Simon Hantaï

SIMON HANTAÏ IS OFTEN PRESENTED as Europe’s answer to Jackson Pollock: The Hungarian-born French painter was among the first on the Continent to notice and take seriously Pollock’s painting, and the abstract canvases he produced over a period of twenty-two years, from 1960 to 1982—in the medium that he called pliage, or “folding”—are also seen as a precedent for the variously “deconstructive” or “analytic” tendencies associated with a host of younger figures, including Daniel Buren and the painters of Supports/Surfaces. Yet Hantaï’s pliage works, widely exhibited in France during the later 1960s and ’70s (and increasingly visible in New York of late), comprise only one, albeit sustained, period within a larger and decidedly heterogeneous oeuvre—much of which remains unknown and largely inaccessible. Many important paintings entered private collections early on, while the artist himself refused all but a handful of invitations to show his work in the final quarter century of his life. Five years after the painter’s death, and nearly forty years after his last retrospective, Hantaï’s art is ripe for reassessment.

The expansive full-career survey held this summer at the Centre Pompidou constituted an important step in that direction. Organized by poet-critic Dominique Fourcade, former Musée National d’Art Moderne curator Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, and outgoing Pompidou director Alfred Pacquement—three longtime admirers of Hantaï’s art—and arranged chronologically, the show brought together 130 paintings spanning almost the entirety of the artist’s career in France, from shortly after his arrival in Paris in the fall of 1948 through the later ’80s and ’90s, when he produced his final paintings. Previously obscure periods, such as Hantaï’s Surrealist phase between 1952 and 1955, were given unprecedented coverage, and long-separated paintings were reunited—some, as in the case of the pivotal Peinture (Écriture rose) and À Galla Placidia, both 1958–59, for the first time since they left the painter’s studio. The sheer depth and breadth of the work on view clearly established Hantaï’s place among the most searching and protean artists of the later twentieth century.

What was lacking, unfortunately, was a compelling reading of the logic of the work, its driving commitments and stakes—in other words, an explanation of how one room led to the next. This was partly a result of a clear decision, at once voiced and enacted by Fourcade in his long framing essay for the accompanying catalogue, to exclude from consideration all topics deemed to lie outside the domain of painting. One effect of that refusal was a marked avoidance of Hantaï’s own writings and remarks about his work (including the painter’s extraordinary and still underread texts of the ’50s, so intimately entangled with his pictorial practice), which were cast by Fourcade as an obfuscating screen. Another effect, closely related to the first, was a tendency to let judgments of quality and appeals to a transhistorical notion of “la grande peinture” stand in for a more rigorous exfoliation of the issues in play.

Those issues, as the work itself made clear, are large and complex—and touch upon matters as fundamental as what it means to be a finite self, exposed to contingency and loss. Perhaps the most consequential, and certainly one of the more striking, stories told by the more than fifty rarely seen (for the most part scraped) works tracking Hantaï’s first decade in France concerned his palpable ambivalence toward questions of embodiment and being. The disquieting, suggestively humanoid, and intensely sculptural monsters at the center of Femelle-Miroir I and especially Femelle-Miroir II, both 1953—figures green like the Christ in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France, which Hantaï had visited shortly before—emerge against the backdrop of more experimental, allover compositions, and come off as self-inflicted obstacles, devised in order to work through and overcome the limits of physical representation. For what then transpires is a veritable passion of figuration: a stripping bare or sustained undoing that begins in earnest with Hantaï’s departure from the Surrealists, his move to gestural abstraction, and his momentary rapprochement with his fellow painter Georges Mathieu. The key stations here are Sexe-Prime. Hommage à Jean-Pierre Brisset, 1955, with its flayed-looking figural clumps and exposed underpainting, and Souvenir de l’avenir, 1958, in which painting is reduced to basic oppositional pairs: black and white, horizontal and vertical.

Those negotiations brought one in turn to the heart of the show: a large and visually stunning room devoted to Hantaï’s work from the roughly one-year period stretching from the late fall of 1958 through the final days of 1959. The linchpin of the installation, as of the artist’s career as a whole, was the canvas now called Peinture (Écriture rose), a vast expanse covered with passages copied by hand from biblical, liturgical, and philosophical texts, along with various other pictorial incidents such as areas of gold leaf and a spray of black ink. Hanging directly beside it, the slightly smaller À Galla Placidia revealed a surface layered with minuscule touches of paint strongly reminiscent of mosaic (a resonance reinforced by the title, given in honor of the fifth-century mausoleum at Ravenna). Developed adjacently in Hantaï’s studio, and intimately linked in his daily rhythm, these monumental paintings now belong to different museum collections: the former to the Musée National d’Art Moderne, the latter to the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Their reunion at the Pompidou therefore constituted an event, the significance of which was only amplified by the additional inclusion of thirteen roughly contemporaneous paintings, from a larger gold monochrome to a host of smaller paintings also deploying writing, what the artist called petites touches (“little touches”), or both.

Within the terms of the exhibition, these paintings mark the advent of a new kind of pictorial space and therefore the moment when Hantaï, according to Fourcade, “invented his own originality.” Remarkably, however, the exhibition had nothing of substance to say about the works’ explicit appeals to devotional and liturgical supports and milieus. Yet at stake in these works is nothing less than a summing up and a sustained farewell to an entire past of painting in the West: that of its traditional embedment in a ritual and primarily Catholic context that, as Hantaï had come to understand it, once secured painting’s meaningful being for a community. Incomprehensible simply as new avatars of Pollockian “allover­ness,” these paintings pose an open question about the place (or nonplace) left to painting under secular modernity—after or beyond a certain promise of communion. What one makes of this will largely determine what one makes of the pliage work on view in the following rooms.

Repeatedly modified from one series to the next, and first qualified by the artist as a “method” in 1967, pliage names the painting of a crumpled, knotted, or carefully folded canvas that is then unfolded and stretched for exhibition. Read along the trajectory I’ve proposed here, pliage helps Hantaï recover finitude and tactility as matters of the decidedly material support and its handling. In so doing, it takes over and transforms the promise of Peinture (Écriture rose): Whereas the earlier painting approaches Western thinking about “the sacred” as, among other things, a body of texts—bound to history and exposed to reading—pliage further emphasizes the material contingency, even the lowness or banality (a key word for Hantaï), of painting in the wake of that tradition. Which is to say: modern painting.

The complexity of that passage was largely elided in this show, which stayed within the broad lines of a reading sketched by Fourcade as early as 1976. Here Hantaï appears as a gifted colorist settling into his mature reckoning with Pollock, subsequently remaking Matisse and eventually Cézanne in light of that engagement. (Notably absent from this presentation, albeit addressed in the catalogue, was any sense of his dealings with Duchamp, a figure who must now be counted among Hantaï’s most enduring, if comparatively subterranean, interlocutors.) Two bodies of work in particular were clearly privileged and shown in depth: the inaugural “Mariales,” 1960–62, with fifteen paintings, and the equally decisive “Meuns,” 1967–68, with eighteen canvases. Whereas the former group reveals densely packed surfaces combining opaque painted facets and underlying areas of black drips or bare canvas, the latter series was the first to allow nonpainted reserves to penetrate fully the painted areas. The transition between the two reveals the painter struggling to acknowledge the potentially constitutive role of blank or white space, which he had initially perceived as merely disruptive. Additional rooms tracked his later peregrinations among the nonpainted, from the more dispersed, allover configurations of the “Études,” 1968–72, and the “Blancs,”1972–74, to the comparatively regular grids of the late, long-running “Tabulas,” 1972–82.

Here as elsewhere, however, the orientation toward “great painting” had its costs. Foremost among them was a relative monotony in the installation, with the curators opting consistently to display the most monumental works of a given period. Yet as Georges Didi-Huberman rightly notes in his contribution to the catalogue, Hantaï throughout his life purposefully alternated between larger and smaller supports—both within series and across them. This variety is key, for it speaks both to the experimental and empirical nature of pliage, and to the larger oscillation in Hantaï’s work between immersion and circumscription, between the desire to “lose himself” in painting and the active recovery of limits. That dynamic was all but evacuated in this show, nowhere more evidently than in the awkward corner room devoted to two early series, the “Catamurons,” 1963–64, and the “Panses,” 1964–65: Both are composed primarily of smaller formats, but were represented almost exclusively by larger examples.

Related omissions haunted the exhibition’s final room, devoted to Hantaï’s production in the long years following his withdrawal from exhibiting his work in 1982. His final series of paintings, titled “Laissées,” were produced between 1989 and 1998, and are composed in part of fragments cut from a group of extremely large-format “Tabulas” from 1981. The later series refigures the artist’s exploration of pictorial edges and boundaries as a quasi-photographic practice of cropping, and is in that sense continuous with several roughly contemporaneous experiments with anamorphic, photographically based silk screens and, shortly thereafter, with digital scanning and printing. Although barely acknowledged in the Pompidou exhibition, such investigations suggest Hantaï had once again taken up his enduring interest in painting’s adjacency to a range of practices that exceed it. What this photographic turn figures is neither a resurrection nor a rebirth, but a “remaining”: so many apparitions of a finite and contingent medium, endlessly displaced beyond itself.

Molly Warnock is an assistant professor in history of art at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.