Nice, France

Jacques Henri Lartigue, Feu d’artifice à Nice (Fireworks in Nice), 1911, gelatin silver print, 15 3/4 × 11 3/4". © Ministère de la Culture–France/AAJHL.

Jacques Henri Lartigue, Feu d’artifice à Nice (Fireworks in Nice), 1911, gelatin silver print, 15 3/4 × 11 3/4". © Ministère de la Culture–France/AAJHL.

École(S) de Nice

Various Venues

Jacques Henri Lartigue, Feu d’artifice à Nice (Fireworks in Nice), 1911, gelatin silver print, 15 3/4 × 11 3/4". © Ministère de la Culture–France/AAJHL.

IN 1961, Yves Klein, one of Nice’s most famous sons, heralded the coastal metropolis’s significance in a global art landscape. Delivering a prescient conjecture about our present moment, the artist who had notoriously “signed” the azure sky of Nice as his first artwork announced: “I see a new art axis: Nice–Los Angeles–Tokyo; we will be joined by China.”

More than fifty years after this pronouncement, and only a year and a half after the Bastille Day terrorist attack on the city’s iconic Promenade des Anglais, Klein’s hometown staged an ambitious series of exhibitions across four separate venues, highlighting its history as a fertile cultural and artistic hub since the Paleolithic era, when early humans domesticated fire at Terra Amata. Collectively titled “École(S) de Nice” (School[S] of Nice), the endeavors together offered a significant case study of locality and its production—one presented in a contemporary moment of extreme polarization.As global flows of capital decentralize formulations of the social on the one hand, and the nation form becomes more fortified on the other, these four distinct yet interrelated exhibitions explored the collateral tensions surrounding the creation and consolidation of cultural identity.

View of “À propos de Nice: 1947–1977” (About Nice: 1944–1977), 2017, Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, Nice, France. From left: Martial Raysse, Soudain l’été dernier (Suddenly Last Summer), 1963; Yves Klein, Anthropométrie sans titre (ANT 84), 1960; Jean Vigo, À propos de Nice, 1930.

The show “Nice à l’école de l’histoire”(Nice in the School of History), curated by Jean-Jacques Aillagon with Aymeric Jeudy at the Musée Masséna, aptly revealed the role that foundational myths play in the construction and animation of national origin stories. Diverse objects—including posters, classical sculpture, manuscripts, and furniture—mapped Nice’s genesis back to multiple material, topographic, governmental, and conceptual “inventions”: man’s discovery of fire, Nice’s incorporation into the French nation-state, the conceptualization of the Mediterranean as a shared geographic and cultural territory, the development of the Côte d’Azur as a tourist destination, and the building of Europe. While the categories of invention offered supple, even loose reflections of history—the section on fire included, for example, prehistoric artifacts; Raoul Dufy’s Feu d’artifice à Nice, le casino de la Jetée-Promenade (Fireworks in Nice, Casino on the Pier),1947; Jacques Henri-Lartigue’s Feu d’artifice à Nice (Fireworks in Nice),1911; and Noël Dolla’s Les silences de la fumée (The Silences of Smoke),1989—this expansive lineage nevertheless framed Nice as the consummation of a Western civilization development project.

Noël Dolla, Restructuration spatiale n°5, 1980, natural pigment on pebbles. Installation view, Plage des Ponchettes, Nice, France, February 23, 1980. © ADAGP, Paris.

Meanwhile, at the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, the exhibition “À propos de Nice: 1947–1977” (About Nice: 1947–1977) narrated the emergence of the postwar generation of artists who would eventually eclipse the École de Paris. While many previous accounts have traced the synchronous decline of Paris and rise of New York as the locus of neo-avant-garde practices, this heavily researched show offered an alternative plot. For curators Hélène Guenin and Rébecca François, unsettling the hierarchy of center and periphery within France and making visible the number, diversity, and originality of the artists who lived and worked in (or merely drifted through) the Côte d’Azur are vital steps toward a revised national and international art history alike. Importantly, such actions widen the spectrum of artists commonly associated with the “École de Nice,” as critic Claude Rivière termed the collective in 1960 in the newspaper Combat. While works by the group’s founding fathers—Yves Klein, Arman, Martial Raysse, and Ben among them—were prominently displayed, the exhibition also recognized artists who have not been adequately historicized or institutionalized. As argued convincingly by Éric Mangion in the accompanying catalogue, Pierre Pinoncelli, Dan Azoulay, Daniel Farioli, Serge III, Robert Érébo, and Robert Bozzi were among those who used the local landscape both as material and as visual reference points, yet their anti-institutional, performative practices rendered them virtually invisible. One of the most remarkable counter-points to the obscurity that can accompany such willfully ephemeral, countercultural practices was in the room dedicated to La Cédille qui Sourit. Founded by George Brecht and Robert Filliou with Donna Brewer and Marianne Staffeldt in Villefranche-sur-Mer, this bookshop—cum-gallery-cum-atelier (open only on request) was active between 1965 and 1968. Also referred to as theCenter for Permanent Creation, it was a framework for multiple nonhierarchical, Fluxus-oriented activities. Its diverse output has, to some measure, been integrated into institutionally driven histories, unlike the emphatically local activities of other practitioners, if only because the international Fluxus network and its now-robust market have contributed to rendering La Cédille qui Sourit a visible landmark.

One must ask how such an articulation of local identity, anchored in the longue durée of Western culture, relates to the formation of possible futures.

The critical strategy of linking regional production to international networks, markets, and histories was fundamental to the exhibition “La surface de la côte est de Nice à New York” (The Surface of the East Coast from Nice to New York) at Le 109. Curated by Marie Maertens, the show proposed a formally based dialogue between the early-1970s practices of the group Supports/Surfaces, whose members largely hailed from the South of France, and the twenty-first-century output of a sampling of New York-based artists. Maertens’s ahistorical focus on formal affinities privileged the autonomous migration of artistic gestures, deracinated from institutionalized networks that would connect practitioners in different geographical and socioeconomic contexts active over sixty years apart. Though the minimal reception of Supports/Surfaces outside of France may be a testament to the (still hegemonic) organization of art history around North America–centric genealogies of post-Minimal and Conceptual art, such an achronological framework was unfortunate. It too easily ignored the problem of painting as a medium linked to advanced capital both then and now: In the anti-establishment climate of the late ’60s, Louis Cane, Marc Devade, Daniel Dezeuze, Dolla, Bernard Pagès, Patrick Saytour, and Claude Viallat confronted painting’s putatively bourgeois character by deconstructing its constitutive elements of canvas and chassis, integrating materials and objects drawn from mass culture and expanding beyond the white cube, often occupying landscape and urban space. Today, art’s complicity in the problems of capital has permutated into different entanglements, and while various artists from a younger generation may perform similarly deconstructive gestures, these are not only bereft of political ideology but are often made with the gallery format and market in mind.

Marc Devade, Untitled (TG001), 1977, ink on canvas. Installation view, Le 109, Nice, France, 2017. Photo: Cédric Teisseire.

At the Galerie des Ponchettes, the exhibition “Noël Dolla: Restructurations spatiales” (Noël Dolla: Spatial Restructurings) was dedicated to the Nice-born Dolla, a founding member of Supports/Surfaces and a longtime pedagogue at the Villa Arson. Photographic documents revisited Dolla’s “spatial restructurings,” interventions in outdoor landscapes around Nice that he began in 1969 and continues to this day. According to the logic of Supports/Surfaces—namely, an opposition to painting’s eventual integration as image within a capitalist market system—but also with a desire to create a different social rapport between art and its publics, Dolla aggressively dismantled the medium’s modernist myths and conventions. He thus rejected both studio and gallery, working in situ. His first three works took place at Cîme de l’Authion, for which he respectively painted a stone wall and limestone peaks in pink vinyl; used colored salts to limn three large circles (in green, blue, and pink) in the snow; and dispersed five hundred white cardboard cake-pan liners and three black ones across more than fifty thousand square feet of the mountain’s slope. These temporary gestures were documented, yet no images were ever produced for commercial gain, made available for private acquisition, or shown in an exhibition venue (until recently). Here, they were affixed without frames to the brightly colored walls, their conceptual linkages newly demarcated by the artist via tarlatan that wended through the space. Dolla’s creative self-appropriation actively “restructured” the context of his work’s reception, suggesting the artist’s awareness that institutionalization often goes hand in hand with nostalgic historicization or, worse, domestication and irrelevance.

View of “Noël Dolla: Restructurations spatiales,” 2017, Galerie des Ponchettes, Nice, France. Photo: François Fernandez. © ADAGP, Paris.

Considered together, the four exhibitions under the aegis of “École(S) de Nice” investigated the historical production of locality while also shaping its meaning from a contemporary perspective. Paradoxically, this municipally sponsored enterprise, which mobilized public collections, local curators, and a host of governmental agencies and private agents, did not emerge from a merely affirmative posture. Rather, in the wake of the 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice respectively, cities’ and the country’s struggles with the contours of French identity have foregrounded an urgent need to contend with the implosive legacy of colonization, the effects of diasporic flows, and the impacts of financial and media-driven global processes. In the face of such disjunctive transformations, “École(S) de Nice” told a story in which spatial immediacy and social contiguity coincided to produce a sense of local identity. The city’s relevance, it seemed, was as integrally linked to the origins of Western civilization as to the cultural, economic, and artistic experimentation associated with modernism. Additional strategies, such as the relativization of geographic contexts along a North-South national axis (Paris and Nice) at the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain and the intertwinement of artistic and economic networks along a North American–European transnational one (New York and Nice) at Le 109, took significant steps to complicate the dimensions for thinking about the local. Nevertheless, one must ask how such an articulation of local identity, anchored in the longue durée of Western culture, relates to the formation of possible futures. What kind of potential regional and national communities may yet emerge from this retrospective gaze at the complex network of apparatuses through which homo nationalis and homo niçois were produced in mutual imbrication? And can the material practices and symbolic forms assembled in these exhibitions support and sustain the expanding globalized production of localities based on difference, displacement, and deterritorialization?

Nuit Banai is professor of contemporary art in the department of art history at the University of Vienna.