Michel Seuphor

Some fifteen years ago, Michel Seuphor recalls, his dealer and friend Denise René described him in a biographical note for a catalogue as one of the rare pioneers still around from the ’20s, but who was “as unrecognized in the visual arts as in literature.” Today, at the age of 91, Seuphor remains quite proud of this distinction, even if, as René’s current homage demonstrates, it’s not exactly true any more.

Born in Antwerp in 1901, he literally came of age with the members of the European avant-garde. At 17 he launched himself in amateur journalism with a magazine in defense of Flemish language and culture (taking the pseudonym Seuphor—an anagram of Orpheus—in order to avoid recriminations). By the time he was 22, he had founded Het Overzicht (Panorama), the review of international politics and culture that soon took him to Berlin and Paris in order to make direct contact with members of the new artistic currents, from Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy to Fernand Léger, the Delaunays, and his lifelong mentor, Piet Mondrian. And at 28, four years after he settled in Paris, he became cofounder of the seminal abstract artists’ group Cercle et Carré (Circle and square).

In 1934 Seuphor and his wife abruptly left Paris for a “spiritual retreat” in the south of France that was to last for 14 years (including a period of activity in the Belgian Resistance in France). After their return in 1948, he emerged as a preeminent chronicler of European abstraction, drawing on his experiences, his convictions, and his remarkable memory to publish more than a dozen books on Modern painting and sculpture. It was also during this period that Seuphor began doing what he calls his dessins à lacunces (lacuna drawings): large and often complicated pen-and-ink designs, patterned from horizontal lines and the blank spaces between them. The inspiration came (“like a flash”) in 1951, when Seuphor was working on his landmark biography of Mondrian and sought to apply the painter’s philosophy of horizontality and verticality to his own work; the effort has continued, on a near-daily basis, for forty years.

What is striking about the 19 dessins à lacunes here, dating from 1957 to 1991, is not simply the parallel activity they represent, but the way that they synthesize, visually, visibly, all the other preoccupations that have marked his life. With the purity of their geometric forms and mostly primary colors, they are unmistakably linked to the abstraction of the 1920s that, Seuphor readily acknowledges, has never ceased to be his “contemporary reality.” At the same time, there is a spiritual imprint—a veritable cosmology—that goes back to the Chinese philosophy he discovered in his youth: the circle and the square as symbols of sky and earth, the hexagrams of the I Ching, the yin-yang polarity inherent in the oppositional unity of lines and spaces. Unmistakable too is the poet’s sensibility, not only in the titles that, Seuphor indicates, come to him involuntarily as he works, but also in the words and phrases incorporated into the drawings themselves in the various languages, ancient and modern, that he has taught himself in the course of his life. Then there is the drawing process, not unlike calligraphy in its disciplined creativity, its repetitive originality, which constitutes in itself an ethical commitment to freedom and responsibility. But perhaps the most pervasively personal element in these works is the game, the child’s spirit of play that, with the encouragement of Dada and Paul Klee, to be sure, has always inspired Seuphor’s drawings and poetry alike. The connection becomes explicit with titles like Le Bonheur du jeu (The pleasure of the game, 1979), Pour le jeu (For the game, 1983), or La Recompense du jeu (The reward of the game, 1983). But in fact each drawing is an elaborate “game” of illusion based on the (inter)play of lines, spaces, planes, and colors. Like the pages of a daybook, they record the moods, whims, and profound convictions of an artist whose life, no less than his work, has been one long statement of principles.

Miriam Rosen