Peinture, Emblèmes, et Références

On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the CAPC Museum presented a brilliant exhibition of the work of nine contemporary masters: Georg Baselitz, Daniel Buren, Jannis Kounellis, Sigmar Polke, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Robert Ryman, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol. The show’s title, “Peinture, Emblèmes, et Références” (Painting, emblems, and references) goes a little way toward explaining the choice of works. Dating from the ’50s and ’60s, they were made during a formative period for each of these artists, and today, the works still serve as reference points for contemporary artists.

Here were Stella’s black paintings, (Tomlinson Court Park, second version, 1959, and Bethlehem Hospital, 1959); Richter’s gray monochromes (from 1967–76); Ryman’s white paintings (ten or so pieces ranging from 1960 to 1991); and Buren’s paintings on colored bed-sheets or on cotton canvas woven with stripes, which herald his own emblematic colored bands represented by a dozen works from 1965). In these works—some realized at the start of Minimalism and Conceptual art—we notice a negation of subjectivity, but also a reinforcement of the notion of the creator, particularly with Buren and Ryman, whose “stripes” and “whiteness” remain the trademarks of their work. But while Stella’s paintings constitute a Minimalist reaction against Abstract Expressionism, Ryman’s white monochromes are part of “an experience of illumination,” and Richter’s gray monochromes, here associated with family portraits taken from photographs (1966), outline a negative motivation, an uncertainty as to the validity of representation, or a mourning of painting which is never completed.

Perhaps the greatest value of this exhibition was that it demonstrated how much the motivations of these artists arise out of the geographical contexts and historical conditions of their respective countries. Polke’s works from the ’60s (such as Carl Andre in Deft, 1968) must be considered in relation to the invasion of Conceptual art from the U.S.A. In the same way, Baselitz’s Expressionist-inspired, fractured paintings (his series of “Frakturbild,” 1966–68, before the upside-down figures) reclaimed the subject from an Americanized consumer society, whose cultural values were flooding Europe. Kounellis’ reaction is similar: shown at Sonnabend in New York in 1972, the “musical” pieces in the CAPC show—which included paintings of musical scores accompanied by actual music, played by a violinist and danced to by a ballerina—are not only an embodiment of theatricality, but also an affirmation of cultural identity: “faith in a world of civilization and of culture. . . . ”

Rauschenberg’s “Combine Paintings” (Door, 1961, and Dylaby, 1962) proclaim their Americanness in their preservation of quotidian objects, in the kind of heterogeneous and multicultural profusion that set American Pop art in motion and broke ground for others, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Entering the Warhol room, as soon as one sees the electric chair of Red Disaster, 1963, or the crushed car of Orange Car Crash, 1963, one senses an immediate vibration. Warhol is the painter of our Western history. It is a history that on the map of art, as this exhibition shows, will always require the practice of painting in order to explain its uneasiness.

Anne Dagbert

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.