Pick up a survey of modern art, start scanning the 1930s, and you may come across a paragraph or two on the French painter Jean Hélion (1904–1987). You’ll learn that this artist was a founding member of Art Concret, a short-lived group of defiantly abstract painters, that he resided for a time in the United States, and, possibly, that he turned in his later years to a more conservative figurative style. Overly tidy histories of art would locate Hélion in a small, discrete niche: the final blossoming of French-School-style composition before the burly onslaught of Abstract Expressionism.
But is history really ever so tidy? Over the span of his long life, Hélion produced an intriguing and often compelling body of work. He inspired a number of postwar American artists to re-examine the abstract undercurrents of figuration. (Among his American admirers were Leland Bell, Nell Blaine, and Albert Kresch.) Moreover, he wrote eloquently about art, making a cogent case not for the triumph of any particular school, but for the historical possibilities contained within every painter’s encounter with forms on a canvas.
These writings have just become much more accessible with Arcade Publishing’s release last fall of Double Rhythm, a collection of the writings — nearly 20 essays and interviews — that Hélion produced in English from the early 1930s to the late ’70s. In them the artist recounts his conversations with Mondrian and visits to Harlem clubs with Léger. He discusses the paintings of Mondrian, Matisse, Picasso, and Gris — and with a start, we realize that he is often, in effect, reviewing the work of his acquaintances or older contemporaries. His gifts as a polemicist become apparent in his arguments for abstraction as a “purifying and concentrating lesson” essential to all painters — even as he acknowledges the surpassing powers of the Florentine master Cimabue (c. 1240–1302). Writing in 1936, he compares Cézanne, whom he begrudgingly admires (“Great mason, certainly, [of] great sketches”), to his revered Seurat (“No compromise, no dancing back and forth between clear and unclear, real or allusive, as is so typical of Picasso now.”) Two other essays are in fact chapters from his book They Shall Not Have Me, a gripping account of his capture by the Nazis and eventual escape, first published in 1943 and reprinted by Arcade in 2012.
But most of the book is an examination of art, a from-the-trenches account of what happens within the composition of a painting. Hélion’s written thoughts reflect the same elegant, forceful logic of his paintings; the reader may well detect something distinctly French in his impassioned, personal reckoning with the abstracted. As editor Deborah Rosenthal eloquently notes in the introduction, he is “insistently cerebral, but his thought is always saturated with the experience of all his senses, grounded in the corporeal.”
Hélion seeks to embrace all of art, from Raphael to Mondrian, within one ongoing investigation into form. His approach may be foreign to readers today who view painting as a continual recharging of conventions of technique or concept. But reading his descriptions of the movements of contours and colors in a Poussin painting, and how one’s eye repeatedly trips upon the unexpected while never retracing any one path, one senses the brilliant originality of the work, and how it transcends mere mastery of style, technique, and narrative. Hélion’s writing transcribes to words a visual journey: “progressions” and “counter-progressions” accelerate the movements of color, turning mere “agitations” into “potentialities.” Shapes are in themselves concepts, not the reflections of them. Representational art is, finally, not a system of illusions, but a forging of the optically intelligible. He describes, in short, a language of painting that communicates as only painting can, through optical experiences.
“I cannot read nature; it is not written.” So Hélion imagines the predicament of standing before a harbor scene once painted by Seurat. “To open eyes in front of a wharf, sea, sky, boat, mast and to let in whatever comes within their range, is not seeing. It is pouring into a bottomless bag.”
Truly seeing, on the other hand “is perceiving intelligibly, in an order allowing the faculties to seize elements, place them, make their existence possible inside.” And Hélion marvels at the way Seurat achieves this in his painting “The Channel at Gravelines” (1890), in MoMA’s collection: “It makes me live entirely through sight. It is organized as a radio-set for waves. Its organization is not mine but compatible with mine. It is intelligible…”
Hélion is relating something beyond styles and contexts: what it means to see. And he goes on to describe a painting’s “double rhythm”: the relationship of self-contained elements within the overall composition, and then the internal movements, in turn, within each of these elements.
His emphasis on the primal forces of painting and the artist’s improvisational engagement with them — “The created form becomes creative” — suggests the free-form give-and-take of Abstract Expressionism. But whereas Ab-Ex looked to enveloping sensations, declarative gestures, and the materiality of paint, Hélion’s impulses never stray from a discipline of ordering, gathering, and elaborating.
In addition to images of the works he discusses, Double Rhythm includes more than a dozen reproductions of Hélion’s own paintings. Unfortunately, the images are all in black and white, eliminating his rigor of color. They vividly show, however, his evolution from abstraction to stylized figuration. The often peculiar, abstracted interpretations of human figures from the late ’40s will not appeal to every viewer. The remarkable vigor of his more naturalistic still lifes and studio scenes from after 1950 may not be evident to others. But for even these readers, his writings will communicate the authentic passions of a painter who strove to see deeply, in regards to both nature and traditions of painting.
Hélion’s output in print, just as on canvas, challenges us. How prepared are we to countenance the fact that all painting is artifice? His writings, as much as his paintings, reflect a complete faith in both the artifice and the separate reality of painting. His course of action becomes almost involuntary. A drawing’s structure, he writes, strikes him like an “external event”:
It rouses in me the passion to inhabit it; I can feel it become my portrait, that portrait of the self I could be, all instincts out like limbs, working my thoughts like the wheels of a semi-organic machinery.
Hélion was an original, an artist who pursued the language of painting through a singular blend of logic and feeling. The pages of Double Rhythm vividly relate the struggle in another medium, the language of words.
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