When Hypothesis Trumps Quality: Le Tableau at Cheim & Read
June 24 to September 3, 2010
547 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues,
New York City, 212-242-7727
Le Tableau, curated by painter and critic Joe Fyfe, is a typical example of what happens when hermeneutic hypothesis trumps the ability to discern qualitative significance in painting. There is a tendency in synchronic exhibitions these days to foreground an explanatory text in such a way that the works chosen become merely ancillary to some theoretical proposition. In the case of Le Tableau, without the printed, accompanying text, it would be different to grasp exactly what this exhibition is trying to tell us. Fyfe separates his concerns as artist, critic and curator from the legacy of Greenbergian formalism by advocating less the concept of “the flatbed picture plane” and more the “material means and/or structure of painting as a form or figure” as, for example, found in post-war French painting from the 1940s and ‘50s.
In fact, , I’m fully in support of reviving attention to post-war French painting, based on my own experience in seeing works of these painters in the late 1960s on my first excursion to France. Even so, and in spite of Fyfe’s handsome text, there is a paucity of work in this exhibition that catches a glimmer of what this mid-century period in the recent French painting (at least from this American’s perspective) was all about. Le Tableau is a gathering of a few modestly scaled Ecole de Paris paintings by Jean Fautrier (measuring just under 9 X 11 inches), Serge Poliakoff, and the French-Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle ( 7 X 5 1/2 inches) along with a recent work (2009) by Supports/Surface painter Claude Viallat, whose rise to prominence came in the 1970s. A mediocre painting by the otherwise remarkable Hans Hartung is included, yet pales beside anything that was shown in that artist’s phenomenal retrospective at the Maeght Foundation in San Paul de Vence in 2008. There is no work by Pierre Soulages, Wols, Gerard Schneider, or Georges Matthieu to stand in support of the eclectic, motley choice of slightly larger works from recent French and American artists. An exception is the sumptuous Untitled (1959) by Joan Mitchell, who can be claimed equally by America and France, particularly in this most heraldic moment of her development. Fyfe is generally correct in characterizing Mitchell (from the late 1950s) as “an insouciant semiotician of the painterly mark.” What made these paintings so eminently important for Mitchell was her propensity to stop short of de Kooning’s sweeping brushwork, and to focus intensively and unabashedly on destroying the surface. Paradoxically she maintained the force of restraint so as not to kill it entirely as her anxious marks became signifiers of an explosive, personal content, both self-determined and utterly convincing.
The exhibition also includes Kate Moran, Jonathan Lasker, Merlin James, John Zurier, Juan Usle, Jean-Francois Maurige, and the late Milton Resnick, among others. Fyfe participates in the exhibition himself with an elegant sewn work using felt, cotton, and jute (from Southeast Asia), and thereby implies that the French approach from the 1950s is his own proper context. The positioning of one’s own work in such an exhibition is perhaps more problematic today than it would have been three or four decades ago, a time when the overall emphasis on the market was known but considerably less obvious than it has become. While Fyfe may hold a clear commitment to the intellectual aspects of advanced painting, the presence of his work in Le Tableau appears somewhat overstated.
Reopening the book on Michel Tapié’s Art Informel and Tachisme is certainly welcome, but the kind of contiguity and consistency between then and now is simply not clear in the works selected for this display. The balance is off, and the installation is often awkward. There is not enough strong work from the early period in Paris to get a definitive idea as to where recent abstract painting from New York and France may have found an unforeseen place in the current century. Fyfe’s comparison of two nearby Chelsea buildings by architects Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel as a way to characterize the extreme aesthetic differences between America and France I find to be absurd. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the kind of abstract painting advocated by Greenberg, criticism based in qualitative judgments is still relevant. This is where the application of theory in terms of justifying much of this exhibition becomes highly problematic, and where Le Tableau falls short of its potential. Even so, whatever one may think of the thesis of this show, a new look at postwar French painting relative to the present deserves more institutional support as better works by these earlier French artists could have turned this rather hesitant exhibition into something of real significance.