Simon Hantaï is born in Bia, a small village outside of Budapest, Hungary. The Hantaï family is of Roman Catholic Swabian origins that had emigrated from Germany in the seventeenth century. This close-knit community of expatriates had conserved its German cultural identity, most notably the musical tradition of Heinrich Schutz which was incorporated in their religious service. The artist’s father changed the family’s German name of ‘Handel’ to the Hungarian form of ‘Hantaï’ in protest against the German invasion of Hungary at the time of the Second World War.
The artist remembered that at the age of eight years old he was temporarily blinded by diphtheria. This experience later had bearing on his thinking about art and the notion, central to his ‘folding method’, of painting with closed eyes. He also remembered that his village did not get electric light until he had reached the age of sixteen.
Hantaï studied at the Budapest School of Fine Arts. In 1943 he was President of the Student Union and found himself briefly under Gestapo arrest for a political speech. After an unsuccessful attempt to enlist the support of George Luckacs in defense of artistic freedom, he left for an extended visit of Italy with his wife Zsuzsa and never returned to Hungarian soil.
Under orders from its Ministry of Culture to return to Hungary, where he faced being sent to Moscow for training as an artist, Hantaï made his way to Paris, which became his permanent home. Hantaï began to familiarize himself with the different aspects of the Parisian avant-garde, with an emphasis on technical experimentation employing collages and extra-pictorial materials. He discovered the Surrealist movement which André Breton had relocated back to Paris, following its exile in New York during the War.
Towards the end of this year, Hantaï left one of his paintings on the door-step of André Breton’s apartment without revealing his identity. This act gained Breton’s interest and led to their meeting.
Hantaï had his first one-man exhibition at the Galérie Etoile Scellée, prefaced by André Breton who wrote “Again, as once in every decade, a great new beginning...” Hantaï threw himself into a brief Surrealist period which was marked above all by attention to Max Ernst’s experimental techniques. Hantaï became aware of the Abstract Expressionist movement that had developed in New York during and after the war and sought to learn more from both André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. Hantaï was particularly attracted to the notion of ‘automatism’ that the Abstract Expressionists had adopted from Surrealism, and above all to the work of Jackson Pollock. To his surprise, Breton and Duchamp revealed themselves to be universally hostile to the American painters, and to Pollock in particular.
Hantaï severed his connection to the Surrealist movement with a letter to Breton in which he declared his intention of exploring the non-figurative consequences of ‘automatism’.
Hantaï traversed a period of turbulent research into the significance of painting and particularly the consequences of ‘automatic’ technique. This period is marked by the appearance of a unique and extraordinary painting, titled in French ‘Écriture rose’, which might translate in English as ‘The Rose-Colored Writing Work’. Everyday, for the entire year of 1958, Hantaï copied in pen and ink from his wide reading in theological, philosophical, aesthetic and poetic texts onto an enormous canvas, measuring 330 x 425 cm. (10ft. 8in. x 13ft. 9in.) The painting represents a vast exploration of the physical process of making a work of art. Today, the painting hangs in the Musée National d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and poses a colossal, open and largely unanswered question to the art and culture of the twentieth century.
Simon Hantaï invented the ‘folding method’ of painting with which his name and work are henceforth synonymous. The method of ‘folding’ allowed Hantaï to synthesize the lessons offered by Pollock’s practice of ‘automatism’ and develop an entirely original abstract painting based on heterogeneous, organic energy. Throughout the 1960s, ‘70’s, and beyond, Hantaï used this technique to anticipate and explore the key ideas of international contemporary art. The ‘folding method’ developed over the succeeding four decades, with the series of ‘Cloaks’, ‘Catamurons’, ‘Bandages’, ‘Meuns’, ‘Studies’, ‘Watercolors’, ‘Whites’, ‘Tabulas’ and ‘Left Overs’. The invention of the ‘folding method’ has come to be understood as representing a key step in the emergence of the amorphous, multi-media art movement that will later take the name of ‘Process' art.
1960 – 1968
The first phase of folded paintings begins with the ‘Cloaks’ of 1960-1962 and concludes with the ‘Meun’ series of 1967-1968, the latter named after the small village in the Fontainbleau Forest where the artist had moved in 1965. The clear reference for the ‘Cloaks’ is to the idiom of landscape, while in the ‘Meun’ series the artist explores the theme of the figure. Painted five years apart, these two complementary series constitute the foundation of Hantaï’s mature work.
When the artist begins painting the ‘Cloaks’, the international art world is in transition from Abstract Expressionism to the various post-war avant-garde movements of Pop, Minimalism, Land and Process art. Hantaï’s oeuvre spans all of these tendencies and enters into a dialogue of exchange with different generations of international artists: in America, with Pollock, Newman, de Kooning and Rothko, and then with Warhol, Smithson, Judd and Nauman, among others; in Europe, with late Picasso, Dubuffet, Klein, Beuys, the ‘décollage’ artists of Nouveau réalisme, Fluxus and Arte Povera.
This was also the era of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War subsequent to the division of Europe into East and West, and the international cultural youth movements which have transformed life-styles in western society. What relationship does aesthetic innovation, represented by the ‘folding method’ of Hantaï, maintain with such larger social and historical upheavals? A point of reference: Hantaï’s ‘Meun’ series was painted as the student revolution of ‘May 68’ was taking place in Paris. Elements of rift and conflict permeate Hantaï’s folding method.
A new phase in Hantaï’s work begins with the ‘Studies’. Moving from the landscape and figure references of the ‘Cloak’ and ‘Meun’ series, Hantaï develops a new synthesis where interlocking forms gradually open up to allow the white canvas background an independent life of its own. The ‘Studies’ represent a fresh break-through discovery in the artist’s work. He has stated: “It was while working on the ‘Studies’ that I realized what my true subject was – the resurgence of the ground underneath my painting.”
This key discovery, made through the ‘Studies’, is linked to the release of color in the succeeding series of small scale ‘Watercolors’.
1973 – 1974
The ‘Whites’ appear over a two year period. The series is aptly named because the white ground is given full and active expression. From this series on, the theme of energy releasing light and revealing color becomes the focus of Hantaï’s work.
1974 – 1976
First phase of ‘Tabula’ paintings. An over-view of Hantaï’s career reveals the 'Tabula' series of large scale paintings as the central affirmation of his artistic vision. Based on a square motif, these paintings could be considered intentionally reductive, minimalist and rigorously abstract. It would be mistaken, however, to think that Hantaï is interested in a ‘formalist’ approach to art, simply because it is abstract.
This point is notably made when it is realized that the apparently geometric forms of the ‘Tabula’ paintings reach back to an origin of personal inspiration in Hantaï’s art, as revealed in the famous photograph of his mother, wearing a traditional ironed skirt from Bia, Hungary. A comparison of this photograph with the ‘Tabula’ paintings makes the case that Hantaï’s art is based in the real world of lived experience. The ‘Tabulas’, some measuring as large as 10 by 20 feet, have a monumental feel. In the first phase, the square forms are tightly compressed and densely painted, in reminiscence of the mother’s photograph.
1980 – 1982
Second phase of the ‘Tabula’ series. The square forms begin to be enlarged and break open and, once again, in an accelerating explosion of form, the white ground breaks through and imposes its presence. There is both great calm and great drama in the ‘Tabula’ paintings.
1981 – 1994
It might have been thought in the mid-1980’s that Hantaï had fully explored the ‘folding method’. Much has been written about the artist's famous silence over the years. In 1998, after fifteen years without exhibiting his work, he presented a new series, the ‘Left Overs’, dated 1981-94, in the Espace Renn, an ephemeral private exhibition space in Paris, and again one year later, in the exhibition ‘Simon Hantaï: Work from 1960 to 1995’ at the art museum in Munster, Germany, to a burst of approving attention from the specialist art press and general circulation newspapers. The story behind these ‘left over’ paintings is surely unique in the history of art.
At the end of the ‘Tabula’ series, Hantaï had made a group of enormous, out- size paintings for an exhibition at the CAPC museum in Bordeaux. The space resembles what might best be described as an industrial cathedral and the installation photographs of the event show viewers dwarfed by the enormous canvases surrounding them. With hindsight, however, the artist decided that he would keep only a small selection of these paintings and destroy the rest. In the summer of 1994 he began to cut up these paintings in order to dispose of them. Their forms had been conceived on a vast scale and were now being collapsed to that of the human body. The artist discovered that certain forms, when detached from their original compositions, began to function in an independent manner and he decided that they constituted a series of new paintings in their own right.
The ‘Left Over’ series represents an extraordinary shift in the artist’s work. Absent is the research into light and color of the ‘Tabulas’. These are somber paintings that, to the contrary, seem to suck in and pulverize light, letting nothing escape from a decentralized void. These paintings constitute a distinct and authentic ‘late phase’ in the artist’s work. The ‘Left Overs’ observe us from a point of suspension in a time warp. They seem to contain a truth that the artist has decided not to tell. Or maybe they are the portrait of an artist who has shown us much and now invites us to think for ourselves.
Simon Hantaï died in Paris, 12 September 2008.
— 9W Gallery
SIMON HANTAÏ (Né à Bia, Hongrie, en 1922) Peintre français d'origine hongroise, Hantaï fréquente l'école des Beaux-Arts de Budapest et s'installe à Paris en 1949 où il participe au groupe surréaliste : André Breton préface sa première exposition à la galerie L'Etoile scellée en 1953. Il expérimente alors une grande variété de techniques comme le collage, le frottage et déjà le pliage et sa peinture évoque alors d'étranges anatomies, présentant des formes entrelacées, des enchevêtrements de signes et des ondulations caractéristiques de cette époque.
En 1955, il rompt avec Breton, découvre Pollock et les peintres expressionnistes américains et se rapproche de l'Abstraction lyrique européenne et de son chef de file, Mathieu (présent dans la collection des Abattoirs), qu'il rencontre en 1957 : sa peinture évolue alors vers un style plus abstrait et plus lyrique et sous l'influence déterminante de Pollock, il développe une écriture plus gestuelle et renonce à la composition.
En 1956, il présente à la galerie Kléber à Paris l'exposition Sex-Prime, Hommage à Jean-Pierre Brisset, dont le tableau du même titre, sorte de "matérialisation d'un moment de délire érotique", témoigne d'une technique particulière utilisant des signes apparaissants "en négatif" : l'artiste retire la peinture par endroits, faisant apparaître des fonds colorés qui semblent éclairer le tableau de l'intérieur.
En 1957, il expose avec Mathieu à la galerie Kléber, puis, en 1958, présente des Peintures religieuses accompagnées d'un violent manifeste, avant de faire l'objet d'une rétrospective pour ses dix ans de peinture l'année suivante dans cette même galerie. Fuyant la capitale, Hantaï se retire alors près de Fontainebleau.
A partir de 1960, il abandonne progressivement la toile montée sur châssis et adopte "le pliage comme méthode", principe illustré par la série des Mariales, immense toile qu'il expose à la galerie Kléber en 1962 : les toiles libres sont pliées de manière plus ou moins fine (pliages ténus des Mariales, pliage grossier des Meuns en 1967), froissées et nouées avant d'être peintes "en aveugle", le pinceau n'atteignant que les parties convexes des plis : l'oeuvre n'est révélée dans sa totalité qu'une fois dépliée. Hantaï développe ensuite systématiquement ce procédé et l'enrichit, produisant des séries de toiles différenciées par le type de pliage utilisé. Chacune est repérée par une lettre (suivie par un numéro d'ordre) qui correspond à la technique utilisée: A pour les toiles pliées régulièrement, B pour les monochromes, C pour les toiles pliées deux fois et D pour les toiles imprégnées de couleur avant d'être peintes. Dans la série des Tabulas, commencée en 1974, le pliage donne lieu à un quadrillage régulier de la surface de la toile, chaque élément coloré s'apparentant à un même motif toujours répété. Au début des années 80, l'artiste restreint progressivement le nombre des motifs carrés qui les composent, en les agrandissant. Méthode répétitive, presque mécanique, le pliage permet à l'artiste d'aborder sa toile de manière globale, sans privilégier telle ou telle zone, dans une espèce de banalisation du geste de peindre ; elle constitue pour lui une nouvelle approche plastique des formes et des couleurs dont beaucoup de jeunes artistes s'inspireront au cours des années 70, notamment dans le cadre du mouvement Support/Surface.
Hantaï a représenté la France à la Biennale de Venise en 1982, avant de se retirer de la scène artistique mondiale afin de poursuivre ses recherches en solitaire ; ses oeuvres figurent dans plusieurs musées français et étrangers : notamment à Paris (Musée national d'art moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou), Grenoble, Saint-Etienne, Buffalo et Bruxelles et dans de nombreuses collections privées. Les Abattoirs conservent quinze oeuvres de Hantaï, dont quatre proviennent de la collection Daniel Cordier : trois peintures de 1950, 1952 et 1957, un collage de 1957 et onze peintures déposées par un collectionneur privé depuis 1998. Cet ensemble est représentatif de la production de l'artiste depuis sa période surréaliste jusqu'au années 70 ; on y trouve en particulier des oeuvres des années 60 provenant de la série des Mariales et des séries qui en sont issues, ainsi qu'une oeuvre intitulée Blancs, datant de 1973, témoignant des recherches du peintre dans le domaine de la couleur et des contrastes, depuis les années 50. Dans le cadre de l'importante collection de peintures des Abattoirs datant en particulier des années 50 et 60, l'oeuvre de Hantaï occupe une place originale et singulière qui préfigure une profonde mutation de la peinture qu'il inaugure.
— Stephan Barron
HANTAÏ IN AMERICA
In Europe, Simon Hantaï has long been recognized as a major painter. In the United States, he is nearly unknown. This is odd because he is one of the very few artists, European or American, who responded to Jackson Pollock’s poured paintings in a genuinely original manner. Pollock invented a new way to paint and Hantaï did the same. This was a remarkable achievement, considering that strong responses to Pollock nearly always began with the abandonment of paint and canvas. Exasperated by these materials, the future Minimalists— Donald Judd for example—gave Pollock’s dripping a literalist reading and then followed the logic of their literalism into real space, which they occupied with three-dimensional objects. Hantaï’s works are, first and last, paintings—works of pictorial art. Yet he dispensed with the traditional process of picture-making as thoroughly as did Pollock, who exchanged his brush for a stick from which to drip and pour his pigments. Keeping his brush, Hantaï redefined his art by redefining the canvas.
Basic to the idea of painting is the flat, blank, or neutral surface of the canvas. For centuries, this neutrality was unquestionable. Hantaï not only questioned it, he banished it with a new way of making a painting called pliage, from plier, to fold. Before he begins to paint, Hantaï folds his canvas in a complex pattern that hides some of its surface and leaves the rest available to his brush. Having applied paint to the exposed areas, he opens up the canvas, and sees, for the first time, exactly what he has done. Hantaї’s “folding method” is clearly very different from Pollock’s “drip method”, resembling it only in its originality and in the power of its response to questions raised by Pollock. With his unencumbered gesture, Pollock had redefined figure and ground. He redrew the boundaries of pictorial space. Hantaї’s folding method completely rethinks the ground, and perhaps the very idea of painting itself, for his imagery— with its play of light and dark, of positive and negative—is in part the upshot of decisions made before any paint is applied. Folding relocates the painter’s intention. In the process, vision finds a new relationship to the other senses.
There is more to say about Hantaï and Pollock, about Hantaï and the history of art in the past half century. That so much needs to be said is surprising. Only rarely does an American writer have the opportunity to survey the achievement of a major European artist for almost the first time in English. Perhaps there was a moment, in the late 1970s or early ’80s, when Joseph Beuys needed a comparably detailed introduction to American audiences. It is difficult to think of another example. In any case, we need to set aside the presuppositions that, for decades, have hidden Hantaï from American eyes or permitted him to be seen in the United States, if at all, as a distant and nearly invisible monument.
No one is more acutely aware of this need than the artist himself. In 1998, Hantaï refused to allow his work to be included in an exhibition of French painting organized by the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The context, he felt, was unsuitable. At first glance, this objection is hard to understand. Born in Hungary in 1922, Hantaï has lived in France since 1949. Not long after his arrival, he was recruited to the Surrealist movement by Andre Breton. By the mid-1950s, he had broken with Surrealism, and in 1960 he invented the folding method. Since then, he has been recognized as one of the leading figures to have emerged on the stage of French art in the half- century after the Second World War. Why, then, would he refuse to be included in an exhibition intended to celebrate painters from his time and place? His refusal was all the more puzzling because one sees echoes of Matisse’s forms in certain of his paintings. In others, there are recollections of Cézanne’s light. Forced to categorize him, one would have to call him a French painter. His contribution to the art of his adopted country permits no other label. Still, for all its accuracy, it obscures a full view of Hantaï’s achievement. That, I suspect, is why Hantaï declined to be included in an exhibition of French painting.
What follows could be seen as a proposal for an exhibition that would place Hantaï in another context, quite different from the ones in which he has nearly always found himself. In this virtual setting, some of Hantaï’s neighbors would be Italian, for there is a rapport between his art and the arte povera that emerged in Genoa, Milan and elsewhere during the late 1960s. Some would be from other regions of Europe. However, most of the artists in this imaginary exhibition would be American. I have referred to Pollock, as Hantaï himself does. Tracing the development of the folding method and mapping its affinities, I will return to the Minimalists, who used industrial fabrication to replicate the readymade forms of Euclidean geometry. There will be occasion to mention the process and performance art that developed from Minimalism; the detached impersonality of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen technique, and earthworks, especially those of Robert Smithson, who pushed to extremes the idea that art is material—that is to say, not spiritual, conceptual, expressive, or in any other way immaterial. I don’t say that Hantaï makes common cause with Smithson or any other American artist. Yet the full significance of Hantaï’s achievement cannot be seen until his engagement with the most innovative American art of the 1960’s and ‘70’s is taken into account.
Entering the Art Academy of Budapest in 1942, Hantaï studied there, on and off, until 1948. Settling in Paris the following year, he experimented with frottage (rubbing), grattage (scratching), and other techniques discovered through Surrealist experiments, especially those conducted by Max Ernst. Always, he painted, arriving quickly in Paris at a biomorphic style that hovered in the ambiguous zone between figurative and non-figurative imagery. His first solo exhibition, in 1953, was introduced with much fanfare by Breton. Only a few seasons later, Hantaï renounced Surrealism. From the point of view of Breton and the Surrealist faithful, he had betrayed the promise of revolution through art. Of course, the Surrealist revolution, which was to have put ordinary reality on a new and improved footing, never occurred. From the perspective provided by Hantaï’s later work, one might say that Surrealism turned out, despite its promises, to be fatally conservative—not so much a revolutionary movement as a cluster of academic styles devised to illustrate a yearning for the new. Leaving Surrealism behind, Hantaï achieved something entirely new. But not immediately.
Between his Surrealist period and his first folded canvases came a gestural interlude and a brief association with the French tachiste painter Georges Mathieu. Like Mathieu, Hantaï was driven by the example of Jackson Pollock to develop a repertory of slashing, curving, zigzagging brushstrokes. Hantaï’s improvisations are often more deliberately tangled—more desperate— than Mattheiu’s. He seems to have understood from the start that there was no real point in coming up with variations on Pollock’s gesture. Gesture was somehow the point, and yet, as Hantaï understood, it could not be gesture of a painterly kind. It could not be expressive nor could it be representational, not even in the most attenuated manner. No gesture of the hand, no dance in the presence of the canvas, would do. In 1960, Hantaï arrived at the solution that has sustained his art since then. He would displace gesture to the canvas itself.
As it happened, Hantaï did not reinvent painting until he had brought his gestural interlude to a grand culmination. In 1958, he set out to cover a very large canvas with texts gathered from a variety of sources: Biblical, theological, metaphysical, poetic, psychoanalytic. After a year of copying these passages in a minute hand, Hantaï’s inscriptions acquired a thoroughly pictorial texture. His texts were now illegible, and yet he had filled the canvas—now called the Écriture Rose—with an aura of significance, a dense cloud of implication. The work later entered the permanent collection of the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, where it occupies a crucial place in the museum’s account of twentieth-century art.
We can be certain only that the Écriture rose has to do with language. Scanning its surface, one thinks of a medieval scribe devoted to an endless task. Nonetheless, Hantaï’s inscriptions did come to an end. We might see the Écriture rose as the grand residue of a long, almost ceremonial meditation on the part that language has played in the development of Western painting. The theorization of the pictorial was launched in ancient Greece. Since then, painting has been caught up in a conceptual apparatus of extreme intricacy. Perhaps Hantaï felt that, by writing his way to the end of language, so to speak, he could extricate painting from theory’s mechanisms. At any rate, when the Écriture rose was finished, he said, “Avaler les mots.” “Dispense with words.”
Having set language aside, Hantaï placed his canvas on the floor and subjected it to a series of actions: “folding, knotting, trampling underfoot,” to quote from a list made by Anne Baldassari, curator at the Musée Picasso. This behavior is implied by the word pliage, already noted, and yet Baldassari’s account of Hantaï’s procedure is helpful because she stresses its repetitiousness. The labor required by pliage is onerous and silent, or nearly so. Remarking on the “rustling” of the canvas as it submits to folding and trampling, Baldassari leaves it to us to imagine the matter-of-fact violence Hantaï inflicts on the canvas as he flattens it in preparation for the application of paint to those portions that his folding leaves in view.
The first of the folded canvases are called Manteaux de la Vierge. This becomes, in English, Mantles or Cloaks of the Virgin, a title often shortened to Cloaks. They are dense, impacted, encrusted. Some have the look of earth soaked by a heavy rain and then dried and cracked by harsh sunlight. There is a suggestion of “craquelure,” as conservators call it, those networks of fine lines that often appear in the surfaces of old oil paintings. In Hantaï’s canvases from 1960 on, the “craquelure” can be severe and, far from obscuring the image, helps to constitute it.
Hantaï’s departure from the Surrealist ranks brought his career as a figurative painter to an end, and yet it is easy enough to read subject matter into his later work. After the cracked mud of the more heavily encrusted Cloaks come leaf- and petal-shapes of a new series begun in 1967 and entitled Meun, after the village in the forest of Fontainebleau to which the artist and his family had moved two years earlier. Like Rorschach blots, Hantaï’s paintings invite no end of speculative interpretation. But what, precisely, do they represent? The method that produced them, no doubt. The folding method is a kind of self-portraiture, a way for a painter’s method to make images of itself. Yet these “portraits” are incorrigibly ambiguous, filled as they are with the chance effects that the folding method not only permits but invites. What are we to make of details of form and texture that cannot be seen as fully intended? Where, come to think of it, are we to look for Hantaï’s intentions? Marcel Duchamp, the modernist godfather of chance in art, lurks somewhere in the genealogy that Hantaï, like all ambitious artists of the period, invented for himself. Chance is a factor, as well, in Pollock’s drip-method, which, as we’ve seen, was essential for Hantaï as he looked for a way beyond Surrealism.
The distance from the Cloaks to the Meuns, 1967-68, is vast, too vast to be traversed in one step. By 1962, texture had given way to rough forms, distinct but not separated from one another. The underlying ground was unable to emerge. Then, in the mid-1960s, the canvas ground began to assert itself more forcefully. By 1967, figure and ground had claimed nearly equal portions of the painting’s surface. The Meun series was under way. Over the years, Hantaï has now and then repeated a certain phrase: “Toujours et encore les ciseaux et le bâton trempé.” “Always and again the scissors and the dripping stick.” The latter refers to Pollock’s drip-method; the “scissors” belong to Henri Matisse, who made some of his late works by cutting and pasting sheets of colored paper. With the flat, quasi-organic shapes of the Meun series, Hantaï evokes Matissean decoupage or cutouts—and he reminds us that Pollock was not the only modernist painter to subject his method and thus his medium to drastic revision. For the cutouts introduced a new compositional element and yet made no break with painting. With his cutouts, Matisse used decoupage to extend painting into new territory. For a century or more, expansions like these have kept painting alive and flourishing.
To cut shapes from colored paper is to perform an act no less physical than directly applying paint with a brush. Yet painting longs to transcend the physical—not that the tangibility of paint on canvas was ever denied. Nonetheless, figurative painting can be understood as an attempt to persuade the viewer to look through a painted surface into the depths of imaginary space. With the development of abstract painting, this yearning to escape physicality intensified. Avant-garde painters and their critics talked of pure color, pure gesture, and “pure opticality.” This rhetoric of purity reflects a bias against materiality, against the body and sensory experience—with the exception of the visual, for vision can be assimilated to the immaterial realm of thought. Thus we say, “I see” to signify understanding.
This bias in favor of vision appeared early on. According to the pre-Socratic Heraclitus, “The eyes make better witnesses than the ears.” In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates spins a story of the soul as a charioteer, guiding a pair of horses upward, beyond earthly things, to a glimpse of the eternal Forms of ultimate Reality. Michelangelo invokes the Platonic glimpse when he says, in one of his sonnets, that the true sculptor is the one who can see the essence of a form in a brute block of marble. Relinquishing the visionary privileges to which he and every other Western artist is heir, Hantaï talks of “painting without seeing . . . looking elsewhere.” “With pliage,” he says, “I put out my eyes . . . blind calculation . . . a bet on one’s blindness.” Then: “Do away with the screen.” With these fragmentary utterances, Hantaï points obliquely, tactfully, to his accomplishment, which was to place his medium on a new basis. After inventing the folding method, he dispensed with the transcendent—one could almost say, magical—idea of vision that we inherit from Plato and his many successors, who include a surprising number of contemporary art theorists and historians.
The key image in Hantaï’s commentary is the screen—not the cinematic screen, not the screen of the television set or the computer, but a screen prior to any of these: the canvas, the surface where the painter’s image is traditionally projected and, in the process, comes to be seen as impalpable, immaterial, ideal. Hantaï talks of doing away with “the screen” to suggest that his paintings are not sites where the ideal is revealed. So his canvases need not present themselves as immaterial or, rather, as lengths of fabric only incidentally material. The folding method insists on something obvious but traditionally overlooked: the canvas is dense and frankly palpable, and this frankness is what distinguishes the paintings of the Meun series from the late cutouts of Matisse, to which they bear an inescapable resemblance.
Hantaï does not, however, intend the Meuns as “critiques” of Matisse’s cutouts. He did not put out his eyes, figuratively speaking, to protest the vision of Matisse or Michelangelo or Plato. He has never, so far as I know, expressed doubts about the truths delivered by the visionary tradition those figures exemplify. Nonetheless, his invention of the folding method suggests that, as the 1950s ended, he no longer saw painting as a matter of transcendent truth. He no longer saw painting itself—not, at least, as it had been seen for centuries. With the folding method he began to feel his paintings as much as see them. As a work progressed, vision became the partner of touch, not its superior, and one imagines that it was sometimes a decidedly junior partner.
Or all such distinctions were lost in the interplay of the artist’s tactile, conceptual, and, of course, visual intuitions. By demoting vision, Hantaï merged the senses and undermined the ancient, persistent habit of seeing body and mind as separate and distinct. It is tempting to say that, with the folding method, he found a way to make paintings in a bodily mode. Yet one could just as well call the folding method a conceptual mode, in light of the parts played by the initial idea of a painting, by subsequent revisions, made as the work progresses, and by calculations about chance, which guide the artist from start to finish. At once bodily and conceptual, a physical method and a theory enacted, the folding method requires a unified self, a self in full.
"What interests me is what approaches the indeterminate, as in Pollock, who abandons easel painting, the frame, and with them all security" Simon Hantaï, 1998
Pollock took exemplary risks, and Hantaï was not the only artist to respond. During the late 1950s in New York, Pollock’s full-body gesture prompted Alan Kaprow, for example, to invent the Happening. Cued by a sketchy scenario, members of the audience would perform a sequence of quasi-improvisational actions. The work was fugitive, vanishing as it appeared. In Paris, Yves Klein found yet another way to insist on the presence of the body. Slathering nude women with paint, he instructed them to press themselves against lengths of canvas unfurled on the floor. With the imprint of their flesh, they generated the image. These works of Anthropometrie, as Klein called them, can be seen as absurdist pranks—jokes prompted by the changes painting was undergoing in the decades after the Second World War. Nonetheless, they are elegant. And their lush traces of flesh are similar to the forms in Hantaï’s Meun series. At the very least, Klein’s response to Pollock alerts us to the figurative aura of the Meun canvases. And it shows us how insistently painting’s relation to the body was shifting. Much else was changing during that time—so much that, to provide Hantaï’s innovations with their context, we must pull back for a wide view of the sprawling, turbulent period known as “the Sixties.” This was a time of agitations, which began to simmer late in the 1950s and boiled over with a vehemence that persisted into the ’70s.
The ’60s were a time of confrontations, many of them instigated by the young, who gave youth itself an adversarial aura. Among the novelties of the period were the clothes, long hair, and body paint of the hippy movement, all of which may well look silly in retrospect. Nonetheless, the hippy look served as a costume for new attitudes toward far from trivial matters—sexuality and the use of mind-altering drugs, for obvious examples. Students are always impatient with the routines and compromised ideals of the academy. During the ’60s, that impatience exploded, along with a determination to change the rules of political play. Throughout the Western world, substantial numbers of young people were suddenly demanding that their nominally democratic governments live up to their professed values. Driven by no very clear ideology, these developments were local and, of course, varied. As Hantaї was painting the Meun series, unrest in France culminated in the events of “1968”. In the United States, the restlessness of “youth culture” was more diffuse, though it did find a degree of focus in protests against the war in Viet Nam. At first glance, it is difficult to see what any of this has to do with developments in the art of the ’60s, and yet I think there are significant links.
To return for a moment to a matter of fashion—the long hair and sexually ambiguous clothes of “youth culture” were not intended merely to offend stodgy sensibilities. In the offense was a challenge to the old, patriarchal model of society. The use of illegal drugs challenged the law, as did war protest at its most violent. During the ’60s hardly any established power went unchallenged, certainly not that of the universities or of politics as usual. Corporate policy was questioned, along with the economic and military role of the West in the developing world. Playful or earnest, these protests were by and large the work of young people with unseasoned sensibilities. On the plane of art, comparable challenges were made. A sharp difference in tone separates the young from the mature, and that may be why it is difficult to detect any connection between, say, student uprisings and the innovations that define the major art of the ’60s. The connection is there, nonetheless, and it emerges—it becomes unmistakable—the moment we notice how thoroughly those years were shaped by a shared purpose. On the plane of art, as in the street, the ’60s protested authority—particular authorities, the very idea of authority, and the absolute truths to which authority appeals for legitimacy. By extension, elitism in all its manifestations, including the cultural, was questioned. “Youth culture’s” rejection of patriarchy and militarism is obvious. Not so obvious is the rejection that opened the way to the work of Hantaï and the Minimalists and others, who shared a desire to challenge what passed as the laws of art, in Hantaї’s case with the invention of the folding method, and in the case of the Minimalists with outright abandonment of painting for a medium that, as Judd correctly noted, did not qualify as sculpture in any traditional sense.
In 1967 Bruce Nauman commissioned a fabricator to write the following words in spiraling neon: “The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths.” Against the backdrop of this artist’s other works, this motto acquires an ironic edge. Toward the end of the ‘60s, irony of this sort was still new. For nearly two and a half millennia, the highest purpose of art had been to reveal “Mystic Truths” about absolute, other-worldly realities. Moreover, faith in art as a medium of the absolute persisted well into the twentieth century. Though the avant-garde was nominally secular, its leaders—Wassily Kandinsky, for instance, or Piet Mondrian—were no less spiritually inclined than medieval artists. So it is no surprise that, early on, Pollock’s admirers glimpsed in his webs of dripped and spattered pigment transcendent truths about the modern self, the American experience, the essence of painting, and more. Then came the ’60s and, with them, headstrong doubts about authority and a tendency to reject privilege and elitism in any form.
Theological or metaphysical or aesthetic, transcendent truths have an authority that is—for the faithful—beyond question. In the absence of doubt, one feels secure. Hantaї’s attitude in this regard is nuanced. He did not reject that sort of authority as much as decide at a certain point to carry on without it. Pollock had abandoned “all security” and so would he. Going it alone, he would make his way into a future in which everything was up for grabs. [...]