: He was at once a champion of artists and an entrepreneur of concepts, which he defended with all the power of his conviction. He is mostly remembered for founding the movement, with Yves Klein, Christo, and Jean Tinguely, in the late ’50s. Less known is his more recent and discreet engagement with a new generation of largely European artists—from Pierre Huyghe to Rirkrit Tiravanija, Philippe Parreno to Olafur Eliasson—in whom he recognized the legacy of his theories on “technological humanism,” ecology, and the appropriation of the sociological real. At the end of his life, Restany surprised young, informed curators and critics with his geo-strategic analyses of art, particularly its globalization, a theme he had mastered through his incessant travels to the four corners of the earth.

His legacy? The conceptual tools Restany forged in the late ’50s are still effective today in approaching the art of our time. In his 1960 essay “Le Nouveau réalisme,” he wrote: “The allure of an object, of the household rubbish or the scraps of the dining-room, of the unleashing of mechanical susceptibility, of the diffusion of the sensibility beyond the limits of its perception [represents] the common good of all human activity.” Farther down, he defines these practices: Ours, he writes, is “the great republic of our social exchanges, of our commerce in society.” Thus my interest in Restany, and his interest in me, when I began to think about relational aesthetics almost a decade ago: In my theories, he saw above all—and not incorrectly—extensions of his own reflections on art and communication. The concept of relations allowed him to bring his globalizing and planetary vision of art, expressed more in lectures and roundtable discussions than in print, back into the public eye.

But the name Pierre Restany will remain linked to a now commonplace idea that was so explosive in the late ’50s: “the expressive autonomy of the real.” It was a coup de force: to start from the readymade in order to establish a vocabulary, to think of the history of art in terms of use. Nouveau Réalisme was Dadaism considered as a tool. At a time when one spoke of “neo-Dada” in reference to Johns, Rauschenberg, and John Chamberlain, Restany asserted that the new art would be situated “forty degrees above the Dada zero.” In other words, Dada could now serve as a basis for a new vocabulary, well beyond any sort of revival. To Restany, art represented a “cleansing of vision”—that is, not a set of more or less well-made objects but an optical device that allowed us to look at the new world surrounding us, whether that meant supermarkets or streets. The European artists then associated with Nouveau Réalisme went a bit further than their more aestheticizing American counterparts. César, who left the composition of his works to a machine, was more radical than Chamberlain, who “arranged” forms. That is what the “New Realists” exhibition in 1962 at Sidney Janis Gallery was intended to prove, by comparing the European and American new waves; but the show was a misfire. (Restany would later say that his vision had been watered down by the dealer.) All-powerful in European critical circles but unable to forge good alliances in America, Restany lost his war against New York.

Throughout his life, Restany developed an ethical project summed up rather well by the term “technological humanism.” He contributed to the Prague Spring by ensuring the flow of French correspondence to Czech art magazines, protested the Brazilian military by resigning from his post as a curator of the Bienal de São Paulo in 1967, and published Le Petit Livre rouge de la révolution picturale (The Little Red Book of Pictorial Revolution) in 1968. Above all, he was the author in 1978 of the “Manifeste du Rio Negro” (Rio Negro Manifesto), which inaugurated the artistic debate on marginal cultures and on ecology in art. From then on, Restany’s career was marked by his shift to the so-called periphery. He spent more time in countries like Argentina and South Korea (where he organized a large contemporary art exhibition in 1988) more frequently than the United States, Germany, or even France, where he only recently received institutional recognition. But if that recognition was slow in coming, the future should be one in which Restany’s legacy is shown to be much richer than we believed. Let’s bring his books back into print and make a date for later this century—a century sure to be more Restanian than the one before.

Nicolas Bourriaud is codirector of Palais de Tokyo, Paris.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.