PRINT October 2012


Simon Hantaï, Étude, 1969, oil on canvas, 108 1/4 x 93 3/4". From the series “Étude,” 1968–72.

AUTOMATIC WRITING: That’s one name, if not the least tendentious, one might consider for the fine lines that appear here and there in the whites of Simon Hantaï’s Étude, a stunning painting of 1969 that has just entered the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Made, like almost all of the French artist’s work between 1960 and 1982, via what he called le pliage comme méthode, or “folding as method,” Étude bears multiple traces of the working process that produced it, and that Hantaï modified continually from one series to the next. In this case, the canvas appears to have been prepared initially—and while still unstretched—with an allover layer of white gesso. It was then crumpled relatively tightly, again from edge to edge, and left on the floor of Hantaï’s studio in Meun, near the Forêt de Fontainebleau. Hantaï likely flattened the now irregular form by rolling a heavy drum over it, leaving the multiple internal and external folds intact but producing a newly planed surface that was then brushed entirely with red oil paint and left to dry, most likely on the floor. Eventually, the work was “unfolded” (or more accurately, pulled open from each of the four sides, shattering the continuity of the painted surface) and, finally, stretched for exhibition.

All of these gestures were, as Hantaï himself repeatedly insisted, relatively “banal,” and performed indifferently from one canvas to the next, across the tremendous proliferation of the “Étude” series, 1968–72, as a whole. Yet for all their notionally routine nature, they sometimes produced considerable surprises. The material contingencies of Hantaï’s process register in the variety of effects that mark the sometimes sharper, sometimes brushier borders between painted and “nonpainted” zones; in the longer and shorter drips and rivulets that spill from the former into the latter; in the pushed-up ridges and irregular pools of red paint that previously had marked depressions and now protrude slightly from the otherwise taut surface of the stretched result. And they reside, of course, in the fine lines that span the nonpainted reserves, effectively memorializing the shattering of the preparatory ground in the folding process, a kind of negative map of all the material crevices Hantaï did not see at the moment of actually putting paint to canvas.

Calling those lines automatic writing emphasizes that procedural blindness, just as it also recalls how important Surrealism actually was for Hantaï in the years following the Hungarian-born painter’s 1948 arrival in France at the age of twenty-five. An official if often surly member of André Breton’s group between December 1952 and March 1955, Hantaï devoted much of his earliest period in Paris to experiments with a host of Surrealist techniques and their art brut offspring, such as he could discover them in postwar exhibitions of the work of Max Ernst, Joan Miró, André Masson, Jean Dubuffet, and others. A few fruits of that apprenticeship—three works on paper from ca. 1950–51—made their way into the National Gallery’s collection in 1964, where they were until recently the only works by the painter. Typical of Hantaï’s work at the time, they are layered and technically heterogeneous efforts on cheap, already marked supports (a poster, magazine reproductions) and reveal Hantaï’s early attraction to various processes of rubbing and scraping in particular. Object files at the National Gallery suggest these works were puzzles for their cataloguer: Information about Hantaï’s technique is cast in the interrogative (“Ink, gouache, pastel, and varnish[?]”)—as is the artist’s name (“Hautai[?]”). Yet for all their continuing obscurity—even in France, where Hantaï has long been seen as a major figure, the early works on paper remain little known—these deceptively modest paintings offer early evidence of some of Hantaï’s defining preoccupations: tactile engagement with the support; the possibility of an “objective” automatism, rooted in materials and techniques; and the undoing of clear-cut figure-ground relations.

Still, a world of difference separates the 1950–51 works on paper and the 1969 Étude. Between them lie the complicated negotiations Hantaï tended to hypostatize under a double sign, as in his concise refrain “There is Matisse, there is Pollock.” But this implied simultaneity should not deceive us: Matisse’s and Pollock’s examples became appropriable for Hantaï at different moments, and in very different ways. Of the two lessons, Pollock’s was the easier one for Hantaï to actualize, one arguably on the horizon already in the early works on paper. This was the lesson of the allover. In Hantaï’s hands, this became a pictorial analogue for something his texts of the later 1950s cast first as a “meta-human condition” and then as a “supra-individual state”—as if the move “beyond” conclusive centers of interest were being asked to figure an ardently desired overcoming of finitude, as defined through the finite self. By the end of that decade, what initially appeared as a certain yearning for impersonality had tipped into explicitly religious fervor. This was materialized in the paintings as a kind of horror vacui of densely woven fields of suggestively writinglike traits, most often scraped, but almost always revealing previously dripped or otherwise marked underlayers in vivid jewel tones.

Simon Hantaï in his studio, Maisons-Alfort, Paris, 1980. Photo: Edouard Boubat/Getty Images.

It was Matisse who helped Hantaï eventually let the air back in, but his lesson proved harder to learn. Hantaï had been aware of Matisse’s late papiers découpés since shortly after his arrival in France (1949 saw a major exhibition of the cutouts at the recently opened Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris), if not earlier, and had even attempted a few works of his own employing cutout shapes. But the majority of those experiments ignore entirely what Hantaï would come to see as the most radical aspect of Matisse’s last period: the potentially constitutive role of the nonpainted spaces or “holes” within and among the colored shapes. Hantaï would not find his way to this recognition until the 1967–68 “Meun” series—paintings that arguably, and for that very reason, designate the absolute pivot of Hantaï’s folded and unfolded production and, indeed, of his entire practice. Why was the road so difficult? Precisely because the nonpainted could not be reconciled to the earlier work’s fantasy of “supra-individual” fullness, a fantasy it inevitably interrupted. Surging up among the painted zones at the moment of unfolding, it appeared as the very mark of something beyond the self, beyond one’s intentions, that nonetheless was not recuperable as higher or more primordial, but simply exterior. Call it contingency.

The “Études” are made equally of painted and nonpainted zones and, as such, they mark a new beginning within pliage. They secure a definitive shift in emphasis from the palimpsestic and often hieratic density of Hantaï’s earlier painting—a density prolonged in the earliest folded and unfolded work—to a new mode founded on essentially lateral rapports among differently proportioned color areas and immediately adjacent, sharply contrastive reserves. That shift makes itself felt as well in the new availability to Hantaï of more environmental formats. The “Études” are the first pliage series to alternate freely between vertical and horizontal (and, indeed, increasingly mural-like) orientations. Here, too, the Washington Étude proves exemplary: At once immersive and expansive, the canvas is vertical but nonetheless pushes toward the square in one’s perception.

In 1969, this painting was one of a select number included in the series’s debut exhibition at Hantaï’s lifelong gallery, the Galerie Jean Fournier in Paris. There the paintings bore the additional designation Pour Pierre Reverdy. The dedication brings us back to the notion of automatic writing with which I began. But it is also a mark of just how far from a certain version of that notion Hantaï has traveled. Reverdy figures crucially in Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism” of 1924; it is he, Breton notes, who lays the groundwork for the specifically Surrealist theory of the image, as the fortuitous juxtaposition of two distant realities. For the Surrealist leader, such images illuminated the previously obscure reserves of the mind itself, awakening the poet to his desire. Hantaï’s “Études,” departing from that conception, refigure automatism not as a descent into psychic depths but as an opening toward an outside. This is a thought of exposure—of painting as a medium of exposure—and it is dramatized as the endlessly repeated and yet never quite foreseeable meeting of painted and nonpainted, as it also is dramatized in the unfolding of the canvas itself, its passage from the monistic wholeness of a monochrome relief to the contrastive structure of a surface riven by difference. Hantaï’s homage leads us not to the poet of Breton’s “Manifesto” but to the Reverdy of the late collection En Vrac (1956), the Reverdy who could write, “Poetry is in that which is not. In that which is lacking to us. In that which we would like to exist. It is in us because of that which we are not. Of that which we would like to be. Where we would like to be and where we are not.”* Hantaï’s painting, like Reverdy’s poetry, is everywhere conditioned by absence, a thing of edges, limits, and lacunae.

Molly Warnock is an assistant professor of art history at Emory University in Atlanta.

*English translation in Jean Schroeder, Pierre Reverdy (Boston: Twayne, 1981), 151.