“Reduce, reuse, recycle.” This catchphrase is of uncertain origin, but linked to the rise of an eco-friendly consciousness and the birth of the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s. It’s also a fitting motto for Agnès Varda’s work. She reuses leftovers, often from her own work. It’s a running theme in her oeuvre. Just look at her late-career masterpiece, The Gleaners and I (2000). Associative, seemingly all-inclusive, it’s an essay film about gleaning: from scavenging for leftover field crops to figural representations of harvests by realist painters like François Millet and Jules Breton; from dumpster divers in the city, to artists finding and making art out of junk left on the street. Varda would go on to revisit her film and the people in it in The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later (2002).
In the last 15 years, Varda has embraced the label of visual artist rather than the more specific filmmaker. She began her career as the official photographer for the Théâtre National Populaire, from 1951 to 1961, then switched to filmmaking, making the independent feature La Pointe Courte (1954), then later, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961), Le Bonheur (1964), and more. She earned the moniker of “the Grandmother of the French New Wave,” even though Varda wasn’t really a part of the group of filmmakers associated with the magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Éric Rohmer, but rather Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy (Varda’s dearly departed husband), and Chris Marker, collectively known as “the Left Bank” group. Varda’s first major exhibition was with the Venice Biennale, which organized Potatutopia, in 2003. Varda was 75. Now, at 88, she is having her first New York exhibition at Blum & Poe. The exhibit is kind of like a second or third victory lap for this acclaimed filmmaker and artist in which her tendency to reduce, reuse, and recycle is on display.
Organized by Olivier Renaud-Clément, the exhibit fills four rooms across two floors. All of Varda’s roles — filmmakers, photographer, and artist — come into play in the show. The earliest work on display was technically part of her first (unofficial) exhibition. Evocation of a 1954 Exhibition is a series of 18 original black-and-white photos that were first hung on the shutters and walls of Varda’s courtyard at 86, rue Daguerre in Paris. They demonstrate her eye for spatial compositions and the delightfully unexpected. One, “Ulysse” (1954) (later the subject of her eponymous 1982 short documentary), shows a man and a child, both naked, in the middle ground of a beach landscape (a recurring setting in Varda’s work). A dead white goat lies on dark gray stones in the immediate foreground. In another, “Mardi Gras” (1953), reminiscent of Diane Arbus, three children stare at you from underneath cartoonish masks. And in a third, “Pomme de terre coeur” (1953), Varda draws our attention to a heart-shaped potato, desiccated and wrinkled with shoots growing out of it. In a recent public talk she had with Renaud-Clément at the French Institute Alliance Française, Varda likened herself to the heart-shaped tuber. Not only was her Venice show named Potatutopia, but she dressed up as a potato to greet the press at the exhibit’s preview. In The Gleaners and I, she gleans the heart-shaped ones while others scrounge for the regular, abandoned ones. Mundane yet endearing, the heart-shaped starchy crop has become her talismanic symbol.
On the gallery’s second floor, two translucent models sit on white plinths: “La cabane du film Le Bonheur d’Agnès Varda” (2017), a greenhouse with sunflowers inside, and “La cabane du film La Pointe Courte d’Agnès Varda” (2017), a stranded semi-built boat. The sunflowers in the former reference her movie Le Bonheur while the latter refers to La Pointe Courte’s ending. On closer inspection of the maquettes, you’ll see that their walls are made of Super 8 filmstrips from these respective films. In the past, at the Cartier Foundation and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Varda built full-scale shacks out of leftover 35mm stock from her films. From her movies, Varda creates new art objects. Transmogrification occurs; objects found in 2D art become 3D. It’s a kind of magic.
Projected on a wall in the same room with these models are two images. The one on the left is black-and-white and static. It’s a photograph Varda took “in 1958 on the top terrace of La Cité Radiuese, a building by Le Corbusier in Marseille,” the wall text (all of which was written by Varda) says. In it, a couple in the foreground hold their baby between them as a woman in the middle ground takes their photo. A man and a woman stand at the top and bottom of a set of steps in the background. The right image is in color and moves. It’s a short film Varda made, 53 years later in 2008, speculating what happened in the photo. Taken together, the two images form Le Corbusier Terrace and The People of the Terrace (2012). It’s a hybrid work that brings together the documentary evidence of one image and the fictional scenario of the other, and proposes the viewer to ruminate on this diptych. “What is an image? It is up to the viewer to read. Understand. Interpret,” Varda says in the accompanying wall text.
Varda’s work mixes and matches formal choices, creating tension between stasis and movement, new and old, 2D and 3D. She is a fountain of energy. Her work in this exhibit demonstrates playful rejiggering, reworking, and re-appropriating of one’s own work. Mixing identities as filmmaker, photographer, and artist, Varda’s output shows that work begets work, creativity fuels creativity. Once you see a Varda artwork, you’re left wondering if it’ll appear in her next photo, film, or exhibition in a new form.
Agnès Varda continues at Blum & Poe (19 E 66th St, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 15.