Chapelle St. Louis de la Salpetriere

Today at the age of 76, Etienne-Martin occupies a place of his own in sculpture. He has created not only an autonomous world, but a diverse one. If one didn’t know that the author of this work has held a professorship at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, one might classify his work as art brut. That Harald Szeemann should have chosen such an artist to occupy the space here makes good sense. Szeemann, who last year presented a beautiful group of works by Mario Merz in the same space, plays the ruggedly primitivist forms of Etienne-Martin against the austere spatial geometry of the vast chapel.

The most spectacular of Etienne-Martin’s works are the demeures (dwellings). Since 1958, the artist has made these sculptures, which show a strong affinity with primitive architecture. Because the objects claim their own space (the larger ones can be entered), the installation of them in a strong architectural environment cannot help but confer upon them a new meaning. These wood and plaster constructions might seem monumental in a more neutral space, or in the open air; here they suddenly seemed, if not minuscule, at least relatively small, as though they were the original sculptural matrix of a much vaster architecture destined to envelop them. Even the smallest of the wood sculptures, such as La nuit d’Oppède (Oppède’s night, 1942) seemed to belong to the same family as the enormous demeures, as if the grand scale of the chapel had eclipsed the differences between pieces.

Szeemann sees in Etienne-Martin the third point of a triangle in which positions are occupied by Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, and Alberto Giacommetti on the one hand, and by the Minimalists on the other. This seductive hypothesis doesn’t hold unless one reads the artist’s work in purely sculptural terms. But the very nature of the demeures renders these terms, if not questionable, at least problematic. Etienne-Martin’s other works, especially the bois (wood) pieces, can more clearly be seen as opposing Brancusi and Minimalism simultaneously, by employing a sculptural logic rooted in the caprices of material. This is particularly evident in the large Personnage Troi (Figure three, 1967), which follows the triple whorls of an acacia tree trunk. Nevertheless the great demeures exist, and their achievement is manifestly situated on territory other than that of traditional sculpture. In other words, the ultimate dimension of the demeures—and it is perhaps really this dimension that gives unity to the artist’s work as a whole—is not only sculptural, but psychological.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.