“Georges Nöel: Origins of Graffiti” at Abby M. Taylor Fine Art, Nov. 12-30, 2008, 43 Greenwich Avenue, Greenwich, Conn. 06830
You put everything in to see what will come out.
-- Georges Nöel in conversation with Michel Butor, 1997
Georges Nöel was born in 1924 and grew to adulthood during World War II France during the Occupation; his father died in 1945 at the war’s end from injuries suffered while fighting with the Maquis. Nöel then attempted to be a proper cog in post-war society, working as an aeronautics draftsman for nine years before casting a promising career aside in 1957 and moving to Paris to take up painting full time. His fundamental artistic impulse, then, partook in the aftermath of 20th century barbarism, a social collapse that is buried in new starts across all of the arts of the 1950s.
For Nöel, the ground of his paintings was as elemental as a muddy battlefield strewn with detritus: a thick, mixed-media “magma-matter,” first made with cloth and paper and then with sand and pigment embedded in polyvinyl acetate, a surface embodying chemistry’s conquest of nature. Noël covered this ground with dense skeins of marks, signs, gouges and graffiti, a method that he soon began referring to with the term “palimpsests” -- a form that his then-wife and companion, the celebrated curator Margit Rowell, referred to as “a stratification of writings. . . that blend into a single cryptic text.”
Indeed, the palimpsest is “an exemplary pictorial metaphor” for the human subject itself. For what is the modern individual but a palimpsest, an imaginary unity constituted from uncertain layers of experience, feelings, memories, thoughts, sensations?
A form of intaglio, Noël’s signature technique harkens back to the most rudimentary kind of mark-making, one that must have existed before writing tools, that of a sign scratched into a rock surface. Impoverished yet indelible, these crude marks capture a sense of primitive power and fear. Noël’s paintings from the late 1950s and early ‘60s swarm with careless and nihilistic calligraphic movement, like finger-painting in mud or blood, a scrawl that grows and grows into an obsessive, amorphous mass, as if generated either in a severe autistic retreat into an inexplicable aphasia or in a frantic effort to rediscover a lost language and civilization.
Noël’s artistic interests aligned him with Art Informel, the post-war French art movement, named by the critic Michel Tapié in 1952, that sought a radical break with traditional art via an embrace of spontaneity and the irrational. In 1959, the French dealer Paul Facchetti included a painting by Nöel in his tenth anniversary exhibition, alongside works by Jean Dubuffet, Sam Francis, Georges Mathieu, Henri Michaux, Jackson Pollock and Wols. But the same year, Nöel organized the “informal section” of Andre Malraux’s first Biennale de Paris, including works by Jacques Villeglé, Raymond Hains and other members of the Nouveau Réalistes.
Nöel’s non-catholicity demonstrated, perhaps, the artist’s ambivalence towards both of the short-lived French art movements, which roughly correspond to Abstract Expressionism to Pop art (as well as to Dada and Surrealism). For Nöel, the elemental mark is ever poised on the threshold between impulse and structure, between a primordial lyricism and a civilization in entropy. This dialectic is clearly expressed by graffiti in its most straightforward forms, as it variously proclaims the first existence of the individual subject -- “Killroy was here” -- or ferociously attacks the social order, as is the case with the vulgar forms of bathroom graffiti.
Later on, during 1968-82, Nöel moved to the United States, teaching first for a year in Minneapolis and then living for 14 years in New York City, where he incorporated some of the elements of Hard Edge Abstraction and Color Field Painting into his own work (and showed his work with Pace Gallery). Nöel’s palimpsests of raw egotistical expressions had already begun to develop, through a series of new compositional frameworks (“Patchworks,” “Computers,” “Tic Tac Toes”), into more complex formations -- a kind of reverse esthetic archeology suggestive of receding layers of ancient civilizations.
In New York, his paintings gained an “American” quality, becoming infused with geometric elements suggesting the rationality and constructivism of triumphant capitalism. Nöel “creates a fine balance between what is arbitrary and unexpected and what is controlled by closed logical systems,” wrote the late art critic April Kingsley in the Lugano Review in 1974.
In a 1997 interview with the French philosopher Michel Butor, Nöel even spoke lyrically about “New York sand. . . like the brownstone crushed with particles of Mica that old Manhattan mansions were made of. In some New York neighborhoods, they mix this sand with tar. At night the particles sparkle like silver threads on a carpet.”
Today, the tension between abstract accident and a multiplicity of meanings continues to energize some of the most important experiments in painting. For painters like Christopher Wool and Jacqueline Humphries, those rudimentary marks are the bottom line of a postmodern studio practice in which authenticity is found only in what could be called a new formalism, while the abstract signs that fill works by Josh Smith and Julie Mehretu trace the process of discovering an abstract iconography of subject and society that still means something. The dialectic found in Nöel’s painting continues to preoccupy the contemporary avant-garde.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.