With the advent of Modernism in the late 19th – early 20th century, differing movements, schools, and networks sprang up internationally—some were generative and sustainable, others dead-ended, though unbeknownst to most of us, traces of these persist or return. This cross-fertilization drove Modernism’s evolution until the post-World War II era the new art made in the U.S. came to dominate the narrative. The triumph of the NY School (AbEx) corresponded to the new political and economic order. In this scenario the vanguards that emerged from the rubble and detritus of the War such as C.O.B.R.A., Nouveau Realisme, Lettrist, Zero, Arte Povera, etc. were trivialized, marginalized, or came to be appropriated. To this day, the European artists whose works come to be acknowledged in the States tend to be those whose works are used to typify the whole of a critical discourse, or style. This has reduced post-War European art to a short list that includes Pierre Soulages, Antonio Tapies, Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, Joseph Beuys, Gerhardt Richter, Anselm Keifer, etc. In this manner, the illusionary status of the U.S. as the cultural leader of the free world is sustained, while European art is made to appear to be broken, fragmented, or at best sporadically relevant, rather than constituting a network of competing histories, practices, and critical discourses.
The last two or three generations of artists in the States and their audience know little more than the cannon of Color Field, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual, and Post-Modernism, given this their work has become increasingly inbred. What follows is not a rehash of decolonial, multicultural, or liberal arguments for expanding the canon to include the products of indigenous peoples, or women and peoples of color. Expanding the canon quantitively, problematically leaves the existing history of Modernism intact. It is important to note this, because Art exists in its history, and which supplies a rational context for what artists decide to make. I will Instead, use the exhibition of André-Pierre Arnal (b.1939) work spanning the period from the early1960s to the 80s, as a case study.
Arnal was a member of the French group Supports/Surfaces. Like others of this movement, he partook of the revolutionary atmosphere of the late ’60s, characterized by a radical challenge to social and cultural norms and values. We may consider Supports/Surfaces like the Situationists and Lettrists to be activist artists who wanted to change society’s aesthetic sensibility. They used their work to generate practices, which would implicitly contest institutional, and market norms. For these reasons Arnal’s work is a prime example of the network of practices, theories, and critical discourses which are excluded or repressed by the present history of late-Modernism as formulated in the States.
Supports/Surfaces began far away from the art establishment of Paris—its members predominantly came from southern French cities like Montpelier, Nice, and Nîmes. Along with a deep interest in Matisse, they were inspired by a mix of ideas taken from Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried and the emerging schools of post-structuralist thought. They were also influenced by such artists as Simon Hantai and Claude Viallat. Unlike their conceptual counter-parts BMPT (Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, Niele Toroni) who reduced abstract painting to a series of tropes, the members of Supports/Surfaces who sought to explore by non-traditional means painting’s potentiality by physically deconstructing its object, remain in the margins of the conical history of post-war Modernism.
The works made by the artists of Supports/Surfaces are marked by expansive ideas of what a painting could be and how it might be presented. In the States, Supports/Surfaces concern for art as an event parallels that of such post-Minimalists as Alan Shields, Sam Gilliam, Nina Yankowitz, Eva Hesse, Keith Sonnier, Rosemary Mayer, Al Loving. These artists are equally under erasure with the exception of Hesse, who for various non aesthetic reasons has been written into the history as a Minimalist. We can only imagine the effect that Supports/Surfaces would have had on these artists and their critical supporters. Instead, in the last few decades Supports/Surfaces’ works sporadically appear here and there to rave critical reception, only to disappear again. One reason for this is, is that the critical debates and theory that informed such post-war European art are not available to the English-speaking audience. For example, I could find no articles on Arnal’s work per-se or any on Supports/Surfaces. This is a consequence of the residual logic of the cold-war period, which held to the dictum that if nothing significant is happening in European art, then nothing of critical importance can possibly be, being written. This chauvinism has left the last two or three generations of artists in the States with ever shrinking resources and references. A prime example of this is that when artists such as James Hyde, Ivelisse Jimenez, Charles Spurrier, Polly Apfelbaum, Curtis Mitchell, or Fabian Marcaccio, in the early1990s – 2000s, sought to expand abstract painting’s formats they unknowingly re-invented idioms that had existed in Europe, South America, and Japan since the 1950s.
Though now critically and historically decontextualized, Arnal’s works may be considered merely Formalist at the time of their making, they were already post-Modern—their roots being in a materialist analysis and structuralist semiotic. This led Arnal to embrace the notion of the series, not simply to systemically produce variations on a theme, but to limit his possibilities. Using chance, intuition, and mechanical means Arnal articulated and subverted painting’s core. So rather than reductively explicate, essentialize, or index the attributes of painting, he uses them to take apart the practice of painting to create phenomenological (cognitive) and epistemological propositions. The resulting works are exhibited unstretched, their compositions are asymmetrical — patterns do not align and where shapes appear to be parts of a larger whole, they cannot be logically re-assembled. As such, the works visually unstable and appear to be mutable; yet, their eccentric geometric forms, skewed patterns, and collaging of processes, owe something to Henri Matisse’s decorative aesthetic.
As the viewer attempts to make visual sense of Arnal’s work, what is revealed is his concern for ordering similar and dissimilar things, which in turn assert their contradictory identities. We can take the creases which in Arnal’s work form a grid, for instance, to be one such text. In actuality, they constitute multiple texts, they are not only evidence that the cloth or canvas had been folded and unfolded but they also indicate it would most likely be folded again in the same manner. From this we must assume there is a right and wrong way to do it. But what might be said about the creases does not end there, for they also function topographically, given their ridges and valleys, they effect the diverse techniques such as: fripages (wrinkling,) wax resist, knot-tying, rubbing, imprinting, stenciling, cutaways, collaging, tearing, and mono-printing by which color, forms, patterns, and shapes come to be applied to the canvas.
Despite what occurs on the surface of his paintings the greater portion of which go untreated, the support is always a delineated rectilinear form, in which in order to structure each painting, everything is arranged relative to its boundaries, nothing ever exceed the edge of the canvas. In this, Arnal’s works by analogy, can be interpreted as demonstrating how freedom is limited by a given structure’s most basic properties. The variations in turn call attention to how each work consists of differing decisions meant to undermine the viewer’s cognitive habits — challenging them to self-reflectively see what the work is doing and undoing. What one may draw from this is the logic, aesthetics, and politics content of an art-work, if not life itself, lies in the relations and possibilities its organization affords. For these reasons, Arnal’s work appear to me to be a prime example of the possibilities afforded by a network of practices, theories, and critical discourses which has been excluded from the history of late-Modernism as formulated in the States. Perhaps it is too late for Europe’s historical movements of the 50-80’s to have an effect at this time, yet it might still be worth paying attention to their critical discourses and those of their decedents, rather than imagine everyone in the West thinks the same way, or necessarily share the same history.
André-Pierre Arnal at Ceysson & Bénétière New York December 07, 2022 – January 21, 2023
956 Madison Avenue
10021 New York