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Physically I am Russian, spiritually I am a French painter.
—Note left by Poliakoff in the guest book of the Esteve paint store in Paris
The retrospective of Russian-born painter Serge Poliakoff (b. 1900, Moscow–d. 1969, Paris), which just closed at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, was both a welcome surprise and something of an anachronism. One would be hard pressed to find clues in the current international art scene, or even in the secondary market, to explain the royal treatment lavished by a well-funded institution on an artist almost forgotten today. But as the curator explained in one of the many promotional videos, this exhibition is part of a museum program of rereading past significant figures — a laudable and rare effort.
Based on the attendance on the day of this reviewer’s visit, the organizers’ aim was fulfilled, and Poliakoff, after all these years, proved to be a crowd pleaser. For this venue they chose to recreate, with mixed success in this visitor’s view, some of the 1950s’ exhibition strategies, such as black-painted rooms among other tricks. The exhibition catalog followed the same approach, but its revival of ’50s graphic concepts seemed to limit Poliakoff’s historical relevance instead of opening it up, which, paradoxically, was what the critical essays were all about.
What the show made clear was that Poliakoff, an unequaled colorist, remained at his best in the smaller, denser oil paintings from the fifties, in which the artist’s use of a palette knife maximized the interplay between the under-layers and the impasto, gesture and color. The later, larger canvases from the early sixties painted with a brush seem to dilute the compressed dramatic energy of the smaller troweled paintings. These early paintings often convey a sense of a centered core, of a painting within a painting: interlocked jigsaw puzzle blocks of color pushing against each other, all on the same plane, as in “Composition abstraite” (1950). One of the leitmotivs running through Poliakoff’s paintings from the fifties to the late sixties, is a centered cross, as in “Composition abstraite” (1952), a device that helps reinforce a connection to the crucifixion icons in Orthodox churches.
Pointedly, the most captivating piece in the show was a multi-panel installation of smallish paintings, commonly referred to by Poliakoff’s friends as the iconostasis, (“Composition murale,” 1965–67) which best exemplifies his approach to painting; in Eastern churches, the iconostasis is the screen — usually covered with icons — that separates the sanctuary from the nave. Originally not intended for exhibition, Poliakoff kept “Composition murale” in his house for private use. Along with its obvious connection to the icon culture of Orthodox Catholicism, this particular piece is unusual in Poliakoff’s oeuvre for its uncharacteristic use of the tempera technique. In contrast to the thickly troweled and scraped paint of the smaller canvases, the tempera is thinly applied on paper glued to stretched linen, which allows the painter to emphasize the pigment intensity and retain transparency in the interplay of multiple layers. What the small panels of the “iconostasis” piece also share is a loosely painted red border, which, acting as a frame, re-centers the abstract motif within an internalized space whose scale has not much to do with real space. We are in the realm of devotion and contemplation. The predominance of warm tones, mostly variations of red, yellow and white, the punctum of a black shape here and there, all contribute to create a climate of quiet emotion.
Right after the Second World War in Paris, Poliakoff’s rapid success came in part from the fact that he was considered a direct heir to first-generation abstractionists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Robert Delaunay, whose studio he frequented and who steered him toward his distinct style. Of notable interest is the fact that Poliakoff discovered the work of his compatriot Malevich in 1952 only after he had already formulated his own personal idiom, an encounter that acted as a positive reinforcement for a path already taken rather than as a significant influence.
The broader question underlying the show revolves around the reasons for revisiting Poliakoff today, especially as his work has fallen a bit off the radar, at least in the US. The organizers seem to have answered this question obliquely by inviting two American critics, Joe Fyfe and Brooks Adams, to participate in a dialog on the issue in the catalog. If in Paris, revisiting Poliakoff is akin to paying tribute to a much admired and respected but out of touch old uncle, in New York it is quite a different story: Poliakoff, like most European artists of the ’50s and ’60s has been so thoroughly evacuated from public memory that he is now almost completely unknown to younger painters, a fate not unlike Nicolas de Stael, another Paris-based compatriot, who is also in dire need of more exposure and critical reevaluation, as Brett Baker noted in a recent review of a De Stael show at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery.
There are two main reasons for this: one American and one European. The first is that in the US in the late fifties, Poliakoff’s work embodied the spirit of a Parisian type of painting, small and precious, which Clement Greenberg had singled out as the antithesis of the large and rough New York-style painting he was advocating. The irony, for today’s viewers, is that a Russian painter who immigrated to Paris and struggled with the French language should become an emblematic figure in a cultural debate between two countries almost equally foreign to him. But as this essay’s epigraph makes clear, Poliakoff had willingly opted to become a “French” painter, having discovered his vocation only after he had been in Paris for a while.
The second reason is that during the late fifties in France, Poliakoff’s popularity among young painters was so widespread as to be comparable to that of Willem de Kooning’s in New York at that time. The young artists who would eventually form the French Nouveaux Réalistes in 1960 — the French version of Pop Art — in opposition to the abstraction of the second school of Paris, started by emulating his style, only to reject it a few years later. For example, before becoming the accumulation artist we know today, French sculptor Arman was encouraged to paint by Poliakoff and briefly took up abstraction, just as, in the US, the young Roy Lichtenstein briefly emulated de Kooning’s style before turning his attention to pop themes. In each case, the rejection of the elder’s work was as disproportionally abrupt as his style once was disproportionally popular.
Why did Poliakoff’s work seem so antithetical to New York-style painting in the fifties? The issue revolves around his relationship to the French concept of the tableau, as pointed out by Joe Fyfe in a statement on the occasion of an exhibition appropriately titled Le Tableau, which he curated for the Cheim & Reid Gallery in the summer of 2010, and which included a Poliakoff. As French critic Gérard Durozoi pointed out in his catalog essay for the Paris retrospective, for Poliakoff, space was entirely contained within the tableau. Scale was approached as an internal quality: “[…] he considers that the monumentality of a composition is independent of its size […]”. This was a widely accepted stance in Parisian abstraction at the time, with Poliakoff being one, if not the best example of that position. The different approaches to internal scale versus literal scale, and the notion of the operative concept of what constitutes a tableau, were what clearly separated Paris painting from New York paintings in the fifties.
As New York painters were progressively rejecting illusionistic space and moving toward a more literal space and bigger formats — which would logically lead a few years later to Donald Judd’s rejection of painting in favor of sculptural space — the concept of le tableau continued to provide a conceptual framework to painters within the French idiom that would allow painting to evolve without losing the basic elements of its identity. In New York, the smaller Parisian formats were quickly associated with fussy illusionistic spaces, and in an eagerness not to miss the train of Greenberg’s seductive theories, too many American painters fell for his Kantian logic of progress in art and the eventual critical endgame of the death of painting that followed. As Fyfe’s show demonstrated, the tableau precluded neither illusionistic space nor fussiness. Its concept allowed European painting to maintain an identity clearly separate from sculpture and from the size and scale issues as they were being debated in New York.
The Russian artistic diaspora provides a particularly interesting vantage point from which to examine the relationship between Paris and New York. As Dominique Gagneux, the show’s curator, points out, today’s viewer cannot avoid drawing a parallel between Poliakoff’s trajectory, from Moscow to Paris, with that of Mark Rothko, from Dvinsk to New York. Their timelines coincide almost exactly: Poliakoff was born in 1900, Rothko in 1903. Poliakoff died in Paris in 1969 at 69, Rothko in NY in 1970 at 67. In 1940, when Marcus Rothkowitz becomes Mark Rothko, he also clearly opts to become an American painter. But besides the obvious difference in the scale of their work, there is common ground in the way both approached the relationship of their work to the spiritual. It is this shared connection uniting Poliakoff, de Stael and Rothko that prompted Sarah Wilson of the Courtauld Institute, to declare in a documentary made on the occasion of the Poliakoff retrospective, “[…] it is the Russian painters who saved painting […]”
One can only wonder what would have happened to European-American art history if Poliakoff’s family had decided to immigrate to the US instead of France. What would have become of his particular relationship with Orthodox Catholicism, in which his work was so deeply rooted, had he been exposed to and educated in Protestant American culture, as Rothko was before he decided to leave behind an exclusively Jewish identity?
The arbitrariness of such a scenario may make our head spin, but perhaps it is instructive in the way it helps us realize, all these years after the closing of the Paris-New York debate, how much the two approaches, seemingly antipodal at the time, are just two sides of a randomly tossed coin, or the outcome of a chance throw of the dice, as Mallarmé would have it.
Serge Poliakoff: The Dream of Forms was on view at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (11 Avenue du Président Wilson, Paris) from October 18 to February 23.