National Academy Museum
1083 Fifth Avenue
New York NY 10128
212 369 4880
July 14 to October 9, 2005
Jean Hélion Essays by Didier Ottinger, Henry-Claude Cousseau, Matthew Gale and Debra Bricker Balken (English edition) Paul Holberton Publishing, London, 2004 ISBN 1-903470-27-7
a short version of this article first appeared in The Burlington Magazine
One might have wished for the current Hélion retrospective (originating at the Centre Pompidou in Paris) to come to a really ‘mainstream’ venue for its New York showing. MoMA was perhaps never likely. Robert Storr and others were allowed their moment of revisionism (‘Modern Art Despite Modernism’ and so on) before the museum closed its doors for the big rebuild. Now, apparently, it’s back to a grand established meta-narrative. But for the Guggenheim it would have been a nice move. Hélion was famously dropped by Peggy Guggenheim in the 40s for his heretical move away from abstraction back to figuration. Today he can be seen as one of the prophets of a postmodernism that would eventually bring retrospectives to the Guggenheim from the likes of, say, Clemente and Cucchi.
But in fact it is mistake to concentrate on Hélion’s strategic manoeuvring – on where he stands, what he stands for – at the expense of responding to his works themselves. Celebrating his contrariness, his provocative diversity and unpredictable stylistic manners, is paradoxically to risk doing him a similar disservice as did those who once criticised him for stepping out of line with the avant-garde. What counts is not, as such, that he repudiated abstraction (and then skirted around other movements such as surrealism, post-war realism or Pop). He did so only as a consequence of making the works he felt compelled to make. Parading painting’s affective and semantic potential, his pictures cry out to be critically appreciated and interpreted, not just endorsed as some ‘alternative’ to a discredited – or still tacitly accepted – mainstream canon.
In the exhibition catalogue* long-time Hélion scholars Henry-Claude Cousseau and the show’s curator Didier Ottinger each suggest a wilful perversity in the painter. Cousseau writes of ‘the diversity of the paths he took, paths which broke with, distanced themselves from or went à rebours, “the wrong way up”, to dominant trends’ (p.28). Ottinger mentions ‘heretical’ impulses, first to defying abstraction, then to dream a utopian, monumental art in an age that allowed only disillusioned anti-monuments ( e.g. Guston’s figuration). Happily, both writers move on to Hélion’s transcendence, or rather dissolution, of strategy, and finally offer some observations on his mysterious works themselves.
Still, in the face of the exhibition’s embarrassment of riches, one feels individual paintings have scarcely begun to be understood. Each requires close reading to yield its revelations on the relationships of people to each other, to art, and to the world. For example, the human comedy in “The Exhibition of 1934,” (1979-80) slowly emerges from odd, chromatic shadows. Flakey highlights cast figures into a kind of motly. They are each oddly alone, despite their proximity in the elastic envelop of pictorial space. Figures crowd an art gallery. A kneeling youth seems to worship at the altar of an abstract canvas, yet also appears to ‘play’ it like to keyboard of a piano. Its marks appear to flow from his finger. A seated figure also gestures like a pianist. A central ‘everyman’ (or artist?), sits akimbo, vaguely buddha-like, dreaming. From his neck a second head seems to sprout – but it is that of a girl sitting behind him. Another woman sits some way off, a ‘wallflower’ at the party, eyes visored, casting a curiously masculine shadow-companion for herself. Another woman, standing, is alone in actually looking at the art, though she too might be gazing, abstracted, into the distance. Other eyes are closed, blind, averted. The whole group is a bouquet, emanating from a vase of flowers, bottom right.
Early on, admittedly, Hélion seemed a tactician. This show includes orthogonal abstractions of around 1930 when he was tirelessly proselytising and organising for non-objective art. But even as a partisan of abstraction he was never simply concerned with being on the ‘right side’ ideologically or stylistically. His pictures outshine apparently similar neo-plastic exercises (by, say, Vantongerloo or Vordemberge-Gildewart), because his facture, surface, materiality and nuanced tone and hue have a life beyond nuts-and-bolts abstract research. In a catalogue essay about Hélion’s extensive influence on British abstraction, Matthew Gale confirms that he appealed to criteria of artistic excellence beyond superficial stylistic allegiance when vetting artists for group exhibitions, coverage in the magazines and publications, or membership to progressive groups such as Art Concret and Abstraction-Création.
His increasingly curvilinear and spatial compositions towards the mid ‘thirties, with their shards of colour floating in deep space, their swinging, counterbalanced shapes and tromp-loeil convexities, increasingly proclaim that pictorial vitality and character is what matters, not aesthetic theory. Prime examples of these works, from museums all over the world, made a majestic sequence in the Paris version of this show, and hopefully several will be in the (much reduced) New York hang. Seurat and Poussin were among Hélion’s acknowledged masters at the time, and while he wrote of them (in the progressive Axis magazine and elsewhere) in formalist terms, his own pictures announce their affinity with past art in subtle ways hardly done justice to by truisms about shared visual rhythm and structure. An abstract canvas by Hélion is recognisably the same category of object as a David, a Louis Le Nain or a Ucello, not least in making the viewer hyperaware of the a skin of paint on a surface, actively and, as it were, continually (re-)generating and sustaining the image. Such is also true of many Mondrians, but – for example – few Van Doesbergs, and no Kandinskys at this period. At the same time, while Hélion maintains this kinship with painting tradition, he manages to avoid the impression of being a representational painter who is simply depicting an abstract ‘motif’, as happens in all but the most rigourous of Kupka, or in Picabia‘s Orphist period (with which Hélion in the ‘30s has certain similarities).
Unlike many previous Hélion retrospectives (none of which has come to a New York museum), the layout of the present exhibition – and catalogue – is thematic and only loosely chronological. For example, two 1939 paintings of heads, Charles and Édouard, from a series marking the artist’s return to figuration, are actually presented prior to the body of abstractions. Thus they foretell not just the formal affinities across different categories of Hélion’s art (Charles and Édouard, with their hats, collars and ties, are models of composure), but they also signal issues of perception, consciousness and agency running through the oeuvre. Again, it is midway among the abstractions that we find inserted the 1979-80 painting The Exhibition of 1934, the burlesque conversation piece in which figures gather at a show of Hélion’s own earlier abstractions.
Throughout the present exhibition there are – were in Paris at least – juxtapositions of cross-related works. Bright, gestural images of falling figures from the ‘70s and ‘80s are put with the hard, steely “Fallen Figure” of 1939, in which abstract forms assemble into quasi-representation. Late, sloshy nudes hang next to ones rendered in Hélion’s strange, neutral realism of the early ‘50s or in his cartoonish yet chalky handling of the late ‘40s. Haunted allegories of somnambulant city life, evoked in the inky blues and blacks of his feathery 1960s manner, echo gaudy polyptychs of the 80s, mythologising the quotidian. Paired and grouped to great effect are festooned tabletop pictures, and ones of flea-market-style junk jumbles. Cast off clothing, ragged or voluptuous vegetables and loaves, all talk to each other, as do musical instruments and newspapers, folding chairs and other sticks of furniture, twigs and branches, ornings, sewing machines. At critical intervals we are given key pictures that often set the trends for recurrent iconography. “With Cyclist,” (1939) inaugurates the window-and-door dramas, the passing cyclists, the gents with umbrellas, the smokers, the opposition of ‘in’ and ‘out’ – all common in Hélion. “Défence D’,” (1943) announces his creed of semantic continuum, from written word through visual representation to ambiguous or abstract colour and form. The hat brim covering the eyes in this, as in so many paintings, flags notions of inner and outer sight, identity and anonymity. “The Stairs” (1944) introduces blindness, (an increasing concern up to the loss of Hélion’s own sight late in life) and enshrines the key principles of ascent, descent, rotation, pairing. “Wrong Way Up” (1947) with its gallery frontage displaying an abstract picture, begins the symbolic juxtaposition of art and reality and the play between shop window and street life. The ubiquitous newspaper readers are definitively assembled on a park bench in “The Big Daily Read” (1950). (Many of the artist’s pungent titles have been creatively Anglicised for this publication.)
Large as it was is Paris, the show was still selective. Drawings, sketchbooks and pastels were sparingly chosen for their relation to paintings. Many major canvases were absent, such as the plough and ploughed earth images and the Tuillerie Gardens paintings from the ‘50s, the Paris rooftop paintings and May ‘68 pictures from the next decade, or the almost sci-fi city visions of the ‘70s. But it is as well that the show offers focus rather than compendiousness. Long reflection is required to register the formal ‘key’ of each work. A barrier has to be crossed to access the visual-conceptual orchestration and animism that give ‘approfondisment’ to the more evident puns on form and function – the rhyming of poses and gestures, the conflating of figures (sharing heads or limbs). The flagrant vulgarity of the work is also a challenge, rubbing the viewer’s nose in the psychedelic tatters of Hélion’s vision. His is an acquired taselessness.
Indeed, the yet further editing of the exhibition for New York may be an advantage rather than otherwise, demanding, as it should, more focus on single pictures. American audiences may find Hélion hard to ‘get’. Debra Bricker Balken’s catalogue essay covers his active influence in the the USA up to World War II, and a satellite display at the Academy Museum will explore ‘Hélion and American Art’; but Balken’s impression is essentially that he has slipped out of visibility. She is aware that Leland Bell and other ‘Jane Street’ artists faithfully championed Hélion long after the War, and certainly he is well known across a couple of generations of figurative painters that one might associate with galleries such as Tibor de Nagy or Salander O’Reilly (the latter staged a smaller Hélion survey a few years ago). Critic Jed Perl has written about Hélion as part of his promotion of a traditionalist alternative to institutionalised avant-gardism. Hilton Kramer has discussed him too, though tending to approve the overall effort of Hélion’s visionary figuration more than his individual pictorial achievements.
Hopefully, though, some New York viewers will see comparisons with all sorts of other painting that has been visible in the city at different times. Hélion associated with artists such as Saul Steinberg and Richard Lindner, and has affinities with Willaim Copley, Lester Johnson, Bob Thompson and other figures (often ones who are themselves ripe for reassessment). Carroll Dunham will surely come to some viewer’s minds, as will names from younger generations. Look at “The Accident,” (1979) and think of Thomas Scheibitz. Look at “Odalisque.” (1953) and think of Lisa Yuskavage. Look at “The Last Judgment of Things,” (1978-79) and think of Neo Rauch. Hopefully it is the contemporary relevance of Hélion that will be recognised, and in turn the necessity for current painting, in this period of ploymorphous boom, to take account of its own complex recent history.