Marthe Wéry

Marthe Wéry’s exhibition included work by the artist from 1968 on, but the Palais des Beaux-Arts resolutely resisted presenting the show as a retrospective. It opened with Calais, 1995, a willfully unfinished ensemble composed, in this incarnation, of fifteen blue and gray monochrome panels, though the artist intends that it can at any moment be supplemented by one or several more; it changes at each installation, depending on the architecture accommodating it. Only after asserting these principles of incompletion, movement, and immediacy did the artist offer two early works—both called Composition Géométrique, 1968 and 1970—in gray, black, and white, accompanied by a few large acrylic paintings on wood dating from the late ’80s and early ’90s. Between these groups of works there have been some significant shifts (“déplacements,” the term Wéry prefers to “evolution”)—among them, most notably, the pursuit of composition beyond the surface toward the space that frames it—as well as constants: the principle of repetition, among others.

Color always seems to be retained somewhere in Wéry’s gray, which the artist notes contains all colors within it. From the mid-’70s to the early ’80s she worked exclusively on paper, covering it with fairly tight vertical or horizontal lines, usually in ink, then juxtaposing multiple sheets on the wall or accumulating them on a horizontal surface. It wasn’t until 1982 that she returned to canvas and began exploring the chromatic spectrum beyond black, white, and gray, having found at last—as she says in a beautiful film that accompanies the exhibition—“the capacity to experience color.”

Wéry’s technique is unusual: She paints horizontally, letting the color flow across panels of wood or aluminum placed in troughs. She directs the process by shifting the panels, then manipulates the result by sanding, washing away, or layering the paint. Once the works are hung vertically, this fluid technique gives rise to a stunning lightness, a feeling of exaltation, of ascending movement. Questions of composition and structure are dealt with by the arrangement of the panels, the rhythm with which they follow one another, and the blank spaces that separate them. The color, intense and monochromatic overall, is alive with multiple tensions on the surface: microscopic accidents, drips, concentrations and dilutions, superimpositions of, say, whites and greens, or of deep and light reds.

The works presented in the exhibition all seemed to lead to the most recent of Wéry’s pictorial ensembles, which formed the center of the exhibition. Created specifically to take its place in the architectural context of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Pontormo, 2001, uses colors and forms derived from those Wéry found in certain works by the Florentine Mannerist after whom the work is titled. Pontormo is entirely devoted to celebrating that “capacity to experience color,” the uncommon chromatic energy she may have discovered only gradually but which by now she has mastered absolutely.

Anne Pontégnie

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.