New York

Germaine Richier, L’Eau (Water), 1953–54, dark patinated bronze, 57 1/2 x 24 3/4 x 39 3/4".

Germaine Richier, L’Eau (Water), 1953–54, dark patinated bronze, 57 1/2 x 24 3/4 x 39 3/4".

Germaine Richier

Dominique Lévy/Galerie Perrotin

Germaine Richier, L’Eau (Water), 1953–54, dark patinated bronze, 57 1/2 x 24 3/4 x 39 3/4".

Recently, Dominique Lévy and Emmanuel Perrotin gave over their joint gallery spaces to a challenging, taste-transforming exhibition of more than forty sculptures by Germaine Richier (1902–1959), many of them textbook familiar, others complete revelations. It was the first New York exhibition of the French-born artist’s work in more than a half a century.

In the 1920s, Richier had been a student of Antoine Bourdelle, then the reigning counter-Rodinist, an artist widely admired for a type of “heroic,” quasi-geometric realism that paralleled the monumental platitudes of Aristide Maillol. Richier has long exemplified the kind of student who, if not surpassing her master (though today, most would think she had), certainly became his equal. Her works’ aggressive intrusion of torn, disjunctive patches of space into sheer, unifying mass, for example, seems to turn inside out the tamped-down classical conventions typical of the 1930s in which she was formed.

By the postwar ’40s and ’50s, masterpieces abound, works marked by a disturbing pictorialism and perhaps best referred to by their French titles, owing to their odd wordplay. Among these pieces, we find L’Orage (The Storm), 1947–48, and L’Ouragane (The Hurricane), 1948–49, together with a kind of hulking Adam and Eve; Diabolo and Le Diabolo, both 1950, and Le Griffu (Man with Claws), 1952, all three nightmarish versions of the cup-and-ball game; La Tauromachie, 1953, an incinerated, striding Egyptian figure juxtaposed with a horned bull’s skull, reminiscent of Picasso’s wartime still lifes; L’Eau (Water), 1953–54, a seated female figure whose body is a massive meridional amphora; and Le Cheval à six têtes, grand (The Six-Headed Horse, Large Version), 1954–56, a paraphrase of the many quadrigae found throughout tourist-snapshot Paris, such as those atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel or the Grand Palais.

Richier’s work has long been viewed through the interpretive prism of unabashed Expressionist angst, of humankind barely surviving the Holocaust and atomic annihilation. (The sculptor herself was, in considerable measure, insulated from the real devastation of World War II by virtue of her withdrawal to neutral Switzerland—an act made possible by her marriage to the sculptor Charles-Otto Bänninger, a Swiss national.) By now, the existential interpretation of the work is the standard mode by which her forms are read and rationalized.

Much of Richier’s oeuvre also derives, of course, from the Surrealist insect repertoire, in particular that of the vampirish praying mantis, whose female of the species, following copulation, feeds upon the male. The Surrealist commonplaces of insects and spiders are obviously also crucial to the work of Louise Bourgeois (the artists’ careers overlapped in France before Bourgeois came to New York in 1938). Another Surrealist motif typical of Richier’s work is the often crouching, insect-segmented figure playing cat’s-cradle games with string (represented in the sculptures by wire). See, for example, La Fourmi (The Ant), 1953, a work recalling the opening of Jean de la Fontaine’s rhyming fable known to all French children: “La Cigale et la fourmi ayant chante tout l’été . . .”; again Bourgeois leaps to mind. Indeed, one could easily think of Richier as the bridge to Bourgeois, whose work, after all, has always sat uneasily amid the Constructivist aspects of Abstract Expressionist sculpture (typified, say, by David Smith), a discordance that long marginalized Bourgeois in the United States. With respect to a putative stylistic affiliation between Richier and Bourgeois, both cryptically code Expressionism as female, Constructivism as male—quite an achievement. In short, this awesome survey—let the teenage catchphrase pass—provided a new road map to contemporary sculpture, one filled with works that, unlike that demanded by today’s conventional preferences, are totally without Conceptual irony and do not privilege Constructivism.

Robert Pincus-Witten