Claude Viallat

Centre d'Arts Plastiques Contemporains de Bordeaux

In the late ’60s and early ’70s the “Supports-Surfaces” group provided a large proportion of the subject matter for the intellectual and artistic press in France. A large proportion of the most interesting work done today by young artists can be traced to these origins which had at their center Claude Viallatas a prime mover. After 1966, his research was directed towards exploring the material components of painting (canvas, stretcher, installations, and the qualities and interrelationships of these elements) by using a single, repeated form on an unstretched canvas. Although Viallat’s works were among the first to use a pictorial method which no longer had anything to do with easel painting, his eminence was not entirely due to his work alone. He was the indefatigable organizer of exhibitions, notably outside Paris (most unusual in 1970), and influenced young painters through his teaching. This background enabled him to organize the first “Supports-Surfaces” exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, in September 1970, after a series of group showings throughout France.

For many years years his work was exploratory and somewhat didactic. He denied himself an excessive use of color to enhance his novel methods of working the canvas, the color and elements capable of modifying it. (Paintings where the degradation of the color is brought about by the sun, the rain and other such influences).

In 1973, Viallat began to develop his research into color: his work had hitherto been limited to two colors per canvas, one for the background, the other for the superimposed forms; from then on they became multi-colored. The shape was often painted in by brush, enabling him to make wider tonal variations with more painterly possibilities. This renewed interest in color went hand in hand with concern for the canvas. Since 1966, he had been using a variety of textiles other than cotton duck. If occasionally he chose dyed cloth, it was always unpatterned, in simple colors, and used in a conventionally rectangular shape. In 1975, Viallat bought up a lot of old curtains which he had to unstitch in order to use. This confrontation with new forms of textile support (support, meaning the substance on which the paint is applied, has no exact equivalent in English; it gave its name to the group “Supports-Surfaces”) led him to accept their irregularities, their cut, their color and their material aspect. This work, dating from 1976 to 1980, on new supports is being exhibited in Bordeaux before going on to Aix-la-Chapelle in Germany.

Through his choice of tarpaulins, blinds, tents, curtains and old linen clothes, unstitched so as to lie flat, Viallat poses new problems for himself concerning the nature of the support and its internal structure. All these textiles had a prior purpose in life: they had been tailored, assembled, sewn and modified in accordance with the way they were worn and the way they were worn out. They reflect a multitude of accidents constituted by the seams, patches, braiding, straps, fringes and openings. Viallat underlines these accidents through his use of color, changing the color register of both form and background as he moves from one width of cloth to another. If the support folds out into several adjacent planes, he paints its multiple facets. Often he retains peripheral accessories such as straps and fringes. He lets the original colors come through, either between the forms and the background, or as the background or the form itself, or along the joins (seams or patches). Most of the materials chosen by Viallat were previously put to a three-dimensional use: a tent would have had five or six planes, a blind would have been cradle-shaped. Divorced from their practical framework they become formless pieces of material which Viallat spreads out flat, retaining as far as possible the articulations indicating their previous three-dimensional function. In this way he projects an existing volume onto the plane of the wall or of the floor; he remains in the realm of painting, making references to space without destroying the plane and without recourse to illusionism.

One important question remains: that of color. For the Bordeaux exhibition, Viallat was supplied with a quantity of large army tents. These relatively simple tents were a shade of grey-khaki which Viallat wanted to use as an integral part of his paintings. To break the khaki down and make it work as a color, Viallat used it as a ground, or as a line (outline), or yet again as selective area of color. He related it to other overpainted zones which made up another colored plane of reference. The color being too thin to completely block out the canvas, Viallat used several successive layers of paint. Out of habit, he used white as his first layer; for the sake of variation he reversed the order in numerous other cases; finally he painted the form and the ground in the same color on top of an undercoat visible at the joins. The system was made further complicated by material effects such as splashes of white around the colored forms on the khaki ground or semi-translucent areas caused by the irregular application of color. The figure/field color relationship changes with each break (seam) of the support. In addition, Viallat, by varying the first layer of paint or the khaki ground, has evolved a whole theory of color in these canvasses, based on the break from reference.

This work, associated with his use of unfolding volumes into planes, places Viallat far above artistic controversy in France.

Jean-Marc Poinsot