The recent exhibition of Supports/Surfaces, the short-lived French group from the late 60’s (1969-1972), at Canada has elicited a few unexpected reviews, notably by Sharon Butler in her blog Two Coats of Paint, following her article on Claude Viallat in 2011, as well as by Roberta Smith in The New York Times and by Thomas Micchelli in Hyperallergic Weekend. For those who have been watching the critical misfortunes of Supports/Surfaces on the New York art scene over the years, it is a welcome surprise that, after decades of relative indifference, the movement finally seems to be getting some deserved attention.
Nonetheless, exhibitions of Supports/Surfaces in the United States have been few and far between. Before the Canada show, the most recent one in New York was Prescient then and now,” organized in 2002 by Saul Ostrow at the Dorsky Gallery. The year before that, three members of the group, Daniel Dezeuze, André Valensi and Viallat, were included in the ambitious “As Painting, Division and Displacement” at the Wexner Center, Columbus, Ohio. And last March in Los Angeles, the Cherry and Martin Gallery presented a show entitled Supports/Surfaces Is Alive and Well. One cannot say that the movement suffers from overexposure.
Of the whole group, Viallat has received the most attention in New York, with one-person shows at Leo Castelli in 1982 (where his work was erroneously associated with Pattern and Decoration painting) and more recently at Cheim & Read in 2002. Even as it lives up to its quasi-mythical reputation as one of the best-kept secrets in the American art world, the basic historical facts around Supports/Surfaces are by now well established and understood by a growing number of New York painters and critics — in great part thanks to Raphael Rubinstein’s 2004 reference article “The Painting Undone,” published more than 30 years after the group’s dissolution, on the occasion of a retrospective in St Etienne, France.
Supports/Surfaces congealed as a group in the French political turmoil of the late ‘60s, an ideological stew of leftists ranging from the Communists to the Maoists by way of the Trotskyites, Situationists, Anarchists, and other political groups forgotten today. It was patched together out of loosely connected painters from Southern France (André-Pierre Arnal, Vincent Bioules, Noël Dolla, Toni Grand, Bernard Pages, Patrick Saytour, Viallat,) and from Paris (Louis Cane, Marc Devade, Jean-Pierre Pincemin, Valensi and Daniel Dezeuze) who all shared a common interest in rejecting the status quo of the second School of Paris. Beyond their geographical differences, they all agreed on the fact that practice (painting) should go hand in hand with theory (writing, or critical thinking), but the southerners foregrounded practice where the Parisians emphasized theory and political activism. Even before the group’s name was coined, their work had developed into a critique of Paris’s centralized art system and comfortable esthetics. It is worth noting that before they briefly made it on the Parisian art scene as a group, most of the artists were “provinciaux”- mainly from the southeastern cities of Montpellier and Nice — a term used more or less derogatorily in French to designate someone who is not up to speed with the latest trends. This conflictual dynamic between Parisians and Provincials was very much at the forefront of the members’ relationships, and when the group eventually fell apart in 1972, it did so along that particular fault line. Afterwards, each artist continued to explore his own path in abstraction until the early ‘80s, when the rise of New Figuration prompted a few of them to return to representation (Bioules, Cane, Dezeuze, Pincemin)
Supports/Surfaces’ version of Deconstruction drew on several contemporary tendencies then widely exhibited across northern Europe, such as Analytic Abstraction (for self-referentiality), Process Art (means and methods), Arte Povera (humble materials), Minimalism (presentation strategies), etc., and it managed to produce its own Southern European synthesis, with an emphasis on the haptic and the visual over the conceptual. Even as it systematically deconstructed the constitutive elements of painting, Supports/Surfaces never considered the concept of its death, an overriding critical viewpoint at the time, as a valid proposition. Their aim was to analyze painting as an “objet de connaissance” (literally: object of knowledge) with a Post-Structuralist angle. From this perspective, painting’s main instrument, the tableau, reduced to its basic constituents of a support (stretcher) and a surface (canvas), defined the whole field of investigation. The intent was to recast the dice and to experiment with what painting could be after jettisoning the idealistic critical discourse of the School of Paris.
At that time, working as a group was the solution of choice for forward-looking artists who all shared the same dislike of the primacy of the individual touch and of what was then perceived as the failed claims of the previous generation to an ideal humanism, even if Existentialist. With a social conscience sharply attuned to the political context of the times, the Supports/Surfaces artist saw himself more as a craftsman, as an anonymous worker in the crowd. Painting was seen as a communal practice, an antidote to the solitary quest of the early modernists and a critique of the excesses of Existential egos. Group activity, even if it started as a way of breaking social and geographical isolation, was intended to desacralize both the practice and its product. A few other artists groups emerged in the French political climate of the late sixties/early seventies, such as BMPT, Groupe 70 or Textruction.
Supports/Surfaces artists also engaged in a sustained dialog with other contemporary intellectuals, writers and poets. They maintained close ties to the Paris avant-garde circles of Tel Quel, a literary review. Tel Quel at that time was a paradoxical political mixture in its fascination with both the U.S. and Mao’s China, an ideological gap hard to bridge. Writer Philippe Sollers and poet/art critic Marcelin Pleynet from Tel Quel played a crucial role in establishing Supports/Surfaces’ reputation in Paris. Pleynet’s abundant art criticism became enormously influential for Supports/Surfaces’ new esthetics. His seminal study on Modernism, L’enseignement de la peinture (What painting teaches us), published in 1971, articulated a Post-Structuralist program for painting as an object of knowledge. His views would be developed further in his contributions to the periodical Peinture-cahiers théoriques. Forty years later L’enseignement has yet to be translated into English. Its influence on the French art scene can only be compared to that of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture, published in New York exactly 10 years earlier, on the American art world. Even as he shared with Greenberg a common goal of sketching a future for abstract painting, Pleynet’s program for painting owed very little to its contemporary American counterpart. As the paintings of Supports/Surfaces finally reach something of an American audience, it seems that the time could also be ripe for discovering in Pleynet, through his yet-to-be-translated writing, a major figure in twentieth century art theory.
A good example of the wrenching ideological contradictions of the times can be found in Marc Devade’s painting and writing: While his painting was heavily indebted to American abstraction — first to Kenneth Noland’s chevron-diamond paintings and Sam Francis’s edge paintings, then to Morris Louis and James Bishop (who was living in Paris at the time and close to Marcelin Pleynet) — he was also the most dogmatic thinker of the group and his writing managed (or not…) to juggle two opposites, justifying both an artistic interest in “Imperialist” painting and strong support for the cultural revolution and Chinese Materialism.
If Supports/Surfaces’ escape from the School of Paris seems to be owed mostly to a timely exposure to New York School abstraction, one aspect still ties it to “French” painting: the example of Simon Hantaï’s work (a Hungarian painter living in Paris). Hantaï and Viallat both showed at Jean Fournier’s gallery, but this did not necessarily make them closer as painters. Even if, formally, Hantaï’s revolutionary folding of the canvas as a method (le pliage comme méthode) appears like an obvious precedent to Cane’s or Arnal’s own pliages, and more broadly to the unstretched canvas formula so effectively implemented by Supports/Surfaces, they did not share a common esthetic. Hantaï, a true blood modernist of the Existentialist generation, viewed Viallat’s work with skepticism, and Viallat did not fully comprehend the ethics at stake in Hantaï’s work. But despite their differences, even if this seems a bit far-fetched to an American public, Hantaï’s precedent did actually provide Supports/Surfaces with a direct lineage back to Jackson Pollock.
The publication of the periodical Peinture/cahiers théoriques (1971-1985) was intended to recenter the artistic debate on the intellectual/political front and place painting on a par with literature on the cultural front. Its main instigators, Cane, Devade, Dezeuze, saw the artist as an intellectual and painting as part of the wider picture of a cultural landscape in transition and in dire need of redefining. It created a benchmark for serious painters in France. The need for an intellectual periodical aiming to anchor artworks to their intellectual background went beyond that particular publication, as we will see a few years later with Macula (1975-1979), another periodical launched by painters and art historians, along the same lines but without the Maoist leanings.
Another important contributing factor to the intellectual formation of Supports/Surfaces was the premiere of Art Press in December 1972. Directed by Catherine Millet, Art Press was also instrumental in popularizing Supports/Surfaces’ work, while at the same time introducing American abstraction to the French art public. The cover of its inaugural issue featured a full-page portrait photograph of Barnett Newman on the occasion of his retrospective at the Paris Grand Palais. Today, Art Press is still part visual-arts magazine, part literary review, and the dialog between the two proved very useful in promoting the concept of inter-disciplinarity, as it singlehandedly undertook the education of the French public in matters of contemporary art.
But to go back to the new programs for painting, two different theoretical approaches to abstract painting were taking shape at around the same time, mostly unaware of each other. Clement Greenberg’s writing had not been fully translated yet: the French public would have to wait until 1988 for Ann Hindry’s translation, published by Macula editions. What most French painters and intellectuals took away from the little they knew about American theory at the time was that painting should be its own subject. By itself, this proposition was stimulating enough, in that it fit neatly with their Post-Structuralist esthetics.
Greenberg, on the other hand, is likely to have been completely oblivious to Support/Surfaces’ work, as it came from Paris, a place he had deemed terminally irrelevant for the future of painting. It is a measure of his influence on the scene that his position would not be questioned by American painters until very recently. Frank Stella, for example, was often prone to repeat that “French painting is bad painting.” In this regard, one has to savor the irony that the panel discussion held at Canada in June was led by no other than the famous artist’s daughter, Rachel. But, to get back on track, in spite of these misgivings, what united Greenberg and Pleynet was their shared premises that painting was its own subject and should be self-referential rather than allude to anything exterior to it. Where they differed considerably was in the philosophical means used to develop their thesis, and in their conclusions.
In hindsight, Greenberg’s main shortcoming in his defense of Color Field painting may have been in his return to Kant as a model for an Essentialist approach to art evolution. It was a significant step backward philosophically, especially coming on the heels of his support for the Abstract Expressionists, all die-hard Existentialists. Existentialism emerged as a response against the limitations of Essentialism. It seems contradictory that Greenberg would conceive of his newfound Essentialist convictions the way to extricate painting from Existentialism. In constructing his well-crafted, logical approach to painting’s supposedly self-defining program, he proved to be out of step with history, while launching a powerfully deductive train of thought which led straight to today’s false debates about the end of painting and of art. As an aside, it is interesting to note that even such a respected philosopher as Arthur C. Danto did not seem to have questioned Greenberg’s premises. Supports/Surfaces unknowingly articulated a viable way forward as well as an alternative to Greenberg’s ill-conceived purification of art, which is possibly why it is still intriguing contemporary painters today.
This alternative was never thought of as such by the group members and their supporters, who were discovering Greenberg’s writing at the same time that their debates were being shaped by their leftist ideology. If the Support/Surfaces artists discovered American abstraction out of context, paradoxically it allowed them to articulate a way out of the School of Paris. Today, with so little background material on their time period available in the English language, their work is in turn discovered somewhat out of context by a new generation of American Casualist painters, who might see in it a confirmation of their own intuitions.
It should not be surprising that Supports/Surfaces remained unknown on the New York art scene for so long when one considers that their American contemporaries of the seventies, such as Alan Shields, Dorothea Rockburne, Lynda Benglis, Richard Tuttle, Jack Whitten, et al., all artists included in the exhibition High Times, Hard Times at the National Academy Museum in 2007, are also quite under-recognized. That show presented a picture of a transitional moment, when painting in New York was working its way out of Greenbergian formalism and defining itself against a more and more invasive brand of conceptualism.
As French Post-Structuralism flooded American campuses in full force in the early nineties, thanks to long-overdue translations of Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Barthes and Co., the real puzzler is why a comprehensive exhibition of Supports/Surfaces was not organized then by any American institution to give Deconstruction its proper visual context. Nonetheless, New York painters such as Max Estenger, with his rereading of Daniel Dezeuze’s clear plastic paintings, Fabian Marcaccio and his baroque interpretation of the same Dezeuze’s exposed stretcher bars, James Hyde and his pillow paintings, Joe Fyfe and his fascination with a third-world style economy of means, Polly Apfelbaum and her floor pieces, all seem to take into account some aspect or other of the Supports/Surfaces formal vocabulary. More recently, Jacob Kassay, Wyatt Kahn, Jennifer Boysen, and Noam Rappaport are continuing to draw on ideas launched by Supports/Surfaces, and even Joe Bradley appeared to be pulled into the fray at Canada by a Louis Cane piece from 1972 that uncannily echoes some of his own pieces from 2008.
Supports/Surfaces did not produce any unforgettable masterpieces. It was too short-lived, most of the artists were at the beginning of their careers, and the concept of a masterpiece was contrary to what they were trying to achieve, although some of Cane’s wall/floor pieces were very impressive at the time. What it produced was a moment, in the engineering meaning of the term, in which all their energy was turned toward getting painting out of a rut. The complexities of that moment are still resonating with us today.
In France today, Supports/Surfaces has been somewhat relegated to the closets of history — even if, since 2001, it has had its own space at the Beaubourg center. A typical French painter’s reaction to American interest into the group would be complete surprise and miscomprehension; “Who cares about this anymore?” is a common reaction when the subject comes up. Until now, it was denied an international dimension on the art market; could this new wave of American interest spur the French to reconsider this part of their own history? To be sure, Supports/Surfaces legacy in France still lies with the students of the group members, who have moved beyond their teachers’ esthetics to develop their own response to what they perceive as abstraction’s next step: Dominique Figarella, Jean Francois Maurige, Bernard Pifaretti, Christophe Cuzin are just a few names coming to mind in the current generation of French abstractionists. Before them, Christian Bonnefoi and Pierre Dunoyer, originally associated with Macula, whose work should one day be put on equal footing with Jonathan Lasker’s, also need to be mentioned.
Supports/Surfaces is important today not only because its products still look fresh to an American audience who is finally willing to meet them halfway, but because it was able to articulate a way out of the School of Paris without being absorbed by the overpowering influence of American-style painting on the international markets. Instead, it pointed towards a completely different economy (in the philosophical sense) of painting, at its own economic (literally) expense, never reaching the levels it should have on the secondary market. One might wonder if their works look fresh in New York today only because of underexposure, or if they offer enough food for thought to warrant prolonged scrutiny? Time will tell.
The ultimate irony is that this double transatlantic misunderstanding might still result in being productive for painting. In the seventies, despite a dearth of information and little in the way of translations of American theory, Supports/Surfaces was able to draw on a partial misreading of American Color Field painting and elaborate a new program for painting. Similarly, forty years later, the New Casualists might now be able to draw enough inspiration from even a partial understanding of the Supports/Surfaces moment to unlock unexplored avenues of American painting. It would not be the first time that exposure to paintings alone was enough to fire a painter’s imagination. After all, Italian Futurist theories and the finer points of French Analytic and Synthetic Cubism could not have possibly been fully comprehended by the Russian painters who discovered them around 1912, but the little they saw of these movements was enough to launch them on the path to Suprematism and Constructivism.
Supports/Surfaces was the last avant-garde modernist group of the twentieth century to come out of France, and part of the ambiguity in trying to classify it on this side of the Atlantic stemmed from the fact that their main strategy in the seventies was based on Deconstruction, a theory which only came to be associated with Postmodern strategies in the nineties in the U.S. A hybrid cultural product, transitioning between Modernism and Postmodernism, the group’s positions were way ahead of their time and did not fit easily in the American art-historical master narrative, even if post-Greenbergian. To top it all off, with their ultra-left political discourse, they also did not present a neatly packaged product to the market. What they did was to show that the famed paradigm shift between Modernism and Postmodernism could originate in continuity as much as in rupture. They remain relevant today by reminding us of how porous, malleable as well as somewhat ambiguous or arbitrary our historical markers and classifications really are.
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