THE TABLEAU AS EXISTENTIAL PRESENCE
Rétrospective en quatorze tableaux / Rétrospective in Fourteen Paintings
Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris
12/01/22 – 03/13/23
Nohra Haime Gallery, New York
In The Windows
By Gwenaël Kerlidou, February 24, 2023
Pierre Dunoyer, currently exhibiting a selection of abstract paintings ranging from 1978 to 2022 at the Paris Musée d’Art Moderne, Palais de Chaillot, has a reputation for being a “difficult” painter. His exhibitions, in France and abroad, have been rare events, each one the occasion for philosophical clarifications on his understanding of the concept of “tableau” and of the nature of painting. His work is largely unknown in New York, even if it has been regularly shown by the Nohra Haime Gallery since 1984. Two paintings from 1985 are presently shown in the gallery’s windows and an exhibition of his works from the eighties is planned there for March.
Dunoyer emerged in the Paris art scene of the late seventies when his work was included in a trio of group shows collectively titled Ja na pa (with painters Christian Bonnefoi and Antonio Semeraro, and sculptors Tony Cragg, Côme Mosta-Heirt and Jean Luc Vilmouth). For Bonnefoi and Dunoyer, Ja na pa was a response to what they perceived as the misinterpretation of Abstract Expressionism by Minimalism. The concept of tableau was seen as central to analyzing that misreading, even as both painters offered different definitions of it in their multiple texts and conferences.
But some historical background might be called for here: The Ja na pa shows followed closely behind the creation of “Macula” in 1976 (which, incidentally, is also when the art journal “October” was created in the US), an art periodical directed by historian Yves Alain Bois, which gathered a number of new voices responding to the teaching of art theorist Hubert Damisch. “Macula” would, for example, offer the first in-depth analysis of Martin Barré’s work. As “Peinture, Cahiers Théoriques”, the theoretical organ of Supports/Surfaces, was losing steam in endless ideological infighting, a new generation of art intellectuals was emerging in Paris, with a vision of a post-Supports/Surfaces and post-deconstructive formalism esthetics, taking political activism and its controversies out of the equation.
The Ja na pa artists understood that formalism was speeding towards an art critical wall and looked for ways to redirect the narrative on modernity, whether French or American, towards a multidisciplinary discourse informed by the cross-pollination of distinct fields in the social sciences, such as art history, sociology, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and anthropology. The question of the tableau was a hot topic in Paris at that time. Dunoyer and Bonnefoi’s approach to it often feels like a “Damischian” response to Jacques Lacan’s questions, in his 1964 seminar, about the functions of the gaze and of the tableau, which, roughly, was defined as an object looking back at the viewer, as much as it is being looked at.
There is no doubt that Dunoyer and Bonnefoi are intellectuals who paint, or rather painters who think. The significance of that paradigm shift, between the activism of the BMPT (Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni) and Supports/Surfaces generation and the intellectualist reaction of Ja na pa to the art market’s rush towards burying the lessons of Abstract Expressionism under countless declensions of Minimalism and Pop Art, has not yet been properly assessed. Ja na pa proposed a step back, a reflection along the lines of “Wait, what just happened there? Something needs to be thought through”. As we will see, Yves Alain Bois’ intuition on the role of Gregory Bateson’s concept of the double bind might point us in the right direction.
Eleonora, 1979, acrylic on canvas, 76-3/4” x 76-3/4”, © Laurent Lecas and ADAGP
If he was originally interested in art critic Marcelin Pleynet’s idea of painting as an “object of knowledge”, Dunoyer soon shifted towards an approach of the tableau as “object of thought”, or rather as a locus of thought, a place where thoughts happen. He brought in philosophy’s methods to the object of the tableau in painting as a way to frame his work outside of the parameters of the then raging debates between Late Modernism and Postmodernism. And perhaps it is precisely because he insisted on positioning his work outside of that debate that it has made it difficult for his contemporaries to register it.
As New York painters may recall since Joe Fyfe curated the landmark group show “Le Tableau” in 2010 at the Cheim and Read Gallery, even before Diderot’s eighteenth century’s codification of the term as a theatrical strategy of representation, the French language had evolved different words to separate the physical object (peinture/painting) from the symbolic structure (tableau) -to reuse Bonnefoi’s term- which it produces, as much as is being produced by it. The history of these constructs has been thoroughly examined in Victor I. Stoichita’s pivotal 1993 “l’instauration du tableau” (Editions Droz, Geneva, Switzerland, still untranslated in English, to my knowledge, unfortunately) and traced back to the times of the Reform in sixteenth century Protestant Holland and then later picked up by seventieth century Catholic Spanish painting.
After the nineteen seventies, Dunoyer’s work is characterized by an emphasis on large vertical formats, with a monochrome ground and thick brushstrokes seemingly applied at random. The formal evolutions -so to speak- in his work are few and far between. In the early eighties the original blocks of heavily impasto strokes, such as those in “Eleonora -1979”, over which still floated the mark-making and mapping spirit of Martin Barré, made room for more detached, scattered gestural strokes, keeping their exaggerated impasto characteristics, such as in “Rouge -1985”. In the late eighties these scattered gestures became codified in a vocabulary of more elegant commas and other similar types of dash shapes. The modeling paste impastos always laid down first and the shapes later carefully colored with a small brush, in a manner reminding us of Hans Hartung’s hand painting of some of his elegant brushstrokes enlarged on canvas from earlier more spontaneous small studies on paper. In the late nineties, with the addition of an outline of a contrasting color to each colored shape, as in “Bleu -2005”, the dissociation of gesture and color became ever clearer. Similar shapes of the same color are often grouped together in arrays which may evoke some of Phillip Taaffe’s early compositional strategies.
Rouge, 1985, acrylic on canvas, 76-3/4” x 51”, © Laurent Lecas and ADAGP
Bleu, 2005, acrylic on canvas, 76-3/4ʺ x 63-3/4ʺ, © Laurent Lecas and ADAGP
No mark ever crossing their edges, the paintings seem pared down to a field of self-contained signs on a page, where the words have been removed, leaving behind the dots, comas, brackets, apostrophes, and other such residual punctuations. Some of the arrays of repeated shapes and colors may also evoke the visual equivalent of stuttering, of irrepressible repetitions (it could be interesting, for example, to contrast Dunoyer’s kind of “stuttering” with Bernard Piffaretti’s conceptual use of repetition). Dunoyer seems to reverse Matisse’s famous saying: it is not the painter whose tongue must be cut, but the painting itself which, faced with the double bind of historic determinism and subjective intention, stutters and ceases to communicate, refusing to partake in a discourse reduced to a mere catalogue of rhetorical figures, on one side, and on the other to be associated in any way with the misery of the painter’s ego.
Dunoyer’s work may come across as “difficult”, not just because of the sophistication of his theoretical discourse -it often feels as if one needs a PHD in philosophy to follow his train of thought, but because his discourse challenges the viewers to reconcile it with the paintings in front of them. In contrast to the elaborate conceptual strategies used by so many of his contemporaries, the tension in his work comes from the fact that the painting cannot just be understood as illustration of the artist’s theories but begs to be read as a signifier of a philosophical, esthetic commentary on the state of painting today.
In his own definition of the tableau, Dunoyer summons up the history of philosophy, but especially Martin Heidegger’s concepts of Being and Beingness. For the painter the tableau embodies the “Beingness” of the “Being”. Between Existentialism and Phenomenology, the two poles of the German philosopher’s thinking, Dunoyer seems to advocate for the synthesis of an existential phenomenology, as a way to bypass the American Modernist obsession with an optical phenomenology that has reigned supreme over the discourse on abstract painting in the last sixty years or so.
Like a few American painters of his generation, such as David Reed, with his fluid deconstructed brushstrokes, and Jonathan Lasker, with his pasty frozen gestures, Dunoyer aims for an unremarkable and non-expressive gesture devoid of subjective intentionality. Both Lasker and Dunoyer use the amplified impasto as simulacrum and surrogate kinds of device to criticize an exhausted Ab-Ex expressive gesture of the Willem de Kooning kind.
In Dunoyer’s view, Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, the last paintings anyone could paint, according to that artist, are the first “tableaux - as objects of thought”. Coming after Reinhardt, Dunoyer, Reed and Lasker are all in their respective ways addressing the question of their generation’s response to the myth of the last painting, of the withdrawal of the painter’s hand from the painting, and ultimately of the possibilities of painting beyond the “last painting”.
If the myth of the last painting has been re-contextualized as being as old as Modernism itself, surprisingly the critical fortune of the other tenet of Reinhardt’s credo, the disappearance of the painter from the painting, has survived as a trope throughout both Modernism and Postmodernism, but from opposite viewpoints: While for Modernism it was an existential symptom (with, say, Agnes Martin in the US, or Simon Hantaï in Europe), Postmodernism saw its ironic simulacra strategies as the very proof of its post-modernity. Paradoxically, even if Dunoyer’s discourse is indubitably meta-pictural, there is no trace of irony in his work.
Like his American counterparts, Dunoyer’s work is a response to our fixation on the quality of presence in abstract painting. But to the formalist emphasis on a phenomenological presence, he opposes the existential presence of the “being there”, not of the painter but of the painting/tableau as symbolic construct; The painter’s subjective vanishing act being the price of the painting’s increased objectal presence.
In our times of tepid revisionisms and other “Zombie Formalism”, it would seem that, now more than ever, we need to be challenged to think outside of the Modernist/Postmodernist box by more “difficult” painters of this kind, clearly exposing our historical faults as symptoms – of the double bind, among other aspects. A visual dialogue between Lasker and Dunoyer might be a good starting point. And perhaps, with Dunoyer’s jubilant stuttering non-gestures in mind, should we give the last word to a paraphrase of Milan Kundera’s quip on Heidegger’s notion of being, and advocate for our own version of “The Unbearable Lightness of Painting”?
Exhibition view, MAM, Paris, 2023, © Laurent Lecas and ADAGP