PARIS — At ninety, the painter Geneviève Asse is one of France’s national treasures, though France has yet to fully celebrate that fact, as it has with Pierre Soulages, who is four years her elder. A postage stamp with her profile in front of one of her abstract paintings has been issued (Soulages also has had a stamp issued), but I don’t know if there are any plans to build a museum in her honor. If the Soulages Museum in Rodez (the town where he was born), to be completed in December 2013 and open to the public in May 2014, is being built with public money, shouldn’t France’s next project be a museum for Asse?
However, if the way the Centre Pompidou has treated Asse is any indication of what the future might hold, France might not end up doing right by her. Shortly after I found out that a show of her work was on view at the Centre Pompidou, I checked the museum’s home page and discovered that the exhibition, Geneviève Asse, Paintings (June 26 – September 9, 2013), did not warrant a mention of any kind — an omission that has since been rectified. Instead, I was informed that a retrospective of Roy Lichtenstein was opening on July 3, 2013, and that I could see exhibitions of Simon Hantai and Mike Kelley.
The next day, when I arrived at the museum, I checked all the banners and saw that none of them advertised Asse’s exhibition. It was as if the museum were trying to hide it from the public. Entering the building, I wondered if I had made the whole thing up, and that Asse wasn’t having an exhibition at the Pompidou after all. The only way I could find out was to ask the woman sitting at the information desk, who told me that it was on the fourth level.
By the time I left the show, I was wondering why the museum had decided to give Asse an exhibition — complete with a free brochure and catalogue — but elected not to advertise it. I was particularly puzzled because — according to the English version of the brochure —
The exhibition entitled “Geneviève Asse, paintings” focuses on the large donation to the Centre Pompidou recently made by the artist, which joins a selection of paintings already belonging to national collections and to various private collectors.
You would think a gift of this magnitude would be a cause of a celebration, but evidently the museum did not.
Born in 1923, Asse belongs to the generation that includes Richard Artschwager, Sam Francis, Ellsworth Kelly, Jane Freilicher and Shirley Jaffe — artists who emerged after World War II, in the wake of the Abstract Expressionists and Tachists. For many of these painters–the so-called “Second Generation” — the problem was how to proceed in the wake of those who had gotten down to what was essential in painting.
In America, Clement Greenberg not only codified this issue but also, along with other like-minded individuals, played a major role in defining the goal of abstract art, particularly in the 1960s and ‘70s. Back in France, with her interest in space and drawing, solidity and emptiness, Asse is doing everything wrong by formalist standards.
Considering the motifs — door, window, corner of a room, ocean and sky — to which she has returned throughout her life, it becomes abundantly clear that Asse’s work arises out of a deep necessity, an urgent longing for solace as she sees and feels her way from the materiality of paint to the immateriality of light and its withdrawal. She seems intent on registering her disappearance from the world, on repeatedly exploring states of annulment.
Asse is a monochromatic painter whose surfaces hardly ever coalesce into a solid, undifferentiated color. It might be more accurate to call her a tonalist, whose muted palette consists of different hues of what is called “Asse bleu,” with a few lines of red, wisps of white, and fields of smooth, stony grays. In 1980, Roland Penrose wrote of Asse’s work: “Blue is the color of silence, of dreams and of endless space.” He went on to say that he was “enchanted by this image of infinity.”
Given her interest in the ineffable, in vast untarnished expanses and the scarcely visible, is it at all surprising that Asse has never had a solo show in America? As far as I can tell, only her artist’s books have been included in group shows in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art and the Grolier Club.
Although Asse works in the domain of monochrome painting and geometric abstraction, she is the opposite of such objective-minded artists as Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. For all of her restraint and rigor, her paintings are intensely subjective, focusing on faint hints of light and barely legible traces of space. You don’t see Asse’s paintings; you adjust to them, as if you woke up in a dark, unfamiliar room. The faint, barely there glow hovers between dawn’s promise and nocturnal memory. Their precedents are J.W.W Turner and Giorgio Morandi. She makes Turner and, at times, even Morandi look heavy-handed.
The small, splendid exhibition at the Pompidou spans more than sixty years, from 1946 to 2009. It includes seven tall, narrow paintings collectively titled Stèles (1992–99), dedicated to the early 20th-century French ethnologist and writer, Victor Segalen. Influenced by Chinese ideograms, Segalen’s Stèles (1912) — a key text in French literary history — rejects discursiveness and, more importantly, description.
In addition to those paintings, there is a substantial selection of Asse’s sketchbooks and two groups of small paintings, one set of which was done on store-bought prepared canvases. In some of the sketchbooks, which were done while the artist was traveling, in Marrakech, we see quick drawings in paint of the local architecture, with particular attention paid to portals. Reduced to an essential shape, they gave me the feeling that they offered her the occasion to consider a possibility or to work something out.
Ranging from washy to solid surfaces, and from dry to loaded brushstrokes, with particular attention paid to material density and color — gray, white, searing red and blue — the sketchbooks and small paintings reveal how much goes into what appears casual and improvised in the large paintings. Asse is preoccupied with portals–doorways and windows–and the relationship of solids and voids, paint’s mass and light’s immateriality. She finds expressiveness through restraint and structure. The paintings are never about her, but about the Other and Otherness, small signs of warmth embedded within the universe’s indifference. Her work is deliberately open to association
In “La Cuisine” (1946–47), the earliest painting in the exhibition, Asse brings together many of the perceptual issues that have preoccupied her ever since: an open door or portal; the tension between the painting’s flat surface and its capacity to convey a closed space; the relationship between the seen and unseen, where one leaves off and the other begins. In a harbinger of what’s to come, a grid of different shades of dusty gray-blue covers the lower part of the canvas with a thin skin of paint without completely denying its weave. Over time the forms become more muted and more generalized until they disappear altogether, leaving behind color and light, surface and space — a few faint lines and minute variations.
In the Stele series, Asse vertically bifurcates the painting down the middle, applying a different hue of blue to each side. The differences she develops in each of the seven paintings, however slight, become momentous. In “Stèle no. 3” (1995–96), the two sides are the same color, while a narrow, darker gray-blue band runs the length of the painting’s right edge. There is a short, faint white line — barely a whisper, you might say — visible about a sixth of the way up from the bottom edge, crossing over the vertical gap.
Sometimes the colors are very close in tone, other times less so. There is a narrow crevice between the two colors. The crevice can be a line that grows fainter as it rises. It might contain a segment of red that is both physical and visual and always changing.
In some of the small paintings I felt the low horizon shifted the work out of the domain of abstraction and into the world of schematic representation. At the same time, I was aware that this proportion was not to be found in any of the large paintings, further suggesting that the small works were where Asse explored options. For all of the simplicity of her compositions and the subtlety of her color, there is something meticulous and focused about the work and the vision she seeks. The smallest move she makes infuses her work with drama, where two vertical red lines, placed one above the other, become slashes in the painting’s skin, and the crevice ascending and growing fainter becomes a meditation and an acceptance.
Geneviève Asse, Paintings continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, Paris 4e) through September 9.
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