Hippie Pop: Martial Raysse at the Pompidou
Report from… Paris
Martial Raysse: Rétrospective 1960-2012 at the Centre Georges Pompidou
May 14 through September 22, 2014
Paris, +33 1 44 78 12 33
Martial Raysse’s career falls into two phases. One stars the precocious Pop artist who exhibited in New York and Los Angeles in the 1960s and pioneered the use of neon and video, envisioning an art culture extending from North Africa to Japan. The other features the hermetic figure who abandoned the commercial art scene for a commune, made shamanistic assemblages, and emerged from the political and cultural turmoil of 1968 to reincarnate, under the influence of Marcel Duchamp, Baudelaire’s “painter of modern life.” The more than 200 works in this 50-year retrospective, multi-faceted and leavened with art-historical references, trace an unconventional artistic trajectory.
Raysse, now 78, was shaped early on by art in the South of France. Raised in Vallauris, where his parents were ceramicists, he encountered Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso and became friendly with artists in Nice, including Yves Klein and Arman. Responsive to post-war popular culture, the so-called School of Nice offered an upbeat alternative to the angst-driven legacy of war, Existentialism and Abstract Expressionism. Affiliated with Nouvelle Realisme, in the 1950s Raysse explored sculpture and became known for his vitrines displaying objects from the French supermarket Prisunic.
These objects open the exhibition, followed by works from the 1960s that envelop the viewer in sunny, Pop nostalgia: Raysse Plage, an installation featuring sand, beach toys, life-size pin-ups, a neon sign and a jukebox was created for the famous 1962 “Dylaby” exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Raysse is perhaps most identified with his riffs on Ingres’ odalisques, some of which form part of “Made in Japan,” a series based on postcard reproductions of Western masterpieces. Alluding to the French Impressionists’ interest in Japanese prints, they also recall Man Ray’s altered photograph, Le Violin d’Ingres (1924).
Raysse draws less on the industrialized reproduction of Andy Warhol than on Duchamp’s art of ironic appropriation and hermetic imagery. Duchamp introduced readymades in America, and Raysse’s stays in New York and California extended this trans-Atlantic dialogue. He rejected the tormented individualism of abstract painting and shared Duchamp’s ambivalence towards “wet paint.” L’appel des cimes: Tableau horrible (1965) — its neon mountain crest a Pop allusion to the Sublime — makes ironic reference to American landscape painting and to the material density of Abstract Expressionism. Raysse responded to the new intellectual currents of Structuralism and semiotics with ever more simplification and refinement. To free signs from their material context, he reduced his iconic odalisques to cut-out silhouettes and he eventually projected them, along with other symbols, on the inner surface of a desert tent.
That installation, Oued Laou (1971), inspired by a trip to Morocco, also grew from Raysse’s interest in film-making. While TV commercials inspired the satiric humor of his Jésus-Cola (1966), American independent films like Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963), with its use of appropriated footage and occult images, stimulated Raysse to more-incisive investigations of dreams and myths, of the underlying psychology of media culture. The political failure of the 1968 strikes reinforced this inward turn, inspiring a feature-length film, Le Grand Départ (1972). Chronicling a guru leading his deluded followers on a quest for a better world, it resonates with the improvisation of Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1969) but features characters inspired by the comics of R. Crumb. Using color negatives and exaggerated contrast, Raysse simultaneously invokes and deconstructs paintings like Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) and Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), blending a dystopian political vision with evocations of childhood innocence.
Childhood merges with psychedelic culture in his subsequent papier-mâché mushrooms, colorful hand-made sculptures and fetishistic assemblages. Raysse went on to pursue hermetic visions in painting, using automatic writing and mixed techniques on paper. Moving to bucolic surroundings in the Dordogne, he extended his references to the ancient Mediterranean, including Bacchus and Carnival, cultivating a broader vision of Pop. Developing an ideal of liberation informed by literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who saw in Carnival a reversal of established order, celebration of the body, and visions of universal participation, Raysse took on broader social themes in large-scale painting and sculpture, and he’s created public projects that encourage civil reflection.
The public ambition of his work provides the context for his embrace of painting, which takes on a theatrical character, like the multimedia provocations of his Pop period. While the cinematic mash-ups of Delacroix and Géricault in Le Grand Départ use gestural camera movements and solarized shapes to suggest the Dionysian immersion of Abstract Expressionism, a vision of Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque body,” Raysse emerges from his psychedelic phase with irony intact, along with Duchamp’s ambivalence towards paint. There’s dystopian darkness in Carnival à Périgueux (1992), with its harsh illumination and bursts of neon-inflected color. Utilizing the frieze as an organizing device, with figures isolated against a flat backdrop, Carnival recalls David’s Neo-Classicism, but also the artifice of Berthold Brecht’s anti-illusionist theater. Favoring acrylics and the unconventional medium of distemper, associated with theatrical and commercial painting, Raysse distances himself from oils, from the full-bodied figural tradition of Balthus or Gérard Garouste. His numerous portraits, often recalling movie headshots, seem more fully painted, but the collaged face in Miss Bagdad (2003) suggests that, for him, paint is more like a decorative veneer, applied like make-up.
The retrospective culminates with a 30-foot-long panoramic painting, Ici plage, comme ici-bas (2012), another frieze, in which the transgressive and utopian impulses of the 1960s combine with contemporary social commentary. The image depicts crowds of provocative young girls mingling with men of doubtful character, with bloody rituals in the background. It inspires comparison to Breughel and Bosch, but the awkward, illustrative rendering of the figures and faces, along with the cartoon-like color, place it more in the graphic tradition of German artists like Otto Dix, or, indeed, of Constantin Guys, the Parisian illustrator who inspired Baudelaire’s famous essay. But if the technique is illustrative, it’s worthy of note that Raysse does craft these images himself, unlike other post-Duchampian painters.
Raysse’s ambivalent embrace of popular culture works best in the playful self-interrogation of his films, in which he’s more accessible and his irony less severe. In Mon petit coeur (1995), the lush radiance of Pop persists in a magic-lantern glow, even if the veneer of glamour, enriched by old age and history, renders its images as poignantly remote as the cryptic projections of Oued Laou. But by sustaining the glow of his early works they affirm an urge for transcendence, a luminous vision of pleasure and social participation that supports what Raysse soberly calls his “reasoned optimism.”