August 12. Paris, cont’d----Went to Marie-Claude Bugeaud‘s studio. She is one of four women who live and work in Paris that I have collected into an exhibition entitled “Paris on Paper”. I am looking for a venue. All of the work is concerned with light, materiality, and the act of making a mark on paper, and also gives the paper support as important a role as the drawing mark itself. Marie-Claude is the only artist of these four who concentrates equally on drawing and painting. I saw new large and small paintings and also a number of works on paper. The latter were composed of long painted lines or dots and dashes that encircled themselves or interwove. She used the word cheveux: hair; and talked about being interested in the earliest forms of art. I remember that she was always interested in finding ways that women were present in the canon, from past interest in the abstractions that took place in the pleats and folds of garments and the baskets and other domestic items in narrative paintings, to that of patterning and decoration visible in what was done to hair in ancient works of art. She told me that she considered this the earliest form of art. It must have even preceded cooking in clay gourds and basket weaving.
Marie-Claude alerted me to a temporary exhibition at the Louvre. There was newly restored bronze figure from the millennium before Christ, from an area that is now Yemen. I went to the Louvre that day. The museum is crowded now, like all major museums, the draw to treasure and to powerful representations is, I am sure, irresistible to present–day, image-worshiping materialists, but, on the other hand, any nation that has a respect for art as a cultural value is okay with me. My own country, by contrast, simply let Iraq’s aesthetic patrimony scatter to the four winds. Vietnam distrusts any but the most commercial Western culture--free-market propaganda--so it allows Stallone and Schwarzenegger but bans Durrenmatt.
To find L’Homme de Bronze, I had to ask the guards. The Louvre is a frustrating museum to find anything in, the signs are so discretely placed and so pale a color in relation to the marble walls, I kept losing my way, and there were other things I wanted to see. Finally a guard who was sitting amid some stone reliefs from Persepolis changing the band-aid on the heel of his foot pointed me to “Lawm Brun”.
Here was an index of the chief concerns in Marie-Claude’s work, the repeated patterning of the hair of the figure, a different pattern for the beard, the interweaving of the thick cord around his waist and the stylized, ordered folds of the garment that covered his lower torso and legs. The figure had a deep green patina, was dramatically lit and was displayed at a 45-degree angle. It was the kind of archaic personage that Josephsohn was attracted to: static; with naturalistic elements that were encoded in such a way that a kind of decorative improvisation was evident and made it very alive.
There are certain things that I can only see in museums, like Islamic pottery, and the Louvre had some beautiful examples. These bowls with simple dots, dashes and dribbles inspired early abstract paintings of mine, where I thought about how a painting is an object that holds paint and reflects light. These objects were my only artistic models for this idea; otherwise I was looking at things like fire hydrants and tugboats, painted things, not paintings. I also returned to look at the Etruscan figurative sculpture, which I found even stranger than when I was here last year, and was once again was more interesting because of the time I had spent around Josephsohn’s reclining figures. In both cases the reclining man or woman is whole, though appears to be a bunch of disparate elements cobbled together, barely adhering.
Then was the search for the Braque ceiling that I had read about in the biography. He executed it when he was seventy, climbing up a scaffold every day. Nicolas De Stael thought it was a failure. The guards gave me various locations and it took a good half-hour to track it down. There were five black birds surrounded by blue and white shapes, and/or the sky, in three different ovals--two pairs and a loner—framed by the ornate ceiling. I looked at them for a long time. There were a few stars in the background of the central pair of birds. I thought of how I would mention them when I saw Shirley Jaffe on Saturday, the Braque ceiling reminded me of her work. I then went to look at the Corots, an area of the museum that Jerome brought me to a few years ago. It is so easy to forget about Corot and he is so quietly good. Everyone always talks about Cezanne in relation to the invention of cubism but there is just as much Corot in cubism. And I love his sobriety, the earthiness of his touch with paint, the sleepy models, all the buildings and plains baked and bored by the sun. There was a show of his drawings there that was not interesting other than to demonstrate that he could draw, and I have no interest in the Corot of the poetic underbrush of Barbizon, but I love the plainness of his sunlit landscapes and women in costume holding jars. They look dull, but its such a good dull, an alive dull.
One late morning I was in Chaillot and ran into an old friend from New York, Nancy Jones, a writer, who also writes occasionally about art. We had a long lunch and I had my foie gras for the week, which I can still summon up the taste memory of as I write this. As it turned out, she has a very old friend who knew Martin Barré, who is perhaps the single most important French painter to me. She was supposed to meet this person--and perhaps, Barré’s widow--for dinner that evening and invited me. I changed some plans and went to her friend Ann Hindry’s apartment that evening. Both Leo Castelli and Clement Greenberg had courted Ms. Hindry and it was very easy to see why. She was now married to a Frenchman in the advertising business, whom I was told, knew everything about everything. I would have been happy to meet him too. I was shown around the apartment and looked at her two very nice Barré’s, her Kelly plant drawing and her Michaux painting and we went out to dinner. The widow, Mimi, as it turned out, was still in the South.
Barré, I learned, spent a great deal of time sitting in his café sipping Cotes de Rhone and chain-smoking. That is where one would meet him. It all sounds very Parisian, but there is nothing provincial about his work. It does sound like he was in his own world and somewhat helpless. I know the work well because I have every book on him and have read just about everything I could on him in English. Ann wrote the piece that was in the roundly ignored “As Painting” exhibition in Columbus, Ohio in ’99. His work moves along, through five decades, always quite preoccupied with an idea about painting that every so often produced a series built on what was learned in the previous one but radically different.
According to Ann, he was afraid to fly, he thought that he needed to buy a ticket for his own retrospective at the Jeu de Paume, and when a he was young man, he once wandered his usual way with his dog on the beach near his boyhood home in Normandy on June 6, 1944 and passed by a section of D-Day troops. The story goes that he came home and said, “Momma, there are men in khaki uniforms on the sand.” This sounds apocryphal. He wouldn’t ever say much, would be just as interested in Hollywood gossip as anything else, and would sometimes come out with the statement that he had an idea for a new series of paintings. Barré never showed the work to anyone until the entire series is finished. When it was, Ann would be invited for dinner, and afterward she and his wife and he would go to the studio with a bottle of Cognac and see the new series. No one would say anything.
I told Ann that I thought of him being the American equivalent of Ryman in the sense that what he did was a little too idiosyncratic to really provide a direction for painting, as important an artist as he was. She agreed on the hermetic part. I went to the Centre Pompidou and there were three Barré paintings from one of the last series in a room with a large Andre on the floor, three Ryman’s on the right wall and three Agnes Martins on the left. This was very close to my personal pantheon. It was a great room, though a little small for all of this work. The Barrés had pride of place, on the central wall, but all the paintings, unfortunately, had little stands and ropes in front of them to protect the delicate surfaces. The only other room nearly so glorious was a room devoted to Malevich. There was a big tondo down the end of the contemporary section that I thought was a large recent Howard Hodgkin but turned out to be a Katherina Grosse. She seems to have successfully stolen his fire.
Lunch that day was at the Ambassade d’Auvergne, where I always get a good meal. I had two lunches there, the first with Mick Finch, painter from England who has lived in France for about fifteen years. He speaks and reads French and he has read and understood a lot of the theory that is behind French painting of the last thirty years. I had been looking over his ‘studio notes’ that are on his website, mickfinch.com. He makes distinctions between Greenberg’s specificity of painting as being comprised of flatness and opticality, and describes the French alternative, the concept of the tableau and how “In a French context ‘thickness’ is privileged as the key specificity in painting”. Hubert Damisch: "Dubuffet… liked working in the thickness of the ground - I mean of the tableau - to reveal what is beneath: scratching the paper, incising and beating up substance, skinning it and whipping it up to reveal layers below… But what does that mean? …. Thickness here really does open up the possibilities for thinking through painting - the notion of work in relation to the surface adds up to an idea of excavation of the tableau as well as of the painting” Finch: the surface of painting, epistemologically and as the objet de connaissance, was to become for many French artists and particularly those associated with Supports/Surfaces.
Damisch's description of the working of this surface as a material entity in itself, throws into question the flatness of painting as being in itself a specific limit of the medium as well as an a priori condition. Greenberg's centering of specificity around flatness and the subsequent hyper-realization of the optical illusionism that he claimed was inherent to painting, shut down the possibilities of materially working painting in terms of surface as a 'thickness'. Supports/Surfaces in a restricted sense was a demonstration of just such possibilities where the material manipulation of the surface was seen as a site of inscription in painting that undermined ideas of ground and field that were at work in the USA.
Damisch's use of thickness throughout a number of texts from the early sixties on is accompanied by an oscillation of its relationship with painting and the wider term tableau. The use of tableau in lieu of painting is highly significant, as well as complex, in relationship to French critical thinking.”
We didn’t end up talking about the concept of the tableau very much but I heard more speculation about what is going on at Jean Fournier Gallery. Jean Fournier died about two years ago now, and the gallery remains open but its direction is unclear. Fournier was the outstanding figure in post-war French Abstraction. I remember I heard one story about him seeing the future of painting in the fragments of cut and colored paper that Matisse, in his final woks, had attached to pieces of cloth with safety pins. Fournier liked my work on paper enough in reproduction that he wanted to put them in show with James Bishop’s works on paper. Alas, it was not to be.
Mick was interested in the works of Aby Warburg that are appearing in English for the first time. Warburg’s research, he died in 1929, involved a lot of very contemporary ideas about high and low culture, interdisciplinary studies, and interestingly, the survival of antiquity in different cultures. Philippe-Alain Michaud of the Pompidou has written a book about Warburg for Zone Books and has curated two shows that I have seen, including Le Mouvement des Images, where the permanent collection was used to sort out a relation to filmic movement, and an earlier exhibition called Comme le reve, le dessin, that was also at the Louvre and attempted to explore the dream in relation to drawing and film, that I reviewed for the increasingly questionable Art on Paper magazine. The idea of the painted or drawn image and its interaction with film sequencing is an idea that I immediately am wary of, but may be something that is inevitable, i.e. looking into using sequences in my own work. The set lunch included saucisson on green beans and for dessert I had stewed rhubarb in a fresh mint broth that was quite lovely. I asked Mick if he would write something for ArtCritical.com.
I began reading a copy of “In Cold Blood” the first night at Agathe’s and a few days later I picked up my own copy and it kept me company in the parks and on the metros. I had never read it and was impressed with how it was such a portrait gallery, how well the victims and the murderers were portrayed, how the one, Perry, was sensitive, interested in language and music and a psychopath. He was artistic, or had artistic leanings, as did the murdered daughter, Nancy Clutter. The book is about how mysterious humans are. Of course I read it because I loved Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, but I think Capote never succeeded with another novel because his alcoholism caught up with him and ruined his capacity for extended effort. So there was this narrative plus Bryan Ferry’s version of “These Foolish Things” constantly running through my head as I criss-crossed Paris, keeping appointments and occasionally ducking into churches to look at windows during this week of beautiful weather.
One evening I finally did catch up with Jerome for dinner at his house with his wife Martine. They had stayed at my place in New York for part of my time in Cambodia and in Switzerland. He said something about the difference between French and American painting that I had not heard before, that the French tend to be artisanal and the American, industrial. In other words, the French tend to be preoccupied with how one goes about crafting a painting, or in my interpretation, what is it, and how does one go about beginning it? The Americans in how to produce it, what comes out of the work process, and how does one perpetuate production. It is a pretty simple explanation of why I like French painting more than American painting, The French way is easily more contemplative and philosophical and the American more illustrational and dynamic.
Shirley Jaffe had heard this distinction before, and seemed to respond to the idea with some impatience. She seems of two minds about French painting. She has participated in the Parisian painting dialogue for more than fifty years, has been in Paris since shortly after WWII, was a good friend of Joan Mitchell and Al Held and many others, including Janice Biala, and was one of the artists who showed at Jean Fournier. But I do think that she considers herself an American painter, because she is an American. Almost every time I am Paris I go to the studio and we get a meal. She doesn’t take her work out, though if a painting or a drawing is up, I can look at it. But she doesn’t offer to show me more, usually. I think this has to do with the first time I met her she blindsided me by asking me directly what I thought of her work and I said I hadn’t figured out what I thought, yet. And now that I know her, I still haven’t. But I think the work is maybe a bit like Josephsohn’s, in this time but not of it.
We have had discussions where we have clearly stated our differences: She makes paintings that attempt to include as many contradictory elements as possible and through the painting process wrestles them into a kind of joyful, but also ambiguous, order. She told me about how it is a way of controlling the chaos of life itself, by taking an overwhelming complexity and making something orderly and beautiful from it.
I, on the other hand, have come to see painting as a place that has nothing to do with life or me. It is a place totally removed from daily existence, with its own rules, its own traditions and its own order. I keep making paintings because there is something I am trying to figure out on its terms. I suppose the difference is between her struggle and my search. But we seem to get along. I was very happy when she saw my show in Paris a few years ago and approved and understood what I was doing.
The catalog of the exhibition that laid out the history of Jean Fournier gallery is in the museum bookstores, and seeing Shirley’s work in that context gave me a new perspective on it. She was showing with a bunch of strong, idiosyncratic painters and her paintings held their ground. She has taught me what tough paintings Riopelle was doing, and criticized me when I wrote that Al Held’s late paintings had landscape space in them. This time, we mostly caught up on people, and what I had seen. She had gone to see the Steve Parrino exhibition, and I was more curious what she thought about it than anyone else. She thought he almost had something there, but didn’t push it enough. Shirley is someone who has put her curiosity about where her work is going ahead of everything else in her life. I suspect I am more like this than I am willing to admit.
One of the more interesting spectacles this time was the projection of images of medieval sculptures on the covered scaffolding surrounding Eglise Ste. Paul. I often walk near Notre Dame late at night but the summer crowds were out late. I am usually here in the off-season when plane tickets are cheaper. I was happy on my final day to go to the obscure suburb of Gambetta to visit Gabriele Chiari, who I also want to include in “Paris on Paper”. I got lost and happened by the Place Edith Piaf before I retraced my steps and found her ground floor space.
Gabriele, who is from Austria, was a student of Bernard Piffaretti. She has been in Paris since she was at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts eight years ago. I had heard about the jobs she took, including one as a guide at the Palais de Tokyo. At present, she works in the north of the city with schoolchildren as a German tutor. I was sitting in her refurbished storefront studio for the first time, though I had been hearing about it over the last few years, since she bought it, cheaply. I had been thinking all week about moving to Paris. My time away has just about ended, and the question becomes what’s next? It was interesting that she told me she had no great attraction for Paris, she decided to come for school and then gradually decided to stay. These were the same reasons that Shirley originally gave, that she had come with her then-husband and then didn’t leave. It may have been the lowered expectations that made the difference.
So I ended my time there once again looking at work I admire and enjoying another meal. I looked a Gabriele’s new works on paper and felt the warm light come through the old frosted glass in this former shop on the Rue de Capitaine Marchal. I don’t know if I will ever live there but I will return.