There are three exhibitions at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, up till mid-September. Downstairs is an excellent historical show, "Painting after Abstraction, 1955-1975." Upstairs, in the arc-shaped facility that is refered to, naturally enough, as l'arc, two contemporary artists are featured. Pipilotti Rist's installation is called "Remake of the Weekend (French)," while the French artist Martine Aballéa (who was actually born in New York) has an installation titled Hôtel Passager.
"Painting after Abstraction, 1955-1975"
For most Americans, the revolutionary painting of the 1960s was American -- works by artists like Johns, Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella. For the French, however, it was completely different. For "Painting after Abstraction, 1955-1975," curators Alain Cueff and Béatrice Parent have selected the five leading French artists working the same territory -- painters Martin Barré, Jean Degottex and Simon Hantaï, and the two décollagistes or affichistes, Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé. All were born in the '20s (except Degottex, who was born in 1918), just like their American peers.
In France, formalist abstraction was called Support-Surface. It drew particular inspiration from the cutouts of Henri Matisse and the Paris School (ca. 1910). None of the French artists were as formal or epochal as American "action painters," and all seem, in retrospect, subtler and more visually poetic.
Beginning in 1953 (the year that Playboy was founded and de Kooning painted his first woman, and a year before English critic Lawrence Alloway invented the term Pop art), Villeglé and Hains invented together their signature affichiste method. Tearing tattered and overlaid street posters from city walls, they converted them into sign-like art works that combined Pop icons, Surrealist automatism and the energetic compositions of Ab-Ex. Hains once said an art work should not be considered a world, but the world should be considered a picture (un tableau).
Villeglé, who continues this practice today, prefers a graphic, often dichromatic and geometric style. The more diverse Hains uses multipaneled découpages, called "hoards" in the catalogue. Some of these take years to complete, like Palissades Sainte Radegonde (1974-88), a string of fence palings affixed with a poster.
The three painters in the show -- Barré, Degottex and Hantaï -- tend to base their works on calligraphy, the kind of painterly marks, gestures, Surrealist games and the allover style made famous by Jackson Pollock. Degottex has made murky, nearly monochromatic paintings of gestural brush strokes, and works in which broad pseudo-calligraphic strokes stretch over pale washes or sometimes over dark backgrounds. In the '70s he began making multiple panel constructions, black and white grounds with driplike lines on the bottom panels. Still later he turned to light-toned monochromes with heavily applied, oblique striations.
Barré's earliest paintings are abstract compositions of short, Cubist-like strokes, seemingly evolved from early Malevich and Mondrian. From there he made cartoonish line-paintings on plain grounds. In the late '60s he spray-painted simple strokes onto surfaces, which eventually multiplied to become tilted grids, again on light grounds. In his latest works one or two pastel rectangles abut edges of white canvases. Like Degottex, Barré's sparse abstractions are Zen-like visual meditations and a stark contrast to, say, New Yorker Frank Stella's blaring, baroque lobby art.
In the late '50s Hantaï gradually moved from a Tanguy-like surrealism to a calligraphic style, then to painting shimmering allover surfaces, either using cottony veils over darks or building up one dominating sheen. In the early '60s he developed an "enfolding" (pliage) technique reminiscent of Max Ernst's frottage. But instead of blotting wet paint, he crumpled, then painted, then stretched canvases, either creating Matisse-like leaf forms, centrally placed, or an allover effect.
"La Peinture après l'Abstraction" is an excellent exhibition of a small group of French artists during late-modernism's defining period, 1955-1975. Only the title and dates of the show are problematic; after all, they are all abstract artists. More significantly, the exhibition reveals the differing artistic egos across the ocean. Abstract expression created a Marshall Plan of American art, epic in commercial and historic intensity, and the generation that followed -- Johns, Stella, Kelly, Twombly, Warhol, et al. -- turned artistic focus toward New York. Many European artists who were more interested in script-strokes than pop signs were treated as regional talents because their works were poetic and smaller. Seeing these works today, however, is eye-opening.
Just upstairs in l'arc,is Pipilotti Rist's multiple video installation, "Remake of the Weekend (French)" (a reference to Godard's 1967 Weekend?). An assemblage of 11 works made between 1992 and 1999, the installation looks hot but hastily done.
Screened on glass in the "aquarium," a room at the base of the arc, and visible from both sides, is Rist's famous Ever Is Over All, 1997, in which a girl gambols down a street bashing car windows with what looks like a plant frond. A female cop walks along behind her, and without saying a word the cop nods her agreement, smiles and passes. I had the queasy feeling that all the cars belonged to men, yet Rist's game is pure seduction.
Just in front of the entrance to the arc is a cute little toy train station under Plexiglas. I thought of chocolates and clocks. Passing through a doorway is a big, curving mound of sand, called Dune, and a few smaller installations.
The standout of the show is a large kitchen installation from 1992, called Blutraum (Blood room), in which two opposing walls of white Formica cabinets rise to the ceiling, one including a counter and sink on which is projected a pale video of a nude girl lying seemingly dead by a stream, accompanied by the sound of dripping water. I was reminded of a Nick Cave's music video, "Where the Wild Roses Grow." But Rist always makes me think of MTV.
That installation is followed by a big, dark, lamp-lit room, filled with '70s-style furniture, paintings and other decorative objects, and a wall collage that looks like a giant version of Richard Hamilton's tiny, proto-pop collage from 1956, Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? With videos projected on lamps, photographs and liquor bottles -- in a style similar to Tony Oursler's -- the entire installation looks like a set for a kitschy night club.
In the last room (the back of l'arc) Rist projects a starscape on a curving wall, inset with images a woman's mouth and a breast. A female voice-over, in French, speaks of pollen and molecules, evoking a dreamy, extraterrestrial atmosphere. This cosmic piece, along with Rist's other videos, is like an advertisement without products. The undeniably impressive "Remake of the Weekend (French)," is sexy in a way that MTV would like to be but can't. It's splashy and delectable, but not very profound.
Compared to Rist's installation, Aballéa's "Hôtel Passager" looks like a pre-1989 Eastern Bloc soap opera set, without the soap ads, sentiment, sex, actors or script. But Aballéa's pseudo-hotel required a greater psychical distance than Rist's seductive works.
Entering Aballéa's hotel you are met by a receptionist (where you could leave a note), followed by a breakfast room, a storage room filled with gold cans in various sizes, and chambres (rooms) 9 to 90 (in multiples of three), including a bridal suite. The hotel is decorated with a thoughtful, if cheap, assortment of colors, furniture, lamps, and pictures.
Aballéa, who is both a writer and visual artist, is known for eerie, Poesque, pastel-tinted, black-and-white photographs with superimposed words in gold gothic script. The sherbet colors and fake gold trim, the stark, sad rooms and industrial furniture of the eerily titled "Hotel Passager" (hotel passers-through) evoke TV shows like The Prisoner, or low-budget soap operas; the spaces are to be seen, not lived in.
A moody, poetic uncertainty is the key to Aballéa's critical irreality -- and her strength. She's created a passage through an esthetic presence meant to lead your thoughts elsewhere.