New York

Jean Fautrier

The full measure of Jean Fautrier’s art has never been taken in this country, and it is not clear that it can be, despite a flurry of interest. A recent show, “Black Nudes and Other Early Works”—mostly mid-to-late-’20s pieces that precede Fautrier’s better-known coloristic paintings—offered figures and still lives “consumed by absence,” to use a phrase of Yves Bonnefoy, and American art generally demands that the figure have presence, the more blatant and forceful the better. These figures exist on the threshold of perception, crossing it but not definitively. Nu sur fond noir (Nude on black background), Petit nu noir (Small black nude), Nu debout (Standing nude), Tête noir (Black head), and Tête de femme de profil (Head of a woman in profile), all 1926, partake as much of disappearance as appearance, as much of memory as immediacy. The marvelously subtle Bouquet des fleurs sur fond noir (Bouquet of flowers on black background, 1926), with its fiercely black tones and delicate traces of luminosity, is Fautrier at his most innocent and sophisticated, most mannered and intuitive. The bouquet is a futile wisp of being that holds its own against the very ephemerality it represents. Flowers and women’s flesh are pervasive themes in Fautrier’s oeuvre, perhaps because both are symbols of love, transient and withering.

Blackness is not always complete in these works, not always the whole picture. Le mouton pendu (The hanged sheep, 1926) and Les poissons (Fish, 1927) are just tinged with it, and in other images blackness is an atmosphere that makes the life it surrounds all the more luminous. But we feel that these things are melancholy, leaden in spirit, and awaiting the encroaching night to engulf them. This is true even of the relatively lighter works the brown Nu (Nude, ca. 1929), for instance, adrift in a black sea on a white sheet—and especially evident in the sculptures and portrait heads of women. Like everything in Fautrier’s work, there is a sense of isolation and abandonment to them. If the artist “returns to the things themselves,” he does so by way of a detour through Hades.

The nature of blackness is a standing issue in modern painting. Matisse, following the Impressionists, saw black as a color, and thought it a necessary part of what he called “color orchestration.” For Kandinsky black represented the absence of color and life: “something extinguished, like a spent funeral-pyre, something motionless, like a corpse. . . . It is like the silence of the body after death.” Ad Reinhardt believed it was the consummate expression of the “theology of negation” that was the transcendental subtext of abstraction. Fautrier’s treatment of black synthesizes Matisse’s and Kandinsky’s views while anticipating the theological status Reinhardt accorded it. Thus, the deployment of black in Fautrier’s work is paradoxical: it is not only factored into form but is a formless substance, abstractly expressive as well as symbolically charged.

The paint in these works is often thickly layered, almost like plastering in fresco. Glazing protects the fresh directness of these surfaces, rather than smoothing them over; at the same time, it makes them strangely static. Fautrier’s sinister objects, infecting life with an affect of death, may be “dangerous mirages,” to quote Bonnefoy again, but they are also solid and durable as pyramids. This duplicity makes them peculiarly relevant to contemporary painting, in which strategic hybrids (whether the work of David Salle or Ellen Gallagher) seem the only route to creative authenticity.

Fautrier remains an enduring beacon of inwardness and a master of the pathos of ordinary things. Younger American painters may yet come to appreciate Fautrier’s interiority and muffled surface, his sense of the tragedy inherent to existence. For his works, like Giorgio Morandi's, suggest that durable artistic gains are never more than incremental, for they come about through equivocation and pessimism. Fautrier’s paintings are made for hard artistic times such as ours.

Donald Kuspit