Letter From New York
June 28, 2010
Dear Lana Turner,
There are two canvases hanging at Paul Rodgers' 9W gallery in New York that might cause you to rethink the last half-century or so of painting. Believe me, when I went to Chelsea to see them I didn’t intend to make any grand claims. But the work of Simon Hantaï, who died in 2008, can inspire such pronouncements. Hantaï, whose importance is widely accepted in France, is virtually unknown in the U.S., in part because, as a protest against the commercial focus of the art world, he refused to allow his paintings to be exhibited for twenty-five years, a refusal as inextricable from Hantaï’s work as Warhol’s embrace of the limelight was from his.
Hantaï emigrated to Paris from Hungary in 1948. Early on, he was hailed by Breton as the future of Surrealist painting. But when he became interested in Abstract Expressionism as a more substantial elaboration of the unconscious than weird figures and perspectival tricks, he fell out with Breton (and Duchamp). To make a long story short, Hantaï’s breakthrough came in 1960: he began folding large unstretched canvases, then painting their exposed surfaces. He would let a canvas dry, then spread it out. What resulted were patches of unpainted canvas interacting with areas of saturated color. This folding method, or pliage, is itself saturated with the history of painting. Like Matisse (scissors) and Pollock (sticks), his two clearest influences, Hantaï developed by downgrading the brush. But he did not—like Pop or, in a different way, Minimalism—give up on painting itself.
The force of Hantaï’s paintings derives from how our knowledge of his method interacts with what we see before us on the wall. In the earlier of the two paintings at 9W, “Study” (1969, 116 x 176’’), there’s little to indicate the degree to which the painter has abstracted himself from the composition. The unprimed canvas and cerulean blues form interlocking patterns of a vibrancy that could be the result of countless careful painterly decisions. Indeed, it’s surprisingly figurative—easy to see it, for instance, as a startled flock of birds against blue sky. But such “figures” were recessed spaces that escaped the brush; Hantaï would have had no idea until he unfolded the canvas that these particular shapes would appear. There is a rhythm and energy reminiscent of certain works of Abstract Expressionism, but it’s unclear who is doing the expressing; the canvas largely painted itself. A work that compels as painting has emerged from a procedure that questions painting’s possibility, and the pathos is in that contradiction. Composition by unfolding produces an image of dialectical reversal: we’re beholding the (arrested) moment in which the objective support of painting emerges as part of the symbolic field of art. I think I see the unpainted shapes as figures and the blue as ground in part because I know the former literally came forward as the canvas was unfolded.
“Study” looks something like Abstract Expressionism, but in fact has a procedural genesis that negates the gestural; “Tabula” (1980, 117x189’’) looks more like a work of Minimalism, but is in fact comparatively expressionistic: the initial impression is of a pattern of repeating violet squares, but the irregularity of the shapes becomes apparent as one looks on. Hantaï tied the canvas at regular intervals in order to unfold an unpainted grid, but there was no way to avoid some deviation in the size of the painted squares, not to mention cracking and splintering of the paint when he flattened it. (If you look very closely at the unprimed grid, you can see the small networks of cracks where the canvas was tied.) Hantaï’s method involves surrendering a certain painterly agency, but he remains intensely and physically part of the painting’s facture. If the first impression is of mechanization, of impersonality, we come to see the traces of a very human imprecision. As in “Study,” there is a powerful strain between the administered and the aleatory. In “Study” what dawns on us is the near absence of the artist; in “Tabula” we come to be aware of his near presence.
Of the many meanings of Hantaï’s method, what I ultimately find most moving is the way it segments the temporality of composition (and hence of our viewing). Hantaï’s most significant decision-making precedes painting: his positioning of the canvas. Hantaï, like the rest of us, must wait for the dramatic return of what was placed beyond the dramatic reach of the brush. The method captures the contradictions of painting in an era of mechanized reproducibility and acknowledges our suspicion of any assertion of heroic subjectivity—but it captures these contradictions in order to move painting forward, not to abandon its history. Those areas of unprimed canvas incorporate the refusal of painting into painting.
I can’t help but read Hantaï’s withdrawing from the art world as another fold. He must have known the work he composed in isolation would enter circulation after his death, but he staggered his reception in a manner that parallels the segmentation of his method. Now that the painter is gone we can unfold the significance of the work he did while hidden from public view: the shape of his refusal of the art world can enter the art world, confronting the willful vacuity of the most exuberantly commercial art. That is the eloquent challenge of the two canvases Paul Rodgers has hung at 9W; neither is for sale.