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Jean Fautrier
The Hung Sheep
at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery

Bouquet of Flowers
ca. 1927

Figurative Nude

Head of a Hostage, no. 20

The Crystal Flask

Head of a Partisan, Budapest

The Shrinking Gift
by Donald Kuspit

"Jean Fautrier, 1898-1964," Jan. 29-Mar. 29, 2003, at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York, N.Y. 10027.

The disturbing thing about this exhibition is the rigidity with which Fautrier's art is interpreted by its organizers. Benjamin Buchloh and Yves-Alain Bois fit Fautrier into the Procrustean bed of October-thinking about modern art, elevating him to canonical status -- or at least turning him into an exemplary figure -- because he fits their prescribed scheme of significance and understanding.

According to Buchloh and Bois, Fautrier begins with "decadent realism," develops toward formlessness, and climaxes repudiating painting itself, preferring to make "copies" dabbed with "individual" gestures. It is a narrow, not to say dogmatic party-line interpretation, altogether blind to two related aspects of his works. First, the inadequacy, not to say failure, of his formlessness -- it is invariably self-contained, suggesting that it is a pose, and indeed it takes center stage on the canvas, as though Fautrier was performing an ("expressive") act. And second, correlate with this failure, and its cause, the sense of human vulnerability and death that pervades his work, particularly in the "hostage heads" of World War II.

Fautrier could never achieve pure "abstract" formlessness -- his surface never becomes lyrically (manically?) formless the way the most moving all-over painting does, which is why it hardly "breathes" (to use a Greenbergian term), or rather its breathing seems forced as though aided by a cranky iron lung (clunky art) -- because of his need to contain and control his troubled feelings, as though to avoid going mad.

Canonized as political in import, the hostage heads are in emotional fact crystallizations of misery, that is, mnemonic traces of past trauma, more primitive and deeply rooted than any caused by the German occupation of France that Fautrier experienced. So are the carefully contrived fragments of formlessness, which however abstract have a peculiar affinity with Watteau's plaintive Gilles and other melancholy and theatrical Pierrots, harlequins and saltimbanques in the history of art.

The images of formlessness and moon-like slivers of head -- implicitly self-portraits, as the exhibition's film of Fautrier suggests -- are icons of ingrained misery rather than testimony to high-handed theory and a biased account of the developmental logic of modern art. Both kinds of image are opposite sides of the same coin of unconscious expression that is the core of Fautrier's art. The seemingly formless unconscious must be consciously contained -- indeed, encysted -- in a shape, organic or geometrical, in order to control the traumatic, turbulent feelings smoldering in it.

Indeed, the sense of brooding upon the abyss, which the self-contained formlessness and hostage heads represent -- they are in effect entrances to emotional hell -- is endemic in Fautrier's art from its realistic beginnings. (And why is realism, according to the curators, "decadent?" Now and forever after? And why does painting become decadent, as Fautrier supposedly recognizes it to be? What historical inevitability has decreed it to be decadent? Or is it rather the false inevitability which theory foists on history, excluding many artists as theoretically incorrect and unfit?)

As for the last works, they show Fautrier's disillusionment with himself, which was his latent theme all along. He gave up on painting because he had given up on himself long ago. He had apparently one serious student in his entire life, who felt that he became more stupid the more he worked with Fautrier, suggesting that Fautrier was driving him mad, that is, projecting his madness into the student, or stirring up the madness latent in the student and everybody.

I am not saying that Fautrier was a mad genius, but that he had doubts about his creativity all his life. He didn't simply question his creativity, he didn't know if he was significantly creative. Is that why he lived alone most of his life, his reclusiveness not the solitude or self-intimacy necessary for creativity but an expression of his feeling of creative and human inadequacy? His gift was after all as narrow as his art -- it seemed to literally shrink, in a gesture of pseudo-concentration, after his realistic works (signs of frustration, blocked creativity, and inadequacy are already evident in them) -- and in the end he simply lost it completely, which is why he made "copies."

Perhaps he lost all feeling for art, having successfully used it to anesthetize himself to the suffering and morbidity that was the source of his gift. He and October -- narrow artistic practice and narrow-minded critical theory (hardly Baudelaire's "point of view that opens up the widest horizons") -- are clearly made for each other. Although if one sees the art through the filter of October theory one will miss the feeling that made it decadent and all too human until it became too progressive for its own good.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.