A New York exhibition of paintings by Simon Hantaï is an event: barely a roomful of his works have been seen in the United States since 1981. Yet the current Hantaï show at Paul Kasmin Gallery may go largely unacknowledged by today’s gallery denizen, who is likely to find little to be excited about in a group of pictures that demonstrate a technique in which the canvas is first folded, then painted on and only finally stretched.
Hantaï was a rare creature, an artist of international stature -- one of his paintings sold at auction in 2005 for a little under $1 million -- who was an anti-commercial recluse. Though very involved in world events and in contemporary artistic issues, he fiercely valued esthetic integrity, defending himself through isolation from the incursions of market-driven speculation. After he was selected to represent France at the 1982 Venice Biennale, he turned his back on the art world and withdrew his work from all exhibitions, including an important 1998 survey of French art at the Guggenheim Museum. He declined to show in commercial galleries for the rest of his life but had several exhibitions in museums and at a private foundation during his final ten years. Hantaï died at 85 on Sept. 11, 2008.
Whatever the artist might have thought of his posthumous double show -- one presently on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery, with a second opening at his former gallery in Paris, Galerie Jean Fournier, both organized by and with a catalogue written by the Princeton art historian Molly Warnock, whom he knew well -- it should prove exhilarating to devotees of serious painting. To state it very roughly, Hantaï’s work begins with the Abstract–Expressionist idea that abstract art can carry metaphorical meanings, and links that sensibility to the reductive physicality of Minimalism and the process-oriented, anti-illusionist materiality of Post-Minimalism. Hantaï achieved this while remaining within the practice of painting.
Hantaï trained in art school in Budapest, was arrested briefly by the Gestapo for a political speech and after the war and the Communist takeover, left Hungary in 1948 never to return. Making his way to Paris, he established himself amid the resurgent post-war Surrealists under Andre Breton, but soon parted ways and briefly became a gestural painter. His chief inspiration in this regard was Jackson Pollock. Hantaï ruminated over the use of the "stick"-- the dried brush with which Pollock spattered paint that erased the individual identity of the artist's hand -- as a self-effacing mark. But his emergence as the painter known for the pliage, the folded painting, had intermediate steps, including a year spent inscribing philosophical and religious treatises onto a huge canvas in a spidery tiny script. The painting, entitled Écriture rose (1958-59), is now in the collection of Centre Pompidou.
In pliage, the painting's canvas surface, previously treated with poetic delicacy, was instead subjected to a methodical violence: scattering blobs of black paint over its face, letting it dry, crunching it up, painting on it more before it was mounted. Most importantly, pliage became a kind of painting method that could be realized with only an inconstant surveillance of the artist's eye. As the art critic Carter Ratcliff put it, Hantaï mixed "the clarities of vision with the intuitions of touch."
The exhibition at Kasmin Gallery collects paintings from every mature period. Hantaï always used primed canvas, a fact that reveals itself in the wrinkles that are general across its surface: they remain "underneath" after the paint application takes place. By the late 1960s, as in works such as the frond-like Etude, 1969, Hantaï allows the primed, raw canvas to play a role equal to the painted sections, and is always at pains to keep illusionistic passages at bay.
Hantaï's concern, as he put it, "for the consequences of an ateleological choice" -- he found himself continuing in a practice where any genuine belief in its efficacy was uncertain, without making his practice about that lack of belief -- allowed considerable play for the dichotomies that crop up in such a complex medium as painting. His technique bound together blindness of execution with richly visual results; it was mechanical and impersonal and simultaneously artisanal and intimate; his paintings have a geometric element but also seem to imitate natural form; they derive compositional unity from their uniformity of technique but can also be comprehended slowly, part-to-whole; they have an immediate clarity but seem to become more unfamiliar as time passes.
Other unified disparities include the seeming impression of stained glass in the shards of color his method produced, and the way that his paintings could suggest the patterning of Islamic decoration. These particular qualities can also be discerned in the paintings of Claude Viallat, one of the most ecumenical of French abstractionists and a founder of the Support/Surfaces group, for which Hantaï was a seminal influence, as he was upon the artists of BMPT (Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni).
Other works at Kasmin include examples from the series known as "Tabulas," in which the canvas is gathered into grid formations. When unfolded, they appear as patterns of individual painted squares. In the chartreuse Tabula (1976), the red, semi-transparent squares are sometimes broken by a sizable filament of raw canvas, while the ultramarine Tabula (1980) has a series of large blocky shapes that seem to contain the residue of watery motion, like samples of dried seabed.
Hantaï went for long periods between bodies of work and during his withdrawal after the ’82 biennale he corresponded and conversed with French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida. He reworked an earlier outsized series of "Tabulas" which became the "Laissées," or leftovers (dated 1981-95 or '94) which were fragments of the larger paintings cut up and reassembled with pieces of unpainted canvas.
Several are shown at Kasmin and they have a detached quality that is nonetheless poignant. Of the many interpretations of the boundaries between painted and unpainted in Hantaï, his awareness of the division of Europe into East and West had often been mentioned in regards to his origins in the Eastern bloc. In the "Laissées"onedistinguishes a reconstitution of sorts, but of an incomplete, further fragmented state.
Hantaï worked within the discourse of Parisian painting that considered technique to be content. He was one in fact one of the progenitors of this sort of art. What he may bring to painting in America is an example of seriousness and intensity combined with an economy of means. This, along with a rare dedication that flees from any mercenary considerations, is a stance that has not been seen here in quite awhile.
"Simon Hantaï," Mar. 19-Apr. 24, 2010, at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 Tenth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10001.
JOE FYFE is a New York artist and critic.