LE TABLEAU, French abstraction and its affinities,
Curated by Joe Fyfe
Cheim and Read Gallery, New York
June 24-September 3, 2010

Gwenaël Kerlidou

In a landscape of ever evolving revisions of the modernist canon, “French painting,” long viewed by the American critical establishment as irrelevant and retrograde is currently undergoing a slow but sustained re-examination. Starting more than twenty years ago with group shows and articles, critics such as Saul Ostrow, Robert Morgan, and Raphael Rubinstein, introduced American art audiences to the work of many French artists such as Noël Dolla and the Support/Surface group, Martin Barré, Christian Bonnefoi, and many others unknown at the time on this side of the Atlantic .
The latest example of this trend was a group exhibition organized last summer by critic and painter Joe Fyfe at the Cheim and Read Gallery in New York and provocatively titled “Le tableau”.
The exhibition paired both “disgraced” luminaries from the infamous “Ecole de Paris,” such as Serge Poliakoff and Hans Hartung, with well-known contemporary New York painters such as Jonathan Lasker and Louise Fishman, spanning two or three generations.
The show’s operative concept was based on Hubert Damisch’s use of the term “tableau” to describe a painting by Dubuffet in the seventies, and opposing it to the term “painting” widely used by Clement Greenberg in his writing. The word “tableau” as it has been used in French over the last thirty years or so, which came to embody a historical, conceptual, methodological apparatus as well as the object itself (a painted support, canvas on stretcher or not, framed or not) does not exist in English where it is either translated as “picture” or ”painting.” “Picture”, more specifically denotes what in French would be qualified as “image” or any representation laid on the surface (of the painting), whereas “painting,” a verb, refers to the act of applying paint itself and only by extension to the product of that action. Neither of these words adequately covers the linguistic territory of the word “Tableau.” This is where, according to Fyfe, a fundamental difference lies between the French and the American angles of approach to the practice of painting, and especially of abstract painting, a reminder, if necessary, of the importance of language in the construction of an artistic project and identity.
Fyfe envisioned the show as the continuation of a conversation instigated by the German art historian Achim Hochdorfer with his article entitled “A Hidden Reserve: Painting from 1958 to 1965,” published in Artforum in February 2009.
I would like in turn to propose continuing the conversation, literally this time, with some questions to Joe Fyfe that his show raised for this viewer, a French artist living in NY:

GK: The title of the show is quite unexpected and may shock some in today’s context. Why did you feel there was a need for such a show at this time?
JF: Actually, I have wanted to do a show like this for around 10 years, since I began visiting Paris fairly regularly, at least once a year. I was invited by various artists to visit studios. I also did my own research as to which I would like to meet, etc. In many cases I returned to certain painters again and again. I also went to a lot of galleries and museums and alternative spaces and often reviewed Paris exhibitions for American publications, most often Art in America. But it was firstly a dialogue with my own work, though I immediately had a desire to assemble a show for NYC as well. I proposed it to a number of galleries but had no takers. To answer your question, I discovered that there were a lot of very uncomplicated prejudices about Paris-identified work, there was a big Paris-Brooklyn exchange among a lot of galleries around 2000 that seemed to fall flat, and by 2003, astounding to me, no one was interested in a French show because, I surmised, France had opposed the US invasion of Iraq. As I did more research, I found there was a history of competition, well documented in Serge Guilbaut's book , but had also heard second-hand from a lot of people how the previous generation, the one following who Guilbaut writes about (Stella, Bochner, Smithson, etc.) still saw the French as the competition. None of this would have mattered were it not for the fact that I was seeing more and more interesting work that spoke to me as a matured painter in a way that no other contemporary abstract paintings did. When I came across Yves-Alain Bois' article on Martin Barré in an old issue of Art in America I was very taken by the work even though it was in a reproduction, which was very unusual. So, of course, I thought there was a chasm that needed to be somehow bridged, but the exhibition was also a product of a sensibility, a need to re-establish painting as a cerebral, visceral territory.

GK: Can you elaborate on the concept of “tableau” and how or why it is used in opposition to “painting”?
JF: It mainly was used to underline that the French, or a certain attitude that I identify as French, address the picture as something that already exists, that it is made up of known properties, known attitudes—givens. The attitude that I identify as American is that the painting is a territory that continually renews itself, it has perennial virginity, I am afraid that this is similar to the American attitude toward everything. I dislike this attitude, and I see it in American painting: the idea that it is a kind of magic slate that one can continually explore by simply wiping it clean again. Greenberg's 'Flatness' dictum misread, but not in a way that allows for imaginative freedom, pace Harold Bloom. It seems to me to be a very reactionary idea that one can and should proceed as if the history of something simply doesn't exist, or should be ignored or thrown out. So even though I am talking about painting in moral and political terms, this is the more personal reason, that came later, and I am not about to compare the French political mind to the American, if one can do such a thing. I was initially attracted to the painting I saw in Paris as it seemed both more intellectual and more sensual than what I was seeing in NYC. These are the two poles of painting that have value for me. I also detected a kind of backsliding into provincialism of the current generation of American painters, and I mean the generation reaching their mature years, mostly in terms of materiality. Puritanism seems to have reappeared, as it always does here, a kind of fear of materiality of any real kind, this is a nation in love with draftsmanship--a very strict form of control.

GK: Why reexamine French painting today? What could this re-reading possibly bring to the contemporary critical discourse on abstract painting?
JF: Well, I think the main contribution, as I tried to make clear in the essay, is the involvement with the painting as a physical object and I did not touch directly on another aspect, the complexity of the two-dimensional space of the painting. This is how Barré differs from Ryman, for example. If one understands the painting this way there becomes a wealth of intellectual problems available, as in Piffaretti, or an equal amount of metaphorical and political content that can be addressed, as does Viallat. Or in the idea of the painting as a matrix of history, for example: a couple of years ago I visited Bangladesh to see Kahn's Parliament buildings and I decided to travel around the country. I became aware through my reading as I traveled of the region's long history as a producer of linen. There was an odd consciousness of traveling within the history of painting, or the tableau, if you will. I don't think I would have had this conscious involvement with this aspect of Bangladesh without an exposure to a certain clarity provided by the Support/Surface group, Hantai, etc. in their preoccupation with the haptic space of the painting. Now, Joe Zucker did a very clever series of pictures a number of years ago that depicted the history of cotton, but he used images and pieces of cotton duck to construct it, which is what I always see in American work, its about the surface, it's narrative. Had I only known the Zuckers, Bangladesh might have seemed a filmed travelogue, but my contact with this French work brought me inside the country in a more visceral way.
I am not aware of any particular contemporary critical discourse on abstract painting on this side of the Atlantic. I think there are a lot of critical discourses that have been brought in from elsewhere and have been slapped onto painting as if it was a sandwich board but they are not about abstract painting. It seems that to a large extent the painting has become a kind of location where one can operate a souvenir franchise of one's achievements in another medium, such is the primary value of paintings produced by Prince, Koons, Holzer, Hirst, etc. In some cases they are interesting objects--I am quite seduced by Hirst's butterfly paintings for example--but they have very little to do with painting as I understand it. Which is a bit like, at one time painting was the orchestra & now its just the woodwinds and you can't get a big brassy sound out of it. I found in post war French painting a way to temper one's ambitions by taking into account the particular way that the painting communicates. I honestly think that painting collapses under too much ambition. I think the question, "What is painting?" is not asked very much, but I think it's still an interesting question. I am not sure exactly how this question is asked among French painters, but it is, it very obviously is, and not so often asked here, often enough, I think.

GK: What distinction do you make between the terms “French painting” and “school of Paris”? Both terms seem somewhat inadequate for the subject at hand, which appears to be closer to “postwar European abstraction”.
JF: Well, once again there is this issue of clarity I am identifying as particularly French, more than the more general Postwar European abstraction. I have just been writing about Hartung for a catalog and he has become for me a much bigger figure than I imagined. He has a lot to do with how Ecole de Paris abstraction was reinterpreted for Germans such as Polke and Richter, those supreme post-modernists, and brought forward to the present.
I think that looking at Ryman and Palermo brought me to French abstraction, because as important as they are to me, there seems, from the point of view of a painter, there is more continuity with painting in say, Hartung, Hantai and Barré. They seem to me to point a way back into painting while not going backwards.
I am referring to painting whose enmeshment in the general culture is not its primary subject. I don't know what the term might be, I like "serious painting" which is different from "solemn" painting, which there is also plenty of, I also am not interested in painting as performance, which immediately leaves out at least half of the painters in France, such as Bernard Frize.
What is so attractive to me about abstraction is its limitations, this seems to me to be something many of the French painters understand and have the intellect, the sensibility and the cultural history to deal with it. Out of all the reviews I got for "Le Tableau" the two adjectives I most welcomed were "tentative" and "modest".

GK: What are the qualities that you perceive in contemporary NY painters’ works which best connect them to their “School of Paris” predecessors?
JF: Well, if there is an understanding that a painting must conduct light and color and the work is very intelligent, such as Jonathan Lasker, or that the painting is a visceral object that conducts light and is very intelligent such as Charline von Heyl. But in general, if you look at the work of burgeoning painters who are showing on the lower east side you see that they have figured out a lot of stuff that they figured out in Paris fifty years ago. But it's better late than never. I like lot and lots of American painters more than 20 years younger than me. It seems like a miracle that they are making real paintings. From the late eighties until fairly recently there has been the worst painting in NYC I have ever seen, it was awful, busy, uptight junk, I hated it. Coming to Paris in the late 90's was like being able to breathe again. I think that on a deeper level, I responded to a lot of French painting that seems to retain a connection between the physical and the spiritual that Emmanuel Mounier wrote about. As adamantly secular as France is, there is that dimension of the spiritual, in the way that much of the act of painting is directed away from the individual maker towards the 'body' of the painting itself… there is a degree of anonymity, (this is where I part ways with the performative) that I find totally outside of painting in the US.
I was raised a Catholic and though I rejected it as I have gotten older I have developed an interest in aspects of Catholic culture and philosophy. I find it interesting that such major figures as Hantaï, Messiaen and André Bazin were Catholics, and in some cases devout Catholics. It is unusual for an American to suddenly detect something like this, especially in contemporary abstract painting, a medium he has been studying for many years, but that is one of the things that has kept me interested. This physical-spiritual thing is a touchstone in my own work and it was probably in the back of my mind when I was assembling "Le Tableau".

© Gwenaël Kerlidou, 2010