New York

View of “Supports/Surfaces,” 2014. From left: Daniel Dezeuze, Echelle de bois souple (Flexible Wood Ladder), 1974; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1967; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1967; Louis Cane, Toile découpée (Cut-Out Canvas), 1970. Floor: Patrick Saytour, Untitled, 1974.

View of “Supports/Surfaces,” 2014. From left: Daniel Dezeuze, Echelle de bois souple (Flexible Wood Ladder), 1974; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1967; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1967; Louis Cane, Toile découpée (Cut-Out Canvas), 1970. Floor: Patrick Saytour, Untitled, 1974.

“Supports/Surfaces”

Canada

View of “Supports/Surfaces,” 2014. From left: Daniel Dezeuze, Echelle de bois souple (Flexible Wood Ladder), 1974; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1967; Marc Devade, Untitled, 1967; Louis Cane, Toile découpée (Cut-Out Canvas), 1970. Floor: Patrick Saytour, Untitled, 1974.

“Is Supports/Surfaces a group or a movement?” asks Rachel Stella in the catalogue to this exhibition. “The boundaries remain indefinite,” responds Bernard Ceysson, whose French gallery copublished the volume with Canada, but the core was a “theoretical debate, which took place among a number of artists over a period of time in various manifestations.” The artists were French—mostly from le Midi rather than Paris—and the time was the late 1960s through the ’70s; the manifestations included not only exhibitions but also publications, including the journal Peinture: Cahiers Théoriques, which ran from 1971 through 1985. In the anglophone world, the movement (if that’s what it is) remains little more than a rumor. The ultimate indignity: It even lacks an English-language Wikipedia page, nor are the artists’ writings included in any of the standard compendia, such as those of Harrison and Wood or Stiles and Selz. Yes, a couple of the Supports/Surfaces artists (Daniel Dezeuze, Claude Viallat) were in “As Painting: Division and Displacement” at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, in 2001, but the show never traveled and the catalogue now commands a king’s ransom on the used-book market.

So the first-ever American show of Supports/Surfaces counted as an event—and one that likely fulfilled, if not exceeded, the expectations of those few Francophiles who’ve been waiting all these years. It undoubtedly earned the eleven artists on view many new admirers. With their playfully experimental approach to deconstructing the elements of painting, they are clearly contemporaries of those whose work was revived nearly a decade ago in the widely seen exhibition “High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967–1975”—but the French artists’ work looks even livelier and more effortlessly sensual than that of their American cousins. Despite what one might have feared—and, for all I know, perhaps even contrary to the artists’ intentions at the time—none of this art comes across as drily didactic; it doesn’t need a text to support it. Anyone who knows just a bit about modern art should be able to recognize color as its alpha and omega—and that’s a matter of feeling, not theory; how the effort to understand that feeling might relate to Mao or Althusser, Freud or Greenberg, is secondary. These are clearly sons of Matisse, and brothers of another underrated European contemporary, Giorgio Griffa. It’s worth remembering that Matisse began by being condemned for his “excess of theory,” only later to be loved or dismissed as a hedonist.

Although the twenty-two works on hand in this exhibition occupy a broad formal and material spectrum (this was one of the show’s pleasures), there is an underlying commonality many of them share, namely the strategic subtraction of materiality from color—it tends to become intangible, “optical”; no impasto here!—in order to underline the physicality of the support. And there is a play with structure that often evinces a subtle humor. The support—which might be canvas but can also be sheer gauze (as in Noël Dolla’s breathtaking Tarlatane, 1976), or thin, supple strips of wood (as in Dezeuze’s understated Echelle de bois souple [Flexible Wood Ladder], 1974)—is typically pinned to the wall unstretched, usually to end up in a rug-like roll on the floor. The medium is as likely to be ink or dye or spray paint as oil or acrylic. Viallat’s 1972/F14, 1972, is a grid of dyed rope hanging from the ceiling, a net for vision. In some works, such as Jean-Michel Meurice’s Vinyle, 1976—made of yellow and pink vinyl—the distinction between color and support is bypassed by the use of already-colored material. The boundaries between painting and sculpture are so assiduously redrawn in much of this art that I ended up being most curious about the one work that straightforwardly seemed to be a sculpture: Bernard Pagès’s Fagot, 1968—a bundle of sticks (some of which, admittedly, have a bit of paint on them) rolled up in some wire mesh. It’s got weight, but seems to float. Maybe this art needs a new name: How about Magical Literalism?

Barry Schwabsky