Dubai

Christian Bonnefoi, JANAPA II, 1978, acrylic on tarlatan, metal frame, 74 3/4 × 98 3/8". From the series “JANAPA,” 1978.

Christian Bonnefoi, JANAPA II, 1978, acrylic on tarlatan, metal frame, 74 3/4 × 98 3/8". From the series “JANAPA,” 1978.

Christian Bonnefoi

Jean-Paul Najar Foundation

Christian Bonnefoi, JANAPA II, 1978, acrylic on tarlatan, metal frame, 74 3/4 × 98 3/8". From the series “JANAPA,” 1978.

Christian Bonnefoi creates large, multicolored canvases of diagonals and stripes, squiggles and turns, that are steeped in the history of abstraction and the theories that have accompanied it. Bonnefoi’s recent show, “Double Take,” concentrated on paintings from 1974 to 1980, with just six later works, and was curated by Sylvie Turpin, who has long collaborated with the artist. In many of them, large canvases are stretched across metal or wooden frames, which remain visible through the gauzy muslin that Bonnefoi characteristically uses—an extremely delicate material called tarlatan. He paints on either the front or the back, or leaves it as is. The effect is one of sheer vulnerability: The paintings, though sturdy in terms of balanced composition and thick lines or twists of paint, seem in danger of being snagged or punctured by errant elbows. And the thinness of the material allows the stretcher to emerge as a constituent part of the pattern; the canvases are stretched over a Saint Andrew’s, or X-shaped, cross, whose vectors are often echoed in bright lines of paint.

Bonnefoi here clearly traffics in the high-modernist precepts of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, approaching the painting not as a picture plane but as physical material. Art history is palpable in his works, and the descriptions of his paintings often make recourse to other artists: He describes the vibrant, large-scale JANAPA II, 1978, of jaunty red, yellow, and white shapes, as marrying the differing approaches to color of Matisse and Mondrian. The geometric collage HYPERION III, 1978, is held together with pins in a nod to Picasso’s use of pins in his early collages. Yve-Alain Bois capitalized on this symbol in a 1992 essay on Bonnefoi’s work, figuring the pin as a metaphor for how any work binds disparate art-historical theories. Indeed, the retrospective is a reminder of how auto-theoretical painting used to be, as well as how circumscribed. If Bonnefoi’s work is not exactly weighted down by a need to support his substantial art-historical knowledge, it also stays very much within a formalist field of inquiry: painting about itself and its possibilities.

Ironically, the most moving section of the show meditated on emptiness and lack of provenance via three monochromatic, minimally painted works from the “JANAPA” series, 1978, as well as the equally austere canvases Pur détachement de l’effet II 5/1979 (Pure Detachment of Effect II 5/1979), 1979, and EZECHIEL (DHUL-KIFL), 1976. “JANAPA” is taken from a line in a poem by Antonin Artaud: “Ja na pa / à papa-mama,” a slightly nonsensical rendition of “Je n’ai pas papa ni mama” (“I have no mother or father”). The paintings’ attempt to reach a ground zero of meaning and signification here chimed unexpectedly with the Biblical and Qu’ranic allusions of the other titles, and I couldn’t help thinking of Laura Marks’s analysis of geometric abstraction in Islamic art: the idea that repeated abstract motifs bring the mind away from material manifestations and toward contemplation of the divine itself. With the room’s painterly echoes of Mark Rothko’s chapel, what seemed most intriguing was less Bonnefoi’s formal reflections than his apparent engagement with one of art’s most fraught subjects: that of religion and faith.

Melissa Gronlund