New York

Jean-Paul Riopelle

Acquavella Galleries

An eight-volume catalogue raisonné currently being published in Canada asserts the country’s claim to this patriarchal figure of modern French painting, who was born in Montreal in 1923. Hometown boy makes good. Yet it was all Jean-Paul Riopelle could do to escape the city and its time-hardened resentments: francophone, Roman Catholic Quebec versus anglophone, Church of England, maple leaf America. Riopelle found refuge from Quebecois revanchism in the alternate AbEx universe of postwar Paris, where he soon became a highly regarded artist, right up there with Pierre Soulages, Georges Mathieu, Vieira da Silva, and other painters devoted to art informel or tachism (as the French equivalent to Abstract Expressionism was known).

Acquavella has, in measure, reconstituted “Grands Formats,” Riopelle’s 1977 exhibition at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, and added several large works on paper to the survey. These characteristic large-format oils date from 1952 through 1975; though but seven in all, they illustrate certain broad (and ultimately deleterious) changes that overtook Riopelle’s work during that quarter century.

Like many North Americans—Canadians and Yankees both—Riopelle in fact participates in what is above all a French story. Contemporaneous artists such as Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell are likewise representative Paris painters despite their deep American roots. Indeed, after meeting in Paris in 1955, Riopelle and Mitchell survived an alcohol-inflamed affair that endured over decades. No tales out of school there, though both the scale and blocky simplicity of Mitchell’s works of the 1970s and after echo aspects of Riopelle’s later style and possibly their turbulent relationship.

In the ’50s, when he was doing his best work, Riopelle developed a method in which he manipulated heavy layers of dark oil paint flecked with lighter color through the supple use of palette knives. This created the paradoxical effect of a dappled, whipped-up, frenzied turgidity. His personal, flickering, decentralized composition at the time—a kind of AbEx allover—is often attributed to the painter’s love of speed and the automobile, a canard that Jean-Louis Prat, the former director of the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul de Vence, repeats in his catalogue essay. Those enthusiasms have been true of everybody from the Italian Futurists on down, and to hear it said again trivializes Riopelle’s already difficult to admire achievement. To be sure, the claim bears upon the painter’s most famous work, Quinze Chevaux Citroën (Fifteen Horsepower Citroën), 1952, but the argument is also used to cover Riopelle’s larger body of work, which, no matter what you think of it, is about art and not affection for automobiles.

In the ’60s, Riopelle started working on far more hieratic compositions—often large triptychs whose vertical elements attain mural scale when placed side by side. These imposing, crushingly aggressive works mark a return to figuration. (In this shift from the allover to figure/ground composition, one is tempted to cite the coincidental model of Jackson Pollock’s return to figuration in 1951–56.) Headlike or treelike references emerge as putative subjects. L’Arbre, Toto, La Dame de Carreau (Tree, Toto, Queen of Spades), 1962, or Festin (Feast), 1968, are exemplary. At this juncture Riopelle’s use of the palette knife loses a certain urgency and bounce, suggesting the use of larger, stiffer spatulas, drawing his work closer to a kind of scoured, parietal calcification. In this latter dragged mode one is tempted to see the germ of the squeegeed and compressed surfaces of Gerhard Richter’s much later abstractions.

One wonders too whether an admiration for Le Corbusier’s ferroconcrete Unité d’Habitation is reflected in the troweled, cementlike color and weathered surfaces of Riopelle’s paintings of the ’60s and ’70s, not to speak of the sheer weight of these immense solemnities. (See, for example, Le Lac du Nord-Est [The Lake of the North-East], 1975.) Some lighter, more dexterous, even calligraphic paintings on paper—but still huge for all that—completed an informative, auspicious but equivocal exhibition that further valorized Riopelle’s painting of the ’50s (about which there is a settled, positive consensus) while exposing anew the overbearing fustian of his later work.

Robert Pincus-Witten