George Mathieu: Genre-Bender 

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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.  

Saul Ostrow
NYC, Oct. 2021

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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)