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Back to Reviews 96

Photo by Jack Pierson
at Philippe Rizzo

David Salle
at Thaddeus Ropac

David Salle

Thomas Locher
at Anne DeVillepoix

Imi Knoebel
at Gilbert 
Brownstone & Cie.

Wolfgang Laib
at Gilbert 
Brownstone & Cie.

Serge Comte
at Jousse-Seguin

Xavier Veilhan
at Jennifer Flay

letter from paris

by Jeff Rian

The Paris art season opened with its 

standard mix of around 40 percent locals 

and the rest imports. September's American 

entries included Jeanne Dunning's 

photographs of a female body covered in 

foodstuffs and her video of whipped-cream 

hair dressing at Samia Saouma, and 

Jack Pierson's picture poems of faded 

beach vistas and fey boys and still lifes 

of kitchen cleansers or flowers (one of this 

month's stand-outs) at Galerie Philippe Rizzo. 

They had the charm and simplicity of a 

William Carlos Williams short poem and the 

melancholy softness of Carson McCullers's 

sad society. David Salle, at Thaddeus 

Ropac, showed a room of jokey, photo-

inset, deft and seamless David Salles, 

adding a touch of France to the insets, 

such as the Tour Eiffel, and continuing the 

style that defined him. 

Anselm Kiefer at Templon was no less 

predictable or Teutonic than he was a dozen 

years ago. He showed about a dozen table-

size books and a handful of large hay-

strewn, earth-colored paintings about the 

death of empires and the depleted soil they 

return to. Thomas Locher at Anne 

DeVillepoix showed a line-up of message-

laden chairs ("I'm not saying that what I 

think is right, but what I'm saying, I 

think, cannot be wrong."), annotated wall 

texts on the preamble to the French 

Constitution and, in the back, geometric 

Plexi-surfaced "paintings" with numbers 

referencing patterns based on an aleatory 

selection of colors and numbers. At Gilbert 

Brownstone & Cie., Imi Knoebel showed 

smallish, stacked, sculptural paintings on 

wood that recall Mondrian's primary colors, 

Minimalism's formal simplicity, PoMo's 

formulaic compression: memories of times 

past, redone, reformatted, high-teched. 

Wolfgang Laib built a 10 x 10 x 10-foot 

woodwork temple with a wax staircase and 

tub-sized boats atop ready to float 


The Americans are preoccupied with media 

and sexual politics, the Germans with 

death, formal rigor and the brooding soul. 

Both are in distinct sensory contrast to 

French exhibitions, the highlight of which 

was, in my opinion, Pierre Huyghe's video 

projection called Dubbing (unpicturable 

here), which showed a group of 15 

professional dubbers doing voice-overs for 

a two-hour film we don't see but they 

watch. In one part, after some minutes of 

silence, a woman starts moaning in pain 

then begins to shriek "I hate you," then 

another woman screams as if tortured, then 

a man. The other vocalists ignore the 

seemingly tortured, as is often the case 

(survival often preempts personal 

involvement), while waiting their turn to 

orchestrate the movie. Dubbing made an 

impression and held my attention by active 

voice alone. At Jousse-Seguin, Serge Comte 

took the Post-it to its dweebiest limit, 

making books, using a hundred or so to 

compose a large portrait, contriving small 

Post-it collages of himself and a female 

counterpart. In a work called Le Tour (The 

Tour), at Jennifer Flay, Xavier Veilhan 

automated a potter's wheel with a scooter, 

which turns the wheel to make wonky dun 

pots. Le Hublot (The Porthole) is a port 

hole cut in the office wall, and Le 

Luminaire (The Lamp) is a strobe light 

installed in what looks like an 

extraterrestrial's round, banded Orgone 

Accumulator. Yves Amu Klein, son of the 

famed cobalt-bluemeister, must have been a 

boy-genius with an erector set, by the 

evidence of his animated, pet-sized metal 

octupi, called Octofungi, which tip and 

reach like an electronic baby at the 

passersby. But is it art?

September in Paris was not exactly 

lackluster, just lacking in freshness. The 

city hasn't been a contemporary art Mecca 

since the war, the First one, that is, and 

French art never really recovered from 

either of the two. What France preserved, 

however, is perhaps its highest art form: 

its lifestyle: its café society, morning 

baguette, two-hour lunch, social 

capitalism, a constant run of film 

festivals, Spring and Fall fashion reviews, 

five weeks of vacation per annum, 400-plus 

varieties of cheese, and cultural 

centralization: Paris to and fro. Its 

lifestyle is often the subject if not 

impetus of the kind of art they make, and 


Most Paris galleries are accessed by 

pushing polished-steel nipple above a key 

pad that unlocks a three-inch-thick 400-

year-old door-within-a-door that tests 

anyone's strength and every American's 

patience, often terminating their visit 

when pushing doesn't budge it and the 

polished nipple's purpose is not apparent. 

If you manage to find your way inside, 

there might be a courtyard and what were 

once sky-lit workers-ateliers now 

transformed into sleekish gallery spaces 

that wax and ape an `80s polish, or a 

winding staircase or a two-and-a-half 

person fin-de-siècle elevator whose inner 

doors open inward making you heft that 

paunch. Galleries are redolent of time and 

touch and the kind of priority that inheres 

to a sense of place and life that eschews 

business and the bottom lines of the 

artists on parade.

This is perhaps the way things ought to be: 

Business supporting life rather than ruling 

it, and art prevailing as the last, only 

and highest subset of life with a vestigial 

hint of metaphysical beyondness. What's 

interesting about French art is that the 

life-art quotient is a real tug of war, 

where life is artistic and art is a 

stylistic improvisation about the stuff 

that makes up life and style. Here, the 

"idea" of art is revered, and it's a 

cathedral of an idea, although art and 

artists are treated like merde. (Imagine 

how different the world would be if we'd 

treated God as poorly as He or She's 

treated us?) In Paris, collectors are few 

or old-world minded, and galleries look to 

art fairs and non-French collectors to keep 

them afloat. 

It has been said that a French baby's head 

is chopped off at birth, the brain is sent 

off to school to learn Frenchness by rote 

and rule, while the young body is doted 

upon with four o'clock pain aux raisins, 

chocolat chaud and that inbred sense of 

style, for theirs is among the most 

fastidious of lifestyles, the apex of which 

is a luxuriant, pampered, fondled and 

complicatedly contrived fetishdom of haute 

cuisine and couture and heady abstractions 

that are as dandily texted as a Gault et 

Millaut rating or Jean-Paul Gaultier 

outfit. Without thinking, the body is 

programmed: it knows to sniff cheese, to 

read the color of wine and the tints and 

tinges of baguettes and succulent meringues 

and to don the toniest of combinations, 

even if the same outfit is donned day-in 

and day-out. But the French language treats 

the senses as a subset of mind, and defers 

to the body's most hawklike sensory organ: 

the eye. The verb sentir, for example, 

means to taste, to smell, to feel. "Let's 

taste a different track on this CD," a 

friend said to me not long after we'd 

"smelled" different parfums (flavors) of 

deliriously rich Bertillon ice cream. The 

senses are programmed by habit, and 

philosophers need little in the way of 

sensory detail when they strive to 

encompass the galaxy of mind itself. 

Aristotle told us that sight is the highest 

sense, that the eye is the window to the 

soul. But to maintain that lofty air all the 

way through the entrée, fish, and meat 

course to sniff that sneaker-smelling 

cheese requires concentration. Plus a 

flotilla of that Bordeaux. Body communicates to 

Mind without words. Both are programmed by 

habit. Separating mind and body leads you 

toward a kind of sensory refinement where 

the eye is, indeed, the highest sense. Yet 

the body can revel in sensory pleasures 

while the brain remains detached in loftier 

contemplation. The French have mastered 

this art. Here, too, psychology is more 

rational than therapeutic; it's something 

to ponder but not necessarily to sign-up 

for the way American's do.

There's a certain delicacy about French 

culture. Spicy means to add salt and herbs, 

not chili pepper. This delicate palette, 

the leggy wine, the meat gussied up with 

sauces Marie de Medicis first brought here 

five centuries ago (disgusted by the 

festering gobbets aroast) are savoured by a

language that descended from mumbly Latin 

argot to rise to aristocratic prominence 

during the age of Diderot and the Académie 

Française, which still convenes to preserve 

its linguistic inheritance, creating words 

like le ordinateur, to mean computer 

(neither being particularly appropriate). 

How they know it's masculine, I'm told, is 

not because of the thing itself, but 

because of an inherent linguistic logic. 

Art tells us something about our creature 

habits and, of course, their art and the 

art they like tells us about theirs. After 

all, they loved Jerry Lewis and Mickey 

Rourke, not Buddy Hackett or Seinfeld. Art 

and artists here traffic in thought and 

glossy sensation; in style. As the advance 

forces of sensory experience, artists here 

prioritize the eye and aim to pique 

thoughts. The eminent epicurean Marcel 

Duchamp, of course, continues to be the 

legendary maestro of art and the lifestyle 

all artists chase. Matisse was a 

southerner. Picasso an import.

Pierre Huyghe's dubbers remind us of our 

detachment from life's dire situations: we 

all want to come out alive. Xavier 

Vielhan's pot-making engine, Serge Comte's 

elaborate Post-its, and Yves Klein the 

Younger's toylike octupi may only elicit an 

outsider's thinky chortle or polite 

bemusement, but here at home they nudge and 

nuance the rules and rotes of cultural 

conditioning. Their works are not about big 

media or the permanent dark, and there is 

something disquietingly oxymoronic about 

this art's quiet intensity, ambient 

thoughtfulness and deep superficiality: 

something about the body seemingly 

separated from mind and all that 

"seemingliness" strategized at length into 

an art of appearance and profound gloss. 

This is a not a mere trick of modern 

esthetics; it's idea art that prods the 

delicate seams of life. 

Artists know how our hands feed our 

thoughts, how, like babies, we taste life 

by putting as much as manageable in our 

mouths. A lot of art is simply about 

nonverbal relationships between knowing and 

knower. Estheticizing the world at large, 

i.e., making it visual, puts distance 

between knowing by taste and touch and 

makes dimensions strange and surface 

reality interesting for its quiddity; ergo, 

laterally deep and delicately provocative. 

P.S. The FIAC (International Contemporary 

Art Fair) opened yesterday with an art 

fair's standard five-years-worth of 

contemporary art. But there was a section 

of 15 Korean galleries stuck together in 

the back, hanging, surprisingly, a 

preponderance of gray matte-knifed 

monochrome paintings of varying textures. 

Their gallerists beamed with possibility. 

But their outsiderness was sad, as most art 

fairs are sad, particularly for anyone not 

in the swim. You might imagine one 

yourself, everything except that earthy 

rich Korean gray. 

JEFF RIAN is a writer living in Paris.