New York

Nouveaux Réalistes

Zabriskie Gallery

The Nouveaux Réalistes were brought together by the French critic, Pierre Restany, in 1960. Like several other European art movements of the twentieth century, the Nouveaux Réalistes existed more on paper than in reality. The artists did sign a manifesto written by Restany that declared their consciousness as a collectivity: the manifesto also declared that the artists were moving into a “new perception of the real.” The artists who signed the manifesto, Jacques Arman, Francois Dufrêne, Raymond Hains, Jean Tinguely, Jacques de la Villeglé, and Martial Raysse, and were later joined by Gérard Deschamps, Mimmo Rotella, Christo, and Niki de Saint-Phalle. This rather disparate group nonetheless shared a common sensibility about the object, a fascination with the material thing in all its fragility, something the Abstract Expressionists and, at times, the École de Paris seemed to ignore or reject. The group also shared a certain impatience and discontentment with the heroics and anxieties of Abstract Expressionism. In general, the members of the Nouveaux Réalistes approached the art object with a great deal of humor and sensuality. They were attracted to things that disappear, wear out, fall apart. By 1964, the group was pretty much defunct, but the artists exerted a strong influence on the esthetics of the time. The way these artists engaged the consumer object makes them appear as precursors to American Pop art. But Pop sensibility developed into a fascination with packaging, which Pop artists transformed into artistic practice. The French were much less concerned with the slickness of the object at that point in history, and ultimately the Nouveaux Réalistes were unable to sustain their “new perception of the real,” although they helped point later artists in new directions.

Much of the work on display here was striking. Some of the objects, like Arman’s Petits Déchets Bourgeois (Little bourgeois scraps, 1960), possess a desultory exoticism. Elsewhere the work is lyrical. Christo’s Dada Emballé (Dada wrapped, 1963) is a beautiful, fabric-wrapped toy horse on wheels that evokes a feeling of childhood vision, the seeing of something for the first time. There is also something threatening about it; the piece resembles a Trojan horse, into whose bridled mouth we are tempted to look. In the same room, there was a piece by Deschamps called Tango Bolero, 1961, a shock of tropical print made from colored rags. Some pieces possess an engaging emotionalism: Tinguely’s La Sorcière (The Sorceress, 1961), a sculpture of springs, screws, and scrap metal, clanks and jerks spasmodically when it is turned on, like an arthritic animal. Much of the work has fetishistic overtones. Raysse’s scary phallic sculpture Oiseau de paradis (Bird of paradise, ca. 1960) looks like a modern totem pole. In Dufrêne’s La demi-soeur de l’inconnue (The half-sister of the stranger, 1961), a woman’s plump arm and a vague area that might be defined as her breast emerges out of the chaos of layers of torn posters. The sensuality of the fetishized arm betrays the seduction of the object. The layers of torn paper, each one like a veil over an idealized image of truth or beauty, peel away to reveal very little or nothing at all.

But if nothing is behind the fetish, its power is still enhanced rather than diminished. Many contemporary American artists address just such problems of emptiness and representation; the work in this show gives the sense that these artists were already dealing with the same issues twenty years ago. The artists in this movement rejected the transcendental escape routes that were located in abstraction, and this show also offers a fleeting glimpse of their attempt to work out different relationships of sensation and emotion to a field of objects that were increasingly well packaged, well publicized and well marketed.

Yves Klein often grappled with issues of materialism and spectacle: his La zône de sensibilité pictorale immaterielle (Zone of immaterial pictorial sensitivity, 1959), is a project that exemplifies this direction in his work. The project involved the selling of a “Zone” for a certain amount of gold. The buyer would then burn the receipt, a record of which was kept on the stub of the artist’s receipt book. For a price, the buyer could watch Klein throw half of the gold into the Seine or some equally inaccessible place. This attempt to represent the brutal obstruction of the gold standard through a series of exchanges and useless, destructive gestures culminates in the throwing away of the gold. Klein respects the need to lose things, to destroy them, especially abstract material quantities; his work recalls Georges Bataille’s writing on the “Notion of Useless Expenditure,” in which accumulation is shown to be always undermined by the need for loss, destruction, and sacrifice.

Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Vénus, 1962, is a plaster-cast fragment of a classical statue of a woman. Created for Kenneth Koch’s performance The Construction of Boston, the statue is riddled with bullet holes and splattered with paint. Many of the Nouveaux Réalistes were interested in damaged and decayed objects, but de Saint-Phalle took the violence further. The sculpture illustrates the vulnerability and the resistance of the classical idealized figure of woman, at the same time that it is an expression of the artist’s anger against such a figure.

The catalogue emphasizes the importance of the dialogue established among American artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Stankiewicz, and Jasper Johns, on the one hand, and many of the Nouveaux Réalistes on the other. American art headed in a new direction in the mid ’60s, fueled by the energy of Pop, whose embrace of the object as commodity possessed a camp iconoclasm which the work of the Nouveaux Réalistes lacked. Unfortunately, the show and catalogue tended to gloss over such cultural differences, as well as the problem of differences between artists within the movement itself.

Catherine Liu