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La langue de l’essai dans Le Tablier de Simon Hantaï




La singularité que le «genre» de l’essai aurait mis en écriture à la fin du XVI siècle, cela est bien connu, est une certaine crise de l’objet étudié en faveur d’une écriture du soi. À la différence du traité, la glose ou le commentaire, l’essai aurait mis en place une parole où l’objet, le thème ou le référent ne sont plus le seul foyer du texte. C’est dans ce sens qu’on a pu parler de l’écriture essayistique comme d’une écriture intransitive dans la mesure où elle déplace ou décentre l’attention portée à son objet.

L’étymologie vient renforcer cette problématique du sujet et de l’objet au cœur de l’écriture essayistique. Le mot essai, d’ex-agium, d’ex-agere, renvoie au verbe latin agere, «agir», qui se distingue de facere, «faire». Bien que ces deux verbes se rapportent tous les deux à l’action, ils ne l’expriment pas de la même façon, car si facere exprime l’action du côté de l’objet – on fait quelque chose, facere litteram, « écrire une lettre », facere furtum, «commettre un vol» –, de son côté, agere, «agir», met plutôt l’accent sur le sujet. On retrouve cette portée intransitive d’agere dans les expressions latines agere vitam, «passer sa vie», agere aetatem, aevum, «vivre sa vie, son temps ou son époque», ainsi que la valeur durative de ce verbe, à la différence de facere, qui lui désigne l’action dans sa valeur conclusive. Ceci expliquerait peut-être que le verbe latin agere, «agir», soit devenu en français et tel qu’on le connaît aujourd’hui un verbe intransitif.

C’est peut-être ce problème de l’objet posé par l’essai ce que Roland Barthes dans son bref texte intitulé «Au séminaire» – opposé chez lui au cours magistral –, décrit comme une dénégation de la position de maîtrise et du savant face à l’objet étudié – au séminaire, écrit-il en 1974, « aucun savoir est transmis [concernant cet objet] (mais un savoir peut être crée), aucun discours n’est tenu (mais un texte se cherche) ». Ce double enjeu de l’essai impliquant l’objet et le sujet de l’écriture est également résumé par Jacques Rancière dans ces termes : « L’essai alors ne désigne l’objet d’aucun choix spécifique » ; « L’essai n’est alors lui-même qu’une signature ».

Mieux peut-être que personne Jacques Derrida aura exprimé cette incommodité qui entoure la place de l’objet dans tout essai, tel qu’il l’écrivait dans Parages concernant cet étrange « objet » littéraire que sont les fictions de Maurice Blanchot. Je cite Derrida un peu longuement : «Ces fictions, gardons le nom, je croyais les avoir déjà lues. Aujourd'hui, au moment où, les ayant étudiées puis longuement citées, j'ose publier ces essais, j'en suis moins sûr que jamais. D'autres œuvres de Blanchot m'accompagnent depuis longtemps, celles que l'on situe, aussi improprement, dans les domaines de la critique littéraire ou de la philosophie.» Un livre donc, Parages, dans lequel Derrida rassemble en 1986 quatre essais dont les titres ne font que répéter l’instabilité générique de l’œuvre de Blanchot – «Pas», «Survivre», «Titre à préciser», «La loi du genre» – et dans lesquels tout essai se demande qui – parle, écrit – et quoisur quoi, au sujet de quoi et avec quelle parole.

C’est bien la manière dont l’écriture essayistique noue la signature de soi et une certaine mise en question de l’énonciation référentielle d’habitude portée à l’objet – bien qu’un essai parle de quelque chose, porte sur quelque chose – que j’aimerais parcourir dans quelques motifs du Tablier de Simon Hantaï. Et ceci parce que dans ce livre d’Hélène Cixous l’étrange objet qu’est l’œuvre de Hantaï, et en particulier son Tablier et le tableau terminé en 1959 intitulé Peinture (Écriture rose), est à la fois posé, annoncé dès le titre, et éloigné.

Après ce titre apparemment dénotatif, constatif, qui nous livre la chose et son auteur – «Le Tablier», « de Simon Hantaï » –, Hélène Cixous nous prévient dès les premières pages de son essai : «...je ne voulais pas parler de tableau, ni de Hantaï. Mais plutôt de mon aventure, de l’aventure du tableau, de mon aller-à-la-rencontre d’une chose dite tableau... » Voici exprimé de façon presque exemplaire le double mouvement de l’écriture essayistique qui va vers une aventure de soi – «mon aventure», «mon aller-à-la-rencontre» – rendue possible grâce au refus d’une parole naïvement ou directement référentielle.

La parole que l’auteur dit vouloir parler ici ne semble pas répondre à celle que le tableau de Hantaï aurait déjà trouvée dans des écritures plus «fidèles». Je cite Hélène Cixous : « selon moi tout le monde en parle, et merveilleusement, fidèlement, ce tableau a des fidèles selon moi». Ce n’est donc pas le lexique de la fidélité qu’est déployé dans cet essai là où le discours – « ce n’est pas un discours qui est causé », souligne Hélène Cixous à la page 11 – et l’étude semblent refusés au même titre – «non, non, dis-je, pas d’étude», écrit aussi Hélène Cixous à la page 29.

Quelle parole, se demandera-t-on dès lors, quelle écriture, quels essais pour cette œuvre mi-picturale mi-littéraire, mi-lisible mi-illisible, qu’est Peinture (Écriture rose), ce grand tableau de 329,5 x 424,5 cm dans lequel Simon Hantaï recopia ses lectures du jour d’avent de 1958 au jour d’avent de 1959? Quel essai pour cette pièce hybride de Hantaï dont Hélène Cixous ne cessera de fragiliser l’appartenance à une discipline ainsi qu’à un seul type d’expérience perceptive – faut-il lire ou regarder pour voir?

Face à l’étude, le discours fidèle ou le commentaire de l’œuvre, sur l’œuvre, Hélène Cixous semble imposer deux contraintes qui refaçonnent le rapport de l’écriture essayistique à son « objet » : la première concerne le lieu et instaure un mode d’appréhension de l’«objet» dans l’essai ; la seconde insiste plutôt dans le type de coordination de la parole écrite dans l’essai cixousien et de la parole recopiée dans le tableau de Hantaï. D’un côté, c’est l’espacement ainsi qu’une certaine distance qui se lisent dans l’approche cixousienne de ce tableau, «Je voulais parler devant le tableau de Hantaï », tout comme dans la citation proustienne de Du côté de chez Swan donnée par l’auteur : «...rester devant les aubépines à respirer...». Si d’un côté, donc, la parole se tient non pas au sujet du tableau mais devant lui, de l’autre, cette parole ne s’y rapporte que par l’intermédiaire d’une série de figures d’une très singulière coordination.

«Attelage», «zeugme inattendu», «jumeaux non simultanées», «épaissœur», voici quelques figures du lien ou de l’enchaînement qui semblent articuler l’écriture que Hélène Cixous tient devant le tableau et le tablier de Simon Hantaï. C’est autour du chiffre 2 entraperçu par l’auteur dans Peinture (Écriture rose) que semble s’organiser le mouvement de l’essai se rapportant à la peinture. En effet, dans les figures du jumeau, la sœur, l’attelage ou le zeugme, il y va toujours du lien et du deux dépliés par Hélène Cixous qui dit suivre ici la « coordination d’un élément abstrait et d’un élément concret ». Or, attelage et zeugme n’enchaînent ici deux éléments, ils ne jumellent qu’en interrompant la simultanéité qu’on associe d’habitude au chiffre deux – ici tout jumeau est « non simultané » et il n’y a du couple que dans l’épaisseur du deux, l’«épaissœur».

Ce motif du double très présent dans Le Tablier de Simon Hantaï ne saurait toutefois se réduire à une thématique ou se restreindre à la représentation des mots effectivement inscrits dans le tableau de Hantaï. Il se peut que le problème de savoir comment accoupler, nouer ou enchaîner deux éléments – en l’occurrence l’écriture et la peinture – s’avère être ici un geste méta-réflexif concernant le genre de l’essai et son objet. Pour le dire avec d’autres mots, il se peut en effet que tous ces couples retracés par Hélène Cixous dans le tableau de Hantaï – «La veilleuse, le candélabre. La mère, le fils. Le judaïsme et le christianisme», « le masculin et le féminin », «veiller» et «brûler» –, ainsi que les virgules et les «et» qui raccordent l’un à l’autre chacun de ces deux termes, tentent aussi de donner à entendre cette parole qui nous occupe ici tournée à la fois vers soi et étrangement vers autre chose qu’est l’essai.

Mais disons peut-être d’emblée que la double place ou le double lieu si on peut dire de l’écriture cixousienne concerne dans ce texte avant tout la sphère plastique :elle est devant le tableau et en attelage avec lui en tant que «jumeau non simultané». L’essai d’Hélène Cixous est à la fois avec son objet et devant lui. Pouvons-nous ne pas penser ici au rapport de contiguïté ou de proximité plastique, visuelle, des prédelles, partie inférieure des retables où se figurent des petits sujets liés au thème principal, puissamment associées dans les dernières fictions d’Hélène Cixous aux philippines ou amandes jumelles? Pouvons-nous ne pas voir ici à l’œuvre le double renvoi vers l’art et vers «l’objet jumeau» concentré par Hélène Cixous dans la figure de la prédelle ? Ne pas nous rappeler de ces prédelles que Proust évoque dans Le temps retrouvé, où il associe le geste de l’amateur d’art qui parvient à «reconstituer dans sa tête la prédelle, l’autel tout entier» qui n’existent plus, lequel «en fréquentant les antiquaires [il] finit par trouver l’objet jumeau de celui qu'il possède et fait avec lui la paire»?

J’aimerais citer à cet égard les propos d’Hélène Cixous dans l’entretien réalisé par Ginette Michaud autour de Philippines, dans lequel on peut entendre à la fois « l’objet jumeau » proustien et le rapport au tableau:

«Cela va avec, parce que, finalement, les prédelles font d’une certaine manière philippines, mais multiples, avec le tableau principal, puisque ça longe aussi le tableau... Ce qui est beau, c’est que c’est un accompagnement, donc c’est très musical, mais ce n’est pas une simple répercussion, c’est un déplacement...»

Dans cette citation la question de « l’objet jumeau » qui semble travailler l’écriture cixousienne de la peinture est à son tour posée doublement : le rapport à la peinture est doublé d’un accompagnement musical, la scène de vision est doublée par le sonore. Le visible et le signifiant sonore, le tableau et l’écriture, les prédelles et les philippines, autant de couples jumeaux qui, nous dit Hélène Cixous, ne sont pas des «simple[s] répercussion[s] » mais des « déplacement[s]».

À la tradition des marginalia apparentée à l’écriture de l’essai, que Marielle Macé retrace jusqu’aux XX siècle dans l’œuvre, entre autres, de Jacques Derrida, l’essai chez Cixous semble plutôt substituer une écriture de l’accompagnement ou de la con-sonance du dire et de son objet. Si dans son livre sur l’histoire de l’essai en France, Marielle Macé parle d’une «dramatisation des limites» au sujet de l’écriture essayistique de certains philosophes ou écrivains de la deuxième moitié du XX siècle tels que Derrida, notamment dans les colonnes de Marges de la philosophie ou Glas – «dramatisation des limites» travaillant à la fois entre les disciplines, les objets et l’assurance souvent accordée aux différents modes d’énonciation –, l’objet jumeau de l’écriture essayistique d’Hélène Cixous semble s’intéresser non pas tant à la marge et les parois mais aux modalités du voisinage.

Ce rapport d’accompagnement qui fait de tout objet dans l’essai cixousien un objet jumeau doit peut-être se chercher ailleurs que dans la figure de la tresse de Michel Leiris qui résonne dans l’écriture derridiennne de «Tympan», dans Marges de la philosophie. La con-sonance dont il est question entre l’écriture de Cixous et le tableau de Hantaï n’est peut-être pas celle de la tresse, ou, pour citer les mots de Leiris dans la colonne de gauche de «Tympan », celle de la « guirlande », l’«arabesque» ou l’«enroulement» de différents motifs dans un seul dessin, puisque dans l’essai cixousien il n’y va d’un certain nouage qu’en déplacement. Pas donc de tresse, pas d’enroulement de l’écriture cixousienne et de son objet, dans la mesure où ces deux objets jumeaux ne s’accompagnent – plastiquement en tant que prédelles et sur le plan sonore en tant que mesures de musique – qu’en se déplaçant.

Le Tablier de Simon Hantaï donne certes à entendre à la lettre une consonance avec l’œuvre de Hantaï qui continue à reposer et déplacer des enjeux liés au genre essayistique. Puisque Hélène Cixous nous fait écouter par le biais d’un puissant effet d’oralité la langue du peintre dans sa propre écriture elle-même. Je cite : «J’étais occupé [masculin] par le passage», «J’ai utilisé aucune couleur rose et ça fait rose», «Je voulais pas donner de titre hongrois.» Pour peu qu’on remarque dans ces phrases l’absence du «ne» de la négation et des guillemets dont la fonction est à la fois d’annoncer et limiter visuellement les propos rapportés, on retiendra que l’auteur d’un essai qui laisse arriver une première personne, «je», où parle quelqu’un d’autre, ne cherche peut-être plus à rapporter ou à citer tout simplement les propos du peintre. Ce « je » où l’on entend la langue du peintre arrive justement dans l’essai de Cixous comme un « zeugme inattendu », sans nous prévenir – qui parle ? – et sans remplir une fonction simplement identifiable – telle que la citation d’autorité.

On le sait, la question de la citation n’est pas étrangère aux problèmes que soulève l’essai au XVI siècle. L’exercice de la citation n’est pas dépourvu de pertinence dans les nouveaux enjeux que pose l’essai avec Montaigne dans la mesure où c’est par le biais d’une certaine pratique de la citation que l’essai s’émancipe, si on peut le dire ainsi, du commentaire médiéval. Chez Montaigne, contester la logique du commentaire ne semble pouvoir se faire que dans une remise en question de l’allégation, forme de répétition d’un discours qu’on utilise dans le commentaire médiéval afin de rapporter la pensée ou les idées d’un auteur. Or, cette façon d’alléguer où ne se trouvent impliqués que le texte et l’auteur cités, au détriment de l’auteur qui les cite, relégué au simple rôle d’intermédiaire du savoir de la tradition, ne convient plus, nous le savons, aux nouveaux problèmes de l’essai comme écriture de soi.

C’est bien dans la complexité de ces questions que Hélène Cixous convoque tout au long du Tablier de Simon Hantaï l’héritage de l’essai. Convoque et déplace car l’écriture essayistique d’Hélène Cixous ne fait pas qu’assumer l’acte de la citation propre à l’essai. Elle en arrive même à déplacer la netteté de la citation, ses contours et marques typographiques qui la rendent encore reconnaissable, vers la consonance avec la voix du peintre. À côté des vraies citations des œuvres de Paul Celan, Angelus Silesius ou Marcel Proust qui peuplent le Tablier de Simon Hantaï – citations dont Hélène Cixous nous donne la «référence bibliographique», éditeur, lieu et année de publication –, la langue de Hantaï détient un tout autre statut. La façon dont cette langue est donnée à entendre est peut-être le lieu où la parole essayistique se donne une figure, à la croisée d’une écriture du soi et de ce dont elle parle.

En effet, et déjà pour conclure, c’est dans le nouage de ces questions – ni allégation ni citation mais consonance avec l’œuvre dont on parle et qui parle dans l’essai – que Hélène Cixous convoque l’héritage de l’essai et tout particulièrement de l’essai chez Montaigne qu’on entend non seulement dans le rapport à la citation, à la peinture de soi et aux savoirs entassés par Hantaï dans son tableau, mais aussi dans les multiples références au passage – «J’étais occupé par le passage», «Comme si j’avais copié tous les livres de toutes les sagesses et toutes les ignorances du monde en cherchant le passage...». Un passage qui résonne nouvellement dans Le Tablier de Simon Hantaï de Hélène Cixous, lequel ne saurait se restreindre au passage entre le savoir et le non-savoir, à la nouvelle configuration du savoir que met en place l’essai. Le passage qu’on entend désormais dans l’essai cixousien est aussi l’arrivée d’un «je» inattendu où s’accordent l’écriture et son objet.

Joana Masó

Sorbonne



L’art pour l’art: Simon Hantaï, the planar graph and me.




Take a cotton shirt left in the dryer too long. Spread it out on the ironing board. Examine the wrinkles in detail: the little areas of un-crinkled smoothness, its map-like districts. The mathematicians call this surface a planar graph.

That is a long and self-centered eulogy for the artist Simon Hantaï, who died on September 11th of this year. I am deeply indebted to Carter Ratcliff's essay Hantaï in America and to Margalit Fox of the New York Times for many of the details of Hantaï’s life and work in her obituary. Margalit Fox writes:

Simon Hantaï (pronounced OHN-tye) was born in December 1922 in Bia, near Budapest. At 8, he went temporarily blind as a result of diphtheria. That experience, Mr. Hantaï later said, helped inform his unconventional method of painting by folding, a method that relied far more on chance and far less on sight than conventional painting techniques did.
As an art student in Budapest in the 1940s, Mr. Hantaï was briefly arrested by the Gestapo for a political speech he gave. After the war, he and his wife, Zsuzsa, left Hungary for Italy; in 1948, the Hungarian Ministry of Culture ordered him to return. Knowing that if he did he would be shipped off to Moscow for state-sanctioned art training, the couple made their way to Paris. Mr. Hantaï never went back to Hungary.


I first saw Hantaï’s work in the Georges Pompidou Museum in Paris: compelling, academic images, solid districts of saturated color painted onto enormous canvases, punctuated with negative white space. Much of what passes for modern art repels me: awkward and unsatisfying. Flocks of paint-eating pigeons defecating on perfectly good canvas could produce better art. There is the equally hideous school of Naïve Calligraphers who ape their Asian betters, squalid untutored brushstrokes signifying nothing, terminating in hairy manes of muddy pigment. Yet everyone must love something, I suppose, and I came to love Hantaï in my own obscure way.


The Planar Graph

I first met up with the planar graph while studying computer-assisted proofs: the Four Color Theorem was the first such proof found by a computer. It turns out all the districts on a map can be colored in using only four colors without two districts of the same color touching each other.

There is a certain beauty to graphing. I played with my Spirograph long after the other kids had given up in boredom. Thus began an interest in mathematics which has lasted all my life. The math and its vocabulary were only a means to an end. I would in time learn of the family of cycloids, the epi- and hypocycloids and -trochoids, but they were only labels, functions. Truth is, I had to look up the names on Wolfram.com.

It was their beauty which drew me in and held me and hold me still.

From the first days of the graphing spreadsheet, I have played with the unit circle. My first effort to draw a circle produced a gorgeous error. Let a matrix be composed of three columns: A, B and C. Let Column A contain the integer sequence 1,2,3 … 360. Let Column B1 be sine(A1), etc. Let C contain cosine(A). Create an X-Y series graph of B and C, and the result is a unit circle.

The default composition of the Lotus spreadsheet, indeed all modern spreadsheets, is to use the radian value and not the degree value. The result is a strange, elegant form for which I cannot find a name in mathematics. I suppose some tiresome mathematician has dug into his Greek lexicon to coin some appropriate name. I could care less. It is enough for me to see the results and contemplate them.

I doodle endlessly upon this family of functions. The first and most obvious doodle is as follows: let the above matrix be extended by a Column D. Let series D be populated with ( sine(A) cosine(A) ). Graph the B and D columns. The result is a torus.

Extend the matrix with Column E. Let E be the sum of B, C and D. Graph against B and E. A butterfly wing emerges. Graph against D and E, a catenary appears.

There is no thought put into these things, this is how I doodle. If you find in them some deep insight, you are badly mistaken. I am a child playing with his Spirograph, exercising the arithmetic logic unit in a microprocessor, a silly old woman painting blue peonies on tole ware. Yet I find them beautiful, and perhaps you see something in them I could never see: my own restless mind. Do not ask for explanations. I am what I do, it is art for art’s sake.


Hantaï and his Art

Carter Ratcliff describes his technique in his essay Hantaï in America.

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.

Hantaï figured large in European art in the 1950s. He was a strange, uncompromising man. Ratcliff writes of him:

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.

.... 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.


Hantaï lived in a self-imposed exile from the art scene for almost 20 years during the 1980s and 90s. Margalit Fox writes:

“I felt that the art world was going wrong,” Mr. Hantaï said. “I was starting to receive commissions. I was being asked to paint the ceiling of the Paris Opera House. Society seemed to be preparing to paint my work for me. I could have obeyed; many, perhaps most, painters do. The prospect did not coincide with my desire.”

When my wife and I first met, I drew portraits and tight renderings in pencils, pen and ink. She did large abstracts in pastels. I came home from work one day to find her cutting images out of my notebooks. I grew angry and made her cry. Then I saw what she was doing: carefully pasting my own drawings onto her own artwork. I held her hand and consoled her, the results were spectacular. It was a time in our lives when we had very little money: we had just met and I was still working for little more than room and board. I drew many more images for her: she would cut them out with her embroidery scissors and mount them on her own abstracts. We invested some money in mounting and framing them professionally, had a little exhibition and sold everything.

Beauty emerges from surprising corners of the landscape. Beauty cannot be derived, mere depiction is insufficient. Good art merely is. Ratcliff writes:

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.”

Margalit Fox perceives ideas of absence and silence within Hantaï: I do not. I see a sort of conversation, the taut back and forth of a glass blower and his assistant as they shape the blazing blob on the end of the pipe: a process of twirling, pulling and pinching, culminating in the finished shape, cut loose from the pipe and put on the metal shelf to cool. The physicists tell us glass is always plastic, it still moves slowly, shaped by gravity over time.

Simon Hantaï is passed away, but his work remains. Other artists of the period were more famous, and certainly wealthier. One has only to consider the sordid decadence of Warhol or Picasso’s lithograph presses chugging away like some hyperinflationary country printing money. The trouble began when artists began signing their names to their work. The artist, not the art became the exhibit thereafter. Hantaï rejected the self-referential pretense and the gossip of the art world as Frank Zappa rejected the incestuous celebrity of the Music Biz. There’s no la-dee-da Purity in such an opinion: it’s demeaning and stupid to probe too far into the life of a famous man. Examine his works: these he offers to us. There is no explanation forthcoming, no Cliff’s Notes to a man like Simon Hantaï. Hantaï’s work speaks from its two-dimensional blindness of three-dimensional complexities. Hantaï is a cautionary tale to all who would make art: the art, not the artist, is what matters.

The Forum



Jackson Pollock's influence on contemporary art - Simon Hantaï & Robert Smithson




the divine will as present spirit, unfolding as the actual shape and organization of the world.” Hegel, The Philosophy of Right

Simon Hantaï, in conversation with this writer, has declared that for him Pollock's decisive act was to bring the canvas down from the wall onto the floor, thereby reversing the passage from Nature to Culture that Freud highlights in his discussion on transcendence. Hantaï's response in 1960, four years after Pollock's death, was to invent the painting technique of „pliage‟ or „the folding method‟, which opened up the prospect of what would later become the „Process‟ art movement.

With this technique of folding, Hantaï's canvas symbolically becomes the topography of the material world. Where Pollock had projected himself onto the canvas, Hantaï, in „the folding method‟, enters into it. Henceforth, the artist is, so to speak „in’ the real world, engaged with it at the level of material. The hand that makes the fold, symbolically manipulates reality. The artist is in a state of dynamic interaction with the world. All is destabilization and flux. Hantaï has expressed this involvement in material experience by stating that “our situation is impure”.

Hantaï invented the folding method as a new way of working with the technique of „automatism‟ that the Abstract Expressionists had taken from Surrealism as a means of providing access to the unconscious mind. For Hantaï, this interest in automatism and the unconscious represented the possibility of a rupture with traditional cultural values. In the folding method, the will is over-ridden by a sovereign act of negation. Hantaï raised the following question presents itself: “How to vanquish the aesthetic privilege of talent and art? How to render the exceptional banal? The answer, thrown up by the folding method, is to paint without seeing.”

Hantaï has stated that what particularly interested him in the American painting of the fifties was that it uncovered “what was really at stake in modern art, beyond aesthetic considerations, the non-formalist aspect.” With this interest in American art, we might wonder why he did not move to New York? It was not for reasons of solidarity with the painting then being practiced in Paris, that much is clear. Hantaï has always been a solitary figure on the French art scene and has declared that the „Ecole de Paris-type‟ painting that he found there was of no interest to him. Hantaï had lived in Budapest through the struggle of the war and moved to Paris as an exile from Communism in 1948. It is tempting to suggest that for Hantaï, post-war Europe offered the same scene of entropic breakdown that would shortly inspire a younger American artist, Robert Smithson, to make expeditions around his native New Jersey and later the far western states of America.

Moreover, as Smithson was to emphasize in his turn, Hantaï always insisted on the need for an intellectual frame of reference in order to make meaningful art and Paris remained at the center of the great modern intellectual tradition that totalitarianism had tried, unsuccessfully, to destroy: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Freud, Kojeve, Bataille, Artaud, Lacan, with the towering shadow of the disgraced Heidegger living in distant retirement. This tradition emanated from Hegel and, in defiance of the crass destruction of the twentieth century, founded itself on the role of the negation in modern thought.

Simon Hantaï and Robert Smithson are unlikely to have been aware of, or paid much attention to, each other's work. However, with the passage of time, we can begin to understand that Robert Smithson developed, in accord with Hantaï's position, what was perhaps the crucial response to Pollock by an American post-war artist, through integrating an explicitly philosophical frame of reference into his work. In his writings and interviews, on a number of occasions, Smithson indicated that Pascal‟s break with the mechanistic system of Descartes was his point of departure. He then sketched out the terrain of modern thought, from Hegel and Schopenauer, to Marx and Freud, to more recent figures such as Bataille and Levi-Strauss, in order to explain what his art was about. Smithson espoused a materialist and nominalist philosophical outlook, stating unequivocally that “There's no order outside the order of the material” and that “Language is as primary as steel”. Combining these two positions in a memorable statement, he evoked, as had Hantaï, the notion of „impurity’. He declared: “My work is impure; it is clogged with matter. I'm for a weighty, ponderous art. There is no escape from matter. There is no escape from the physical nor is there any escape from the mind. The two are in a constant collision course. You might say that my work is like an artistic disaster. It is a quiet catastrophe of mind and matter.” Can one conceive of a more eloquent and poignant formulation, in the aftermath of the fatal car crash that took Pollock's life in 1956, anticipating his own untimely death in another accident in 1973?

Central to Smithson's thinking, as to that of Hantaï, is the realization that a materialist outlook necessarily entailed the concept of negation. Speaking about his Site/Nonsite sculptures he stated that “There is a certain degree of unmaking in the pieces, rather than making; taking apart and reassembling. It is not so much a matter of creating something as de-creating, or denaturalizing, or de-differentiating, decomposing (...) My interest in the site was really a return to the origins of material, sort of a dematerialization of refined matter. Existence becomes a doubtful thing. You are presented with a non-world, or what I call a nonsite.”

This sense that the Site/Nonsites have an impact on the viewer's existence leads Smithson to an acceptance of unconscious processes at play in the making of art. Once again, as with Hantaï, it involves a confrontation with „the ground‟. “The existence of „self‟ is what keeps everybody from confronting their fears about the ground they happen to be standing on. (...) When I get to a site that strikes the kind of timeless chord, I use it. The site selection is by chance. There is no willful choice. A site at zero degree, where the material strikes the mind, where absences become apparent, appeals to me, where the disintegrating of space and time seems very apparent. Sort of an end of selfhood ... the ego vanishes for a while.”

Smithson spoke frequently of „entropy‟ and he is viewed as one of the leading figures of the New York avant-garde to advocate abandonment of painting in the 1960‟s. He is cherished as one of the nemeses of „high‟ culture. It may come as a surprise to be reminded, then, that he was an advocate of formal „limits‟. As usual, he was quite explicit on the subject. “All legitimate art deals with limits. Fraudulent art feels that it has no limits. The trick is to locate those elusive limits. You are always running against those limits, but somehow they never show themselves.” And again, “I don't think you can escape the primacy of the rectangle. I always see myself thrown back to the rectangle. That‟s where my things don‟t offer any kind of freedom in terms of endless vistas or infinite possibilities. There‟s no exit, no road to utopia, no great beyond in terms of exhibition space. I see it as an inevitability; of going towards the fringes, towards the broken, the entropic. But even that has limits (...) I'm not all that interested in the problems of form and anti-form, but in limits and how these limits destroy themselves and disappear.”

Smithson, then, has the concept of the artist, or his ego, as located at a particular point. He sets out from that point towards the periphery, be it a physical periphery, or one of experience. He has the concept of a dialectical play between these two entities, the point and the periphery. As the point reaches the periphery, it becomes disoriented. One has the sense here that Smithson is pursuing the inner experience of Pollock's adventure, stripped down to a confrontation with the „real‟. It is as if he wants to incarnate Pollock's gesture by actually living the vulnerable, mesmerizing freedom of his all-over paint skeins.

Smithson has the concept that his art should invert the point and the periphery. With the Site/Nonsite works, he abandons the idea of placing his sculpture as an object in the landscape and instead brings the landscape into the sculpture. He explained it in the following way, addressing himself to the same experience that Hantaï encountered in the folding method: “The site, in a sense, is the physical, raw reality – the earth or the ground that we are really not aware of (...) and instead of putting something on the landscape I decided it would be interesting to transfer the land indoors, to the non-site, which is an abstract container.” The whole tension of the Site/Nonsites would then be for the viewer to figure out where he or she stands in relationship to both.

Looking back once more to Hantaï, the artist has expressed his position during the 50's in the following manner: “I felt I had to make a break, on the one hand, between the painting that was being practiced at the time [a reference to the post-war Ecole de Paris] and, on the other, total chaos. In between these two extremes, I found the fold.” It will be remarked, at this point, how close Hantaï and Smithson are in outlook. With the folding method, Hantaï has symbolically stepped into the real world, as Smithson will do literally in pursuit of the „site‟, and Hantaï's brush, loaded with pigment, explores a ground or terrain of chaotic fragmentation in the expanse of folded canvas. Identity is disoriented and tends towards dissolution. Art must engage the chaos of the real world, but the two should not be confused. Art is separate from natural value. Once again, it is a question of Smithson's limits, or as Hantaï would say, „the fold‟. Then, in a second phase, Hantaï's canvas is opened up and the folds are smoothed out. A drastic detachment of form, together with a new kind of direct relationship to color, emerges. The folded canvas, what Smithson would define as the „site‟, is returned to the context of the rectangle, by being unfolded and placed on the rigid stretcher, to become an abstract „nonsite‟. A process of dematerialization takes place in the finished painting. The ground, interchangeable in Pollock, experienced as an absence in Smithson, resurges inside the confines of Hantaï's painting to become, in his mind, “the true subject of modern art”.

Paul Rodgers

9W Gallery



A Comparison of Folded Paintings by Simon Hantaï and André-Pierre Arnal




With Hantaï, foldings hide from the painter’s sight what, once unfolded, they give up to the spectators eye. In any case, and in all of these states, painting is thought: vision is thought, and the eye thinks, even more than it listens (Deleuze, Guattari, 195).

As an artist, I was intrigued by the idea of using my paintings to show something real and something hidden simultaneously. I started to think about what would happen if I took a piece of canvas and wrapped it around an object and only painted the exposed parts. Unfolded, it would become a portrait of the object fragmented into pieces; the actual folds would appear as white space. “Aha, that must be a unique idea,” I thought! Before delving into a new method of work, I decided to learn more about the history of the fold as a method to paint. I turned to French painters Simon Hantaï and André-Pierre Arnal, who, since the sixties, have used the fold as a process to paint. In this essay, I compare two paintings of these artists: Etude, 262 cm x 228 cm, oil on canvas, painted by Simon Hantaï in 1968, and Dans la vague, 210×100 cm, oil on canvas, painted by André-Pierre Arnal the same year. These two paintings seem at first very similar, they share the blue color and folded pattern; however, after a closer look at the personal background, the historical context, and the intent of the artists, it is possible to discern very clear differences.

With the painting Etude, Simon Hantaï introduced a new painting technique, consisting of all-over folds resulting in all-over pattern of white leaf-like shapes defined by an even blue ground. The folds would hide sections of the canvas, while the artist covered the exposed surface with oil based paint; thereafter, the painting would be unfolded revealing the reserved folded areas as white marks. In the painting Etude, all folds are remarkably even and the borders of the painted areas are crisp and clear. The canvas is large and almost square, and dominates the viewer. For Hantaï, the fold and the resulting white had spiritual connotations; they were symbols of something immaterial. In a video from 1981, Hantaï explains that “the color gives the contour of the white”, that the white is a representation of light — a spiritual opening on eternity (Desfons, video). This intent is directly opposed to the work of Andre-Pierre Arnal, who belonged to the movement Support/ Surfaces. The Supports/ Surfaces artists embraced Materialist and Marxist ideas, proposing a reinvention of the art of painting by focusing on the materiality of its components (Hultén, 25).

Simon Hantaï (1922-2008) was born in Hungary, studied art at the Budapest Academy from 1941 to 1944, and moved to Paris in 1949. In 1953, Andre Breton wrote the foreword to one of his early exhibits of surreal shapes and figures. Obviously influenced by both Automatism and by Jackson Pollock, he soon invented a new method of pouring paint all over the canvas and then subsequently removing it, creating calligraphic snake like patterns (Centre, 66).

Hantaï was never completely convinced of the political and metaphysical aspects of the Surrealist movement. In 1956, the civilian Hungarian Revolution took place. This traumatic event made Hantaï turn away completely from Marxism and the Surrealists. Instead, he focused on the religious, esthetic, and poetic aspects of his art. During one year, from the end of 1958 until 1959, he copied religious texts word for word on to a large canvas. He saw himself performing a task similar to that of ancient monks. In the early 1960s, Hantaï started to use the fold as a painting technique (Centre, 11). By gathering the canvas and folding and tying it, only parts of the canvas were exposed to be painted. Initially, Hantai employed several colors but later ended up painting his canvases in solid colors with the exception of the folds which were white. It is possible that he was influenced by the American Color Field and Minimalist painters of the time (Bonnefoy, 30).

Paradoxically, in 1963, it was the BMPT group of young revolutionary Marxist artists (Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, Niele Toroni) who discovered Hantaï and invited him to participate in shows, and soon he achieved wide recognition. During a group show in the south of France in 1968, Hantaï went to see the chapel decorated by Matisse in Vence, and saw a relationship between his own paintings and the light filtered through the stained glass windows. This revelation resulted in the development of the Etude series. The pattern of Etude became one of Hantaï’s signature motifs repeated through his career (Centre, 65).

For Arnal, the painting Dans la vague, belongs to the series Crushings. A series, that launched a long career of explorations into different indirect methods of painting, such as creasing, crushing, rubbing and tearing (Devlin, 10). Arnal mentions Hantaï among his major influences, but it is not known whether Arnal saw Hantaï’s Etudes before he undertook his own Crushings series. Dans la vague is softer and less graphic than Etude, it feels like the cloth was allowed to flow and fold freely rather than being forced into a specific pattern. The variation in color intensity indicates that the color has been allowed to seek it’s own pattern without the aid of a brush and that there was only one layer of paint applied. The vertical painting Dans la vague is half the size of Etude and is closely related to the scale of the human body. The title Dans la vague translates to In the wave, so it could almost be understood as reflections on the surface of the Mediterranean blue ocean. Arnal works around the repetitive character of the method or gesture and each time ends up with a unique and unexpected result. The consistency in Arnals work is his ability to change and introduce new complex inquires into his art, relentlessly questioning the status quo. Most of his work relates to the scale of the human body; in contrast, Hantai did work on immense canvases that completely dominated the viewer by their size.

André-Pierre Arnal (1939-) was born in Nimes, in the south of France, and went to study art and French language at Ecole de Beaux Arts in Montpellier. Initially a landscape painter, Arnal started to paint abstract in 1964. In 1968, he participated in a group exhibit in Montpellier, that included work by Vincent Bioules, Daniel Dezeuze, and Claude Viallat among others (Devlin, 7). This group of artists were inspired by Materialist and Marxist ideas and strived to continue the act of painting through a reexamination and reevaluation of the materials and methods involved. In 1970, the group Supports/ Surfaces was officially named by a manifesto they wrote, but only two years later, the group broke apart because of internal disagreements regarding the political involvement of the group(Bonnefoy, 167).. Since then, Arnal continued his investigations into the nature of painting and its materials; however, the Marxist rhetoric vanished from his discourse. Arnal has produced several books with paintings and poetry; an example of this is Le Champs Traverse from 1996, which contains poems regarding his process of painting and observations of nature (Arnal, 10).

A large student protest took place in Paris in 1968. This revolutionary vibe also imbued the world of art. Artists took an active role in the demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the status quo, and produced art with political content. It was the time when the validity of painting as an art form came into question both in France and in the US. Where would painting go after Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism? In 1969, the exhibit Anti-Illusion: Procedures/ Materials took place at the Whitney Museum of Art in NY. An exhibit, that moved away from the illusion of the painted surface, and focused on the material qualities and the act of the creative process (Monte, 4). In contrast, the artists of Supports/ Surfaces in France never renounced painting, rather they tried to find new ways to paint and use the materials involved in painting, such as the support and the surface (Bonnefoy, 25). Even though Hantai’s purpose for using the folding technique was spiritual, he served as a major influence on two subsequent tendencies of radical artists, initially the BMPT group and later the Supports/Surfaces group (Bonnefoy, 153).

The two paintings compared in this essay are similar in method, pattern and coloration, but differ dramatically in terms of their intent. In the case of Hantaï, the pattern of Etude evokes spirituality and an ideal form, which could be repeated in eternity. For Arnal, Dans la vague was just one out of many explorations of the canvas surface and nature of paint. When Hantai looked for a totalitarian system, Arnal looked for the possibility of chance to create diversity. Both Hantaï and Arnal wanted to remove themselves from the subjective creative process. Hantaï did this by performing a repetitive blind gesture of folding which is closely related to the Surrealist idea about Automatism. Arnal on the other hand, introduces chance by using chance operations, a concept closely related to the Dadaists. In my opinion, despite their desire to distance themselves from the creative process, I think both artists are very much in control of the final outcome of their oeuvre.

These artists’ work is the proof that the fold as a method of painting is as viable as any other. Is a fold just a fold and a process to paint, or can the fold evoke something about our reality that goes beyond the purely material? The philosopher Gilles Deleuze argued in his book The Fold in 1984, that the fold constitutes the basic unit of existence, “The unit of the matter, the smallest element of the labyrinth, is the fold (Deleuze, 6).” It makes me believe, that the enigma of the fold is still not unsolved. In the right artist’s hand, the fold may still have the power of questioning the illusion of the stretched painted canvas, and maybe even the illusion of our own existence.


Works Cited

Arnal, André-Pierre. Le Champ Traversé. Arles: Actes Sud, 1996.

Bonnefoy, Françoise and Sarah Clément, ed. Les Annees Supports/ Surfaces dans les Collections du Centre Georges Pompidou. Paris: Jeu de Paume/ Centre Pompidou, 1998.

Centre d’Arts Plastiques Contemporaines de Bordeaux. Hantai 1960-1976. Paris, France: L’Imprimerie Union, 1981.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari, What is Philosphy, New York: Verso books, 1994.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Fold : Liebniez and the Baroque. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Desfons, Pierre, Beatrice Caufman, Dominique Fourcade, ”Simon Hantai-Portrait-1981.” You Tube. 19 September, 2010. Web.

Devlin, Eric, ed. André-Pierre Arnal – Marcel Saint-Pierre : Maison de la Culture Frontenac, Montréal. Canada: Gallérie Eric Devlin, 2002.

Hultén, Pontus. Hantai : Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, 26 Mai – 13 Septembre 1976. Paris: Le Centre, 1976.

Whitney Museum of American Art. Anti-Illusion : Procedures/ Materials. New York, NY: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1969.

Liselott Johnsson