Jean Degottex, Dépli bleu, blanc (Unfolded Blue, White), 1979, acrylic on canvas, 80 3⁄4 × 80 1⁄4". From the series “Dépli” (Unfolded), 1978–82.

Jean Degottex, Dépli bleu, blanc (Unfolded Blue, White), 1979, acrylic on canvas, 80 3⁄4 × 80 1⁄4". From the series “Dépli” (Unfolded), 1978–82.

Jean Degottex

More than a dozen unstretched canvases by Jean Degottex, each hardly bigger than a typed page, were displayed in a vitrine in “À la ligne,” a deftly curated and flawlessly installed exhibition devoted primarily to eighteen wall-hung paintings on paper or cloth. Several clearly paired sets demonstrated, with didactic clarity, one of his signature techniques, that of the report: the pressing of one surface or part of a surface against another so as to effect the mediated transfer of painterly marks. (The temporally charged infinitive, reporter, might be translated in this context as “carrying forward”; it strongly connotes deferring or delaying.) The intriguing ensemble occupies an uncertain place in Degottex’s work of the later 1970s. Did he conceive it as an independent series or as a set of studies relative to his large-format paintings? Could it be a draft for an unrealized book—or something else altogether?

These are open questions. This show, the artist’s first at the gallery that now represents his estate, made clear that much remains to be thought through in his expansive oeuvre and no less considerable archives. Born in 1918, Degottex had his first solo exhibition in Paris in 1949 and received an early boost from André Breton, who presented his spare calligraphic canvases as a logical development of the Surrealist practice of automatic writing. Like his generational peer Simon Hantaï and his younger colleagues in Supports/Surfaces, Degottex came to privilege modes of pictorial production, such as the report, that directly engaged the materiality of the painterly support. Yet he never shared those artists’ emphasis on the effects of color, remaining (until his death in 1988) steadfastly devoted to the exploration and renovation of line and all but entirely eschewing sensuous hues in his mature work.

Each of the gallery’s three spaces focused on a more or less discrete moment of production. The paintings in the first room, devoted mainly to the period 1963–64, established a stark foil for those to come. They revealed spindly, writing-like gestures—often abstract, but sometimes legible—alternately painted into and scraped out of predominantly black fields. In one instance, the 1963 Poème de Renée B, vertically stacked rectangles appeared Rothkoesque, suggesting Degottex may have studied the American’s 1962–63 retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, an event largely ignored by the Paris art press of the day. The paintings’ atmosphere is brooding, rhetorically laden, the seemingly hasty marking a period flourish. We are nonetheless on the brink of something else.

The second room jumped ahead to the years 1978–79. Although the painter continued to make mostly black paintings throughout his career, both this gallery and the next one exclusively featured his principally white abstractions, as if to more powerfully dramatize the contrast with his earlier work. Three works of the “Dépli” (Unfolded) series, 1978–82, all from 1979, signaled the emergence of pliage and collage as key means of generating lines without drawing them in, displacing gesture into the physical manipulation and layering of supports. In these pieces, Degottex folded and unfolded the human-scale formats so as to mark out their constituent quadrants, a deductive gesture subsequently underscored by the pasted addition of square papers. Two examples—Dépli bleu (III) and Dépli bleu, blanc—were surprising in part for Degottex’s use of radiant-azure pigment reminiscent of Matisse’s late cutouts. And yet the color, for all its intensity, appears held in check: In the first case, the artist has limited it to but three line segments; whereas in the second, he has applied the medium to the reverse side of the still-folded canvas, thereby obtaining a striated motif on the recto. In a final move, represented in the culminating room by five paintings from 1983–85, all titled with riffs on the neologism collor (including Oblicollor, Grille-Collor, and Pli-Collor), Degottex dispenses with collaged elements, embracing glue (la colle)—or, more precisely, a mixture of glue and scant amounts of acrylic color—as a medium in its own right. The barely there lines brush the limit of vision itself.