New York

Jacqueline Monnier

Betty Parsons Gallery

JACQUELINE MONNIER’s exhibition of kites, sculptural assemblages and mixed media paintings is the first American show for this French-born but New York-raised artist (who now lives once again in France). What is immediately striking about the examples on view—all made between 1968 and 1980—is their beauty and the particular attitude which the pieces in each category take toward their own beauty. As is true of much contemporary art, attitude—here involving beauty—is at issue. In other words, having beauty in 1980 is no longer enough; instead it’s all in how the individual work of art wears it.

The kites, as a group, wear their deep and sensuous colors, lively and sinuous lines, aggressively. Hung high on walls or from ceiling fixtures, they bid us to keep our distance and contemplate the beauty of their colors and the lines emblazoned on them. The materials Monnier uses include crepe paper, nylon spinnaker, cotton fabrics and cellophanes; her techniques range from dye to collage, stencil, ink; her titles draw references from nature (Cocktail for the Sky) from life (Streetwalker: 9 days) or from literature (For Alfred Jarry’s “Vacuovelodiare” No. 1), or make ironic puns (Screw). Still, whatever the underlying theme of each piece, their eye-blazing colors—alone or in combination—and their signlike patterns of regular or irregular geometrical shapes make animated presences of these long and narrow forms. Even without knowing that these pieces are related to kites and in fact can function as such—these works appear to take off, but on a rush of formal beauty rather than a gust of wind. This point is made even more clearly by the kinetic displays. In them, the kites, hung over a revolving apparatus, unfold variously colored sections, offering a mesmerizing experience of beauty in action. Adding to the visual hypnosis is the groaning noise of the apparatus itself, made by crackling paper and creaky gears.

In contrast to the kites, which boldly dominate the gallery’s physical space, Monnier’s sculptural assemblages are small, discreet and enclosed. Assembled from bits and pieces—and in many cases unattractive bits and pieces including—hair, feathers, matches and even a miniature lightbulb—the total effect is intimate and fragile. These examples exude a please-don’t-touch-or-you’ll-break-the-spell kind of beauty, worn with quiet and not off-putting dignity.

Small, like the sculptures, the paintings favor eccentric shapes and high relief. Beauty for them is matter of contrasts in color, shape and texture and, as with the kites, the message here is directed outwards.

That Monnier would be interested in questions of modernism and beauty in her work seems natural, given that two major figures who have dealt with this issue are family members. On one side, there is Henri Matisse, Monnier’s grandfather, and on another, Marcel Duchamp, her stepfather, for whom she worked as an assistant for about ten years before starting her own career. Once this fact is known, it is all too tempting to try to find their influence in her work—to look to Matisse for the color and line of the kites and paintings, and to Duchamp for the mechanical element of the display or for the use of “nonart” materials in the assemblages—and to stop there. To avoid this, I have introduced this information after examining the works for what they are—Monnier’s, and intriguingly at home with New York art, 1980.

Ronny H. Cohen