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Is SIMON HANTAÏ The last Giant?  Gwenaël Kerlidou


Simon Hantaï –  painting structure, and processes  Saul Ostrow


A Discourse, March 14, 2022




​Walking through the recent exhibition of Simon Hantaï’s work at the Gagosian Gallery , Madison Ave., NY, one couldn’t avoid taking a quick rear-view mirror glance at the trajectory of the artist’s career in the New York art world over the last thirty years or so, and of his new critical fortune in the English language. From Jacques Lang’s (François Mitterand’s minister of culture) ill-advised 1982 “Statement” extravaganza of renting New York galleries to showcase selected French artists -where, contrary to his wish, Hantaï’s works were shown unstretched at the Andre Emmerich gallery (1982)- to wide indifference and miscomprehension in the American press, to his posthumous upgrades at Paul Roger's 9W and Paul Kasmin galleries in Chelsea (2010, 2013, 2015), to the Upper East side at the Mnuchin Gallery in 2015 and to today’s embrace by the Gagosian market machine. - Gwenaël Kerlidou


Born in Hungary in 1922, Hantaï arrived in Paris in 1948 and by 1952 he had become affiliated with André Breton’s Surrealist circle. In 1955, he breaks with the Surrealist due to Breton’s refusal to accept that there was an affinity between the Surrealist technique of automatic writing and Jackson Pollock’s method of paintings. While the styles of deKooning, Rothko, Newman, etc. had been internationally deployed by other artists to diverse ends by the late 50s, Pollock's technique seemingly belonged to him alone. What impressed many artists about Pollock was he had invented a whole new way of painting, which had physically changed the artist’s relationship to the act of painting itself. In the face of this challenge, Hantaï sought a way to paint that would allow him to further explore of the relationship between chance, process, and intentionality that Pollock’s technique had articulated.

By 1960, Hantaï had invented his complex “pliage” (folding) method, which weds Surrealist automatism and the allover mark making of Abstract Expressionism. “Pliage” consisted of Hantaï dripping, splashing, or pouring color onto large pieces of canvas that had been systematically folded and knotted. When unfolded the sheets of canvas, like tie-dyed garments, are left with blank unstained areas that form patterns, grids, or random configurations. What is central to Hantaï’s work is that in the face of Pollock’s rejection of figure-ground, Hantaï turns the ground into dynamic forms. “Pilage” is akin to Marcel Duchamp notion of “canned chance” in which the parameters for a chance occurrence are predetermined. 

In the 1970s, when abstract painting was thought by US critics to have reached its end, Hantaï’s rethinking of painting as both an image and a chance event would have revealed painting’s ongoing permeability. Today, such concerns may seem very far removed from the contemporary art world where for the time being the philosophical vision of modernist aesthetic has been replaced by a sociological account of art. Yet, in this context one can devise a more existential reading of Hantaï’s work, one in which it can be viewed as a meditation on how freedom and subjectivity are restricted by both material and historical conditions. From such a perspective, Hantaï’s work can be seen as re-structuring such binaries as signification/presence, cognition/perception, and cause/effect in that the signifying aspects of Hantaï’s paintings rather than being aesthetically subordinated, exist in dialog with his painitng’s non-signifying properties. Seemingly this facet of Hantaï’s work had a significant influence on such contemporaries as Claude Viallat, Daniel Dezeuze, Noël Dolla of the Supports/Surfaces group, which Hantaï briefly worked with, as well as the more conceptually orientated BMPT that consisted of Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, Niele Toroni. What can be deduced from this is that Hantaï’s works shared a common purpose with the post-Modernist of the '70's who believed Modernism was set for a paradigm shift not only in its aesthetic, but its very foundations in the objectifying philosophy of the European Enlightenment. 

- Saul Ostrow

I first became acquainted with Simon Hantaï’s work in the late-1980s while visiting friends in Paris. I considered myself fairly well versed in contemporary European art, so I was surprised I did not know about someone held in such high regard. Seemingly, unlike other French artists of his generation such as Jean Fautrier, Jean Dubuffet, Nicholas de Stael, George Matthieu, Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, Martial Raysse, Yves Klien all of whom had been exhibited, collected, and written about in the US during their glory days, Hantaï had only been sporadically seen in the States: twice at Pierre Matisse Gallery (1970, 1975) and then again, once at André Emmerich Gallery (1982). 

In part, Hantaï’s low-profile internationally was a consequence of his self-imposed retreat from the public arena for more than 15 years, in reaction to what he perceived to be the increasing commercialization of the art world. Subsequently, from the mid-1980s through the 1990s, he turned down gallery exhibitions, museum shows as well as a second retrospective at the Pompidou Center. Given this history, despite the fact that his work has been more regularly exhibited since his death, the vision of Hantaï’s oeuvre and where it critically fits into the international history of abstract painting remains skewed. Lacking context, Hantaï appears to be little more than a late-formalist whose works are in keeping with the critical models generated in the U.S. during the early 1970s. This is due to the fact that the history of European painting from the late-1940s -70s, and the critical discourses that circumscribe those practices are not readily available in English. Likewise, while I knew that Hantai had been close to the journal Quel Tel I did not know until I read Paul Rogers obituary of Hantai for this review that Hantai during his last years was engaged in a joint endeavor, first with Gilles Deleuze, then with Jaques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy with whom he published a book, La connaissance des textes (Expository Texts).

- Saul Ostrow

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Les blancs de la couleur, la couleur du blanc at Gagosian, NY curated by by Anne Baldassari, author of a monograph on the artist published by the Pompidou Center, Paris, in 1992, and the pendant to the 2020 “Les noirs du blanc, les blancs du noir”, presented by Gagosian in their cavernous space at Le Bourget airport near Paris, while displaying fine examples of the painter’s better known series, such as the “Etudes”, the “Tabulas” and the “Laissées”, all previously seen in NY, the exhibition doesn’t offer much new material in terms of expanding the understanding of Hantaï’s work in the US. 

One may wish that this could have been a chance to get a more complete picture of the arc of Hantaï’s intellectual trajectory, had some of the, perhaps less marketable, “Suaire” (Shroud) and “H.B.L.” paintings, which directly followed the “Laissées” and were the artist’s final statement, been included. 

The “Shroud” paintings in their context: In 1982, Hantaï exhibited the “Tabulas Lilas”, and then, deeply ambivalent about the turn his career was taking in the art world, he distanced himself from the scene and eventually stopped painting altogether. The largest “Tabula” paintings were then buried in a pile of compost in his garden. They stayed there until 1998, when, the context having changed, he agreed to show again. At that point some of them were unearthed and reworked by cutting them up and re-stretching them. They were shown under the new name of “les laissées” (the abandoned) 


Following “les Laissées”, Hantaï turned back to the “Tabulas Lilas” painted in white over the usual bare cotton canvas. The pale mauve-pinkish color their name referred to was the result of what Joseph Albers called the interaction of colors. Staring at the white-on-white surface the viewer’s eye would overcompensate and load it with a “Lilac” afterimage; the paintings seemed to bathe in a sort of intangible glow. Unfortunately, since then, due to U.V. oxidation, the bare canvas used in that series had turned much darker. 

In 2001, invited by Georges Didi Huberman, who had published “L’étoilement, une conversation avec Hantaï (Minuit, Paris, 1998)”, to participate in a group show at Le Fresnoy, a new media art school in the north of France, Hantaï unexpectedly presented large computer printouts of digitally altered images based on an oxidized “Tabula Lila” painting. The new paintings seemed to be an indirect echo of the painter’s own withdrawal from the art scene, with the slow disappearance not only of form and color, but also of the physicality of paint, with the intent of limiting the presence of the original Tabula as mere memory. 

In his small study, entitled “Vers l’empreinte immaculée (Editions Invenit, 2011)” (“towards the immaculate imprint”), Alain Fleischer, the founder of Le Fresnoy, gives a precious account of how the digitally altered “Suaires” paintings came to be: With the help of the school technicians, multiple levels of digital manipulation progressively erased much of the original painting, leaving only faint traces of its previous state. Four of the resulting computer files were then ink-jet printed on large pieces of raw canvas and presented unstretched in the “Esprit du lieu” (Spirit of the locus) group exhibition. Other participants were James Turrell, Pascal Convert, Guiseppe Penone and Claudio Parmiggiani. 

It is significant that this Tabula series from 1982, marking Hantaï’s temporary withdrawal from the art scene, and named after something that didn’t actually exist, a lilac color which only manifested itself in the eye of the beholder, would become the starting point years later, to the digitally manipulated “Suaires” paintings. As much as the “Suaires” from 2001 and the H.B.L. paintings (abbreviation for Hebel - breath or condensation in Hebrew) which followed them in 2004, the “Tabulas Lilas” from 1982, beyond providing an origin for the final series, are paintings of the invisible. From them to “Les laissées”, to the “Suaires”, and the “H.B.L.”, Hantaï‘s pre and post-withdrawal work seems infused with a spiritual dimension that Formalism has long strived to play down. - Gwenaël Kerlidou

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Let’s pull a bit more on the thread that Saul Ostrow’s remark on Andy Warhol brought up. An unexpected connection in formal terms, possibly more relevant than it might appear at first. Especially when one realizes how close Warhol’s family origins were from Hantaï’s in Eastern Europe. Warhol’s family roots in today’s Slovakia are only 200 miles away from Hantaï’s birthplace just outside Budapest in Hungary. But, despite geographical proximity, in terms of religious background they might as well have come from two different planets. 

Providentially for this discussion, “Revelation”, an exhibition currently at the Brooklyn Museum, focuses on Warhol’s little-known relationship to his Byzantine Catholic religious heritage with its traditional worship of the icon. It highlights, albeit superficially, the link between Warhol’s development of his distinctive Pop idiom of serial repetitions of iconic cultural symbols, contemporary or not, with his upbringing in Pittsburgh. 

In view of the values instilled in him by his mother at a young age, and looking, for example, at the white on raw canvas Mona Lisa painting of 1979 in the exhibition, one is struck by the idiosyncrasy of this fixation on iconicity. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to construe his famous serial repetition, as that of the recurring stuttering symptom of something that cannot be said, in Freudian terms, of a symbolic block, of the impossibility of articulating a way to relate to the realm of the visual other than one regulated by the foundational relationship to the Byzantine icon. 

And perhaps, if one is to picture Warhol’s "Mona Lisa" hanging side by side with a "Tabula Lila" from 1982, would this incongruous pairing shed some light on each painters’ work as a responses to their respective religious heritage, as a form of sublimation of their different collective unconscious. 

I want to call Hantaï the last giant, because there is something both anachronistic and very urgent about his refusal to be played by the market, and I can’t think of anyone of his stature after him quite as willing to put everything on the line for ethical reasons. Compared with his embrace of the risks attached to exploring the uncharted territories of Modernity, Johns, Judd, Stella, Serra and Co., the giant's of a pre- charted American Modernism, only look like big fish in a small intellectual bowl. 

The problem with “Les blancs de la couleur, la couleur du blanc” curated by Anne Baldassari is it once again decontextualized Hantaï. This one-person show consists of paintings in blue, orange, yellow, purple, red and green whose imagery ranges from crisp grid-like networks of unpainted canvas (Tabula, 1975), all-over floral motifs (Etudes, 1968) to biomorphic monochromatic masses, which when presented on a large scale (Laisee, 1981-1995) call to mind Matisse and when used as modules in a grid (Tabula, 1980) suggest Andy Warhol’s grids of Marilyns. What is missing from this as with all other recent exhibition of his work is a critical dimension that demonstrates that Hantaï is among the artist of the 50-60s in the US and Europe who would set the groundwork for the critique of Modernism ushered in by structuralism in the early ‘70s. His significant contribution to painting’s changing stature could have been made explicit if this show had included an example of Hantaï’s last major body of work the Suaire (Shroud) series of 2001, which consists of digital prints on canvas of paintings from the  1982 “Tabula” series. Beyond these works,  there is also a corpus of as yet unseen  fractal-like compositions whose surfaces are a mix of deliberate and arbitrary marks that Hantaï left behind when he died in 2008. 

While the introduction of Hantaï’s work into the United States appears to be part of a concerted international effort to expand the late-modernist canon and market, the process has been slow going and will take some time — it requires a rewrite of the history of painting in the period after 1951, which is the year AbEx fully blossomed. To do this it will be is necessary that the jingoism of the “triumph of American art” be done away with and be replaced by an international index of competing concepts and practices.  Merely making the canon more inclusive will do little. Until then seemingly Hantaï will continue to be in the U.S. one of the most significant under-known abstract painters of post-WW2 Europe.

- Saul Ostrow

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Simon HantaÏ,Tabula Lilas, 1982, acrylic on canvas, 114 ʺ x 185 ʺ, courtesy Hantaï Archives

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Andy Warhol, Mona Lisa, circa 1979, courtesy Brooklyn Museum.

In several interviews of the late 70s, the French critic Marcelin Pleynet, an early supporter of Hantaï, repeatedly brought up the question of the legacy of the twentieth century (“la question se pose de savoir qui va ramasser la monnaie du XXème siècle”), literally “who will be collecting the pocket change of the twentieth century”, figuratively speaking; “who will reap the benefits of twentieth century’s modernity?” 

With the passing of time, it is increasingly clear that Hantaï is a good candidate for an answer to Pleynet’s question, and that perhaps this question might need to be reformulated today as: “who will be reaping the benefits of Hantaï’s work?”  - Gwenaël Kerlidou

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