Sunday, February 1st, 2004

The Painting Undone: Supports/Surfaces

This chapter is from the author‘s Polychrome ProfusionSelected Art Criticism:
1990 – 2002
Lenox, MA: Hard Press Editions, 2004, $24.95

Claude Viallat Sans Titre #116 acrylic on fabric montage, 52 x 68 inches Courtesy Daniel Templon Gallery, Paris
Claude Viallat, Sans Titre #116 acrylic on fabric montage, 52 x 68 inches Courtesy Daniel Templon Gallery, Paris

The Musée d’Art Moderne de Saint-Etienne is located near Lyon about two hours south of Paris on the TGV, the fast train that continues to draw France closer together and leech away Paris’s longstanding monopoly on culture. Thanks to the TGV it is now feasible to make quick visits to shows in Nice or Grenoble or Lyon; as a result museums in those cities are in a stronger position to vie with the capital. The Musée d’Art Moderne’s current director, Bernard Ceysson, first came to Saint-Etienne in 1977, to head what was then known as the Musée d’art et d’industrie de Saint-Etienne. In 1986 Ceysson left Saint-Etienne to become director of the Musee Nationale d’Art Moderne at the Pompidou Center in Paris, only to return, a year later, to Saint-Etienne to head the current museum, which opened in 1987. There was much speculation as to why Ceysson gave up what was clearly the most prestigous museum position in France. Some thought that he was happier being a big fish in the little pond of Saint-Etienne rather than carving out a place for himself in Paris. Others, perhaps more accurately, suggested that Ceysson was less interested in the power brokering entailed by the Pompidou job and prefered simply to curate shows. Whatever the reasons for his move, Ceysson seems quite happy in Saint-Etienne, making the most of the spacious museum. This seemed particularly the case with his most recent exhibition, “Supports/Surfaces” which presented a broad overview of the work of a group of French artists Ceysson has long championed.

“Supports/Surfaces” occupied almost the whole museum, temporarily displacing most of the permanent collection in order to examine the work of the 12 artists who comprised the Supports/Surfaces group: André-Pierre Arnal, Vincent Bioulés, Louis Cane, Marc Devade, Daniel Dezeuze, Noël Dolla, Toni Grand, Bernard Pagés, Jean-Pierre Pincemin, Patrick Saytour, André Valensi and Claude Viallat. Concerned with exploring their interrelations rather than surveying the careers of the individual artists, the show was restricted to the years 1966-1974, the period during which they frequently showed together (often in the most unlikely locations), founded a magazine, issued tracts and manifestos and, most importantly, created distinctive yet remarkably attuned bodies of painting and sculpture. Since 1974 the artists have all gone their different ways, but at the time they clearly were engaged in a common esthetic project.
That project included what, to American eyes, might seem rather strange bedfellows-Clement Greenberg and Mao Tse Tung for instance-but even in relation to the French art world, the Supports/Surfaces group always tended to stand apart. As a movement, it developed far away from Paris and largely without the involvement of the art establishment. While some of the artists of Supports/Surfaces were starting to crop up in group shows in 1966-67, their collective activities did not begin in earnest until after 1968, and were clearly affected by the Paris student revolt in May of that year. There is no doubt that Supports/Surfaces was a creature of its time; as critic Otto Hahn commented in 1970, even the slash between the two terms of its name reflects a keen awareness of the literary fashions of Paris in the ’60s and ’70s-think of Roland Barthes’s book S/Z ). But while they partook of the revolutionary atmosphere of France in the late ’60s, the artists of Supports/Surfaces-in contrast to other European avant-garde groups of the time such as Arte Povera-did not seek to turn their back on painting. For all the impatience they showed with art business as usual, they were recognizably inheritors of Henri Matisse.

Supports/Surfaces had its beginnings in the south of France, in cities like Montpellier, Nîmes and Nice where most of the group’s earliest members lived and worked. The town of Céret was the site of “Impact 1,” a show organized in May 1966 by Viallat and Jacques Lepage, who was a crucial supporter of the group. The presence of Arman and Ben Vautier among the artists in “Impact 1” indicates that in its early days some members of Supports/Surfaces were close to the Nice branch of Nouveau Réalisme, but this can mostly be laid to geography: Supports/Surfaces shared little of Nouveau Réalisme’s passion for the detritus of everyday life and where the Nouveaux Réalistes went out of their way to incorporate non-art materials, the artists of Supports/Surfaces made a point of using only the constituent elements, albeit elaborated to the extreme, of that most retrograde of mediums, painting. In fact, they owed more to American Color Field painting than to their Nouveau Réaliste neighbors. When one looks at the paintings of Marc Devade or Vincent Bioulés, it is evident that painters like Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski were influential from the very inception of Supports/Surfaces. The writing of Greenberg was a force as well. In his essay for the Saint-Etienne show, Yves Aupetitallot establishes the frequency with which these painters were being shown in Paris in the early ’60s and remarks as well on the availability of some of Greenberg’s texts in French translation. One finds specific confirmation of the importance of Color Field paintings in Viallat’s memory of having been struck by an Olitski show in 1964. Inspite of their later denunciations of the American art system, the painters of Supports/Surfaces were working, at least initially, with a vocabulary strongly accented by contemporaneous American art concerns.

It was only when the French artists found themselves vying with (and often losing out to) American artists for public recognition that signs of dissent began to appear. (In general, European resentment of American art accelerated after 1964, the year Rauschenberg, amid much controversy, won the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale.) Thus, speaking recently, Louis Cane recalled with a certain bitterness the attention given shows like “Art of the Real: USA 1948-1968,” which, after a run at MoMA in New York, where it was organized, appeared at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1968. In contrast to the artists in the American show, the Supports/Surfaces artists were getting by with low-budget shows mostly outside of Paris.

Yet it was no accident that Supports/Surfaces found itself at odds with what was being officially promoted outside the center, since perhaps more than anything else the founders of Supports/Surfaces were inspired by their dissatisfaction with what they saw around them. As Cane put it: “what brought us together for the Supports/Surfaces exhibiton at l’ARC in 1971 or even for earlier exhibitions was the deep-seated conviction that the art which was then ‘in place’ was completely unsatisfactory.”50 Whereas Cane felt his “horizon blocked” by BMPT (a group of four painters: Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni whose conceptually derived abstraction was diametrically opposed to the touch-sensitive work of Support/Surface). Viallat saw the problem as centered around what seemed to him the dead end of abstract, formalist painting. “This work which seemed to me determined by nothing, which seemed to me completely gratuitous,” he said some two decades later. “Little by little I no longer knew how to justify it.”51

Speaking in contrast to these esthetically couched protocols, Dezeuze still seeks to emphasize the political nature of the group’s beginnings: “Our movement was also a movement of revolt, social as well as esthetic,” he has said. Supports/Surfaces was looking for a means of “revolting against the art world and the world in general without having to make anti-art.”52 Allying themselves with Maoist-inspired Parisian intelllectuals, conducting their internal relations like a communist cell, seeking a place for their work outside the (capitalist) market, Supports/Surfaces was light-years removed from the world of Post-Painterly Abstraction.

And yet, for all their revolutionary zeal, the artists of Support/Surface were sincerely concerned with the specific problems of painting. For them, a simple renunciation of its existence did not seem sufficient. They held that if the then-current stasis of abstract painting was to be overcome, it would have to be done within the domain of painting itself-but not in what they saw as the rigid, nihilistic manner of the BMPT group. It is in this light that their interest in political theory begins to make sense, particularly the Marxist analysis of Louis Althusser, although the early work of Derrida also played a part, to judge from the frequent appearance of terms like “deconstruction” in Supports/Surfaces statements.53

The Supports/Surfaces artists were driven by the feeling that painting had still not come to terms with its most basic conventions, hence, of course, the group’s name, which proclaimed the materialist basis of the project. These artists held that despite Greenberg’s exhortations, most painters showed little concern with the essential conditions of their medium. They thus saw their task as using the work of art to “show what was hidden, to deconstruct and individualize each of its elements.”54 That is to say, they sought to isolate the two principal constituent elements of conventional painting (canvas and stretcher), to strip the medium down to its phenomenological foundations and then begin to reconstruct it without in any way forgetting or obscuring those foundations.

The critic Marcelin Pleynet, one of the first to write on the group, was also instrumental in its eventual embrace of a Marxist position. He emphasized the attention Supports/Surfaces paid to the “principle contradictions” of its medium (e.g., the “irrationality” of color versus the “geometric code,” the physical or “real” versus the conceptual or epistemological properties of painting,55 the tension between collective action within an avant-garde “sect” and the needs of the individual artist). And in consequence he aligned Supports/Surfaces with a broader attack on the dominant ideology of capitalism.56 Whether or not one accepts the idea that the contradictions of capitalism infuse the works of art that capitalism produces, Pleynet was clearly correct in 1971 when he described Supports/Surfaces members as concerned with reconciling their work with a “violently politicized situation.” He went on to suggest that it was this very relation to “a precise political event (May ’68)” that forces us to see these artists as “specifically French.” To innocent (or American) eyes, Devade, for example, might indeed appear as an overseas disciple of Kenneth Noland, but in the hypercharged atmosphere of late ’60s Paris-infatuated as its intellectual elite was with the Chinese Cultural Revolution-it hardly seemed far-fetched to explain his work with reference to Lenin and Mao.

Of course, the Supports/Surfaces artists were not the only group in the 1960s with ambitions to return art to its essentials, yet their approach was notable for avoiding the dehumanized constructivism of Minimalism, as well as Arte Povera’s refuge in the sublimity of their lowly materials. The Supports/Surfaces artists’ work is always distinguished by its emphasis on touch, its clear status as the product of human hands.

Almost as if by assignment, each member of Supports/Surfaces seems to have undertaken a specific task in the “deconstruction and individualization” of the elements of painting. One can almost picture them sitting around a conference table, or perhaps after a long lunch in a Niçoise restaurant, enumerating every possible way there might be to disrupt and redeploy canvas and stretcher. The group can be sorted into two parts, corresponding to the two terms of their name. The “Surface” (i.e. canvas) team included Viallat, Cane, Pincemin, Saytour, Valensi, Dolla and Arnal, all of whom in one way or another worked with unstretched canvas, while the question of “Support” (the wooden stretcher bar) would fall to Dezeuze, Grand and Pagés. Painter Marc Devade (who died in 1983) remained the most conventional of the group, working with stretched canvases painted in a manner obviously indebted to Barnett Newman, Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. In the context of the Saint-Etienne exhibition, Devade’s brash stripes of color and luminous stained canvases were most useful in suggesting the relations between Supports/Surfaces and American painting of the ’50s and ’60s.

In 1969 Bioulés was still working with stretched canvases, but when he was invited to participate in one of Supports/Surfaces’s open -air exhibitions, he realized that his work would have to change, that he could not very well stick a painting in the middle of downtown Montpellier. He thus took six doors and laquered them with primary colors, and joined them into three pairs, hinged at right angles. These were placed in a row on a patch of grass in a square in Montpellier. The following year he went still further, distributing 125 thin wooden poles, each stained either purple, blue, green, yellow or red, along a narrow street in the southern French town of Coaraze. These poles showed up again in Ceysson’s exhibition, leaning against the wall like a set of giant pickup sticks. Although the poles revealed Bioulés’s earlier interest in Newman’s “zip,” they simultaneously suggested the wooden stretcher bar. Daniel Dezeuze’s reference to stretcher bars was more explicit. In 1967 he simply covered empty stretchers of various sizes and configurations with transparent vinyl. It is the self-evidence of such works which, for fellow Supports/Surfaces member Louis Cane, distinguishes them from reductive work like Carl Andre’s. With Andre’s work, Cane says, “one has need of a dealer to develop its sociology to explain that what one sees is not just some tiles on the floor . . . , but when Dezeuze takes a stretcher covered with vinyl and leans it against the wall, there’s no need for a dealer to explain what it is. It’s immediately visible.57
By 1970 Dezeuze had reduced the stretcher bar to thin strips of wood veneer which he wove together in small compositions suggesting unfinished Indian baskets or laid out in large, supple grids pinned to the wall. His “échelles ajourées” were made of thin fiberglass, in the form of small delicate ladders dangling from the wall. Surveying his work from ’67 to ’71 one remains conscious of his point of departure-the stretcher-and yet also how willing he was to play with it.

Claude Viallat arrived at the grid from the other side of the equation-the canvas. Using a kind of template or stencil technique (not unrelated to Matissean decoupage), in which a single form is repeated in regular intervals on unstretched canvas, Viallat employed not only tinting, staining and imprinting but also the effects of nature’s elements, partcularly the strong sun of the Midi where Viallat has always lived. (In general the Supports/Surfaces painters favored any method of getting color onto the canvas as long as it didn’t require the traditional brush. They stained, imprinted, bleached, faded, folded and dyed, crumpled and dyed, and burned their works’ surfaces.) Viallat harnessed the sun for his art by laying out prepared canvases so that the uncovered areas would fade into different colors, thus creating grids of his distinctive kidney bean-shaped motifs. While Viallat offered a strongly decorative art, like all the members of Supports/Surfaces he also sought to question prevailing assumptions about painting. Quite early, in 1966, he showed a canvas that he had signed every 10 centimeters, thus allowing it to be cut and sold in fragments, like fabric. He has also shown himself adept at working with rope and string, reveling like an old sailor in the intricacies of complex knots.

Jean-Pierre Pincemin’s paintings are also constructed as grids, produced in a number of ways. Whereas Viallat chose to leave the canvas in one piece, many of Pincemin’s works are canvases which have been imprinted or stained with color, then cut up and reassembled. By the mid-’70s Pincemin’s grids had turned into closely packed, weathered blocks of somber colors, oddly suggestive of, yet distinct in spirit from, more recent paintings by Sean Scully. It is worth noting that with the occasional exception of its sculptors, Grand and Pagés, Supports/Surfaces consistently avoided any suggestion of esthetic machismo. Drawn always to thinness, softness, flexibility, often utilizing traditionally domestic techniques like weaving and tinting, Supports/Surfaces effectively distanced itself from the myth of “heroic” painting and Minimalism alike. Its works are fragile but not precious, common but not industrial, and despite the movement’s suceptibility to accusations of being doctrinaire, it was in some ways nothing more than a dozen men trying to make use of their hands in every way imaginable. (If Supports/Surfaces was influenced by Color Field painting in the early 60s, it is equally likely that in turn the French group had an effect on the American Pattern and Decoration artists in the ’70s. One frequently finds striking parallels between the two movements.)

Arnal’s paintings were the most attractive and easily accessible produced by the group. Exemplifying typically Supports/Surfaces methods of folding, crumpling and tying the canvas in order to prepare it for the pigment, Arnal’s paintings show the grid that tends to recur throughout the group’s work. However, as capable a manipulator of material as he seems, Arnal did not really bring anything specifically his own to his work of the time, and the results seem tentative. This was not the case of Louis Cane who, in a gridded work from 1967, used a rubber stamp reading “Louis Cane Artiste Peintre” to cover a large canvas. (Nouveau Réaliste Arman had used rubber stamps to create abstract compositions in the ’50s.) Cane’s more characteristic works of the Supports/Surfaces period are his “Sol-Mur” series of monochrome paintings in which the canvas begins on the wall and continues onto the floor. As in the back-flap of a pair of long johns (and also similar to Bioulés’s hinged lacquered doors), Cane has cut out the center of the canvas and laid it on the ground, simultaneously creating the sense of a window or doorway on the wall and a kind of welcome mat that paradoxically forces the viewer to remain a certain distance from the painting unless one is willing to step on the canvas.

Valensi’s paintings also employed this double canvas effect, if rather differently. After staining two canvases in a similar way, he would cut a section out of one, reverse it and sew it onto the first, thus simultaneously presenting the effect the staining had on the front and back of the canvas. Valensi’s sculptural works are more striking. 93 formes peintres (1969) is made up of two stacks of 93 cardboard cut-outs painted yellow and orange, while Bois et corde (1970) consists of 86 thin wooden sticks attached at 40cm (ca. 15 1/2 inch) intervals to a length of packing rope. The latter ensemble was dyed red and yellow and suspended from the ceiling. Even with the noticeably high ceilings of the St.-Etienne museum there was still enough of the sculture left over to form a clump in the middle of the floor. (Hanging a work from as high as possible was a favorite device of Supports/Surfaces, and this exhibition featured works by Dezeuze, Dolla, Saytour and Viallat which started so high up that one had to crane one’s neck to see the beginning of the piece. Given this unwillingness to be restricted by the arbitrary dimensions of exhibition spaces, it is only natural that the artists of Supports/Surfaces repeatedly chose to hold their exhibitions out-of-doors.)

Noël Dolla’s banners of thin cotton gauze made up for their transparency by their inordinate length. The three strips of Tartalanes I (1969), for instance, measure 2,012 x 20 cm (ca. 8 inches by 65 1/2 feet). In fact, however, Dolla’s “tartalanes” are limitless. The regularly distributed dots of color he applied to them were brought to a halt only by the limits of the exhibition space. Hanging freely in midair, they are suggestive of religious icons suspended in the midst of cathedrals but also of industrial production-rolls of cloth or paper spewing out onto a factory floor. Equally effective, on a smaller scale, were his wall sculptures made from dyed handkerchiefs and dishtowels to which Dolla added a few green and red dots. In these works the artist makes the viewer aware of the utter humility of the materials without that becoming the point. One is convinced that Dolla used handkerchiefs and dish towels because they suited his artistic needs, not because he wished to make some sociological point. And yet, they nonetheless hinted at a transgressive domesticity.

In contrast to Dolla’s fragile domestic textiles, the wood sculptures of Toni Grand are rough-hewn and unwieldy, more suggestive of a rural carpenter’s workshop than of the kitchen or laundry. By splitting and joining logs and planks of wood into warped and twisted forms, often studded with oversize wooden pegs, Grand seems to travel much further than the others from the originary canvas-and-stretcher. Although Grand’s use of wood, of generally long and thin dimensions, might ultimately derive from the notion of the “support,” he has developed a vocabulary of forms and methods of attachment that suggest concerns and imaginative leaps far removed from the “anatomy of a studio” approach of many other members of Supports/Surfaces. If Viallat among the painters is the one who seems to have gained the most and developed to the fullest, the same is true of Grand as sculptor.

Possibly the most distinctive artist of the Supports/Surfaces group-distinctive insofar as his work begins to leave the carefully defined orbit of the group-is Bernard Pagés. Pieces like Les tas de buches et briques (1969), which consists of a rough, low pyramid of sawed-up logs and bricks, or Le tas de gravier (1969), where a mound of gravel spreads out of a small fenced enclosure, introduce manufactured materials from the everyday world that are atypical of Supports/Surfaces. Much of the work Pagés did in the late ’60s suggests building sites, with a sense of industrial accumulation. On the other hand, Series de 24 assemblages angulaires (1972), a floor piece of showing 24 ways to join together two pieces of wood (e.g., with leather straps, clamps, ribbons, bungee cord, nails, chains, cement) possesses both the sense of tinkering and the elaboration of the grid that point toward the central concerns of Supports/Surfaces. When one turns back to the others’ works, Pagés’s eccentricity helps one concentrate on the methods and techniques of Supports/Surfaces rather than simply on materials and motifs. Like Pagés, Patrick Saytour’s work also makes use of manufactured items, in particular the “Brulage” series from 1967 in which he burned a grid of small holes through a drape of plastic imprinted with a banal flower pattern. As Saytour admits, his work seems closer in spirit than any of the other Supports/Surfaces artists to the Pop inflections of Nouveau Réalisme; yet it adheres very closely to Supports/Surfaces’ taste for unstretched fabric and grid patterns.

In 1969 and 1970 a momentum developed for Supports/Surfaces, especially with the outdoor summer exhibitions in Coaraze (July 1969) and in the following year a series called “Eté 70” along the French coast from the Italian to Spanish borders. In Saytour’s notes, the list of location where the placed members’ works were placed was long and unorthodox, including “a forest, a public beach, a stretch of water, a wall, a dry riverbed, a stone quarry, a village square, a street, an art gallery, a creek, and a barn.” These entries give one a sense of its compelling mixture of serious research and relaxed comedy. The idea of introducing art works unannounced into public space smacks of guerrilla theater, but the photographs of paintings spread out on the beach or sculptures leaning against the walls of a Côte d’Azur village are redolent of the Mediterranean environment which spawned so many of the Supports/Surfaces artists. It is tempting to draw a comparison to an earlier generation of French artists-the Impressionists-who decided to forsake the comforts of the city for plein-air painting. Some excerpts from Saytour’s notes:

The experience consisted of: 1. Systematically placing our work in a number of places theoretically unlimited, later to analyze the effects of the environment on the works presented. 2. Placing the work in the milieu of a public whose presence will not depend on our arrival, who will not be informed of our intentions and who will remain free to attend to or to ignore our conduct.

Among the results:
-Some children were dissappointed when we arrived with our pieces because the games they were hoping for didn’t take place.
-A cinema technician remained convininced that we were preparing to shoot a scene.
-A wife declared herself satisfied after having gotten from her husband the assurance that all that was just signals to be seen by airplanes.
-A group of archeologists dismantled and used in their excavation several of our canvases which they believed were markers for a cross country motorcycle race.
-A volleyball game was played over a thread stretched between two trees.
-A family sat there all day waiting for it “to begin.”58

The chief participants of these open-air events were Dezeuze, Pagés, Saytour, Valensi and Viallat. In 1971, however, the tenor of the group began to change, particularly as the result of the political and theoretical contributions of Devade and Cane, who did much to shift the emphasis of the group when they joined. It was they (both living in Paris and close to Tel Quel theorists like Pleynet) who founded Peinture – Cahiers Théoriques, in which, along with Dezeuze and Bioulés, they proceded to establish a high profile with denunciations and manifestos against art of which they disapproved. These denunciations were not limited to the pages of their review: during the opening of his February 1971 show at Daniel Templon Gallery in Paris, Cane distributed a tract titled “Conceptual art will die alone, we don’t need its corpse.” Other tracts carried titles like “Necessary Materialism or Dialectical Materialism” and Peintures – Cahiers Théoriques bristled with references to Marx and Mao. It did not take long for schisms to appear as attitudes began to develop that were reminsicent of André Breton at his most pontifical. In fact, in the very first issue of Peinture – Cahiers Théoriques, Claude Viallat, in many ways the founding spirit of the Supports/Surfaces group, was expelled. Although all the members were included in a June 1971 show at the Théâtre Municipal in Nice, they had to be divided into two groups: Arnal, Bioulés, Cane, Devade and Dezeuze in the foyer, Dolla, Grand, Saytour, Valensi and Viallat in the theater and on the stage. By the following year, 1972, the group was whittled down to the just the Peinture – Cahiers Théoriques section, which was further reduced by the expulsion of Bioulés and Dezeuze. Soon only Cane and Devade were left, with no more delinquent comrades to eject.

But while the group was dissolved by the political passions of the time, most of the former members were able to go on to establish their individual identities. Certain artists, such as Viallat, pursued and elaborated their original concerns, while others, such as Cane, who now makes figurative sculpture, chose divergent paths. In 1974 the Musée d’Art et d’ Industrie in Saint-Etienne mounted a show called “Nouvelle Peinture en France pratiques/théories.” Most of the former members of Supports/Surfaces were included, with the notable exception of Cane and Devade, who refused to participate. By looking at the group as a discrete historical moment, the 1974 retrospective made it clear that the members had by then come to the termination of Supports/Surfaces’s collective journey. In March 1991, 17 years later, another show in the same city, organized by the same museum director, once again reunited the group. The opening was an occasion for reminiscenses and reunions, and if any of the old disaccords remained, there was no visible sign of them. Perhaps it was the amazing coherence of the works themselves which ensured the cooperative atmosphere. Everywhere one looked there were parallels, borrowings, dialogues, creative dependencies. Some of the impact may have depended on Ceysson’s carefully thought-out installation, but it was equally clear that Supports/Surfaces was the real thing, a movement of artists who not only needed each other but profited esthetically from their association, giving one another the daring and imagination that they might not have had alone. And indeed, the work looked intoxicatingly fresh and alive, perhaps especially to American eyes. One might have thought that it was a show of newly made work rather than a reappraisal of art from two decades ago.

In his famous essay of the mid-’50s, “American-Type Painting,” Greenberg stated that modernist painting’s task was to discard all nonessential conventions, to reduce itself to its “viable essence.” He went on to proclaim that Paris was “losing its monopoly on the fate of painting” because the Americans were more successful jettisoning the expendable conventions of painting. Looking at what started to happen in southern France about 10 years after Greenberg’s pronouncement, one can’t help wondering if that awarding of the prize to America was not dangerously premature.