PARIS — The art in Hervé Télémaque’s Centre Pompidou retrospective floats between Port-au-Prince, New York, and Paris. Conversely, the 74 works that span the career of this Haiti-born artist are mostly located in French public collections. Born in 1937, Télémaque left Haiti in 1957, when François Duvalier was elected to power, and headed for New York and the Arts Student’s League. There he studied painting under Julian Edwin Levi and discovered the Surrealist-tinged paintings of Arshile Gorky (his most noticeable early influence) and Willem de Kooning. He also enthusiastically noticed the compelling work of Neo-Dada Popsters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, influences that will pop up later in his work. Due to Télémaque’s experience of prevalent racism in New York, in 1961 he left the US for good and moved to Paris, accompanied by his wife, Maël.
Together the works at the Pompidou convincingly demonstrate a certain history of post-1950s art as mixed with Télémaque’s private life. From the Dole Musée des Beaux-arts come two examples of the fruits of this youthful life, early Gorky-inspired works “L’Annonce faite à Marie” (1959) and the feathery “Toussaint Louverture à New York” (1960). They are both remarkably expressive paintings, combining American swiftness with the rattle of Haitian voodoo. Télémaque evidently felt that it was necessary to add touches of pop narration to the forcefulness of Abstract Expressionism, much like the young Peter Saul did while in Paris in the early ’60s.
It was the hour of the French New Wave in cinema and in literature the Nouveau roman — a part of the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) group of filmmakers associated with the New Wave. Once in Paris, and now in direct contact with André Breton (a long time Port-au-Prince fan) and late Surrealist artists, Télémaque gave increasing importance to both autobiography and the representation of everyday objects. This drew him closer to the Nouvelle figuration (New Figuration) group of proto-postmodernists whose fragmented appropriation of various media is perhaps most quickly associated in France with that of Erró and/or Öyvind Fahlström. This New Figuration movement prepared the transition between the hegemonic, pure Abstract Art of the ’50s and the Figurative Narrative frenzy of the mid-’60s, producing work in dialogue with the war in Algeria, the events of the Cold War (like the missile crisis in Cuba), US intervention in the Dominican Republic, the Vietnam War, and advertising images.
The key moment for Télémaque came with his participation and organization (along with curator Marie-Claude Dane, art critic Gérald Gassiot-Talabot, and painter Bernard Rancillac) of the Mythologies quotidiennes (Everyday mythologies) exhibition that was presented in July 1964 at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris in reaction to the triumph of Pop American art. That year the grand prize of the Venice Biennale was awarded to Rauschenberg, marking the beginning of the decline of the School of Paris. The title Mythologies quotidiennes is borrowed from Roland Barthes’s book Mythologies, where Barthes explores the power of contemporary social value systems in creating modern myths.
That same key year, Télémaque discovers the opaque projector, an instrument imported from the US that projects images directly onto the canvas. Using acrylic paint, he begins making biographical works presented in a very chilly style of flat tints and regular lines. He also starts using unusually shaped frames and atypical materials that deal with his straight, male sexuality — work that plays with Duchamp’s “La Machine Célibataire” (The Bachelor Machine) sex-machine poetry in a loose and sly fashion. For example, he sometimes places phallic or vessel-like objects upon loose canvases that have been thrown on the floor, as if in the throes of passion. Other works have a metaphorical/critical import located somewhere between pop counterculture, anti-colonialism, and anti-racism, as in the high voltage “My Darling Clementine” (1963). The painting riffs on the 1946 Western movie My Darling Clementine starring Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp during the period leading up to Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The movie title is borrowed from the theme song “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” a tongue-in-cheek parody of a sad ballad that is sung in parts over the opening and closing credits. The dancing for dollars, black, peg-legged gunslinger in Télémaque’s painting is the irreverent autobiographical reference here and the artist does not hesitate to include appropriated images into the work — like the racist figurine in “My Darling Clementine” — in a Johns and Rauschenberg fashion.
However, May 1968 marked the end of the New Figuration movement and Télémaque began favoring metaphorical objects that dealt with picturesque, nomadic activities like sailing, planes, boats, tents — as well as objects recalled from his native country: hammocks, pitchers, rattles, slingshots, and tools, such as in “Objets usuels, pour Vincent van Gogh?” (1970). Here, New Figuration fades into a simple, near geometry as in the smooth and lean painting “En Faisceau la vérité est rouge” (1976). It is a quirky painting done in a tight, hard, flat style that looks a lot like slick mass media — even though in 1973, after a visit to Haiti, Télémaque abandoned the opaque projector for good, drawing again and creating a series of remarkable cut paper collages of saturated colors worthy of late Matisse called “Selles” (Saddles).
Following his first retrospective in 1976 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Télémaque just keeps getting better by being more personal, inserting his own racial narrative with preparatory drawings. Words and sentence fragments move between images and enhance the works’ enigmas — sentence fragments sometimes match the title of the works and elucidate meaning, but sometimes the words just thicken the inscrutability. Always the viewer must mentally connect the dots as sensed. This body of work leads to what could be his mixed-media masterpiece, “Mère-Afrique” (1982), that alludes to the frightful history of Apartheid in South Africa. The work laces together a photograph of a black nanny tending white children with contour drawings of saddles overlaid. Collaged into the left side of work is a “WHITE PERSON ONLY” sign that rings tears of irony from the comically stereotypical black character in the lower lefthand corner, and sneers of laughter from the capped figure to the right. The riding crop is a visceral punch that recalls pain and shame connected to the whipping of black bodies.
In the ’80s and ’90s Télémaque continues to explore the convoluted relationship between image and language while having several major retrospectives, notably at the Valencià Institute of Modern Art (IVAM), Centro Julio González, and at the Tanlay Art Centre in Burgundy. During that time, he works on a series of large charcoal drawings of dark forms, like in “Etude pour Deep South.” Some of this charcoal work turns a bit more intimate, with, for example the female nude “Anna, elle, coite” (1993). In the 2000s, Télémaque explores the relationship between image and colonialism, such as in his ironic “Fonds d’actualité, n°1” (2002).
The last major piece in the show is fresh out of Hervé Télémaque’s studio in Villejuif, “Le Moine comblee amorces avec Arshile Gorky” (2014). It is an amusing response to the last painting of Arshile Gorky, “The Black Monk” (1948), now in the collection of Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. Here Télémaque returns to a highly abstract attack on form with an explosion of interpenetrating fragments that formally pays homage to the Gorky style. “Le Moine comblée amorces avec Arshile Gorky” is a fitting full-circle stop for the exhibition, a strong homage to Gorky, but also to this now reverend black artist himself.
Hervé Télémaque continues at Le Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, 75004 Paris) through May 18.