Monday, May 11th, 2009

Pierrette Bloch at Haim Chanin

April 25 to June 13, 2009
121 West 19th Street, between 6th and 7th avenues
New York City, 646 230 7200

Pierrette Bloch Sculpture de crin (no. B7) 1988. Horsehair, 66-1/2 inches long, images courtesy Haim Chanin
Pierrette Bloch Sculpture de crin (no. B7) 1988. Horsehair, 66-1/2 inches long, images courtesy Haim Chanin
Pierrette Bloch, Encre sur Isorel (no. 525) 2008. Ink on Isorel board, 35-1/2 x 47-1/4 inches. images courtesy Haim Chanin
Pierrette Bloch, Encre sur Isorel (no. 525) 2008. Ink on Isorel board, 35-1/2 x 47-1/4 inches. images courtesy Haim Chanin

Pierrette Bloch’s first New York solo exhibition since 1951 is long overdue, to say the least. Bloch has had a quietly vigorous exhibition history in Europe, mainly in France, for sixty years. She has been seen as a progenitor of the Support/Surface group and was friendly with some of its members, but also kept her distance.  She is also a longtime admirer and friend of Pierre Soulages, the French painter who has made black paintings exclusively for most of his career.

Like Soulages, Bloch has only used black for many years, but unlike his predominantly oil on canvas works that often swell to the heroic scale of Abstract Expressionism, Bloch has shown a penchant for humble materials and more extrapolated formats.  Most frequently mounted directly on white gallery walls, simply but with great elegance, her  signature works consist of horizontally-oriented lines of bound and curled horse hair and a continuing series of strips of relatively inexpensive white paper dabbed or dotted with ink. These have been quite widespread in European museums recently.  In Summer 2007, for example, Le Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris displayed three long ink drawings by Bloch, one per wall, that occupied a room in the permanent collection.

Her apparent transversals of standard categories have allowed Bloch to work in a more suggestive terrain, where, as is customary in much French contemporary abstraction, technique and material are foregrounded. The work often appears a lyrical species of notation or calligraphy or even the graphic equivalent of mime, which owes perhaps to her admiration of the work of Samuel Beckett. Recalling  that writer’s strained reports of event and monologue , Bloch’s spare, inky ruminations in black blotches populate sheets of paper like unreadable messages or obscure musical scores.

Her earliest work, once she abandoned student figuration, involved gray, white and black paint applied to found wrapping paper. By the late 1960s Bloch had begun using horsehair, wound in long strands or collected into rectangles, uniting the linear aspects of drawing with the physical reality of sculpture.  One hair sculpture,Sculpture de crin (no. BE7) 1988, in Haim Chanin’s exhibition, telegraphs a cross-associational response, from landscape horizontality, to a line of text, to early weaving.

Bloch has workspace in her studio apartment on an upper floor of an old building in Paris’ 15th arrondissement. All of her exhibitions are meticulously planned in advance. Bloch builds small models based on the proportions of the given environment, and using miniature replicas of all of her work, determines the placement. This was the case in the current exhibition as well. Bloch’s extreme care about how her work is seen overcomes the main drawback of this venue’s very limited space.

Still, there are a good two dozen works that represent the breadth of her output, and give a full yet episodic introduction. It is notable that earlier ink blotch drawings on rectangular paper are included, each with a very individual personality and presence, dating back as far as 1975.  I would pit any of them against any drawing by another artist of this period. They are comparatively terse, and betray a debt to Henri Michaux.  But where Michaux displays an organic continuity, Bloch’s drawings have tension that plays each individual mark off of its ensemble.  For example, Encre sur papier (no.555) 1999 consists of twenty-five very black slippery-seeming ink-marks and one apparently accidental ink droplet. The only row with more than four marks has one that might also be a droplet. In one case a mark runs into another in the row below it. The marks seem fairly orderly, but uncomfortable at their edges, trapped in their own skin as they distribute themselves across the page.

Bloch’s latest series on view are paintings executed on blocks of Isorel board, a kind of homosote, that covers its pulpy, brown surface with brushed black ink.  Once again, the works seem to examine the philosophic dimension of markmaking. Encre sur Isorel (no. 525) 2008, partially covers its ground with long, tilting vertical strokes that reminded me equally of counting off strokes and the way Van Gogh painted rain, as well as a defaced tablet.

The exhibition is a small testament to the efficacies of the late modernist project, and to a kind of reductionism that is not exclusionary in any way but in fact serves to expand metaphor towards a global and historical reach, while remaining communicatively personal and quite human.