GalleriesWeekend

Simon Hantaï’s Discontent

Simon Hantai, "Etude" (1969), acrylic on canvas, 114 x 75 in. (image courtesy Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery, Photo: Francois Bisi)
Simon Hantaï, “Etude” (1969), acrylic on canvas, 114 x 75 in. (image courtesy Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery, Photo: Francois Bisi)

Paul Rodger/9W
529 W 20th S
Simon Hantaï, Go Figure/Ground
Extended through Fall 2013

Paul Kasmin Gallery
515 W 27th St
Simon Hantaï
May 8–June 15

Gagosian Gallery Paris
Steven Parrino
Armleder, Barré, Buren, Hantaï, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni
March 21–May 25

Musée national d’art moderne Centre Pompidou, Paris
Simon Hantaï
May 22–September 09

“I said to my students: First and foremost, if you want to be painters, you’ll have to cut your tongue off, because this decision will take away from you the right to express yourself in any other way than with your paint brushes.”

—Henri Matisse, Écrits et propos sur l’art. Hermann, Paris.

In 1983, at the height of his career, Simon Hantaï (1922–2008), then sixty years old, decided to withdraw from the art scene and stop exhibiting his work, if not to stop painting altogether. He would not show again until 1998, a fifteen-year hiatus and self-imposed silence that echo with more force as time goes by. Why, we may wonder, would an artist at the top of his game, especially someone of Hantaï’s stature, do such a thing? The question has haunted me for years. With the current exhibition at the Musée national d’art moderne Centre Pompidou in Paris and two solo shows in Chelsea galleries this summer, the moment has come for a long overdue reexamination of his achievement and legacy, and of this hiatus in his career.

In the mid-seventies, Hantaï had risen to prominence on the Paris art scene with paintings produced through a very idiosyncratic process of “pliage,” which combined the automatism of Surrealism with Jackson Pollock’s all-overness and Henri Matisse’s color fields. Rapidly: It consisted of folding a piece of primed canvas according to different patterns in each series of work, covering the folded canvas with paint in one solid color, and presenting the unfolded and re-stretched result to the public.

What commands our interest is that, among the plethora of artists and painters who worked from the beginning of the seventies through the end of the eighties, and who for the most part embraced the new market-dominated art world, Hantaï’s gesture of resistance and retreat was so singular as to be lost in the brouhaha of the new marketing and money-making machine. The exceptional example of his stance and its symbolical consequences are only becoming clearer today, five years after his death.

The early eighties were a turning point in the art world and in the economic world at large. In 1981 in the US, Ronald Reagan was elected and immediately instituted an aggressive, business-friendly and ideologically conservative agenda. By contrast, that same year in France, where Hantaï lived, Francois Mitterand, a socialist, was elected. With Jack Lang at the helm of the ministry of culture, the new government had launched, against all expectations, an ambitious program of cultural initiatives that took everyone in the art world by surprise. In 1982, Hantaï had become a primary beneficiary of this new political program as the official French representative at that year’s Venice Biennale, and more official recognition was on the way.

But, on the contemporary art scene, 1983 was gearing up in a direction quite different from the one Hantaï’s work was taking. Neo-expressionism was on an unstoppable rise. Young (and sometimes not so young) Italian and German painters had burst onto the international art scene. Money was flowing into the art world like never before. Art prices were rising fast on the auction scene. In 1981, Julian Schnabel had a joint show at the Mary Boone and Leo Castelli galleries, the most glamorous galleries at that time. With his oversize ego and bombastic statements, Schnabel’s vision of the role of the artist was entirely the opposite of Hantaï’s. In just a few years art had abruptly turned from an activity of countercultural, critical thinking and subversive practice into one embracing conservative and capitalist values. Networking, producing, showing and selling overshadowed all other aspects. For artists in their mid-careers, as Hantaï was at the time, who were shaped by the existential questions that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, the new order felt too much like an unacceptable Faustian deal.

Pollock and Matisse are most often invoked when trying to grasp Hantaï’s pliage work formally. We will reach out to both of them to examine the act of self-inflicted violence of a painter who decides to suspend the single activity that defines both his identity and his relationship to the world.

It might be worthwhile to examine more closely Matisse’s advice to his students placed as epigraph to our text, and to delve into the inherent violence of its image, especially in view of his own late paper cut-outs, where a pair of scissors, cutting through painted sheets of paper, creates shapes that speak to the viewer on their own, as if color were in fact the artist tongue. This powerful image, with its latent invocation of a paper cut on one’s tongue, is even more salient in French, where tongue and language are one and the same word: langue.

Matisse’s advice is all the more surprising because it is coming from someone who, at the same time, advocated an approach to painting akin to the comfort of a good armchair. Matisse is not an expressionist, even if in his Fauve days he flirted with its esthetic for a while, and thus the inherent violence of the painter’s relationship to his work is not externalized or visually expressed. Instead it is internalized, absorbed and transcended.

Speaking about his late silkscreen works exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in 1997, Hantaï will use words strangely echoing Matisse’s famous saying: “ça coupe très fort,” which could be best translated as “it slices through quite sharply.” This reference is also reflected in Hantaï’s own image of self-mutilation when, in 1999, on the occasion of a retrospective in Munster, Germany, he described his approach to pliage to Alfred Pacquement as akin to working blind with arms cut off.

Pollock’s slow descent into self-destruction in the last years of his life is a test case of an artist internalizing the unbearable tensions and contradictions at play in his work. What should we make of the fact that he did not paint at all in the last two years of his life? Was it an alcoholic burnout, as has too often been conveniently invoked? Was Pollock’s painter’s block his way to step back and reject the pressure and expectations of the art scene? Was it his way of refusing to participate in a game where he had become just a pawn, his way of letting painting slowly make its way back into his life without becoming the “phony” that, when drunk, he accused so many other painters to be?

We are not very far here from the roots of Hantaï’s own decision. Both are signs that something is amiss in the private contract between a painter and his painting, and in both cases it comes down to exterior social pressures. Pollock was less lucky than Willem de Kooning in the sense that his alcoholism took over his whole life including his
painter’s mind, where for de Kooning it did not.

During his long career, Hantaï had stopped working periodically for extended stretches of time. One of these episodes took place in 1976 after the completion of Les silences rétiniens (the retinian silences), Jean-Michel Meurice’s film on the artist and lasted three and a half years. It seems that well before the 1983 decision, a pattern of pause for reassessment, of temporary withdrawal from engagement with the public, was already in place. In fact we could, without too much of a stretch, even posit that the rhythm of the pauses in his painter’s evolution somehow echoed the “unpainted” whites areas found in his pliages, which are called in French, very appropriately in this case, réserves. The first and foremost example of réserves that comes to mind in modern painting is Cézanne, who often left unpainted areas in finished paintings, especially in his Montagne St. Victoire watercolors, resulting in unending questions by his contemporaries as to whether these works were actually finished.

Thus, on one side Hantaï’s studio activity was structured by unpainted blanks on the canvas, and on the other by the reflective blanks or silences in the painter’s own activity, a rhythm where breathing space and breathing time were as critical to a painting’s success as to the well being of a studio practice. The French word réserves also carries a second meaning of having second thoughts or doubts about something. As, for example, in the case of a contract which could be signed “sous réserves de” (under the following conditions). It would seem that Hantaï’s work points towards a practice of the réserve both directly on the canvas and in his conceptual approach to his work.

In 1988, on the occasion of the publication of his book The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, Gilles Deleuze wrote a quick note to Hantaï, whose work he admired: “Your present withdrawal towards the private, your exodus, does not make you more absent but makes your presence more intense”. In the original French version of that note, Deleuze quite pointedly uses the word repliement for withdrawal. In English both pli and repli are translated as “fold”. In French repli also has a second meaning, which is that of a withdrawal, as in repli stratégique when speaking of an army’s strategic withdrawal from the front line. Would it be too far-fetched to see in Hantaï’s folding technique of pliage, a harbinger of his own withdrawal from painting as well? When speaking of his work in French or English, whether about the blank/réserves or of the fold/withdrawal, Hantaï’s ultimate act of resistance appears to have been ingrained in the very process of his pliage right from the beginning.

In his moving contribution to the Pompidou center catalog, philosopher Georges Didi- Huberman reminds us repeatedly that Hantaï was striving to achieve a workmanlike quality to his painting, to make the hand of the artist disappear, to rid the hand of its innate tendency to embellish. He quotes Hantaï speaking about his work as something “done with eyes closed,” as a surrendering to the painting process and an unconditional acceptance of its results: A matter of distancing from the finished product, and of internalizing the painting process in its own medium.

In another insightful essay in the same catalog, Agnes Berecz alludes to Hantaï’s strong, if not quite obvious, connection to Duchamp and to his famous statement bête comme un peintre (dumb as a painter). She proposes that Hantaï’s pliage method was a way of agreeing with Duchamp’s statement, by turning the creation of a painting into a blind activity that would make sense only after the painter had completely surrendered his creative will to its process. In the same catalog, writing on the Etudes et blancs series, Dominique Fourcade reminds us of Hantaï’s ambition to achieve a painting “without qualities”, a clear reference to Austrian writer Robert Musil’s own “man without quality” from 1930.

All three writers hint at different facets of a practice where the painter’s ego is progressively pushed out of his work. Hantaï’s ego had thus already left the building, so to speak, in his process of pliages well before his own physical withdrawal from the art market.

In her book Penser la peinture (Thinking Painting Through), the most recent in-depth study of Hantaï’s work to date, tellingly only published in French so far, American scholar Molly Warnock, for her part, examining the series of work directly preceding the pliages, insists on Hantaï’s search for “une peinture ordinaire” (an unremarkable painting). This series includes two of the most ambitious works of Hantaï’s whole career: “Ecriture rose” and “A galla placidia”, hung together in the Pompidou Center show for the first time since they were painted in 1958-59 over the course of a full year.

Simon Hantai, "Peinture (Ecriture rose)" (1958–59), colored ink, gold leaf on linen, 129 ¾ x 167 1/8 in., at the Centre Pompidou, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris (photo: Francois Bisi)
Simon Hantaï, “Peinture (Ecriture rose)” (1958–59), colored ink, gold leaf on linen, 129 ¾ x 167 1/8 in., at the Centre Pompidou, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris (photo: Francois Bisi)

Although these two paintings don’t seem to announce the pliages formally, they are found in their complex combination of the religious, the erotic, and the sublime.(Georges Bataille’s shadow and his concept of excess hover over Hantaï’s studio right until the end.) It is there that Hantaï’s esthetic program of self-effacement gets started. It is also with the end of that series of paintings and the clean formal break made by the “Mariales” paintings — the first pliage works — that Hantaï symbolically rehearses his 1983 break-up with the art world.

In 1982, just before making his life-altering decision, Hantaï started work on a new series, the “Tabula lilas,” which was exhibited at the Jean Fournier Gallery in Paris in June-July of the same year. This series departed from the previous ones in one very significant aspect: Instead of being pre-primed, the canvas was left raw, almost unprepared, and the paint that he used to cover the folds was white, a color previously dedicated to the primed background of the pliages.

The “Tabula lilas” series was the last work that Hantaï would exhibit before “retiring” and the fate of these paintings strangely mirrors his decision. They irradiated a peculiar mystical light (which Dominique Fourcade associated with the lilac light emanating from Matisse’s stained glass windows in his Vence chapel), but because of the raw materials used, they quickly faded and “burned” in the daylight’s ultraviolet rays to such an extent that only one painting of the whole series has survived: A disappearance was already encoded into their own material and process.

To better understand the particulars of Hantaï’s decision one needs to compare it to other painters who withdrew from painting or exhibiting, a gesture that is more common than one would think. One example is that of Eugen Schönebeck (born in 1936), a slightly younger German painter, rediscovered in the fall of 2012 on the occasion of a show at the David Nolan gallery in New York. Schönebeck stopped painting in 1967 at age 31 and withdrew permanently from the art world. Even though Hantaï and Schönebeck’s styles and the personal motivations for their decisions are quite different, one cannot help but draw a parallel between them. In Schönebeck’s case, it was the impossibility (or the unwillingness) to resolve a fundamental contradiction at the core of his work, a refusal to compromise the values of a socialist ideal (even if understood as flawed) with the requirements of the capitalist market (whose flaws were only too obvious). It was a refusal to take sides, an insistence on the tension in the conflict, a way to put a finger on the wound, to make the viewer aware of the pain: a pain not exactly traceable to any specifics in the artworks, but that lies at the heart of a painter’s daily practice.

Hantaï’s own rejection of the “system” is not too far from Schonebeck’s. By refusing to exhibit, the painter cuts his tongue off again, but this time to prevent painting from speaking, to make public an act of private dissent. The contradictions he faced at this stage of his career were clearly unsolvable. For Hantaï, the path laid in front of him of further official and market-driven recognition at the cost of further compromises, went against the essence of his practice. In his eyes recognition at such a cost was not worth it.

There is also the example of Michel Parmentier (1938-2000) of the French painters group BMPT (which derived its name from the initials of the members’ last names: Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni). The members of BMPT, being of a younger generation, were directly affected by Hantaï’s work, not in their public strategies, but in their understanding of the contradictions at stake in the practice of painting. Parmentier stopped painting in 1968, seeing it as a medium too ideologically compromised to carry on with it. But he resumed his practice (with Hantaï’s help) in 1983, at the same moment when Hantaï himself had resolved to close shop. Parmentier’s work is a good example of the radical approach to painting in vogue from the mid-sixties through the seventies in Paris. We may wonder if perhaps the younger Parmentier’s example contributed to reinforce the older Hantaï’s decision?

In 1994, while putting together a proposal for a group show pairing European and New York abstract painters in collaboration with another painter friend for the Philippe Briet Gallery, I met with Steven Parrino (1958-2005) and Olivier Mosset (another ex-member of the BMPT group), and we discussed a list of possible participating artists. Our intention was to show Steven’s wrinkled “misshaped” paintings next to a “pliage”. I had until then assumed that Hantaï’s work would be as familiar to American painters of my generation as it was to me. To my surprise Steven had never heard of Hantaï’s work, but seemed excited by the description I made of it, and at the prospect of a visual dialog with it in the context of a group show. The show never materialized because the gallery where it was planned closed two months later, and the connection with Hantaï was never pursued, partly due to Steven’s untimely death. But the anecdote is a good measure of Hantaï’s lack of recognition by American painters of the generation who would have most benefited from exposure to his work. Earlier this year, this Hantaï/Parrino connection was finally clearly established in a group show at the Paris branch of the Gagosian Gallery, where both their works were presented along with those of the BMPT group members.

Simon Hantai, "Laissée" (1981–1994), acrylic on canvas, 77 ¼ x 62 in. (image courtesy Paul Rodgers/ 9W Gallery, Photo: Francois Bisi)
Simon Hantaï, “Laissée” (1981–1994), acrylic on canvas, 77 ¼ x 62 in. (image courtesy Paul Rodgers/ 9W Gallery, Photo: Francois Bisi)

Hantaï’s silent withdrawal from and disapproval of an art scene ruled by market values exemplifies the conflict between a generation of painters coming to prominence in the 70’s for whom art was about the disappearance of the artist’s ego, while in the early 80’s, with the triumph of the society of the spectacle, the ego became the benchmark of all artistic measures. Only with time did Hantaï’s self-effacing gesture come to take such a heroic dimension, of a kind not seen since the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. This is where Hantaï meets Pollock again, not just because of his unique understanding of Pollock’s all-over, but because Hantaï’s stubborn refusal to compromise echoes Pollock’s own self-destructive respect of his own work and his refusal to bow to social pressures about the unacceptability of a return to the figure.

In Hantaï’s gesture, the heroic and the sublime are internalized in the painter’s dedication to the integrity of his work, rather than in an externalized and spectacularized gesture, as the Neo-Expressionists of the eighties understood it, even through the filter of an easily shared “post-modern” irony. Hantaï’s silent withdrawal from the scene was first and foremost an act of quiet resistance, a refusal to play along in a rigged game and to reap its illusory benefits. A perfect and rare example of how ethics can sometimes trounce esthetics.

“I did not abandon Painting. What I left was its enrollment to the cause of the economy, and above all its function as a stand-in (bouche trou)”.

—Simon Hantaï

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