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Writing about an exhibition one did not see but wished he had is unusual, to say the least. Such is the case with this short piece on Christian Bonnefoi (b. 1948), a French painter whose work I have known since I was an art student in France in the late ‘70s, when it first emerged on the Paris art scene.
Entitled De lieu, il n’y en pas (There’s No Such Thing as a Locus), the show in question, a comprehensive survey of recent works from 2008 to 2014, took place from April to June 2015 at the Matmut Center for Contemporary Art in Saint-Pierre-de-Varengeville, Normandy, France, and was accompanied by a catalogue with informative essays by the artist on his thought process.
A vital presence in contemporary French painting, Bonnefoi has been circling the New York art scene for years. He never gained a proper gallery foothold here, contrary to Bernard Frize, for example, another French abstract painter of roughly the same generation, who has had more regular exposure.
In the spring of 2016, Bonnefoi’s work was shown in Soho at the Westreich-Wagner Art Advisory Space, whose collection was exhibited at the Whitney Museum in the fall of 2015. More recently, in the spring of 2017, he had a major one-person exhibition at the Campoli Presti Gallery in London, followed later that June by a symposium on his work organized by Mick Finch at the Central Saint Martin’s Art School.
One of the first aspects of Bonnefoi’s work to strike the viewer is his use of scrim-like material, such as tarlatan gauze — an open-mesh fabric often used by house painters to repair cracks in walls — or the more recent German-made Trevira fabric, instead of the usual opaque cotton canvas or linen.
The result is a painting conceived as a see-through screen where the stretcher bars and the wall behind them peek through the surface and are present in the viewer’s mind as part of the overall image. Blank, unpainted areas, reminiscent of the patches of bare canvas that Cézanne left in his late work, establish an unexpected breathing room between painted surface and physical space.
What the viewer may pick-up next is Bonnefoi’s idiosyncratic collage technique. Collage is central to the elaboration of his surface. For Bonnefoi “to paint is, first and foremost, the invention of a surface.” As described in “Le futur antérieur…” (“The Future Perfect…”), a 1979 article by Yve-Alain Bois, Bonnefoi’s process to create his surface consists of first applying a coat of paint to a sheet of plastic, then covering the paint with a layer of tarlatan. Next comes a random gesture of glue on top of the tarlatan, and finally peeling the glued areas off from the plastic sheet. He then rotates the painting 180 degrees before starting the same cycle again for each layer: very idiosyncratic painting method designed to lose control of the end result.
Painting from the back, unable to check on the outcome until the surface is built and the painting finished: this reminds us of Simon Hantaï’s statement about his pliage method, of painting with his eyes closed as a way to surrender subjective decisions to the process. With Bonnefoi, the withdrawal of the painter is further internalized in the painting process. It is the very transparency of the process, its readability, that fades under the viewer’s gaze.
In Bonnefoi’s work, the illusion of material transparency is a foil that underscores the intrinsic opacity of the painting enterprise. The modus operandi here seems to be transparency of materials versus opacity of process.
Although he is quite careful to avoid any direct association with the Support/Surface group, which preceded him by a few years, it is hard to imagine Bonnefoi’s paintings without the antecedent of Daniel Dezeuze’s 1967 pieces made of clear plastic stapled over wooden stretchers. He was neither the first nor the only painter to use tarlatan (circa 1977) in France; Noël Dolla and Dezeuze, both members of Support/surface, had made regular use of it a few years earlier — Dolla starting around 1971 and Dezeuze around 1973. But Bonnefoi incorporated tarlatan’s properties into his painting dialectic in a very different way from his predecessors.
His work emerged on the Paris art scene in the late ‘70s, towards the end of what was then called European Analytical Abstraction, as a member of the short-lived but influential small group called Janapa (along with the painters Pierre Dunoyer and Antonio Semeraro — to whom we owe the invaluable photo-documentation of Simon Hantaï’s final years — and the sculptors Jean-Luc Vilmouth and Côme Mosta-Heirt).
At that same time, on a theoretical level, Bonnefoi was also involved with the beginnings of Macula, a respected, but again short-lived, art theory/art history French periodical, with, among other contributors, historians Yve-Alain Bois and Jean Clay. Bois, the most familiar name in the US, has been teaching in American universities and publishing in English for more than 30 years, most notably in the journal October.
Bonnefoi, Dunoyer, and Bois were also part of a small group of young intellectuals who studied at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes with such seminal figures of the previous generation as Jean-Louis Schefer, Hubert Damisch and Roland Barthes. In many ways Bois’s 1991 collection of essays, Painting as Model, could be seen as a rallying cry for his generation.
It would be interesting to put this close connection between Parisian painters and art historians in relation to another close intellectual interaction, that of Frank Stella and Michael Fried at Princeton University in the late ‘50s, especially since the latter Bonnefoi/Bois post-structuralist dialogue represents such a methodical rebuttal of the former Stella/Fried phenomenological one.
Coming at the end of a long line of French painter-activists, starting with BMPT (the radical collective formed by Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni), and continuing through Support/Surface and Janapa, Bonnefoi might very well be the last such painter-activist of his kind. Even as he insisted on separating himself from his direct predecessors, what brought him and Support/Surface together was a shared vision of the painter as activist for the cause of painting. What separated them, however, boils down to this: where Support/Surface viewed the painting as an object of knowledge, of learning (objet de connaissance), to be analyzed and deconstructed, Bonnefoi and Dunoyer viewed it as an object of thought (objet de pensée).
To better assess that difference, one needs only to look at the place they both assign to the painter. Where the Support/Surface artist Marc Devade, for example, brought a heavy psychoanalytical bend to his writing and placed the painter in crisis squarely in the center of any painting practice, Bonnefoi did not dwell on the importance of the painter and did his best to evacuate volition as much as possible from his method. He identified the art object as the apparatus/locus where painter and viewer converged, and where a new experience was reconstructed, rather than simply as a cultural product, as Support/Surface did.
As Philip Armstrong pointed out in his thorough introduction to Bonnefoi’s volume of collected writings, Ecrits sur l’art (1974-1984), published in 1997, the artist began his career amid the discussion on the end of painting. To sum up very succinctly, his reflections on this context led him to reframe the issue as a loss of painting instead of an end to painting, a pivotal nuance, and from there to lay down the foundations for a concept of the artwork as the object produced by the loss of painting a very different conclusion from Donald Judd’s specific object, and one that allowed painting to continue as a viable proposition instead of having to defer to sculpture in order to remain true to the literalist doctrine, as Judd would have it.
Bonnefoi’s critical response to Minimalism elaborated a strategy to reinstate painting at the center of the discussion, while at the same time avoiding the false debates on the monochrome as the “last painting.” He redirected the Modernist focus from the flat literal space of the picture plane to the painting’s surface as a thickness.
The paradox is that instead of a thick surface, Bonnefoi’s process of painting on mesh generated an excessively thin and layered surface. As with Richard Tuttle, his rejection of the seductions of weight and thickness, his insistence on immateriality, were an open criticism of physical size and mass as the measures of Modernist progress, best exemplified then in Frank Stella’s and Richard Serra’s work. While Stella, once he broke from the mold of Greenbergian flatness, could equate presence only with volume and visual weight, Bonnefoi’s response to the same strictures was an emphasis on thinness and on the absence of physical weight; an excess of both material and metaphorical lightness.
As American art moved towards a surplus of presence, both in the works themselves and on the art market, the French response was a surplus of absence on both counts. Beyond the neglect that French artists experienced on the international markets over the last 40 years, it seems that, concurrent with Barthes’s 1968 essay “The Death of the Author,” French painting after World War II would have been pursuing the painter’s loss of identity one way or another, a trend not quite as French or recent as it may seem, if one considers the example of Luigi Pirandello’s 1921 play Six Characters in Search of an Author, which aligned itself with a view of International Modernity as a tacitly inclusive model (prior to the arrival of American Reductivism, with its rather exclusive approach).
For Bonnefoi, it is when the painter disappears as the author of his painting that the artwork emerges; it is when the painter chooses to withdraw from the process that painting is reborn: “At a certain point […], the tableau [art object] produces its own determinations, dictates its own resolution, and a very specific one. The painter hesitates, grumbles, and starts again […]. At this point, then, the tableau produces the painter as painting, as one of its components.” (C. Bonnefoi, Collages, 1974)
With historical distance we may begin to discern a common thread running through French postwar abstract painting, across many disparate practices and over multiple generations: a recurring pattern of lightness of tone, of silence, absence and withdrawal.
In this, one may glimpse the outlines of an alternate (Catholic?), self-effacing modernity — the loss of control and ontological rejection of mastery in the work of Henri Michaux and Bram van Velde; the descriptive silence of Roger Bissière and the literal silence of Simon Hantaï and Michel Parmentier; Yves Klein’s fascination with the immaterial; and Martin Barré’s relinquished subjective control (to the benefit of arbitrary systems). Other examples include Marc Devade’s insistence on the dissolution of the painter’s identity in experiences of excess and expense (as defined by Georges Bataille) and Christian Bonnefoi’s synthesis of Hantaï’s “blind” painting technique and Barré’s layering, along with the work of younger “protocol” painters such as Bernard Piffaretti or Jean-Francois Maurige. Such instances of artistic self-abnegation have been eclipsed in the US by a Protestant Reductivist Modernist juggernaut hellbent on upholding the values of production.
Before critical theory took hold of American universities in the ‘90s, perhaps with the exception of Joseph Kosuth’s mechanistic reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein and of the loose connection between Nelson Goodman’s Nominalism and Minimalist Art, the philosophical and the art-critical rarely melded on these shores. By contrast, in the Paris of the ‘70s, the exchanges between literary/philosophical discourses on one side and critical discourse and painting practices on the other were particularly vigorous: Samuel Beckett and Bram van Velde; Guy Debord’s Situationism and BMPT; Maurice Blanchot and Michel Parmentier; Roland Barthes and Martin Barré, Tel Quel and Marc Devade; Jacques Lacan and François Rouan; Jean-Louis Schefer and Bonnefoi.
These exchanges took place without painting ever being articulated as a program, and without it becoming literary either. Instead, painting had become a way to put intellectual intuitions into practice, or rather to confirm intellectual intuitions in artistic practices. One only needs to consider Simon Hantaï’s extensive exchanges with historians and philosophers such as Georges Didi-Huberman, Jacques Derrida, or Jean-Luc Nancy to understand how closely connected abstract painting was to philosophy, and how curious the philosophical world was of the painted world. It can be challenging to enter Bonnefoi’s work without a prior understanding of either Hantaï or Barré’s, the two most important mavericks of the Paris art scene of the 70s.
As painting and its practice became more and more of interest for philosophers, it would not be long before philosophical discourse would spill over into art criticism and art practices: the philosopher turning into a painter (or vice versa), and this is the step that Bonnefoi and Dunoyer undertook with Janapa.
Bonnefoi is the unusual example of an artist who has been writing about art, including his own work, for as long as — and as much as — he has been painting, with an uncanny ability to articulate the different levels of interactions at play. It is quite revealing that one of the most informative interviews of Barré was conducted by Bonnefoi in 1974.
Around 2000, in parallel with his production of paintings on stretchers, Bonnefoi started to work directly on the wall, first with the Ludo series and then with the Compositions (2009-2014). The shapes previously superimposed in his collage paintings were now unfurling into the realm of montage, with pre-painted cut-outs pinned to the wall, redistributing the function of the pin within the economy of the work.
These recent mural pieces also proved to loosen up a practice that was tightly closed, in terms of its self-referential methodology, to allusions of the figure and of the written word. While it may be difficult not to think of Henri Matisse’s “Deux danseurs” (1937-38) in Paris’ Musée National d’Art Moderne (an early paper cut-out riddled with thumbtacks), as Bois pointed out in his 1992 text “The Pin,” Bonnefoi’s use of the pin as a collage device owed as much to Picasso’s painted pins in his early cubist collages from 1912-13 as it did to Matisse.
The latest major piece exhibited at the Matmut Center, “Le rêve sans fond” (“The Bottomless Dream,” 2013-14) presents shapes as characters in a play and the wall as scenic space. The references to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are undisguised, with such theatrical characters as Bottom and Puck mixing it up with such painterly characters as Harmony, Division, Line, Color, Thickness and Depth, straight out of Bonnefoi’s earlier theoretical writings.
Although one may think that Bonnefoi is referring to Matisse’s cut-outs, he might in fact be settling scores with Duchamp. His insistent use of the term “Machines” to describe his various systems of reference (i.e., the physical apparatus, as opposed to the conceptual apparatus, needed by the artist in order to work — such as the perspective Filippo Brunelleschi’s camera obscura — which relates to his conception of painting as a sort of screen) gives him away on that level. More pointedly, these recent wall pieces recast the elements of Bonnefoi’s sometimes heavy-handed theory in the much lighter tone of comedy and invite us to speculate on the place of collage and assemblage as extensions of the readymade (instead of the other way around).
Bonnefoi’s strategies seem to condense a few aspects of the work of his American contemporaries: the objectification and theatricalization of a gesture devoid of pathos of David Reed; the deconstructing strategies of Jonathan Lasker — even if Lasker’s use of exaggeratedly thick brushstrokes seems closer to Dunoyer; the collaged elements in Philip Taaffe’s paintings; and the interplay between the front and back in the work of Craig Fisher. Other related artists include Max Estenger, Charles Spurrier, James Hyde, Joe Fyfe, Tariku Shiferaw, and Lauren Luloff. It is a tantalizing proposition to imagine a group show where these different voices could be brought together in dialogue with Bonnefoi’s work.
Bonnefoi’s alternative to the quagmire of dead-end formalist narratives, on the one hand, and to the escape into a sculptural context on the other, has been thoroughly ignored in the discussion of the future of abstract painting on this side of the Atlantic (and not just because of the language barrier). The mere idea of another possible narrative has been disregarded by American Modernist/Postmodernist discourse for much too long. This has been hard to comprehend for outsiders (i.e., foreigners who have all internalized parallel discourses as part of their identity within their own culture as well as the dominant American discourse), smacking, as it does of outdated cultural imperialism.
While it is easy to understand why Hantaï and Barré’s work did not find much traction on the New York art scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s, it is much more difficult in our present global age to make sense of Bonnefoi’s limited visibility in New York, which prides itself on being a worldwide scene. So, dear New York galleries, which one of you will be brave enough to take on a painter as radical as Christian Bonnefoi?