View of “Displace, Disclose, Discover: Acts of Painting, 1960–1999,” 2012. From left: Marc Devade, Untitled, 1976; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1975; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1976; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1976. Photo: Philip Bernard.

View of “Displace, Disclose, Discover: Acts of Painting, 1960–1999,” 2012. From left: Marc Devade, Untitled, 1976; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1975; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1976; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1976. Photo: Philip Bernard.

“Displace, Disclose, Discover: Acts of Painting, 1960–1999”

View of “Displace, Disclose, Discover: Acts of Painting, 1960–1999,” 2012. From left: Marc Devade, Untitled, 1976; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1975; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1976; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1976. Photo: Philip Bernard.

“THE FRENCH TALKED SUCH NONSENSE.” This is Clement Greenberg in 1968, as interviewed by Edward Lucie-Smith. The remark comes among a set of judgments about the international reception of postwar American painting: Although the first to pay it serious attention were the French, Greenberg claims, the responses of these key continental tastemakers—painter Georges Mathieu, critic Michel Tapié, dealer Paul Facchetti—essentially baffled critical understanding. It was an old point for Greenberg, who had earlier decried a creeping tendency in the Paris art scene toward privileging “acts” of painting over results, “gestures” over form. And nobody, the critic thought, had done more to encourage that error than his rival Harold Rosenberg, whose 1952 essay “The American Action Painters” had supplied this shift in emphasis with an existentialist apology.

What seemed like nonsense to Greenberg appears today as a historical situation ripe for reevaluation. At a minimum, making sense of the French response demands some accounting of the early harnessing of “action” to a very specific pictorial rhetoric—one grounded in a primarily graphic impetus that prolonged, even as it disavowed, the Surrealist practice of automatic writing and its association with exceptional and trancelike states (think of Henri Michaux’s rapidly executed mescaline drawings and works in black ink of the ’50s and ’60s, or, the central example, Mathieu’s comparatively programmatic aesthetic of speed)—and then entails thinking through how something distinctly different emerges.

These are large issues, to be sure, but the recent exhibition at the Lille Métropole appeared poised to address them. Curated by Marc Donnadieu, the show brought together nearly 130 works by five very different painters: Simon Hantaï, Martin Barré, Marc Devade, Jean Degottex, and Michel Parmentier. All painters emerged within, and to some extent in conflict with, a context dominated by gestural abstraction. Most important, two of them played defining roles in extending the French reception and dissemination of postwar American art and criticism: Hantaï as one of the first painters in Paris to respond fully to the work of Jackson Pollock, and Devade through his involvement in the ’60s and ’70s with the group Supports-Surfaces and the journals Tel Quel and Peinture, Cahiers théoriques (the latter published the first French translation of Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” in 1974).

But the show, unfortunately, proved to be a missed opportunity, one that refused to historicize the work on view and provided no meaningful access to broadly shared precedents or paradigms. The main consequence of that refusal, in catalogue and exhibition alike, was a peculiar atomization of the featured practices: The five painters were essentially presented as outsiders to the main currents of modern and contemporary art; each was isolated from the others, in a succession of monographic rooms; and each was represented by just one moment in his career. Ironically, these decisions appeared rooted in—even a further radicalization of—the very notion of action that one might have expected the show to interrogate. In large part, Donnadieu implicitly carries over Rosenberg’s pitting of a certain concept of action against more traditional emphases on representation, expression, and signification, though the accent differs. So where Rosenberg imagines the act of painting as an authentic attempt at self-discovery, Donnadieu casts it in terms apparently friendlier to Greenberg as “the site of a distinction, of a difference, of an alterity between the painting and the painter.” (Rosenberg’s references are to Sartre and Kierkegaard, Donnadieu’s to Blanchot and Foucault.) Indeed, for Donnadieu, the painter is all but effaced in his act, giving rise instead to “a territory where the work of art, as such, can exist by itself and in itself, profoundly, absolutely.”

The paintings themselves, however, offered indices for a more nuanced narrative. Take the work of Martin Barré, represented in Lille by a cramped installation of spray paintings from the years 1963 to 1967. Prefacing those paintings was 61-T-2, a 1961 canvas with an uneven cornice of thick red, red-brown, and cream-colored marks squeezed directly from paint tubes: The technique is Mathieuesque but shuns the theatrical mise-en-scène of his typically centered pseudologos. The black matte traces of the later sprays are, as Yve-Alain Bois has described, a more complicated affair, tapping into something of the earlier emphasis on speed—Barré painted them quickly as they hung on the wall, then immediately laid them on the floor, to prevent drips—while nonetheless introducing a crucial distance between the painter’s hand and the eventual trace.

Two other figures also inscribe themselves within a fundamentally graphic schema while moving toward deductive structures produced through various methods of folding and unfolding unstretched supports: Degottex in his “Ligne-Report-Noir” works of 1977–78, predominantly black paintings that reveal negative lines of bare canvas within allover configurations that owe much to Ad Reinhardt and Frank Stella; and the much-younger Parmentier in a selection of works on tracing paper of 1989–94, with willfully “dumb” short lines in graphite or paint, confined to regular horizontal bands. The results suggest decidedly humdrum processes of rote tallying—an association that is complicated, but not entirely dissolved, by a selection of smaller and relatively freer works on paper (the “Études” of 1987–90). Knowingly or unknowingly, both Degottex and Parmentier take over Mathieu’s earlier practice of dating works to a single day, but they sap that gesture of its prior associations with a privileged or ecstatic state of notionally unpremeditated production. Parmentier in particular is just marking time, and time, these works tell us, keeps going on.

Devade’s work heads in a different direction. His “H paintings” of 1975–77 retain a graphic armature in the titular form—a kind of internal drawing produced by a guided flow of ink—but also demonstrate the artist seeking to “exceed” the geometric with the chromatic, an ambition keyed to his interest in American Color Field painting. This “exceeding” carried explicitly sexual overtones: In his “Comment me vient la peinture” (a hard-to-translate title that might be rendered as “How Painting Comes with Me”), a 1973 essay reprinted in the catalogue, Devade describes painting as a “discharge,” a “debauchery of jouissance,” a “sexual dance.” Here as elsewhere, Devade might be read as trying to rescue the painting he admired from Greenbergian “opticality,” but the attempt veers dangerously close to a naturalizing repetition of Mathieu’s discourse, if not his practice. As for the results, they are disappointing, registering as heavily indebted and at times transparent to a range of prior and contemporaneous references: Mark Rothko, Reinhardt again, Jules Olitski, and, above all, James Bishop, a remarkable painter whose work constituted a central reference for the Tel Quel group and provides the nearest precedent for Devade’s pouring method. (I found myself wishing Bishop had been included in Devade’s place.)

I have saved for last that figure with whose work the exhibition opened, the Hungarian-born Hantaï (see also page 228). His signature practice of folding, crumpling, and at times knotting unstretched canvases prior to the application of paint—what he famously called “folding as method”—appears the deep context for the use of folding on the part of other painters here: not just Parmentier, for whom the debt to Hantaï was explicit, but also Degottex, for whom it was not. Of all the artists in the show, Hantaï is the one whose reckoning with Mathieu was most direct: The two men actually collaborated on a 1957 “Happening” of sorts, and Hantaï’s writings and paintings immediately before and after that event engage and critique Mathieu’s work in complex ways. Not coincidentally, Hantaï is also perhaps the only one for whom color eventually assumes a truly driving role. Consistent with a deeply entrenched understanding of his practice and with the discursive frame of the show as a whole, a brochure distributed in the exhibition presented folding as a means of “avoiding all subjectivity and almost eliminating any intentionality,” yet the paintings themselves—his rarely exhibited “Panses” (Paunches) of 1964–65—tell another story. It is not simply that their densely painted forms record multiple acts of folding and painting within a carefully circumscribed area or that the results are among the most nakedly anthropomorphic of Hantaï’s oeuvre. The “Panses” are also perhaps the folded and unfolded series in which one feels most powerfully the return of the brush (Hantaï throughout the ’50s had abandoned it) and, indeed, of a kind of handwriting: cursive microgestures clearly preserved in the painted zones that reveal the often meandering twists and turns of Hantaï’s hand and wrist movements. In all of these ways, the “Panses” appear profoundly recalcitrant to the exhibition’s professed emphasis on impersonal acts, pushing back instead toward a question of the existential inherited from the earlier discourse of action. What the “Panses” bring into view is an altogether different but arguably more important problem for the painters gathered in Lille: that of the persistence of the subject, whether conceived as excess or remainder, in a daily practice of painting that may very well have wanted to leave it behind. It was the unintentional virtue of “Displace, Disclose, Discover” to let that problem appear in all its messy obstinacy.

Molly Warnock is an assistant professor of art history at Emory University in Atlanta.