An American Collection of Contemporary French Art
Reviewing The Collection
By Eleanor Heartney
Despite or perhaps because of its daunting history, contemporary French art remains a rather shadowy entity for most American art audiences. An emphasis on the “triumph” of American art in the latter half of the 20th century has obscured various parallel histories and developments outside the United States. Then, in the 80s, the challenge to American hegemony which brought successive waves of Italian, German and Spanish art to our shores never included a French component. As a result, when work by French artists appears in the United States, it tends to be isolated from any larger cultural or social context and is too easily assimilated into the familiar history of contemporary American art.
This exhibition may help counter that tendency. Drawn from the collection of James Cottrell, an American collector who has chosen to delve into the French art scene with an emphasis on developments in the thriving art center of Nice, the exhibit presents three generations of contemporary French artists. Many of the artists here know each other and some have shared the student-teacher relationship. Thus, while this is first and foremost a highly personal selection of artists and artworks rather than a studied history, this exhibition inevitably reflects some of the most important movements and tendencies in France in the last three decades.
The senior artists in this exhibition came to national attention during the 1970’s. Roland Flexner, Noel Dolla, and Daniel Dezeuze were associated either with the short-lived but highly influential Support/Surface group which coalesced in 1970, or with the so called “Ecole de Nice.” Bearing a family resemblance to the concurrent minimal movement in the United States and Arte Povera in Italy, Support/Surface reflected a rigorous, Marxist-based philosophy which disdained illusion and mimesis in favor of an exploration of the archeology of the painting as an object. Dezeuze separated the painting into components, exhibiting stretchers devoid of canvas or pieces of gauze without the backing of stretchers. Dolla experimented with painted fabric hanging loosely from bars, Flexner subjected the elements that make up Camel cigarette packages to all possible permutations.
As this exhibition demonstrates, each artist has evolved in a very different direction in his recent work. Dezeuze retains his analytic approach, although he now reunites the mark to the surface in delicate line drawings and assembles sculptures from found objects. Dolla works in a variety of modes. Recent works have included constructed geometric paintings which incorporate real shutters in a play on the Renaissance idea of art as a window on the world, smoke paintings on fields of monochrome color and thickly impastoed tableaux with rudimentary images. Included in this show is one of the latter, a haunting expression of desolation entitled “Tchernobyl”. Flexner, meanwhile, has eschewed the Support/Surface rejection of illusion in favor of mystical paintings which merge high and low art with a mix of references to Asian, Islamic and Western culture.
The second generation here reflects the inevitable reaction against the austerities of Support/Surface. Echoing the emergence of graffiti and neo-expressionist art in the United States in the 1980’s, Figuration Libre emphasized an apparently naive, pop culture inspired style which rejected the intellectualism of the 70’s. But unlike counterparts, it could claim a pedigree that extended back to such European predecessors as Art Brut, COBRA and Miro and Dubuffet. Two of the artists here were closely associated with this movement. Robert Combas and Remi Blanchard both explore an aesthetic derived from cartoon imagery. Combas plays with social and cultural stereotypes, peopling his canvases with character types whose activities stress the physical appetites for food and sex. But beneath the pose of innocence and naivete, the complexity of his compositions make it clear that a sophistocated intelligence is at work. The same can be said for Blanchard. One sees in his work an awareness of stylized representations of non-Western cultures, woven together with motifs that speak of the tensions of late 20th century life.
Concurrent with the emergence of Figuration Libre, were other, related returns to representation. The work of Jean-Michel Alberola can be viewed in relation to the rise of neo-expressionism internationally. Like artists as diverse as Anselm Kiefer, Francesco Clemente, Gerard Garouste and Julian Schnabel, his work recuperates the sort of mythological themes and art historical references which had been banished from advanced art throughout the preceding decade. Jean-Charles Blais is motivated by similar impulses. His fragmented images of chunky, earthy figures stress themes of isolation and melancholy in a timeless universe.
The third generation represented here – artists who have emerged in the 1990’s – is less easy to characterize than its predecessors. This is a reflection, no doubt, of the more diffuse and pluralistic atmosphere which generally surrounds the international art world today. Artists feel free to work in conceptual, representational or abstract modes, to draw on everything from surrealism and neo-expressionism to minimalism and constructivism. This diversity is reflected in the works of the youngest artists here.
Edouard Prulhiere explores the region where abstraction and representation shade into each other. Rejecting, as do many of his generation, the traditional abstract artist’s quest for purity and essence, he sees abstraction as simply another system of signs, no more and no less authentic than any other.
Dominique Figarella focuses on abstraction for other purposes. He is interested in the physicality of paint, pushing it through the surface of canvas, making it ooze through stretched gauze. In his work, the elasticity of paint becomes a metaphor for skin, with all the attendant associations of sexuality, sensuality and mortality that accompany the theme of the body today.
And finally, Philippe Mayaux creates playful tableaux which promiscuously draw on sources ranging from Rene Magritte & 17th century Dutch still life traditions to 20th century cartoons. He infuses these pastiches with a punning sensibility that ensures that every combination of objects reverberates with a variety of meanings.
The works gathered here attest to the breadth of contemporary French art and to the sensitivity of the eye which has brought them together. Offering a window both on a national sensibility and on a particular vision, this exhibition offers a feast for the eye and nourishment for the mind.
This essay is included in the French Embassy’s exhibition catalogue — An American Collection of Contemporary French Art (1993).