PRINT November 2014


AT FIRST GLANCE, they seem self-evident: The best-known works of the French painter Michel Parmentier appear so clear, so direct, so whole, as to be their own last word. The artist began making these impassive horizontally striped paintings in late 1965, first on a stretcher and then through a process of folding that derived from the pliage method Simon Hantaï had been developing since 1960—the crumpling or knotting of a support before brushing it with paint—even as it refused what Parmentier saw as the seductive nature of the elder man’s famously variable results, rendering the practice wholly routine, the markings relentlessly standardized. By the time he began showing with his fellow painters Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, and Niele Toroni in January 1967, Parmentier had limited his paintings to a single color per year, with perfectly even bands of sprayed-on paint, their width always fixed at just under fifteen inches, alternating exactly with equal expanses of white canvas (though partial bands of varying width often appear at the top and bottom). These works remain the central statement of a corpus pledged to what Parmentier repeatedly described as “the neutral”—iterations, as the painter wrote in 1967, of “a trace . . . empty of messages, of images, empty of that communication that, typically, creates complicity between artists and spectators; a trace that speaks only of itself, without digressions.”1 And yet these canvases, ostensibly so representative, show us only a narrow period of Parmentier’s career. He abandoned them, along with his practice as a whole, late in 1968, not taking up painting again until the 1980s, and then in a distinctly altered form. It seems that even in speaking only of themselves, Parmentier’s works still offer a surprisingly powerful description not just of their author but of his engagement with the problems of painting in the postwar era.

The admirable Parmentier retrospective mounted by the Villa Tamaris Centre d’Art, in La Seyne-sur-Mer, France, this past summer went some way in amending reductive receptions of his work.2 Curated by Michel Parmentier Association cofounder Guy Massaux and Villa Tamaris director Robert Bonaccorsi, the show comprised many rarely seen canvases and works on paper, offering visitors a nuanced panorama of the painter’s practice. But one work in particular shows a largely unfamiliar Parmentier, at grips as never before with the possibilities and impossibilities of achieving neutrality in painting. Like Parmentier’s better-known early works, 16 juillet 1988 results from folding, its alternating marked and unmarked bands determined by the distribution of exposed and masked areas created by that process. And like those paintings, it is titled after the date of its making, a gesture that further restricts the work’s allusive potential, pointing back instead to its own production. Yet 16 juillet 1988 is nonetheless strikingly different from its precedents. Some of Parmentier’s revisions are material, such as his substitution of cheap printing paper and graphite for the earlier canvas and industrial lacquer. Others are procedural: While the earlier bandes were made on the floor, he worked on 16 juillet 1988 while it was tacked to the wall. Most significantly, in the later work Parmentier eschewed the homogenous application of paint with a spray gun for discontinuous, freehand marking, effectively foreclosing the rapidity of execution and the striking, even peremptory, impact of the previous stripes in favor of more protracted temporalities of making and viewing alike. Further reinforcing this shift from immediacy and objectivity toward a mode of more nuanced and sustained attention, 16 juillet 1988 abandons the typically vertical supports of earlier years, opting instead for an outsize and exaggeratedly horizontal format. This orientation, especially in combination with Parmentier’s comparatively minuscule marks, diffuses and diffracts rather than concentrates vision.

TO UNDERSTAND the dramatic transformation of Parmentier’s working process between these two periods of his career, we need to consider a definitive rupture in the painter’s practice: his break, in December 1967, with Buren, Mosset, and Toroni. From January to September 1967, the artist participated in four collective manifestations with the group, in which they seemed to present a united front in their various attacks on painterly subjectivity and traditional modes of authorship. Like Parmentier, each had adopted a highly reduced mark, repeating it from one work to the next, and all refused the notion that those traces—whether vertically striped awning fabric with one or more painted white bands (Buren), a black circle on a white canvas (Mosset), or the regularly spaced impressions of a no. 50 brush (Toroni)—were in any way illustrative of interior states. But in December, Parmentier’s three collaborators made a proposition he considered fundamentally regressive: that each painter might also sign the others’ works, on the understanding that these notionally inexpressive marks existed apart from any originating subject and were, therefore, equally appropriable by all.3 Parmentier objected that the group was valorizing a certain idea of impersonality at the expense of the actual act of painting; insofar as the latter inevitably is performed by a specific being, the resulting traces may be “equivalent” in their neutrality, but they will not be “exchangeable.”4

At stake here was Parmentier’s enduring sense of the self as individual, if also, on some level, opaque and other. A painter’s initial choice of mark, then, was no less determined by “unconscious and semiconscious motivations” than by historically situated reflection.5 (One might even see the material reserves of Parmentier’s pliage, like Hantaï’s before it,as essentially keyed to—the painterly analogue of—that conception of the self: Unlike his compatriots’ marks, Parmentier’s trace derives from the folding and unfolding of an opaque support, one that is not fully available during the painting process yet does not quite enclose an interiority.) At once less than fully knowable and insuperable, that self could not simply be set aside but could only, as it were, be worked through in time—“neutralized” through a rigorously repetitive process of painting. Indeed, Parmentier saw that there was no way to objectivity but through a prior, irreducibly subjective choice. By contrast, simple substitutions merely smuggled subjectivism in through the back door: Where each painter had three traces at his disposition, no clear rationale obtained for opting for one rather than another in any circumstance.6 The choice for him, therefore, was not between one trace and another, but between strict repetition of the mark and no production whatsoever.

WITHIN A YEAR, Parmentier had chosen the second option, beginning a long withdrawal from painting that he initially presented as the critical continuation of his practice. But as the years dragged on, the cessation struck him as increasingly problematic—at once “imperious” and “pretentious,” as if monumentalizing an end never actually achieved.7 The new paintings he began making in 1983, now with uniformly black bands as opposed to the annual color shifts of the earlier work, might be said to renew, or perhaps merely monumentalize again, his practice under the guise of mourning—even as he professed to retrieve his painting “where [he] had left it.” Yet this was not a solution Parmentier could trust: His own situation, after all, had changed; the self he wished to “neutralize” was no longer the same. Where a lapse of fifteen years had shown him the limits of silence, perhaps the more difficult task would be to speak anew. “I say that I quiet myself (if you’ll allow that somewhat risky formula),” the painter remarks in a 1986 interview with curator Bernard Blistène, “and that’s undoubtedly why I must and can start again: When one touches this problem, one never has done with it.”8 Where the earlier striped paintings present neutrality as a fait accompli, these lines reframe the neutral as a vanishing point, never to be arrived at once and for all. It would be the task of the work he was then beginning to make this apparent.

Four smaller works in graphite on paper, 1987–90, each titled Étude, show Parmentier suspending the established terms of his practice so as to rethink it fundamentally. The only works after 1966 in which he eschews pliage, they also are among the first to introduce the painter’s hand. In so doing, they foreground the self as at once the starting point for and the continued stake of Parmentier’s practice as a whole. Yet this is no straightforward return to subjective expression. Rather, the “Études” show the artist struggling to “impoverish” self and mark alike: He keeps the traits short, as if willfully interrupting their élan; he forces himself to alternate among differently oriented axes, as if checking his manual habits; he turns his implement on its side, as if deliberately dissipating his own impetus. These discontinuous traces also betray a temporal dimension absent from the earlier sprayed surfaces. There are discernible differences in pressure and inflection from one point to another; one imagines the painter repeatedly lifting his hand and recommencing.In a contemporaneous letter to Hantaï, to whom he gave these works (and who donated them to the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris after the younger man’s death), Parmentier writes of trying to “break the hand” and “make ‘lyricism’ give way to ‘neutrality’”; further on, he declares the need to “break the automatisms, the ‘releases’ of the hand that would still be all too pleasant.”9 Such comments call attention to the sustained nature of the effort as a whole: Lyricism, they suggest, catches one unawares, whereas neutrality can be approached only with time, effort, and vigilance. (The way has, precisely, to be “studied.”) The requisite “breaking” is manifest in the strenuously enforced intermittency of his marking.

16 juillet 1988 is one—and, at ten and a half feet high by just over twenty-two and a half feet wide, the largest—of a suite of works from the late spring through the fall of 1988 that show Parmentier prolonging this graphic impulse within a return to folding. Significantly, that incorporation begins with a new approach to the support itself. All the 1988 works feature the same cheap paper as the “Études.” But rather than confine himself to one continuous area, as he had previously, the artist now multiplies segments of equal length, folding and stapling each one individually and then enchaining the strips laterally on the wall. There they function as large-scale “traits” in their own right. Though the sizes of his works from this moment vary greatly, the dimensions of 16 juillet 1988 in particular inevitably conjure those of history painting—and closer to Parmentier, the various forms of gestural abstraction and “action painting” that apparently displaced it. One thinks of Pollock, of course, but also of French “Lyrical Abstractionist” Georges Mathieu, a figure who maintained the vertical axis of production, titled a number of frequently gigantesque works after historical battles, and, like Parmentier but well before him, famously dated those canvases to single days. Yet 16 juillet 1988 assumes its grand dimensions—and by extension, I would say, that past and those imaginations of action—as already riven from within. While the repeating vertical edges of the paper bands radicalize the discontinuity implicit in pliage from the first, they also offer a new means of “breaking” the hand, effectively slowing the painter’s progress across the dauntingly vast lateral expanse. In so doing, they inscribe a broader acknowledgment of finitude at the very heart of that traversal.

Compared with the somewhat erratic marks of the “Études,” Parmentier’s traits here appear far more regularized: nearer to the graphic equivalent of his fully routinized pliage. Nonetheless, they inevitably reveal variations in width and length, pressure and inflection—local divergences that are set off all the more powerfully by the ready-made plumb lines of the paper segments whose form they so imperfectly echo. Conditioned and contingent, these decidedly nonheroic gestures show Parmentier seeking to become neutral, at once subordinating his will to external, objective limits and holding himself to this necessarily unresolvable exercise. The fact that the effort can only be repeated, and never quite concluded, is signaled by the nondevelopmental march of the graphite lines and the paper strips alike. This is no longer the time of tragedy; it is closer, perhaps, to what Maurice Blanchot calls the “time of patience,” not announcing the death of the subject, or even an acute crisis of subjectivity, but rather a means of holding the self in suspension.10 In 16 juillet 1988,this new temporality is further dramatized in those periodically occurring rows of traits that once crossed folds and now appear sundered by blankness on the unfolded support. These visibly bisected marks register a double temporality of drawing and “undrawing” that reprises but also renders more perspicuous the constitutive role of the reserves in his first experiments with the striped format. Like the self that Parmentier so ruthlessly willed himself to neutralize through marking, this work is made and unmade in time.

Molly Warnock is an assistant professor in the history of art at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.


1. Michel Parmentier, “Le groupe Buren–Mosset–Parmentier–Toroni n’existe plus” (1967), in Aristide Bianchi, ed., Michel Parmentier: Textes et entretiens (Paris: BlackJack éditions, 2014), 45. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

2. “Michel Parmentier. Dec. 1965–20 Nov. 1999. Une Retrospective,” Villa Tamaris Centre d’Art, La Seyne-sur-Mer, France, June–September 2014. A catalogue with texts by Philip Armstrong, Robert Bonacorrsi, Daniel Buren, Agnès Foiret, Guy Massaux, and Jean-Marc Poinsot is forthcoming; as of press time, I have not seen this manuscript. I am grateful to Guy Massaux for taking the time to discuss Parmentier’s work with me at length and would also like to acknowledge the importance to my thinking of conversations with Stephen Melville, Philip Armstrong, Lucie Scheler, and Katherine Markoski.

3. The strongest statement of this position can be found in critic Michel Claura’s “Exposition de la rue Montfaucon” (1967), written to accompany Buren, Mosset, and Toroni’s December 5, 1967, exhibition at the Galerie J in Paris. There each painter presented three works: one with his “habitual” marks, and one each for the marks associated with his two coparticipants. Claura writes: “The painting of Buren, Mosset, Toroni, IS. In that it simply is, it is completely detached from the one who created it. In that it simply is, anyone at all, in making it, can claim it” (reprinted in Daniel Buren and Michel Parmentier, Propos délibérés [Villeurbanne, France: Art édition, 1991], 152).

4. In an important article for this magazine, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh identifies the claim about exchangeability as one of several “contradictions” endemic to the group, but does not discuss Parmentier’s explicit opposition to it. See Buchloh, “The Group That Was (Not) One: Daniel Buren and BMPT,” Artforum, May 2008, 311.

5. Michel Parmentier, “Trois brouillons fin 1971, début 1972,” in La Part de l’Oeil, no. 20 (2004–2005), 68. For more on this point, and for an excellent introduction to Parmentier’s thought generally, see Aristide Bianchi, “Note du transcripteur,” ibid., 84–97. Parmentier and Buren also return to this disagreement at length in Propos délibérés, especially 19–28.

6. Parmentier, “Le groupe Buren–Mosset–Parmentier–Toroni n’existe plus,” 44–45.

7. Michel Parmentier, “Entretien avec Michel Nuridsany” (1988), reprinted in Bianchi, Michel Parmentier, 125.

8. Michel Parmentier, “Entretien avec Bernard Blistène” (1986), reprinted in Bianchi, Michel Parmentier, 83.

9. Michel Parmentier, letter of December 9, 1987, Simon Hantaï Archives. My thanks to Anna Hantaï for facilitating access to Parmentier’s letters and to Bénédicte Victor-Pujebet for permission to cite them.

10. See Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), especially 18–19.