Robert Combas

Yvon Lambert Bookshop

In 1981, Robert Combas—who was only 24 years old at the time—instantaneously achieved great fame. As impertinent as his paintings, he declared himself the leader of figuration libre (free figuration) in France. Seven years later, the expression “figuration libre” is old hat. Fluxus artist Ben Vautrier coined the term after seeing an early showing of Robert Combas’ and Hervé di Rosa’s work. Soon, two other very young artists—Rémi Blanchard and Francois Boisrond—became associated with the movement. Sharing the same taste for spontaneous painting, taking their inspiration from comic strips rather than from traditional history, the four artists were regularly grouped under the banner invented by Vautrier. Within a year or two, the four Frenchmen saw their fame eclipsed by several young American artists at the height of their celebrity, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf. Of course, artists often last longer than the movements or pseudomovements that are supposed to have spawned them. Corn-bas has just added his name to this already long list.

The group of large paintings in this show—all hung directly on the wall without stretchers and dedicated to diverse episodes of the war of Troy—marks no esthetic disavowal. Combas, in fact, has always loved to pillage themes taken from historical and mythological painting. He has chosen episodes from Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid—the kidnapping of Helen, Aeneas descending into hell, the judgment of Paris—which at first sight seem to be presented according to the canons of the comic strip. The sexual element within the texts in question is set forth with crude insistence, and the short texts that accompany the pieces have been written in a style that massacres spelling and syntax deliberately. Nevertheless, all this doesn’t prevent the work from having a considerable impact.

The artist’s comic-strip esthetic is, in fact, no more than a simple formal device. Each painting is so clever and well constructed that the pure problems of painting never arise. Therein lies the strength and limitation of Combas’ work. One can admire the remarkable mastery of surface that these paintings manifest, or the often perverse manner in which their subjects are often (mis)treated. They don’t possess the spontaneous and iconoclastic freshness for which Combas’ work was praised in the eruption of figuration libre, but they do establish another viable pictorial style. Combas is no longer at the point where he has to prove that he is an artist, and he should be pushing his enterprise to the point of questioning it. That may well save his career and keep him from becoming trapped in the inexorable rhythm of thematic and formal repetition.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.