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PARIS — Galerie 53 and Galerie Routes, two side-by-side galleries in Saint-Germain-des-Près, have joined together to mount an historically interesting exhibition of abstract paintings titled Trois Américains à Paris (Three Americans in Paris). This show celebrates the accomplishments of three American abstractionists in Paris who were inspired by the city as well as by Abstract Expressionism. The artists themselves, their experiences and discoveries, are an important element of this spirited exhibition: The first thing I noticed was that the work exemplifies how being outside of one’s own (American) system, yet not really within another (French) system, is tremendously liberating for an artist.
All three of these Francophile American painters contributed, as soldiers, to the liberation of France and chose to return in the immediate postwar period after receiving scholarships from the GI Bill. Which is understandable, as American artists had been drawn to Paris since the late 19th century. Indeed after World War II, Paris was a center of importance for, among others, Joan Mitchell, Ellsworth Kelly, Peter Saul, Sam Francis, Shirley Jaffe, Norman Bluhm, David Budd, and the three expatriates presented here: John Levee, John Franklin Koenig, and Joe Downing.
John Levee (born 1924 and the only living artist in the show) took a Master’s degree in philosophy from the University of California Los Angeles before becoming an aviator in the Second World War. Following the war he decided to stay to work as a painter in Montparnasse, after studying at Académie Julian.
Levee is a magnificent painter of force and guts and forthrightness. He exhibits a talent for gravitas here with strong gestures rendered in blacks and understated colors, as well as a penchant for impasto surfaces. Intense in passionate emotions, the painter’s muted hues have a deeply moving, arousing deportment, such as in his “September III” (1957). Its charcoal blacks, grays, and greens explode on an idiosyncratic gray-and-blue ground that opens up more peacefully to the right. It is a painting dense with explosions and growth.
With the furious loose brushwork and roughened surface of “Composition” (1961), his straightforward accomplishments are not to be denied. This hot off-hand elegant painting expands the field of the Abstract Expressionists, continuing their use paint as a physical thing. Even in the suggestive waving thicket of its surface, we still see the AbEx mandate that we look at paint simply as paint, so that the surface is neither given to narration nor to intellectual content.
Joe Downing (1925–2007) also participated in the Second World War, where he served as an artillery observer assigned to a unit that landed at Normandy soon after D-Day. He then studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to France in 1950, living in Paris and Menerbes until his death. Downing also left us several books of his poetry.
Downing’s surfaces, such as in the marvelous “Abstract Composition” (1970) and “Recall” (1975) are much smoother and cooler than Levee’s, by which he achieves a delightful form of lyrical abstraction that deserves acknowledgment superior to what he has received until now. The work’s exquisite complex surfaces, as seen here, should do that, as in them I detected a vision of an open system of free-floating signifiers altogether fitting to the present-day digital atmosphere. With “Yellow Abstraction” (1965), Downing exhibits the delightfully light touch of a capricious spirit.
John Franklin Koenig (1924–2008) was also in the war and indeed sustained a wound. After recovering with the help of studying art, he too moved Paris, working at the bookstore of Jean-Robert Arnaud, who became his longstanding professional and personal partner. In 1950 the two opened the Galerie Arnaud, and in 1955 began publication of the art review Ciamise, dedicated to non-figurative art.
The flowing surface of Koenig’s painting “Le tombeau de Belial” (1960) has something of the unfathomable velvety quality of intimacy and hesitancy. It is subtly calibrated, suggesting doubt as well as strength, thus uncertainty through perhaps premeditated clumsiness. It allowed me to see the artist slowly make up his mind and then shift, like the sea. As we see with “5,4,3” (1969), his painterly gifts included experimentation with subtle color and complex but contained marks in rather original and very pleasing ways.
All told, the quality and diversity of this exhibition demonstrates the power of abstraction to suggest musical composition. And it reaffirms that special thing Americans in Paris often feel (see, for example, the French book Trois Américaines à Paris about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis). There is something unique about how artists relate to each other in Paris, and to the people who write about and buy art here. It is about that wonderful space of being not really in or out: the space of leeway.
Trois Américains à Paris continues at Galerie 53 and Galerie Routes (53, rue de Seine) through October 25.