“Les Années Supports/Surfaces”

Musée National du Jeu de Paume

Despite its domination of the French art world in the ’70s (when it quickly replaced Nouveau Réalisme as an official institutional “avant-garde”), the production of Supports/Surfaces has never been able to stir up much interest outside France, and even at home it has largely fallen into oblivion. A reassessment of Supports/ Surfaces today requires a selection of the best work and a clear presentation of the context in which the group emerged, achieved its hegemonic position, and then disintegrated. In “Les années Supports/Surfaces dans les collections du Centre Georges Pompidou,” a selection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne’s holdings centered on the production of the Supports/Surfaces artists between 1966 and 1977, the former condition is perhaps an impossibility: curators at Beaubourg had no say in the institution’s acquisition policy until 1974—that is, only three years before the end of the exhibition’s time frame—and the collection of contemporary art was spotty at best, so the show’s organizers may not have had much to work with. And while the catalogue does an admirable job of contextualizing Supports/Surfaces, it is precisely thanks to the glimpses it offers of interesting, little-known moments (like the outdoor works realized in various locations in the south of France in 1970) that the visitor’s frustration with the show was accentuated.

In fact, the show itself confused matters the catalogue begins to sort out. Not all the works displayed were by artists directly associated with Supports/Surfaces (a fudging announced in the exhibition’s title). While this policy of inclusion might have permitted an enlightening contextualization, the additions needed to consist of more than just satellites. Having made the astute decision to begin the show with work from 1966 rather than 1970 (the year of Supports/Surfaces’s christening), the organizers undermined their efforts by failing to address the group’s (conflictual) relations with BMPT (Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni), whose successful institutional guerrilla strategies and radical stylistic positions functioned as an obvious early model for Supports/Surfaces. As it happened, the additions were either redundant or infelicitous. Jean-Michel Meurice’s slick vertical wall-size banners in high-keyed colors, for example, did nothing to alleviate the impression of vapid prettiness often conveyed by the production of the group per se, underlining its frequently sophomoric attitude toward color and its sentimental relationship to materials. On the other hand, the absence of fellow-traveler James Bishop made no sense. This vastly underestimated American painter, living in Paris at the time, was the subject of several essays in Peinture, cahiers théoriques, the Supports/Surfaces mouthpiece, and a figure as essential as the critic Marcelin Pleynet in guiding the group through its belated discovery of American art.

The relation of Supports/Surfaces to American art is indeed a key issue, intelligently if somewhat defensively discussed by Arnauld Pierre in the catalogue. For most of the work on view, an American antecedent could be found, sometimes at a distance of several years (e.g., Claude Viallat’s 1969–70 Rope and Robert Morris’s 1964 Rope Piece), sometimes a couple of months. The pages of this publication, in which the “anti-form” tendency was so forcefully highlighted, must have been a gold mine: one can easily detect echoes not only of Morris, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Richard Tuttle, and Bruce Nauman but also of figures who are less conspicuous today (e.g., Keith Sonnier, Alan Saret, Barry Le Va). Yet even when French and American works are strictly coeval, the French sample never manages to shed the “belatedness effect,” with its attendant connotation of anxious provincialism, that characterizes the Supports/Surfaces effort as a whole.

What accounts for this “belatedness effect”? I would maintain that it is a product, paradoxically, of hastiness. In their rush, say, to embrace “post-Minimalism” without having the slightest clue as to what Minimalism was about, the Supports/ Surfaces artists were led to strange stylistic amalgams that had little historical purchase. Not only was Minimalism practically unknown to them, but the little they could have seen of it, in E.C. Goosen’s confusing show “Art of the Real” (which passed through Paris in 1968), had been harshly criticized by Pleynet. Furthermore, their discovery of Greenberg led them to embrace the work and techniques of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, etc.—figures who had been among the bêtes noires of Minimalism. (One notes the great fascination with dyeing, for example, used without much sense of its long history or wide discussion in the US dating to Pollock’s black paintings of 1951.)

Most of the artists applied color à la Greenberg’s stable of painters to “antiform” objects: Cane’s pieces are sprayed like an Olitski, Viallat’s ropes are dyed, Daniel Dezeuze’s soft stretchers are given a “pattern painting” look that seems at odds with the artist’s strident “Marxist-Leninist” discourse concerning the stretcher as an institutional straitjacket. (The work of Marc Devade is unique in that its trajectory, limited to painting, proceeds from Noland’s chevrons to compositions anticipating Peter Halley’s neo-geo to Morris Louis’s veils.) While big claims were made, hastily borrowed from Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, concerning the “secundarity” of color in Western aesthetics from the seventeenth century on, nothing could do more to reinforce this condition than the application of color onto a ground that was no longer deemed neutral but heralded as material. (In other words, if one paints over an Eva Hesse in bright hues—and a work like Contingent no doubt mesmerized the Supports/Surfaces artists as much as anyone else when it appeared on the cover of Artforum—one obtains nothing much more than cheap decor: this is, of course, one reason Hesse used colored latex.)

Patrick Saytour deserves special mention in this respect (for he addressed the issue critically). In many ways, his work participates in the tradition of the readymade: his manual labor is minimal, his material is usually a plastic sheet or tablecloth available in department stores. In Sans titre, 1968, a large vertical pink plastic cloth (embossed with a raised flower pattern) that had been folded, pressed, and unfolded is presented as “drawing” the sheer gridlike trace of this action. (Unfortunately, the exhibition did not offer any of the burnt tablecloths he had been making, jointly with the folded ones, from 1967 on, in which his ironic treatment of the Minimalist grid is even more apparent—and in a manner not so different from that of Toroni’s contemporaneous series of “imprints.”) In the other (1974) Saytour piece exhibited, neatly packed rolls of decorated fabric, each partly dipped in a single liquid (tar, glue, or the paint used for marking roads), were arranged in five rows aligned on the floor. Color is applied in the work, to be sure, but the application itself is made into a self-conscious gesture.

Finally, the case of Viallat is more complex. Around the same time as Toroni and Buren (the question of anteriority gets particularly thorny here), Viallat decided to stick to a single shape, endlessly repeated in his canvases and thus briefly acquiring the status of a “ready-made.” But unlike Buren, who had renounced the painterly skill that is so striking in his pre-1967 works, Viallat proposed to reconsider a tradition that had been all but forgotten in France: that of Matisse’s expansiveness, an expansiveness that, right from 1906, had been directly pitched against the academic secundarity of color (it must be remembered that for the French public, until Pierre Schneider’s large Matisse retrospective in 1970, the work of the master had been almost reduced to the odalisques of the ’20s). The purpose of a Matisse revival might be a limited one (“retinal,” Buren would say), but I do think that it was while Viallat focused on the artist’s expansiveness—and thus when he stuck to the traditional tools of the painter—that he realized his best works (I still remember the buoyant effect of his first show at the Galerie Jean Fournier in 1968). But if the repetition of the same shape was a way out of the rhetoric of traditional abstract art, it proved hard to sustain: Long before Buren (but for similar reasons), Viallat felt the necessity of toying with variety by “accommodating” his readymade shape to new ingredients at each new exhibition. The shape became the common denominator of a whole range of experiences with materials, experiences that eventually undermined the pictorial (Matissean) search, and the specter of “applied,” secondary color took control of his entire production.

For all these complaints, I have not addressed the Supports/Surfaces group’s histrionic polemics (whose prosecutory tone—and frequent expulsionary tactics—perfectly mimicked André Breton’s Surrealist diatribes). “If one re-reads the texts of this period,” Devade wrote retrospectively, “one is forced to conclude that it is a blessing that ridicule does not kill”; indeed it is impossible not to laugh, say, at the comparison, proposed in earnest by Cane, in 1975, between one of Robert Ryman’s Windsor paintings and a Cultural Revolution-era work by a Chinese paysan-painter representing a plowed field. Didier Semin’s excellent catalogue essay, with its gently ironic treatment of the absurd popourri offered by Supports/Surfaces texts—a hodgepodge of poststructuralism, of Greenberg’s limited view of modernism, and of Chairman Mao’s “thoughts”—shows that the texts served as obstacles to any serious apprehension of the work right from the start. Ridicule, contra Devade’s assumption, does in fact kill and, if the corpse of Supports/Surfaces must be exhumed, it is better to let its texts remain in abeyance, if only for a while.

Yve-Alain Bois is the Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Professor of Modem Art at Harvard University.