August 7. My reading material for the train to Paris was “A Moveable Feast”. I had not read Hemingway in a very long time, maybe twenty-five years. His this-and-that-and-then-this-and-that rumbling style reminded me of Gertrude Stein which was curious because with Stein this method always smacks of domesticity, like a rolling pin going back and forth over a sentence like she is making a piecrust, but with Hemingway it becomes something different, not masculine per se but so strangely close you seem to smell his breath as you read. This may have to do with this particular book’s purpose, an evocation of a time and place that addresses the senses, and it is written in first person, but the underlying sadness is ingrained. It is harsh prose. I was surprised at how the language flowed but had the effect of making me feel like I was looking at some creature without skin.
I had attempted to read “A Farewell to Arms” in ’99 in Provincetown and had to put it down because I thought I was pretentious, and tried it again this past winter in Ho Chi Minh City, where I started reading a copy I had bought there and after forty pages I discovered that it was a faulty printing and the pages were hopelessly shuffled. After I finished “A Moveable Feast” I was in an English language bookstore on the Rue de Rivoli stocking up on new paperbacks and was about to buy “A Farewell” again and stopped myself because I simply couldn’t take any more of Hemingway. I did not want my heart torn out again just yet and didn’t know that that was how the book had left me until that moment.
Arriving at the Gare de l’Est, I changed some money, shocked at how little the dollar is worth, and then bought a weeklong “Orange” pass for the metro, which I took to Felix Faure. I stopped at a boulangerie, purchasing a baguette and three little fruit tarts and headed to Jerome’s apartment where I was to have dinner with him and spend the first night. The last time I was in Paris was in May ’06. I have been visiting at least once a year since 2000. I felt myself ooze as I heard French spoken around me when the passengers got on the train in Strasbourg. I always seem to be happy in Paris, and was feeling contented as I walked to Jerome’s through his subdued quartier, my heavy bag over my shoulder, baked goods in each hand.
Jerome wasn’t home, and I went out to buy a telephone card and called him in between scouting the neighborhood for a place to eat and a hotel should the need arise. By about nine I went to a bistro called La Murmure. There were tables on the street and it was full of what would be called both an upscale and a neighborhood crowd in restaurant review parlance. I had steak frites, a meal that I had been anticipating for the past few days. It was good, but the frites were soggy rather than crisp, and I thought I might have picked the wrong place. Later in the week, I was informed that the frites issue was quite a controversy among Paris restaurant owners this summer. It seems that because of excess rain, the pomme de terre crop was holding more water and though the potatoes were quite good they did not crisp well. There was discussion as to whether frozen potatoes should be used to satisfy the tourists, and most decided to go with the fresh.
By ten Jerome had not returned. I called France, the wife of Guillaume Lebelle, a painter I was going to meet who had lent me his apartment as they were staying in Montmartre, in a studio at the Bateau Lavoir for two months. I was supposed to meet them the next night, but decided to try them rather than spring for a hotel and cut into my restaurant money. I met France at the Place de Clichy and we climbed up the steep stairs and narrow streets to Agathe’s, Guillaume’s sister’s place, also in Montmartre, on the Avenue Junot. I was to stay there for the night. So, I calmly spent the latter part of the evening with three people I had not met before, other than the introductions that had been made previously by our respective work. I had seen Guillaume’s at an exhibition at Jean Fournier gallery a few years previous. He had seen mine, indirectly, when Agathe, who has a boyfriend in New York, had picked up my catalog when she was there over Christmas. I sat and watched them eat a late dinner in the small apartment as we got acquainted. We split up the tarts I bought for dessert. I worried a bit about Jerome, who, as I discovered the next day, had an important appointment and had forgotten about me. He arrived home shortly after ten and had been calling all over town looking for me.
The following morning I went out to find a café. I had spent very little time on the butte; I could see why painters were drawn to the light on this highest point in Paris. Later I met France and Guillaume at their apartment down the far side of Montmartre in the 18th arrondisement. The neighborhood still had its working class aspects but it was heading towards the higher end of the market like everywhere else. The friendly, cluttered ground floor flat was in an older building on the Rue Belliard, a few doors down from a famous Art Nouveau apartment building noted for its facade of bold, decorative tile work. Designed by the architect Henri Deneux, it was completed in 1913. Interestingly, Deneux was primarily an expert on historical restoration, mostly churches, including the timber roof and interior of the cathedral at Rheims that the Germans nearly destroyed in WWI. This superficially ugly building becomes serious and exquisite after a few minutes. It is the only structure credited to Deneux.
On the other side of the Rue Belliard is the remains of a below ground railroad track that encircled the city in the 19th century before the metro was built. I remember seeing traces of it in Pierrette Bloch’s neighborhood at the other end of town, the bottom of Montparnasse. Whenever I get to the far reaches of the city I note the massiveness of Baron Haussman’s project. It was visible from the vantage point of this neighborhood in how he built around the base of Montmartre and did not attempt to run apartment buildings and boulevards up the steep hills.
The city had also initiated a bicycle program, where near every metro station there was a collection of clunky gray bicycles that rented for a Euro an hour. Less than an hour was free, one had to simply return them to any of the many new bicycle depots that had been installed around the city. I never could get my credit card to work in the automatic rental kiosk and spent most of the week mildly jealous of the carefree souls I saw everywhere scooting around Paris on my preferred mode of transportation.
The Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, which I had not visited since it reopened after refurbishment, did not look a bit different, which is probably a good thing. It is a thoroughly French collection—often sober and cerebral, sometimes emotionally direct, usually physical, occasionally unbearably witty--and one of my favorites, as much for its sparsity as for what is in it: Braque, Fautrier, Sonia and Robert Delauney, Hantai (a roomful), Viallat, Martin Barre. There is a permanent installation in an odd-shaped room by Niele Toroni that looked like Islamic patterning. I particularly wanted to see the Braques, I had just read the biography that is very good but has an awful cover with gold lettering and a cubist portrait of him by Picasso that seems wildly appropriate. Downstairs I was very happy to find nearly an entire room devoted to the work of Pierrette Bloch. There were three very long strips of mounted paper with splotchy black marks and three framed drawings that collected rows of dots like carefully laid stone walls.
I had already heard about an interview with John Cheim in The Journal des Arts; it came up again and again whenever I talked to Parisian artists. Apparently he was asked why Americans do not respond to French painting and John replied that they seemed to consider it “too decorative”. True enough, I suppose but he was making an approximation of what an American art audience thinks. I suppose that a workable distinction between modernism and post-modernism is that the former’s audience was the ideal viewer while the latter’s audience was the mass, uninformed viewer, where the work of art either manipulates them through undermining a given familiarity with mass culture or with verifiable responses.
There is plenty of French art that does this, and does it well, but I come to France to see work that combines economy and visual delight with a degree of thoughtfulness that I don’t find anywhere else. I would have said that American art audiences are accustomed to being entertained by art but their vanity must also be reassured by being told that what they are looking at something that is transgressive or disruptive in some way, as long as they are not specifically told what it is. Also those American art audiences like to see some actual work. You know--elbow grease, or they think they are being fooled, which explains the immense popularity of Chuck Close, the Williamsburg school, and John Currin. But you have to do some thinking and feeling to become involved with French work and most Americans associate that with pain and that makes for a big problem.
My first appointment was with Bernard Piffaretti. I went to his studio in the 10th, a busy immigrant neighborhood near the Canal St. Martin. It’s quiet once you go through the courtyard to his ground floor studio that always seems to have winter light. I have visited him any number of times and I think he is the single most important French painter of his generation. He was rolling up paintings that were to be shipped to the Musée Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, where Matisse was born, in the north, and Bernard was going to show 20 paintings accompanied by his choice of 20 Matisse quotations. He also had a show up in MAMCO in Geneva that I am to see in a few weeks and was working on a proposal for an extensive stained glass commission. I keep hearing about these commissions in France, but they do not come up that often in the US. I remember Al Held was working on one when I had visited him about a year or so before he died.
The next days were what has become the usual week in Paris, studio and museum visits and lunches and dinners with artists. It has become a very important part of my artistic life. Alix Le Meleder’s studio is in Tolbiac. My French is close to nonexistent as is her English, but the puts the paintings up one after another and I look at them for a while and say “Beautiful” after each one. She works in this studio all day, every day but Sunday. Painting to painting the work changes very slowly. There is a schoolyard or playground behind the studio and there are noises of children playing all day every day. I asked her once if the noise bothered her and she said, “Non.”
Paintings in two sizes are stacked deeply in the studio and there is only thin corridor between them to squeeze through to get to the painting area. The paintings are dominated by a red color though there are many colors if you look closely. She liked the review I wrote about her work so much that I am given a small painting, which she wraps for me and I say merci and goodbye until next time.
I met Guillaume Lebelle at the Palais de Tokyo where there is an exhibition of the late Steve Parrino’s work, an artist who was a big influence on me and I have also written about. Actually, he became an influence on me as I wrote about the work, I kept thinking, “Physical, yes, physical.” Parrino is kind of a proto-punk support/surface artist, and I remember his dealer telling me that “somebody had to play out the Greenberg card so Steve chose to do it”, but I think that the work is bigger than any stylistic move, or strategy. For all of its mimetic violence and shiny black gloss there is very little irony or rhetoric. Also, there is not an excess of work or any falsity. It is not about production, he thinks through every move. I really liked being around it; Guillaume seemed to like the drawings.
That night we went to dinner in Montmartre with France and Agathe and I had tete de veau, one of the dishes I have had in a long time, another reason why I keep coming here. I have been looking at Guillaume’s paintings in three different locations, the apartment I am staying in, in his large temporary studio in the Bateau Lavoir and in his winter studio about a block from his apartment, the second floor of a woodworker’s shop around the corner form the Rue Belliard. This small structure looks as if it was originally agrarian and must date from when the area was still the countryside. I do not know whether this aspect of Paris is so enticing because it just is or because there have been so many good paintings made of it that told us how to look at it. When I first came to Switzerland, many of the innocuous rural landscapes with mists and bans looked like Gerhard Richter’s landscape paintings. I cannot disregard Richter because he tells us how Europe looks at present; he is like reading Sebald, the historical consciousness seeps in everywhere. Tuymans figured out how to foreground the historical over the photo-representation, a way out of Richter, but now where to go?
It is not my concern; I am still looking at painting as painting. Jerome came with me to Guillaume’s studios. He is a very good painter; he has, from my point of view, not enough analysis going on, and does not edit himself or focus on one aspect of his work, so that the paintings sometimes contradict one another. But there are things that he does that I do not see anywhere else and it made the time spent of value.