Bernard Piffaretti, Untitled, 1999, acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 98 3/8".

Bernard Piffaretti, Untitled, 1999, acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 98 3/8".

Bernard Piffaretti

Bernard Piffaretti, Untitled, 1999, acrylic on canvas, 78 3/4 x 98 3/8".

“Calligram” was Bernard Piffaretti’s first solo show in London. With nine paintings dating between 1988 and 2017, it also provided a tiny snapshot of his range and approach. Born in Saint-Étienne, France, in 1955, the Paris-based artist has since 1986 been making abstract paintings that are always divided in half along a central, zip-like, painted line, with one side a near repetition of the other. Always, the center line is the first move, the starting point; whether he then continues by painting on the left or the right varies from work to work. A subtler continuity within Piffaretti’s oeuvre, on the whole, is the sense of freshness and immediacy conveyed by his flat, brightly colored forms or structures on white grounds, despite the evident artifice of the double configuration. Drips and dribbles, constants in most pieces, record a sense of the moment. 

Untitled, 2017, exemplifies the way in which Piffaretti’s paintings operate. Painted in cursive script on each half of the rectangle, the legend CALLIGRAM is broken up into CALL, I, GR, and AM in blue, green, yellow, and red, respectively. The letters are interspersed with roughly geometric shapes in red-orange. But because of their placement across the rectangle, the letters read more like CALL-GR-I-AM. As a result, the viewer somehow has to reconcile vertical reading and horizontal seeing when comparing the two sides. At first glance the pair seem identical, but on close scrutiny, as with all of Piffaretti’s paintings, subtle differences emerge. In particular, the drips of paint give away the handmade nature of the work, and therefore the inevitability of difference even in duplication, and sit in contradistinction to the seemingly mechanical quality of the process of reproducing on one side of the painting what has already been painted on the other.

Working with this consistent method, Piffaretti uses a broad range of imagery—usually abstract but not always—and of mood. For example, Untitled, 1999, suggests two multicolored brick walls, while the earliest work shown here, Untitled, 1988, is graded from an intense red at the top to white at the bottom, with a black, twelve-pointed star or crack-like form on the bottom. The former, with its green, white, and orange rectangles, has a graphic Pop art quality, while the latter evokes symbolism or perhaps neo-expressionism.

Piffaretti is asking his viewer to compare, and to question the idea of originality. His doubling of the image creates an expectation of disinterestedness, of a rational approach, yet this is countered by each work’s painterly qualities—facture, gesture, flat color—which instead suggest the intuitive. In French, the word for painting is tableau, which also translates as table and picture. Piffaretti’s play of image and painted object draws on the French 1970s Supports/Surfaces movement, whose members deconstructed the painting and its stretcher, and reconstituted them by playing with their process and structure. For Piffaretti, the white ground appears to be a surface upon which a series of painted actions occur. Although the support (canvas and stretcher) remains intact, every aspect of his process is on display. In a sense, it is put under scrutiny because of this binary composition. He conceives of painting as an unheroic act in which sameness and difference hold equal value. Despite the intellectual underpinning of his approach, Piffaretti’s method roots his art distinctly in the visual, and that contradiction is the source of his painting’s attractiveness. 

Sherman Sam