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2- Ellsworth Kelly, Kite 1, 1952 300_edited_edited.jpg

Ellsworth Kelly, Kite 1, 1952, Oil on linen, seven joint panels, 39 3/8 x 91 5/8 in.
Ellsworth Kelly Studio and Jack Shear, Spencertown, NY.


By Gwenaël Kerlidou, June 9, 2024


Americans in Paris (1946-1962)

Grey Art Museum, New York University

Earlier this winter, several galleries have presented the work of a few French painters who have recently elicited interest in the New York art world. Among them, in January, the Timothy Taylor Gallery showed works by Simon Hantaï in Tribeca, while in Chelsea, in March, the Matthew Marks Gallery exhibited a series by Martin Barré and the Templon Gallery presented a survey of Claude Viallat’s paintings. 

What these shows had in common, besides displaying work produced in France between the nineteen sixties and now, was the fact that they all seemed somewhat difficult to approach for an American public, who, if interested by what they saw, seemed to labor in trying to locate them in their historical narrative. One good example of this was David Carrier’s review of the Timothy Taylor show in Two Coats of Paint, drawing tentative parallels between Hantaï and Morris Louis.

Concurrently with these shows “Americans in Paris, 1946-1962”, opened at the Grey Art Museum in early March: An ambitious historical survey intended to re-examine a period, right after the end of World War Two, when, with the benefit of the new GI Bill, many young American artists, musicians, and writers flocked to Paris to immerse themselves in its mythical scene of Modernity. The young Americans stayed for a few years and increasingly attracted by the new American economic boom, almost all went back home at the end of the GI Bill, by the early sixties. 

The Grey Art Museum does an excellent job at shedding light on a few corners of the American historical narrative previously left in the dark, such as the place of African-American artists, or that of influential but underrecognized non-painter female figures such as Claire Falkenstein or Sheila Hicks. It raises a few unanswered questions such as the close stylistic interaction between Norman Bluhm and Sam Francis at that time, or the importance of the role played by Jean-Paul Riopelle, from Québec, in bridging the communication gap between francophone and anglophone communities. But, if generally very informative about the period, especially from an American standpoint, it is somewhat more wanting in terms of making the French historical context properly understood. Perhaps the most intriguing example, in the otherwise well researched catalogue text, is that art critic Marcelin Pleynet, a pivotal figure of the Paris art scene of the sixties, can still be misconstrued here today as being a Greenbergian. This kind of misreading is symptomatic of a fundamental disconnect between the American post-war narrative and the French one.

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Carmen Herrera, Untitled, 1949, Oil on canvas, 26 x 50 in., Estrellita B. Brodsky Collection, NY.

The young American artists lived in Paris within an insular community mostly isolated from local intellectual life, mainly due to language limitations. They were looking for the next big thing in their pre-established idea of Modern Art and a sort of confirmation in the location of Alfred Barr’s famous 1936 MoMA diagram.

What they found instead was too messy of a scene for it to make any sense in Barr’s simplified terms. The Informel -as the lack of form, or the refusal of form- the reigning abstract style in Paris, which the Americans didn’t quite seem to grasp then, was a reaction to the horrors and absurdity of the Second World War, similar to Dada’s reaction to the meaningless slaughter of the first World War. The fact is that, even at the end of World War Two, in European society, the debates around Modern Art were still very much in flux and far from being resolved. It’s not so clear if the young Americans were quite aware of that. At the time of the Liberation, following its critical role in organizing the Resistance against the German occupier, the Communist Party’s popularity had surged in France, and with it came a resurgence of Social Realism and Miserabilism in art. 

For Clement Greenberg, even before his final trip to Paris in 1959, in his essay “American type painting” from 1955, the fact that nothing interesting was happening there in painting was a foregone conclusion: Greenberg was fixated on Modernist continuity, and so were the Abstract Expressionists. For Greenberg, it was a matter of formal continuity based on a very superficial understanding of the social and intellectual forces at work in European Modernity, and for the Ab Ex, it was the last stand of Western art against Totalitarianism.

With the post-war American economic boom in full swing at the height of the Cold War, the US art market and art institutions found an increasing need to establish their own ideologically controlled narrative, for which Greenberg’s views were so timely and convenient: American Modernism as a self-proclaimed beacon of the free world.

However the trauma of the war was processed very differently in Europe. For a large part of European intellectuals, the approach to culture had been fundamentally altered by the Holocaust, and the problem was more one of rupture than of continuity. The Humanist and essentialist values that modernity had been based on until then had been discredited by their implicit complicity with the final solution. Rather than emerging all formulated from the Paris art scene, as Greenberg would have liked, a fundamental reassessment of values was slowly brewing in the general culture, culminating with the events of May 1968. 

What the Americans missed, partly because of their language limitations, were the first iterations of the debates around Structuralism: In 1953, Gilles Deleuze published “Empiricism and Subjectivity” and Roland Barthes “Writing Degree Zero”. Claude Levi-Strauss published “Sad Tropics” in 1955. 

One may wonder as well what these young Americans may have seen of Yves Klein’s first 1949 monochromes (Klein's first retrospective in America only came to the Guggenheim Museum in 1982), of Lucio Fontana’s first slashed paintings, also from 1949, or how many of them (perhaps with the exception of James Bishop) were aware of Bram van Velde’s work, who showed at Galerie Maeght during that period?

For the sake of comparison, let’s summon up the example of Simon Hantaï, since he is mentioned earlier in this text, for some interesting historical parallels: Hantaï arrived in Paris from Budapest, Hungary, in 1948, the same year as Ellsworth Kelly, Ken Noland, Joan Mitchell, and Carmen Herrera all arrived from New York. But, contrary to the Americans, having nowhere to go back to since Hungary would soon be behind the Iron Curtain, two very different kinds of art developments ensued. It is the difference between the world seen from the perspective of a student’s years abroad or seen from that of a political refugee.

Only around 1962, with his exhibition of the “Mariales”, Galerie Kléber, and after a long period of gestation plus a few dead ends, was Hantaï able to start formulating the critique of gesture and of the integrity of the surface which would later make him such a pivotal figure in the abstract painting narrative, between Ab Ex and the Deconstruction of Supports/Surfaces. This is particularly relevant not only because he was a perfect example of what the early Greenberg was looking for in Paris and did not find, and of what the late Greenberg was unable to recognize, but also because the timing of this “Mariales” show was such that one wonders if any of the young Americans who were still in Paris then might have seen it before going back.

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Kimber Smith, Untitled, 1955, Oil on canvas, 57 3/8 x 44 in., Centre National des Arts
Plastiques/ Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris. Gift of Albers-Honegger, 2001.

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Sheila Hicks, Untitled, 1961-63, Wool, 95 ¼ x 41 ¾ in., collection of the artist, Paris.

The few who stayed behind, such as James Bishop, Shirley Jaffe or Joan Mitchell, did so at the expense of their American career. Interestingly, all three would end up in Jean Fournier’s gallery (who also represented Viallat, by the way), at the insistence of Hantaï, who wanted his work to be understood in the context of theirs. James Bishop is an interesting case in point, because through his close friendship with Pleynet, he also became quite close to the Tel Quel and Supports/Surfaces circles: a rare example of the lasting impact of an American painter of that generation on the French scene. It is unlikely, for instance, that Marc Devade’s ideas on “le geste de la couleur”, or color as gesture, could have been articulated without a thorough understanding of Bishop’s work.

All of this would be of limited interest today if these same young Americans, who went back to the US at the end of the GI bill, had not been part of a generation of American artists who adopted wholesale Greenberg’s questionable truism that nothing was happening in art anywhere except for New York, and who, from the sixties to the early nineties, displayed a complete lack of interest for art, not just coming from France or Europe, but from anywhere besides the US. So much so that the following generations were deprived of the basic concepts needed to make any sense of art coming from elsewhere in the world. Only in the early 90s, with a generational changing of the guard, did younger American artists finally start to be exposed to, among many other ideas, Poststructuralist “French Theory” in their college education. In those thirty years, very little transpired here of “(not so) recent” artistic developments in Europe, such as Deconstruction, Supports-Surfaces, or Arte Povera. 

This peculiar state of affairs led to a very asymmetrical situation for the baby boom generation, where European artists were usually quite well informed (and often pointedly critical) of the latest developments in the US. At the same time, the Americans were rarely curious or aware of anything happening on the European scene.


To continue with the singularity of Hantaï’s case, two examples come to mind: The first is that of Paul Rodgers, an early defender of Hantaï in New York with his 9W Gallery, who in 1980 self-published “The Subject of the Art”, the first introduction in the English language to the work of Tel Quel, the Poststructuralist avant-garde criticism publication in Paris, directed by Philippe Sollers, of which Pleynet was managing editor. His commendable efforts to bridge the linguistic and cultural gap between two different views of post-war modernity were met with an utter lack of interest by the American art and academic worlds.

The second is that of Hantaï’s two solo shows in New York during his lifetime: His 1975 show at the Pierre Matisse Gallery couldn’t have had a worse timing, opening at the same time as a Hans Hartung retrospective at the Met, brutally dismissed by Hilton Kramer in the NY Times, while his 1982 show at the André Emmerich Gallery also attracted very little interest. Compared with his reception by the public at Timothy Taylor earlier this year (three substantial reviews in the press and a well-attended panel discussion), the contrast couldn’t be more striking. 

It would be interesting, indeed, to examine historically that thirty-year period of “Kant after Duchamp”, as Thierry de Duve’s aptly titled his book about Greenberg, a period also qualified by Irving Sandler as that of “The Triumph of American Painting”, being at the same time that of a sort of “Closing of the American Mind” (to keep quoting book titles to make a point), perhaps rather of the closing of American esthetic curiosity, especially towards seminal post-Kantian figures, such as Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, a period initiated by these young Americans’ years abroad in Paris after WWII.

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