Before the pandemic hit us, a painter friend of mine floated the very salient question: “Where do you think we are in history?” It’s a question I found impossible to answer at the time, but to which I can now think of no better response than to suggest looking at Alix Le Méléder’s paintings, currently on view at Zürcher Gallery in Alix Le Méléder: Works 1997–1999.
This is the first solo exhibition in New York of an artist who has a measure of recognition in France and is known for having stopped painting in 2011. Prior to the present exhibition, a few of her paintings were included in group shows in 2011 and 2020 at Zürcher Gallery in New York. She had a career survey from August to November 2020, at the Château de Tours Museum, France, and her work will be exhibited at the French Institute/Alliance Française in New York this September 13 to October 8.
At first, her work may appear to be rooted in the idea of the protocol, as a set of arbitrary rules for artists to follow in the execution of their work. The main difference between the French and American ideas of an art protocol lies in the importance of the element of play for the French. The best example might be the work of the Oulipo, a 1960s and ’70s French literary group. Coming out of a critique of Surrealism’s literary extravagances and of post-World War II existentialism, it predicated innovation on a sufficient mastery of the rules, to subvert them. Think of Georges Perec’s 1969 novel La disparition (literally The Disappearance, translated in English as A Void, to observe its conceptual intent) and of the challenge to write 300 pages without using the letter E, the most ubiquitous letter in the French language. In painting, one may think of François Morellet’s work, where conceptual rigor mingles with self-critical humor. Since then, many French painters, from Jean-François Maurige to Bernard Frize, have relied on protocol strategies for different reasons and to different ends.
In Le Méléder’s case, contrary to the very definition of the term, protocol strategies were not part of her early work’s toolbox. She arrived at them very gradually. Perhaps we should speak of “postocol,” if there was such a thing. in 2010, she described to French writer Patrick Autréaux the trance-like ritual she followed for each painting session: A card game of solitaire played until she could intuit the cards, followed by the clockwise spinning the canvas after each stroke, the brush dipped in a different primary color each time, and each painting usually completed in one sitting.
Here, the initial playfulness of the protocol takes a sober turn, as an introduction leading to visual asceticism. If asceticism in recent abstract painting has mostly been associated with Minimalism or the monochrome (Agnes Martin or Marcia Hafif, for example), Le Méléder avoids the reductionist discourse and opts for a more existential twist. A quick examination of her trajectory might shed some light on how she got there:
After graduating in 1979 from the sculpture studio at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Le Méléder suspended her painting practice, and reengaged with it in 1985. In 1990 she lost the entire contents of her studio in a fire. But when she emerged from that disaster her evolution turned out to be remarkably swift.
She first worked in a neo-expressionist manner reminiscent of Danish painter Per Kirkeby, with thick, gestural brushstrokes and a dark, Northern European palette. In the mid-’90s, the white background of the canvas began to peek through the muddy gray paint. Paint became thinner, color warmer, with a Mediterranean, Bonnard-like, palette, brushstrokes still randomly organized, eliciting an all-over floating space. In 1994 she started to use square formats exclusively.
Around 1997–98, the oblique strokes gave way to a more rigorous stacked organization, the direction of the drips indicating that she was rotating the canvas. She then began to leave the white center of the canvas empty, and by 1999, she limited the parallel strokes to two or three on each side. The paintings in the current show are from that period.
In the early 2000s, she reduced the brushstrokes down to four, all in red, one per side, in a cross pattern. She seemed to have found her idiom. From then on, her work appeared to be both stabilized and in perpetual motion, the brush marks pressing against the edge of the canvas, as if its endless rotations were pushing them out centrifugally. From 1990 to 2011, the marks, less gestural, smaller and of different colors, migrated to the corners of the painting, as markers of the boundaries of the tableau, as symbolic space. At that point, through her idiosyncratic protocol, she seemed to be in a constant state of transition, rushing toward an emptying of the individual will from her painting process.
She had exhibited regularly at Galerie Zürcher, Paris, since she joined the gallery in 2004. Then, in a final burst of energy in 2011, she produced about 100 paintings. Convinced that she had achieved everything she had set out to do, she decided to stop painting. Five years later, Les Éditions Tituli, Paris, published Alix Le Méléder, traces, peintures, a selection of texts and interviews from writers who have supported her work, now attempting to grasp her reasoning for this decision.
If up to that point, nothing seems out of place in the usual development of a contemporary abstract painter — from the progressive reduction of means to the emergence of a signature style and the development of its iconicity — her decision to stop painting sets her apart. More than the act itself, what is most unusual and compelling is that the decision came from her work’s internal logic, not from external forces.
Her insistence on the equivalency of the edges, as markers of a space without a preexisting orientation, brings her closer, in my view, to Martin Barré’s systematic mapping of pictorial space, and simultaneous deconstruction of his own mapping. In fact, she seems to literally follow the directions displayed by Barré’s “67-F-1” (1967), in which three out of four arrows point to a different edge of the painting.
Besides this very circumstantial example, she shares with Barré an understanding of the space of the tableau as ultimate locus of that painter’s sublimation of his experience of the world (and of its simultaneous de-sublimation through the language of painting), which does not translate outside of the tableau: From her standpoint, exit expressionism, exit pop art, exit the found object, exit geometric utopias, and most importantly, exit the fiction of an art historical evolution and progress.
The square format, the interchangeable orientation, the empty center, the limitation of the brushstrokes to one per side, the redoubling of the edges, the arbitrariness of color, the painting done in one sitting: all this amounts to both a singularly coherent painting strategy and conceptual apparatus.
One might be tempted to compare Le Méléder’s protocol ritual to what art historian Jacques Beauffet called “the experience of limits” (“L’art en Europe, les années décisives , 1945-53”) practiced by artists and writers in postwar Europe such as Henri Michaux, Wols, or Antonin Artaud, who used mind-altering substances to reach alternate states of consciousness. No need for external stimulants here; the protocol is the stimulant, and the limits are first those of the tableau (the borders) and then those of the painter, who felt she went as far as she could.
Her decision to stop painting differs significantly from those of previous historic figures, like Simon Hantaï or Michel Parmentier, who walked away from good careers for ethical or political reasons. The practice of painting enabled Le Méléder to reach a state of completion. Her decision is a factor of her personal relationship to her own work. It is the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the decision that makes it so unique.
In response to the question at the onset of this text, I suspect that such a decision is only possible if the art-historical model unconsciously sustaining a painter’s work has lost all relevance for the painter. In that sense, it could be construed as a delayed response to Bram van Velde’s Beckettian “I can’t go on, I will go on.” Van Velde, the ultimate existentialist anti-hero, was so immersed in his work that he abdicated all will to stop his own painting-induced misery. In contrast, Le Méléder, standing outside of her work as a viewer does, watches herself paint. It is in this quality that, echoing Herman Melville’s Bartleby, and his recurrent refrain — “I’d prefer not to” — she responds to van Velde, over the span of time: “I could go on, but it would be meaningless, so I’ll stop.”
Alix Le Méléder: Works 1997–1999 continues at Zürcher Gallery (33 Bleecker Street, Manhattan) through July 21.