“La peinture apres l’abstraction”

Sometimes a silly idea can lead to a fascinating exhibition even as the silliness still shows through. When I first heard about “La peinture après l’abstraction,” documenting work done in Paris between 1955 and 1975 by five artists as unlike as Simon Hantaï, Jean Degottex, Martin Barré, Raymond Hains, and Jacques de la Villeglé, I thought the project utterly crackpot. I still think so; Degottex’s inclusion shows how little thought went into the mix. But the beauty is that Degottex’s oeuvre inadvertently serves as a repoussoir: The contrast his work provides helps demonstrate what the four others had in common, something the hanging of the exhibition often seemed designed to obscure.

So what did Hains, Villeglé, Hantaï, and Barré have in common? Call it an attitude, or a peculiar, even eerie encounter with Historical Necessity: All four share a desire to change the terms of what we might refer to as artistic agency. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, it comes as little surprise that young painters would ask: What does it mean to be an artistic subject, an author, at the very moment when the humanity of any individual has been cast in doubt by the massive demonstration of our species’s inhumanity? Hains, Villeglé, Hantaï, and Barré were not alone in thinking about this issue in Paris, but the common goal of our four musketeers was to overthrow the model of agency enacted by the most powerful new artistic tradition of postwar France, a tradition supported both by the state and by the belletristic intelligentsia as a wholethat of what I like to call the JEP.

JEP: The acronym stands for “Jeune École de Paris,” an umbrella concept invoked in the ’50s to designate the type of abstraction (indifferently labeled “tachisme,” “informel,” or “abstraction lyrique”) initiated by the likes of Pierre Soulages, Jean Bazaine, Alfred Manessier, Viera da Silva, Bram van Velde, and Hans Hartung immediately after the war and later emulated by an army of imitators. The phenomenon is comparable to the mass production of de Kooning epigones on this side of the Atlantic, each dutifully heralded by Tom Hess’s Art News and now long forgotten. It may be unfair to lump together the first and the second JEP wave, but it will do as shorthand, with the quintessential JEP painter being Georges Mathieu, whose theatrics of gesturalism and subjectivist pretense represent the apogee of what Hains, Villeglé, Hantaï, and Barré abhorred.

JEP theory and practice are modeled on that of early Kandinsky, who ponderously made elaborate sketches of so-called improvisations that the spectator was asked to view as faithful portraits of the painter’s “inner being.” Poseur and composer, the JEP guy is a Cartesian subject who feels secure as the master of his pictorial universe. (“Guy” is appropriate; though less macho than the average AbEx painter, the JEP artist rarely admitted women into the club.) Even if he wears an expressionist cloak, he is a pure product of an artistic education governed by late, classicizing, highly compositional cubism—here, think André Lhote rather than Picasso.

Thanks mostly to Benjamin Buchloh’s efforts (see his essay in October 56), the work of the décollagistes Hains and Villeglé is beginning to register in this country (as is that of François Dufrêne, who was oddly absent from the exhibition). And while in France their names are intimately linked with Nouveau Réalisme (a “group” into which they were momentarily lured by the ebullient critic Pierre Restany when he coined the label in 1960), their recent appearance on the US radar screen has offered them a clean slate. Buchloh has convincingly dissociated Hains and Villeglé from Restany’s hodgepodge and situated them in the wider sociopolitical context of postwar France (though in close contact with the Internationale Situationiste, they refused to join, a refusal related to an anarchist reluctance with regard to a form of political militancy they had rightfully diagnosed as imitating the Surrealist model, despite Guy Debord’s ranting against André Breton’s stale officialdom).

This exhibition continues the art-historically healthy dissociation, and Buchloh’s catalogue essay, dealing in this case with the pictorial rather than the sociopolitical context, helps map an entirely new genealogy for the anti-JEP camp by finding a counterintuitive common ground between the décollagistes and Hantaï. Though virtually unknown in the US, Hantaï has been considered, at least since the ’70s, as the heir to Matisse on the Parisian scene, and it is indeed this unusual evocation that allows Buchloh to show how determinant the issue of the Matisse legacy was in the stance of the décollagistes vis-à-vis color and drawing. If Nouveau Réalisme has long been considered in the US as the only force that had effectively, though ephemerally, opposed JEP in postwar France until Daniel Buren and his acolytes seized the torch in the late ’60s, a clearer grasp of the historical situation is now emerging.

As the first room of the show reminds us, Hains and Villeglé began their décollages, which were frequently joint efforts, in 1949—ripping thick layers of posters lacerated by passersby from billboards and street walls and exhibiting the finds, most often mounted on canvas, as works of art. An excellent selection testified against the standard interpretation of the décollagiste activity: If their art represented a “return of the real,” it was due less to the fragments of political or commercial advertising one could decipher here and there than to the shrieking condemnation, by the tearing gesture itself, of any authorial posturing. It is not by chance that Hains and Villeglé each titled one of their lacerated surfaces “Nymphéas,” or that from a distance so many of these works resemble JEP compositions: Stating a kinship between the entropic waste of mass culture and “high art,” the décollagistes intended to debunk the latter as a product of false consciousness. And it is here that Degottex’s pseudo-Zen black-and-white calligraphy—wide brush, dribbles, and all—looks most like the oddball of the show: Hains’s and Villeglé’s shards prick the balloon of his subjective spiritualism and send him back to Mathieu’s music-hall stage.

Both Hantaï and Barré are JEP defectors. Though Hantaï’s beginnings were generally placed under the aegis of Surrealism (with the blessings of Breton), his work of the early ’50s definitively partakes of the same genre as Degottex’s japonisme (the main difference being that Hantaï writes with white on black, or more precisely grayish-pink on black). By 1959, his large allover paintings—oddly resembling Dubuffet’s strictly contemporary “Matériologies,” but with more luscious effectsmark a turning point. While the allover mode represents an exception in Dubuffet’s output, it became a springboard for Hantaï, who has never parted with it: Through Pollock, he understood that to escape the JEP aesthetic, he had to invent a new method for marking his canvases and dividing their surfaces. The solution he arrived at the following year is the pliage (though the effect is less of folding than of crumpling). Thereafter Hantaï folded his canvases before coating them with color. At first he would paint in those tongue/flame/leaf-shaped creases that the liquid color had not reached, giving his surface the reticular and hardened feel of a reptile’s skin; but soon, using a more fluid paint and working on a larger scale, he began leaving the reserved spaces untouched, their whiteness luminously contrasting with the monochrome, decorative, and aleatory pattern of the painted areas. Whatever the variations, Hantaï’s pictorial practice always toys with automatism and the possibility of uncontrol, and his most successful works convey what one imagines to be the sheer pleasure of his surprise at the moment of unfolding. There is a deliberate childishness in such a pleasure, and Hantaï often charms because he dares to flaunt it.

Martin Barré’s case is more complex, in part because his oeuvre is exceptionally varied in comparison to that of the others. A painter’s painter whose production was relatively sparse, Barré, who died in 1993, is even less known in the US than Hantaï, although he was the basis for the creator of the canvas in Yasmina Reza’s Art, the populist satire of abstract painting that so regaled Broadway theatergoers. Unlike Reza’s caricature, Barré never produced a white monochrome––but it is true that the combined discovery of Malevich and Yves Klein represented a wake-up call (his enthusiasm for the latter’s monochromes, in 1960, cost him his early supporters). What the double shock of Malevich and Klein revealed to him was that JEP’s art consisted more in the representation of gestures than in gestures themselves.

His first reaction was to lay this issue bare: In his canvases of 1960–62, using the tube of paint as if it were a brush, he literally depicts gestures on white canvases (bringing to mind Lichtenstein’s enlarged brushstrokes of a few years later). In 1963, continually asking himself how to avoid the return of the compositional, Cartesian ethos of picture making, he takes his cue from the political graffiti that had been proliferating on the walls of Paris during the Algerian war and begins to use a spray can. This involves not only distance (as in Pollock’s drip, there is no physical contact between the artist and the surfaces he marks), but also speed (Barré avoids runoffs and puddles, features that might be read as a sign of expressivity); the fuzzy black lines are devoid of texture, and they travel fast, almost always rushing off the canvas—the mark retaining something of its virtuality even after it has been traced. The most stunning canvas of this group (though not in the show, despite its availability) is a 1963 precursor of the 1967 series nicknamed “Zebra”: Eight roughly parallel oblique lines pass across the canvas from edge to edge. Like Hantaï, Barré will espouse blindness: After the “Zebra” works, he began to employ a stencil that is larger than the surface of his canvas, and through which he sprayed (without knowing for sure where the mist would land) the multiple silhouettes of a single arrow.

It is fitting, in retrospect, that having come so close to transforming the act of painting into that of cameraless photography, Barré would devote time to the photographic medium: This activity, which led to one of the first exhibitions of Conceptual art in France, in May–June 1969, was followed by a period of doubt, after which, in 1972, he resumed his practice as a painter. As reluctant as ever to endorse an authorial position, Barré now appropriated a strategy familiar from the tradition of geometric abstraction—that of deductive systems of proportions that the beholder is invited to induce—in order to pervert it, a trump card always disobeying the rule just as one thought that the system had been figured out. Working in distinct series, usually one per year, of ten to twenty canvases, each looking as if it were the fragment of a larger, unfathomable whole, Barré took up painting as he had left it, that is, as a spatialization of time. But now, and throughout the ’70s, it is not speed but slowness that he would investigate, his works conceived as palimpsests of ambiguous grids imbedded in multiple layers of thin white paint, each canvas attesting to the fact that no matter how simple the system that governs its production, the more one looks, the less one knows.

Hains and Villeglé, Hantaï and Barré, each in their own way, strove to undermine certainty, both on the producer’s behalf as well as on the viewer’s. Despite its multiple drawbacks, “La peinture après l’abstraction” makes this much, at least, certain.