Gerard Fromanger

Though Gerard Fromanger is considered one of the most significant figures in what has been called the “critical figuration” movement—which includes Valerio Adami, Eduardo Arroyo, and Jacques Monory—his work has not been exhibited in several years. With this show he returned to the scene in spectacular fashion with five monumental paintings, as well as a series of 25 four-color works that refer to recent conflicts ranging from the Gulf War to the disaster in Yugoslavia. Since he launched his career in 1965, he has never stopped investigating the possibilities of painting. The vexing question for Fromanger is what painting can do, not what it is, thus he occupies a solitary position in France, having deserted all of the movements with which he has been associated—from the formalist and conceptual painting of the ’70s, to figurative narration and the putative return of painting in the ’80s. He has always been careful to remain on the fringes, since in his work he attempts to dismantle dominant cultural representations and political ideologies, including the language of painting itself. In 1984, Félix Guattari observed that “Fromanger is the painter of the act of painting. [His work is] a ‘painting act’ in the sense that Anglo-American linguists . . . speak of a ‘speech act,’” That is, for Fromanger “to paint is to do.”

His work is thus concerned with painting’s lost authority, the decline of its credibility and power, and ultimately, of its ability to speak. Whether painting can say anything today, in its own language, is a question Fromanger posed once again in this exhibition. He uses painting as an oppositional force, a marginal space in which to rethink the way we look, by recoding the language of painting and the mediatized representations that deny the individual’s agency. Guattari, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze saw in his work an attempt to achieve a kind of pictorial micropolitics.

This transcoding process operates on two levels, the first involving Fromanger’s use of the “quadrichrome,” the second consisting of his use of a pictorial “rhizome”— a relational recombination of signs and representations. With this outsized exhibition, he seemed to be trying to prove his mastery of these approaches and the effectiveness of his work—its performativity. There is an almost systematic demonstration of his language as it is applied to the framework of painting itself: the urban landscape as seen from his Paris studio, in Jaune, paysage Paris-Bastille (Yellow, Paris-Bastille landscape; 1993–94); the esthetic landscape, in Noir, nature morte (Black, still life; 1994–95); the landscape-as-landscape seen from his Italian studio, in Bleu, paysage Toscan (Blue, Tuscan landscape; 1993); and the sexual landscape Rouge, nus (Red, naked figures; 1994), with its orgiastic representation of desire. The culmination of this demonstration was a painting executed a few years earlier entitled De toutes les couleurs, peinture d’histoire (History painting comes in all colors, 1991–92), a work Fromanger presents as “the last 30 years of painting,” a kind of pictorial Internet that also reflects on his own working method.

It was all quite impressive, though the show really only took off with the series of 25 “Batailles” (Battles, 1995), in which Fromanger brutally, almost instinctually, wields the critical force of the “quadrichrome” like a weapon against a background of terror. Lines of red, yellow, white, black, gray, and blue cross monochrome fields inscribed with rows of artists’ names, the lines occasionally exploding into murderous, sharply silhouetted images drawn from 25 battles—or more precisely, 25 times that painting has failed when faced with humanity’s defeat.

Olivier Zahm

Translated from the French by Warren Niesluchowski.