Tuesday, December 8th, 2015

Eyes Wide Shut: Simon Hantaï at Paul Kasmin

Simon Hantaï: Blancs at Paul Kasmin Gallery

October 22 to December 5, 2015
293 Tenth Avenue at 27th Street
New York City, 212.563.4474

installation shot, Simon Hantaï Blancs at Paul Kasmin Gallery, October 22 to December 5, 2015
installation shot, Simon Hantaï Blancs at Paul Kasmin Gallery, October 22 to December 5, 2015

The Blancs, a series of paintings that Simon Hantaï (1922-2008) created in the early 1970s, have shards of transparent color that are arrayed over expanses of white space. These delicate large-scale works vary in the intensity of their tonalities, but all have a kind of wind-blown unpredictability, so that we are not exactly sure of how the pieces have come to rest in their final configuration. Further deepening the conundrum is the tracery of faceted lines in the surface of the canvas that defines its topography like silent pentimenti.

Hantaï made the colored forms by folding and creasing the canvas, and then painting the exposed facets. By using this pliage method he created a kind of matrix, with white as a positive presence out of which emerge the painted areas. They read as fragments, activated tesserae in a field of emptiness.

The Blancs in the exhibition feel tenuous and torn, as if we are seeing the residue of a trauma in which much has disappeared. With their forms barely holding together, these works can still have a lilting elegance. Each painting employs its own distinctive palette, with acrylic used like watercolor. Separate shapes are defined by their own colors, but fluid paint is allowed to pool and bleed, and to create trompe l’loi effects that describe the previously folded canvas.

Simon Hantaï, Blancs, 1973-1974. Acrylic on canvas, 78 x 84 5/8 inches. Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery
Simon Hantaï, Blancs, 1973-1974. Acrylic on canvas, 78 x 84 5/8 inches. Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery

The most vivid and celebratory of the Blancs (all the individual works have this same title) is a canvas in saturated reds, blues, and oranges, supplemented by other colors. More typical is the painting that combines many small shapes in jewel tones and neutrals, and is strongly dominated by large white spaces. Particularly striking is an almost geological work with large irregular shapes that seem to be hanging in rough progressions. All of the paintings reveal Hantaï’s engagement with Cezanne and his areas of untouched canvas, and Matisse’s late works made of cut-out colored paper.

In the exhibition are single examples of works from series that Hantaï made before and after the Blancs. The Étude here is from an earlier series, and is dense with white shapes reminiscent of leaves or birds emerging from a green ground. Aquarelle is a circular work, with small fluttering shapes in blue and white. Tabula, with its raw multicolor grid of squares, is from a group of works that followed the Blancs.

Hantaï’s paintings bring up some intriguing questions about process, intention, and pure chance, which relate both to an earlier generation of artists including Jackson Pollock and John Cage, and to some of the current tendencies in abstract painting. Hantaï made a point of clarifying that when working with pliage he could not completely envision the final outcome. He referred to this as working “blindly”, and “painting with the eyes closed”. This renouncing of artistic means went hand-in-hand with an intensive material involvement that to a certain extent was freed from conscious control. This detachment has echoes of the Buddhist concept of “not knowing”, the mind letting go of its need to impose predetermined meaning on experience.

It is worth contemplating the Blancs in light of Hantaï’s interest in religious texts and symbols earlier in his oeuvre. There is no overt spiritual attitude here, but present is a sense of openness and light, where human activity is one with indeterminate space. Along with this is a feeling of the fragile contingency of any planning or permanence.

At the same time, when we view these canvases we recognize an awareness, a personal touch, an intuitive sense of physicality that make them paintings rather than samples of technique. In the artist’s words, the work becomes, “in spite of its banality, a breath, an opening, a transformation, and an amazement”. These words were quoted by Alfred Pacquement in the catalogue for the Hantai exhibition earlier this year at the Mnuchin Gallery in New York. Pacquement was one of the curators of the artist’s 2013 retrospective at the Centre Georges-Pompidou in Paris.

Hantaï, who was born in Hungary and lived in France, used pliage for three decades beginning in 1960, creating distinctive series of paintings with great variety and depth. For a quarter of a century beginning in 1986 he largely withdrew from the French art world, rejecting the impingement of the market on his work. Beyond finding unique methods of making paintings, he pursued a way for his art to reveal something beyond the limits of the artist’s self. In Hantaï’s work is a philosophy of invention and effort paired with freedom and engaging the unknown. He is a painter to consider both for his achievements and for his embodying an exemplary spirit in his work.