“La Couleur Seule, L’Experience Du Monochrome”

Musee St. Pierre, Palais Des Beaux-arts, Crypte De Fourviere, Elac, Maison De Lyon

The monochrome constitutes one of 20th-century art’s main watersheds. Originating in 1917 with Kasimir Malevich’s White Square on a White Ground, the development of the monochrome proceeded in 1921 with Alexandr Rodchenko’s trio of paintings Jaune pur, Rouge pur, and Bleu pur (Pure yellow, Pure red, Pure blue). These four works are supposed to have marked a point of no return for the artists. But rather than judging this the end of painting (a point at which Rodchenko, in particular, believed he had arrived), these monochromes, in fact, constituted a point of departure. Monochrome developed into a whole new genre of painting, and this group of shows—under the heading “La Couleur Seule, l’experience du monochrome” (Color alone, the experience of the monochrome)—was announced to be, if not actually exhaustive, at least extensive.

With close to 300 works by about 100 artists dispersed in five different locations, the exhibition was uncommonly grand, and it included several masterpieces. Unfortunately, these were the only areas in which the exhibition lived up to expectations. Instead of trying to circumscribe their subject as rigorously as possible, curators Thierry Raspail and Maurice Besset chose to expand it to the point of meaninglessness. Simultaneously, they limited it arbitrarily by excluding certain important monochromes. However studded with admirable works, the final selection failed to convey the complex experience of the monochrome.

Not following any clear principle, the exhibition fell back on a vague chronology, interrupted by groupings of work with special affinities. The curators arranged exclusive presentations of certain artists such as Robert Ryman and Ellsworth Kelly, who were shown to great effect in the chapel of the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Gerhard Merz was allowed to take over the large hall of the Maison de Lyon for a monumental installation entitled Ed io anche son architetto (And I, also, am an architect).

A preponderance of excellent work could be seen at the Musée St. Pierre: Malevich’s White Square on a White Ground, 1917, an extraordinary little painting by Joan Miró, Petit Bleu, 1925, as well as work by Francis Picabia, Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt. Two floors of the museum presented a selection of works from the ’50s and ’60s. Respectable ensembles of Yves Klein’s and Piero Man-zones work dominated here. Also to be found here were rare early monochromes by Robert Rauschenberg, a beautiful triangular Barnett Newman piece, and so on. If, in this section of the exhibition as elsewhere, one could deplore the disconnectedness of the hanging, which ploddingly alternated works according to formalist solutions—a black Pierre Soulages opposite a practically all-white Sam Francis!—and historical confrontations—Klein/Manzoni, for example—one couldn’t help but appreciate the great quality of most of the work.

At the Palais des Beaux-Arts, beside Ryman’s and Kelly’s solo presentations, there was a good deal of work from the end of the ’60s and into the ’70s. A huge Robert Morris felt piece didn’t seem justified, even when placed opposite a large Imi Knoebel. In general, the work alternated between what was rigorously monochromatic, such as Alan Charlton’s, and what was not so at all, such as Gerhard Richter’s installation.

Nevertheless, it was in the other two exhibition spaces that things truly fell apart. In the crypt of the cathedral of Fourvière, much space was given over to the monochrome mannerisms of such different artists as Joseph Marioni, Phil Sims, Raimond Girke, and Günter Umberg. Despite the presence of some subtle work—a black triptych with a mutilated frame by the Belgian artist Marthe Wéry, a small reddish diptych by Jean-Pierre Bertrand, and a playfully symmetrical ensemble by Marcia Hafif—the work here was, by and large, awful. In the galleries of ELAC, an “anything goes” attitude prevailed, resulting in the complete dissolution of the exhibition’s discourse: a large “Pénétrable” by Jesus Rafael Soto, a pile of charcoal by Bernar Venet, a sculpture by Anish Kapoor, paintings by Chuck Nanney and Steve Parrino, a verbal monochrome by Bertrand Lavier, monochromes by François Morellet that played humorously on the seascape and landscape genres, some works by Tony Cragg using plastic scraps, and then, without rhyme or reason, the whole ended with a work by Claude Rutault, one too serenely simple to hold such an important place. Opposing black wall to white wall, Rutault, in effect, contented himself with the application of his usual work principle: to paint the piece in the color of the wall on which it was hung.

Although one expected a display of art that drove to the very edge of its limits, it was entirely something else with which one had to contend. Too bad, because it is likely that, after such an obvious expenditure of energy, we’ll have to wait a long time before someone takes a chance again on the monochrome.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.