PARIS — After co-curating the unbeaten Beat Generation show that I picked as best of Paris 2016, polymathic neo-Dada conceptual artist Jean-Jacques Lebel is back at the Centre Pompidou. This time, his own high-flown early work from the 1950s to 1968 is the subject of the show, called L’Outrepasseur (The Trespasser). It is only a sliver of the far more inclusive Lebel retrospective at the Geneva Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in 2013 and at the Karlsruhe Center for Media Arts and Technology (ZKM) in 2014. But even this limited selection of work reveals Lebel’s deep love of freedom, self-mockery, and playful subversion of social norms.
Since the 1950s, Lebel has developed a radical intermedia art practice that defies easy categorization. With deep debts to Surrealist frottage and Action Painting, he is an audacious, even savage, visual artist; a politically-minded initiator of early riotous art happenings; an incandescent purple poet; a probing essayist; a rebellious underground filmmaker; a nimble organizer of international art festivals; an effective French translator of Beat generation texts; a book publisher; a voracious art collector; and anarchist activist out to slay the latest bête noire.
Born in 1936 in Paris, son of Robert Lebel—a poet, art collector, Old Masters art critic, and aficionado of Marcel Duchamp—bilingual Jean-Jacques grew up in New York City, during World War II, surrounded by the likes of Duchamp, Billie Holiday, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Meret Oppenheim, Benjamin Péret, and André Breton, who later expelled him from the Surrealist group for nonconformity. After this turbulent period, during the waning of the Surrealist epoch, Lebel spearheaded the European wing of the “happening” movement, in which transgressive performance events, usually with nonlinear narratives, are staged as art pieces.
Lebel was close to Allan Kaprow, who founded the happening movement in 1959, inspired by Jackson Pollock’s immense web paintings. In the summer of 1960, Lebel staged his first happening, called “L’enterrement de la Chose” (“The Burial of the Thing”), in Venice, Italy. He invited an audience to dress in stylish formal wear and attend a theatrical “funeral” ceremony in a grand, ornately-festooned palace. While performers read excerpts from the writing of le Marquis de Sade, an “executioner” stabbed a draped “cadaver”, which pallbearers then carried in a coffin out to a gondola. The “corpse” of old, asphyxiating culture—which was, in fact, a mechanical sculpture by Jean Tinguely—slid ceremoniously into the canal.
For Lebel and other action artists of the ‘60s, Pollock generally represented a liberation of the artwork from traditional means of production. His work encouraged the inclusion of bodily motion in visual art. As Kaprow saw it, Pollock “destroyed painting”, freeing the painter to work in more than two dimensions. Instead of being just a painter, one became an artist, capable of working in any medium.
Lebel participated in the first years of this new art attitude in New York, having briefly associated with George Maciunas’ local Fluxus group while visiting the city in the early 1960s. There, he met with Kaprow, Dick Higgins, and others associated with happenings and Fluxus events. He held an exhibition at the March Gallery; participated in activities at Claes Oldenburg’s Store; and gave a reading at The Living Theater. In the years that followed, he produced over 70 formidable happenings and other transgressive performances on several continents. All the while, he remained a prolific painter, poet, and radical political activist, influenced by iconoclasts like Antonin Artaud, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the Marquis de Sade. His happenings were often staged as part of the avant-garde Festival de la Libre Expression (Festival of Free Expression), which Lebel founded, where he featured the performance work of 1960s artists such as Ben and Robert Filliou. Indeed, Carolee Schneemann’s seminal “Meat Joy” bacchanal was first performed at Lebel’s Parisian Festival of Free Expression in 1964 at the American Center on boulevard Raspail.
The erotic, subversive performance art that Lebel often chose to showcase illustrates the tension in his work between Dionysian creativity and critical political activism. Take, for example, his 1962 happening, “Pour Conjurer l’Esprit de Catastrophe” (“To Conjure the Spirit of Catastrophe”), in which two topless women wearing rubber Kennedy and Khrushchev masks, bodies collaged with newspaper clippings about the Cuban missile crisis, fight in a bathtub filled with what appears to be blood. On the more bookish side, in 1966, Lebel’s French translations of the writings of his Beat friends — including William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Bob Kaufman, and Jack Kerouac — were published in La Poésie de la Beat Generation (The Poetry of the Beat Generation).
Accordingly, I find Lebel an international libertinage pearl worth close inspection in today’s socio-political context. In his early paintings, such as “My Math Professor” and “The Medicine Man” (both 1951), Lebel explored gestural modes of automatic painting. Influenced by Surrealism, his love of jazz, and experiments with psychotropic drugs, this instinctive technique shows up again in his painting “Hommage à Billie Holiday” (1959) and in the automatic drawings “Untitled” (1959) and “André Breton and Guillaume Apollinaire” (1956).
Shortly after, Lebel turned to creating assemblages and dé-collages in a neo-Dada spirit of moral and aesthetic subversion, such as “Portrait of Nietzsche” (1961) and “Portrait of Man Ray” (1962). The show features the last of his rebellious political engagements in photos of his 1968 happening, “Occupation de l’Odéon” (“Occupation of the Odéon”), in which students, artists, and workers in France came together to revolt.
One highlight of the show is “Grand tableau antifasciste collectif” (“Large Collective Anti-Fascist Painting”, 1960)—a huge, angry, collective painting by Enrico Baj, Roberto Crippa, Gianni Dova, Erró, Antonio Recalcati, and Lebel. Not very pretty, it was painted in response to atrocities committed by the French army during the Algerian War. (The torture of those suspected of belonging to Algeria’s National Liberation Front was systematic in the late 1950s.) This looming, garish work echoes the surreal figurations of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), but doubles down on grotesque imagery in suffocating horror vacui fashion. It is not so much a history painting as a hodgepodge of caricatured open mouths, torn bodies, panicky faces, and bared teeth and claws. A Nazi swastika embedded among the figures evokes Gestapo crimes of torture. Collaged into a lower right-hand corner is a copy of the Manifeste des 121 — a pamphlet signed in 1960 by 121 intellectuals and artists claiming the right of insubordination against the Algerian war. Within the mix, one can make out the distinct painting styles of several participants: the molten, murky figures of Lebel, the squashed heads of Erró, the grotesque, decorated war generals of Baj.
In 1961, this mural-sized painting was exhibited in Milan during the third manifestation of an artistic group event called L’Anti-Procès (The Anti-Trial), which denounced the use of torture and the war in Algeria. The event featured French, Swiss, Italian, and German artists, including Henri Michaux, Tinguely, Lucio Fontana, Wolf Vostell, and the Americans Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. On the orders of the Italian prosecutor Luigi Costanza, the painting was seized, folded like a napkin, and sequestered away for more than 20 years due to its “affront to the state religion.”
In 1988, the painting was finally recovered in poor condition by Baj and restored. A good thing, too. Though stylistically dated, like much of Lebel’s pre-1968 work (eclectic, hip, softly-pornographic collage aesthetics no longer has much bravura impact), “Large Collective Anti-Fascist Painting” can still take us to a place where L’imagination au pouvoir (power to the imagination) rings true as a means of confronting false political consciousness. Lebel’s central idea that art can change the world by changing the eye of the beholder—that art can progressively shift society by moving individual minds and hearts—remains highly relevant today, grounded in the insistence that tout est politique (everything is political).
Jean-Jacques Lebel: L’Outrepasseur is on view at Centre Pompidou (Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris) until September 3.