George Mathieu: Genre-Bender
Saul Ostrow, NYC, Oct. 2021
GEORGES MATHIEU The Battle of Gilboa, 1962, oil on canvas, 80 11/16 × 80 11/16 × 1 15/16 inch
George Mathieu (1921-2012) is a significant post-war, French abstract painter , who was a self-promoter, a rebel, and a dandy. Best known for making, very large-scale calligraphic paintings at breakneck speeds, his works are historically seen in the context of post-World French Lyrical Abstraction, which he founded and U.S. Abstract Expressionism. While his imagery is rooted in the automatic writing of abstract surrealism, his mural-sized canvases by analogy return abstract painting to the scale of the 19th Century Salon with its tradition of panoramic paintings of military battles. To make this connection explicit, (and perhaps to off-set France’s defeat in two world wars,) Mathieu often titled his paintings after historic French victories, mainly from the middle- ages.
Meanwhile, to abandon and subvert the constraints of traditional methods of painting, process became more important to Mathieu than the final product. His ambition was to make improvisational marks and forms, which preceded their potential symbolic meaning. To accelerate the painting process, he used long-handled brushes as well as dripping and pouring paint. He also developed the technique of squeezing paint directly from the tube onto the canvas — the resulting gestural marks sit in relief on his paintings monochrome grounds.
More important than his technical innovations, Mathieu at times worked before an audience — enacting the American critic Harold Rosenberg’s notion of action painting. In this manner he removed the studio’s 4th wall, theatrically exposing to view the mystery of what goes on in the artist’s inner sanctum. Where we are told that Jackson Pollock was unnerved by seeing himself performing for Hans Namuth’s photographs and films seemingly, Mathieu relished such attention and had his public performances photographed and filmed. In the 1950s-60s, his showmanship was critically ridiculed, taken as just another Dadaist gesture — a sign of the further trivialization of art, yet this notion that artmaking is a performative event had significant influence on Japan’s Guattai movement, Yves Klein, the Canadian Les Automatistes, and later in the1960 -70s, on the post-Minimalists.
Apparent from the press release and catalog texts, the purpose of Perrotin and Nahmad Contemporary, mounting this extensive survey of 50 paintings, the first of its kind in the U.S., is to insert Mathieu back into the history of post WWII abstract painting so that he might be seen as comparable to Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. Though his work does add another somewhat decorative dimension to the canon of gestural abstract painting, I would argue his genre bending paintings are prescient and would be better contextualized relative to post-Modernism.
In his 1964 text, “Epistle to Youth” (Espire a la jeunesse) Mathieu prophetically writes about how painting has left the silence and isolation of the studio to take to the streets… to become action. Ironically, the results of Mathieu’s mixture of the heroics of academic history painting, the rapidity of his approach to gestural abstraction, and the anti-art attitude of Dada makes his works today, appear aesthetically and stylistically closer to the 1980’s Wildstyle graffiti of a Futura 2000 or Rammellzee “through-up” (a large-scale tag) than they are to the painterliness and formalism of AbEx.
What can be inferred from Mathieu’s portrayal of the ‘artiste’ as both a clown and as an existential hero, combined with his eclectic mash-up of formalism, surrealist-automatism, and the Academy is that what underlies his work is a critique of modernist culture’s commitment to the processes of negation and developmental progress. As with Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, and Lucio Fontana it often takes a generation or two for the international influence of such critiques to emerge — this has not occurred with Mathieu — apparently, given his reputation continues to be bound to Lyrical Abstraction, the international critical and curatorial mechanism necessary to reposition Mathieu and his work does not yet exist — though in our post-Modernist age of revision, this may change.
A Response to Saul Ostrow's article by Gwenaël Kerlidou...
GEORGES MATHIEU AND THE UNDESIRABLES OF MODERNISM
by Gwenaël Kerlidou
A recent double exhibition of French painter Georges Mathieu (1921-2012) at Galerie Perrotin downtown and at the Nahmad Contemporary, uptown in New York, was introduced as a sort of rehabilitation of a widely discredited figure of Paris’ Post-War art-informal scene. If historical revisions are becoming the norm lately, most are justified and necessary to provide a better understanding of a particular moment in history, others, such as this one, are more difficult to explain.
The critical discourse surrounding this double venue proved particularly interesting in its attempt to reframe Mathieu’s career as an important and neglected link in the modernist narrative. In the exhibition catalogue, Nancy Spector placed the artist in a historical context defined from an American Modernist point of view, which seemed to make the argument that, since Mathieu was historically pivotal to the introduction of Jackson Pollock’s work in Europe, and with his own painting performances, an undisputed antecedent to Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries” public happenings, this must warrant a second look on his work.
Saul Ostrow, in his clear-eyed review of the shows for Tussle, perhaps best summed the problem in his conclusion: "…the international critical and curatorial mechanism necessary to reposition Mathieu and his work do not yet exist…”, to which I am tempted to add “perhaps in the English language”.
Ideologically, if not genetically, allergic to anything with a faint whiff of Marxist theory, American Formalist criticism has been blind for too long to the socio-economic conditions allowing artistic forms to emerge. This is how, for example, for the sake of streamlining an American “Modernist” narrative, Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, taken out of context, could be construed as anticipating American Minimalism. Has the art market now been deemed sufficiently lobotomized to be ripe for a a-historical attempt at re-reading Mathieu’s work?
I tend to think that it should be considered within a framework encompassing a string of other Paris based artists of the post-war era, not necessarily linked to his style, but nonetheless products of the same historical and cultural conditions, as well as other artists who directly followed him historically.
For example, looking at Mathieu next to Bernard Buffet (1928-1999), a painter from the same generation, and Jean Carzou (1907-2000), from the previous generation, both figurative painters, might help us understand where his particular brand of modern art (by opposition to modernism) might be coming from.
Both Carzou and Buffet were quite fashionable in the 50s and early 60s Paris, at the same time as Mathieu, even if they all rapidly fell into disfavor and oblivion afterwards. In 2017, a couple of exhibitions in Paris attempted to reexamine Buffet’s work through an updated perspective, with mixed results.
And perhaps should we even backtrack to Francis Gruber (1912-1948), a painter friend of Alberto Giacometti, and to his Miserabilist esthetics in the immediate post-war period (Georges Rouault was another prominent figure of that school). Gruber turned out to be an important stylistic influence on Bernard Buffet.
A subtle shift between Miserabilism and Existentialism happened at that time, between the different directions that Gruber and Giacometti’s work were taking, a shift later magnified in Buffet’s work; From Gruber’s Miserabilism as a mannerism, to Giacometti’s Existentialism as spectacle of misery in Buffet’s work.
What is critical here is not so much the misery part but the trivialization of it, the emptying of form from primary content and its metamorphosis into an empty gesture. This is where the emergence of Mathieu’s brand of spectacle of painting in action can be traced back. The same paradigm shift which took place between Gruber and Buffet would later allow Mathieu to trivialize Pollock. Guy Debord’s 1967 “Society of spectacle” would clearly articulate that shift.
What binds Carzou, Buffet and Mathieu together is their early commercial success and reactionary politics. Carzou was well known for his views on modern art as decadent, views shared by Buffet, and dangerously close to those of the Nazis on modern art as degenerate. Mathieu, for his part, professed to be a Royalist, not a sign of progressive politics in regicide France.
And then there is Salvador Dali, the fellow Royalist and unabashed Francoist. Dali’s flamboyant, shrewd but not cynical, carefully orchestrated celebrity provided a timely model for Mathieu’s own public recognition ambitions.
Besides being a fellow Royalist with Mathieu, Yves Klein for his part, had his own politically questionable fascination with Rosicrucian mysticism. Although contrary to Dali and Mathieu, Klein’s own performances seemed to be less about self-promotion (although that, of course, cannot be excluded) than about a nostalgic reenactment of the bond around the ritual in the primal community.
Symptomatic of recent postmodern revisionist tendencies, in 2005 Catherine Millet, the famed French editor of Art-Press, who in the 1970s was so instrumental in helping to introduce American Modernism to European Modernity, published an essay titled “Dali and me”. Negotiating the thin line between the revisionist and the reactionary, she argues for a reassessment of the place and role of narcissism in modern art. Somewhat indirectly, she points out a set of opposite drives in modernity: Narcissism versus the dissolution of the ego. Picasso versus Braque, or Marcel Proust versus Maurice Blanchot, to take another example in French literature. The dissolution of identity in the adoration of the crowd, versus the dissolution of the ego in the limitations of language.
In 2014, Galerie Richard presented a dual exhibition in New York and Paris, pairing John Armleder and Jean Carzou, where Armleder maintained that “minor”, discredited, figures were just as necessary to the Modernist narrative as the “major” figures that they helped to offset, by positing that its heroes would not exist without its own black sheep’s, its “undesirables”. In his exhibition statement, he ventured: “… I think that basically Malevich would not exist without Carzou...” A postmodern critique of the Modernist value system and of its discriminative selection process only possible from within the decontextualized formalist discourse, where everything is equally valid and equally important. The subtext of the exhibitions seemed to be “all narcissisms are equal”.
Armleder’s train of thought could easily have been extended to “Pollock couldn’t have existed without Mathieu”. Mathieu’s long years of official recognition of an empty signature style being the antithesis of the precarious balancing act of Pollock’s short productive period. In that light, it would not be too far-fetched to see Mathieu’s work as a kind of unintended proto-postmodern simulacrum -to reuse Jean Baudrillard’s fabled concept- of Pollock’s work.
But the real elephant in the room of these two exhibitions, or rather of the discourse supporting them, is the unresolved question of Simon Hantaï’s interest in Mathieu’s work. They had a short-lived collaborative friendship, and then Hantaï moved on again. But around 1955-56, Mathieu’s work was instrumental in helping him negotiate his exit from Surrealism. To be sure, Mathieu had the same impact on Judith Reigl’s work (a close friend of Hantaï from Hungary), especially if we consider her “éclatement (outburst)” paintings of 1955-56.
Perhaps did Mathieu’s narcissism and Hantaï’s self-effacing ego find common ground in their fascination with outsider figures, such as Siger de Brabant (1240-1280, a pre-renaissance philosopher accused of heresy by the church at the time) for Mathieu, and Jean-Pierre Brisset (1837-1919, an outsider writer similar in many ways to the outsider artists regrouped by Jean Dubuffet under the logo of Art Brut) for Hantaï.
One cannot underestimate the role that dead ends play in major painters’ development, as “repoussoirs”, for them to bounce back from. Trudging through Jungian symbolism in the early 40s, Pollock had to find a way out. The Hantaï of the monumental “Sexe-Prime, Hommage à Jean-Pierre Brisset”, from 1955, had to find a way out of automatic writing. Mathieu, on the other hand, seduced by the game of mirror of his own celebrity of scandal did not have any reason to find a way out. In the end, he is the one who remained stuck in his own painting development, and who turned out to embody exactly the famous phoniness that Pollock was so fearing.
In hindsight, perhaps more than anticipating performance art, it seems that Mathieu’s theatricalization of gesture would somehow anticipate Minimalisms theatricalization of perception, and perhaps would this also be a more fruitful academic avenue of inquiry.
The bottom line is that if Mathieu’s historical role is unquestionable, unfortunately, this doesn’t make his work fare better now than it did fifty years ago.
In a history rewritten from a painter’s point of view, rather than from a disengaged historian’s, it seems that Mathieu’s legacy as a painter would probably not amount to much more than a footnote in Hantaï and Reigl’s evolution.
And based on that lesson and on recent historical developments, perhaps one should not be too surprised by a certain narcissist conservative former president persistent clinging to a false narrative, when to a large extent the Modernist narrative that we have embraced for so long, for better or for worse, has been serving us with such a heavily edited and substantially altered version of the history of modern art.
GEORGES MATHIEU, First Avenue, 1957, Oil on canvas 152.4 × 152.4 cm | 60 × 60 inch
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr, 1958 (K1958:9)