Eugene Leroy

Eugène Leroy, now 78 years old, was until recently practically unknown as a painter. A native of northern France, where he still lives, Leroy has quietly realized a considerable body of work. In spite of more than 20 one-person shows—two of which were in Paris at the Galerie Claude Bernard in 1961 and 1963—Leroy had to wait until the early ’80s to capture critical attention from both the institutions and the market. This traveling retrospective, which comprised 80 paintings, spectacularly confirmed Leroy’s new-found status as a major painter and should go far in establishing him as such.

In front of these astounding paintings, one could easily understand why Leroy has had to wait so long for the exposure his painting deserves. The work does not catch one’s attention right away. It is impossible to relegate these strange accumulations of colored pigment, which exhibit not the least concern for immediate seduction, to some current of Modern or contemporary art. They have been realized with too much obsessive slowness to be confused with a form of gestural abstraction. Abstraction in these paintings plays the role of a limitation. Presence, though sometimes discernible, is more often mute and disturbing. Human figures seem to be at the limits of the visible—faces in the process of dissolution, ghostly bodies lost in a maelstrom of whirling colors. Leroy pushes paint so far to the fore that the canvas almost turns into a bas-relief.

Leroy’s work revolves around the confrontation of a single, overriding problem: if the image surfaces through paint, then paint must emerge in all its sensual materiality from the image. Out of this difficulty are his works born, as if the paintings, finally, couldn’t be achieved but at the cost of burying the subject under an endless accumulation of colors. (Leroy sometimes works on a painting, off and on, for ten years before he considers it finished.) The result of this insanely additive pictorial practice is difficult to decipher. It is obviously related to distance, but also to light. With our noses up against the canvas, a piece becomes a colored magma that raises its enigma before our very eyes. At a distance, the figure reluctantly reappears, as if the painter, in his effort to abolish it, had ended up stumbling across it. This dialectic is played out somberly, in a preponderance of earth tones; a bit of direct light, however, reveals an incredibly luxuriant polychrome, as if the light imprisoned in the wall of paint had suddenly been liberated.

Presence/absence of the figure and of light: such are the terms along which this work is deployed. In refusing all flattening of paint, Leroy has fully realized his goal as an artist as he defined it in an interview with Irmaline Lebeer in 1979: “Everything that I have ever attempted in painting is to arrive at a kind of absence, so that painting can just be itself.”

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.