PRINT Summer 2011


“ARE THERE ANY READERS of ARTnews who wish to join me in sending a pair of sterling silver roller skates, suitably engraved, to Georges Mathieu so that he may redo his I WAS THERE dance routine of the Battle of Bouvines into a big Blitzkrieg production?”¹ So begins a sarcastic letter Barnett Newman wrote to the editor of Art News in February 1955. Newman was reacting to the magazine’s publication that month of the most recent installment in its series featuring well-known painters at work. With text by critic Michel Tapié and photographs by cinematographer Robert Descharnes, “Mathieu Paints a Picture” offered readers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the French painter’s largest and most celebrated painting to date, La Bataille de Bouvines (The Battle of Bouvines), 1954. In that work, which consists of a broad beige field covered with a mix of ropy skeins, pronounced splatters, and variously emphatic and doodling gestures in predominantly black, red, and white paint, and which was painted in the course of one afternoon on April 25, 1954 (for the rapidly approaching Salon de Mai), Mathieu had set himself the goal of “reconstructing on canvas the decisive 13th-century conflict between the armies of the King of France and Emperor Otto IV.”² An ancestor of the painter’s, Mathieu de Montmorency, had played a key role in the battle, and it was that figure Mathieu chose to interpret as he painted, donning an idiosyncratic version of medieval dress: black silk costume, white cloth helmet and calf straps, and battle-ready boots.

Newman was not the only reader of Art News moved to respond. “Gallic excellence extends to corn too,” reads another letter in full; “I shall not be able to view a Mathieu picture ever again, I think, without doubling over in laughter,” declares another.³ Newman, however, had more at stake than most. For as he well knew, Mathieu had in recent years sought to establish himself not just as a homegrown equivalent to Jackson Pollock in particular—a comparison reinforced by Tapié’s text—but as one of the most vocal defenders in France of Abstract Expressionism as a whole. Bouvines itself is visibly engaged with the methods and effects of postwar American abstraction: Witness the work’s dimensions (roughly eight by twenty feet, unusually large for an abstract work in Paris at that time), as well as Mathieu’s professed commitment both to “direct means” (the application of paint directly from the tube or projected at the paint surface by various implements) and to notionally improvisatory execution. Yet as Newman’s letter goes on to suggest, Bouvines does not simply appropriate those techniques and emphases; it turns them explicitly to farce, creating a “burlesque of immediacy.”⁴ However “clumsy and provincial” Mathieu’s efforts, then, and however “inept and amateurish” their results, Bouvines was nothing less than an open insult to the very painters Mathieu professed to admire, and with whom he had repeatedly claimed spiritual kinship. A similar sentiment echoes in a letter by Clyfford Still, condemning the article as “cynicism and lies”: “I blush with the embarrassment all artists must feel when viewing this sordid parody—especially for those sincere men who in the late ’40s went from here and the West Coast to Paris and exposed their work to this parasitical and antic ‘tramp.’”⁵

What are we to make of Still’s and Newman’s charges, nearly sixty years after the fact? It has been suggested that their response to Mathieu was born of misunderstanding—specifically, a failure to grasp that his interest in making a work like Bouvines lay less in the finished canvas than in the performance of painting. But “burlesque” and “parody” suggest that Newman and Still understood this interest all too well—and that it was the nature of the performance that was at stake. Indeed, the vehemence of their response suggests a broader worry in this moment about precisely the kind of performance painting had become, or could become.

Such concerns are also evident in Harold Rosenberg’s 1952 essay “The American Action Painters,” where the difficulty of the new work is not just that the canvas has become “an arena in which to act,” as Rosenberg so famously puts it, but also that “the painter has become an actor,” with all the ambiguity that phrase implies. “With traditional esthetic references discarded as irrelevant,” the critic writes, “what gives the canvas its meaning is not psychological data but rôle, the way the artist organizes his emotional and intellectual energy as if he were in a living situation” (one notes the sudden shift to the subjunctive voice). And he continues: “The interest lies in the kind of act taking place in the four-sided arena, a dramatic interest.”⁶

For Rosenberg, it was up to the critic—and, by extension, anyone interested in grappling seriously with this work—to adapt to the new situation. Leaving aside judgments of aesthetic quality, the viewer would have instead to “think in a vocabulary of action: its inception, duration, direction—psychic state, concentration and relaxation of the will, passivity, alert waiting. He must become a connoisseur of the gradations between the automatic, the spontaneous, the evoked.”⁷ As Rosenberg’s language suggests, this was an imperative to some extent inherited from Surrealism and that movement’s endless, undecidable debates about psychic automatism. But action painting inherited that question with a vengeance. Where the painter had become an actor, could even the most sensitive “connoisseur” ever really tell an authentic action from mere gesticulation?

My claim is not that Rosenberg speaks for Newman or Still or anyone else; we know the painters he championed often distanced themselves from his discourse. But one did not have to accept his conception of action painting as a whole to feel unsettled by the implication that ambitious abstraction now entailed—or, at any rate, could not be simply disentangled from—something uncomfortably akin to playacting.⁸ And it is just here, I want to say, that Mathieu appears as the bad dream of Abstract Expressionism, the “antic ‘tramp’” haunting “sincere men” everywhere: His painting is playacting all the way down. Every aspect of his rôle, Tapié insists more than once, was thoroughly researched in advance: “Sensing his subject, Mathieu began to read everything on Bouvines and on feudal strategy, and to gather all possible information about every personage involved. . . . Mathieu’s car was loaded with General Staff maps, schemas of battles, lists of genealogies.”⁹ In other words, Mathieu does not just adopt a particular disposition; he puts on a fully fabricated character. For Still, this is “cynicism.” Mathieu, for his part, invokes the “absurdity” of all things—and early on, at least, his hyperbole does have a certain deflationary effect. Bouvines is a perfect case in point. With its broad, sandy field, the painting literalizes Rosenberg’s casting of the canvas as an “arena”—just as Mathieu’s gestures take up the critic’s rhetoric of military skirmish and joined battle. Nonetheless, where Mathieu’s professed Gallic pride mirrors nationalist tropes across the Atlantic, his medieval warrior with the odd white laces is a very different figure from, say, Pollock-as-cowboy (“I’m sorry about the bandages on his legs,” wrote still another reader¹⁰). Then there are Mathieu’s “paint brushes as long as halberds.”¹¹ As phallic prostheses go, these virtually declare their status as such (lest one should miss the point, a photograph of Mathieu seen from above, with one such brush seemingly projecting from his groin, drives it home). All told, his “Mathieu de Montmorency” appears a decidedly comic foil to the variously sublime, tragic, and stoic avatars so often invoked by Mathieu’s American peers, Still and Newman included. Yves Klein, as we know, proved an assiduous pupil.¹²

Even so, Bouvines conceals at least as much as it reveals. In calling on Mathieu to remake his work into a “big Blitzkrieg production,” Newman was not just taking issue with Mathieu’s theatricality; he was also condemning his apparent repression of a more recent conflict. Newman’s letter continues: “Too bad he and his Tapié friends could not find a more recent fighter-ancestor, so that they could have done the choreography for, let us say, the breakthrough at Sedan, but I suppose they had no relatives who were fighting in 1940.”¹³ Such privileging of a comfortably remote past is consistent in Mathieu’s work of the 1950s, and indeed beyond. Rather than confront the all-too-fresh ignominies of military surrender, German occupation, and French collaboration, the self-professed royalist appeals time and again to the France of the Capetian kings and their inaugural triumph over the German emperor Otto IV. Indeed, Mathieu’s “sovereign” indifference to the present is a point positively stressed by Tapié, who claims the painter “interests himself so little in current events that he is quite capable of making long trips through the most beautiful countryside without even seeing a thing” and “has lived every instant of more than six months in the tumult aroused by Bouvines and by his work.”¹⁴

This repetition, too, was farce. But it was a parody that paid, and such appeals were, if anything, increasingly profitable over time, as Mathieu transitioned from ever more spectacular painting performances to sundry collaborations with France’s national industries: the Gobelins tapestry factory and the Sèvres porcelain factory in 1966; Air France and the French railway system in 1967. In all of these endeavors, Mathieu translated the gestural marking of Bouvines into graphic design for tapestry, porcelain, posters, and so on. Such collaborations cemented the profound affinity between his increasingly stereotyped painterly “signs” and the corporate logo, and made clear the extent to which Mathieu’s “absurdism” had become something like a brand in its own right. Gallic corn it may have been, but people were buying.

Molly Warnock is an ACLS Mellon New Faculty Fellow in art history at the University of Chicago.



1. Barnett Newman, “Letter to the Editor, ARTnews.” In Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 199–200. The letter was not selected by Art News for publication at the time.

2. Michel Tapié, “Mathieu Paints a Picture,” Art News 53 (February 1955): 53.

3. “Letters to the Editor,” Art News 54 (April 1955): 6.

4. Newman, “Letter to the Editor, ARTnews,” 200.

5. “Letters to the Editor,” 6.

6. Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” in The Tradition of the New (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 23–29.

7. Ibid.

8. Newman felt compelled to defend against this idea as late as 1962, professing his inability to “work out of boredom, to keep myself busy or only to express myself—or to tell the story of my life—or to find my personality in painting by acting out some character” (Selected Writings and Interviews, 250).

9. Tapié, “Mathieu Paints a Picture,” 75. Of course, this entire scenario also sounds like make-believe—a point that does not alleviate the difficulty but only deepens it.

10. “Letters to the Editor,” 6.

11. Tapié, “Mathieu Paints a Picture,” 51.

12. See in particular Yve-Alain Bois, “Klein’s Relevance for Today,” October 119 (Winter 2007): 75–93. My reading of the deflationary aspect of Mathieu’s work is indebted to Bois’s text.

13. Newman, “Letter to the Editor, ARTnews,” 200.

14. Tapié, “Mathieu Paints a Picture,” 75.