Artist Joe Fyfe on three painting shows in Paris [posted 7/9/2018]

“Looking at Delacroix’s ‘Women of Algiers’ is like looking at the DNA of modernism.”

“Jean Fautrier: Texture and Light”
through May 20, 2018 ***CLOSED***
Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris

through July 23, 2018 ***CLOSED***

“Water Lilies. American Abstract Painting and the Last Monet”
through August 20, 2018
Musée de l’Orangerie

As it happened, my one weekend in Paris this spring enabled me to see three great painting exhibitions. The first of them, at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, was a survey of the work of Jean Fautrier, brilliantly curated by Dieter Schwarz. Everything in the show was uniformly excellent—every drawing, every painting, every print and sculpture.

Fautrier is the purported originator of Art Informel, which really translates more as “formless” than “informal.” He was the earliest artist I included in “Le Tableau,” the exhibition of abstract painting that I curated for Cheim and Read gallery in 2010. His work made a good starting point for the show, because the emphasis was on the contributions of French painting from WWII up to the present in light of abstraction’s recent turn toward physical facticity.

Fautrier is a wonderful example of that, because he took the painting’s ground and piled it in the middle of the canvas; he took line and incised it into the paint; he took powdered pigment and threw it around. He was rearranging the signs of painting in a completely new way. Nowadays, we might crudely refer to it as deconstructing the painting object. As French painting tends to be, it’s very intellectual. At the same time, it’s also really earthy.

There’s actually a lot of sex in Fautrier’s paintings. (He was a complicated feller, both a recluse and a libertine.) And something not obvious from the perspective of our own era is how camp his work was. Those pinks and purples challenged the prevailing taste, as did his leopard-skin shoes at the Venice Biennale of 1960, where he shared the Golden Lion with Hans Hartung.

Image: Jean Fautrier, Son Petit Coeur (Nu), (His Little Heart [Nude]), 1943, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 45 ¼ x 59 inches. Private collection. Copyright © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photo copyright © Pierre Antoine.
At L’Orangerie, the exhibition paired American abstract expressionist painting with the later work of Claude Monet. The standouts, I thought, were the Sam Francis works, which are structurally complex and unfold very slowly. Francis was better collected in Paris than in America; we’ve been denied a really good look at his work here because his best stuff is in Europe. (Also in Japan, from what I’ve heard.)

The curators largely avoided making any obvious juxtapositions, but it was interesting to compare, for instance, the depth in a big Morris Lewis “Veil” to that in Monet’s “Water Lilies.” It’s almost identical. And of course, Joan Mitchell comes almost directly out of Monet. Their work is structured in very similar ways. There are breaks in the “Water Lilies” from canvas to canvas when they’re butted together. And Mitchell’s multi-panel paintings do exactly the same thing. (Which, in turn influenced the internal vertical breaks in Bernard Piffaretti’s work.)

Claude Monet, Saule pleureur (Weeping Willow), 1920–22, oil on canvas, 43 ¼ x 39 ½ inches. Courtesy Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo copyright © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Michèle Bellot.

At the Delacroix show at the Louvre, I tried to see the Delacroix paintings—as I always do—as Baudelaire saw them. More than the work of any artist, Baudelaire’s art criticism is my artistic foundation. Delacroix’s Women of Algiers is something akin to the DNA of modernism. Matisse spent almost his whole career reconfiguring it. Picasso’s women are direct descendants of the figures inWomen of Algiers, who here overwhelm the patterned interior of the harem with their palpable sculptural presence.

Just as in Fautrier, in Delacroix you can see painting being deconstructed, with bits of paint lying on the surface of the works that have nothing to do with representation, and lines aren’t the least bit linear—changeling marks, following a rhythm dictated by the painter’s body. As Baudelaire wrote, the value of a compelling, expressive and well-placed touch is enormous.

Image: Eugène Delacroix, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Women of Algiers in Their Apartment), 1833–34, oil on canvas, 71 x 90 inches. Courtesy Musée du Louvre. Photo copyright © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre) / Franck Raux.