By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST November, 2019
The central job of a gallery show is to present some good art but if that show can also shine a light on an under-known artworld issue then so much the better and Power Lines at the Opera Gallery on Madison, does just that. It’s a show of abstract work, consisting of paintings by two artists, both gone, Hans Hartung and Georges Mathieu, along with the sculptures of John Helton, an American in his mid 50s. So, to the older artists first. Hartung, a German who made his career in France and took French citizenship, and the Frenchman, Mathieu, were both key figures in Lyrical Abstraction, Abstraction Lyrique, a movement born in Post-War Paris, and so called by Mathieu in 1947. Thus they were contemporaries of Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko et al, so were part of a whole generation of leading Euros who were swept into the shadows by what critic Irving Sandler celebrated as The Triumph of American Painting.
That shut-out was durable and it has given rise to movie-ready theses. How New York Stole The Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, a book by Serge Guilbaut, a French Canadian, which was published as late as 1984 and translated into several languages, suggested that the US triumph had been actively promoted by agencies such as the CIA, to highlight the lack of artistic freedoms behind the Iron Curtain. Which seems pretty smart, if true, indeed appropriate, but the book also includes such flourishes as a suggested linkage of the positioning of US fleet in the Mediterranean to Robert Rauschenberg’s surprise win of the Golden Lion award at the 1964 Venice Biennale, a notion which would have been a better fit into the ugly Post-Truth rumorscape of today.
In Paris the US triumph was a dart to the heart. The Ecole de Paris, which had dominated the art world since the Impressionists, had been enfeebled by the German occupation and tainted by collaboration, so now some saw in Europe’s Lyrical Abstraction – the term was adopted in the US too - a bulwark against the tsunami of Ab Ex, and Georges Mathieu was the most visible figure. He had been using dripping as a technique as early as 1945, the year before Time magazine tagged Jackson Pollock “Jack the Dripper” and that same year he made a painting, Homage to all the poets in the world, in front of a crowd of 2,000 in the venerable Theatre Sarah-Bernhardt. Three years later he painted a 2.5 by 6 metre canvas in half an hour, backed by a jazz drummer.
These were not just fairground stunts. "The most important moments are clearly when I paint in public,” Mathieu observed. “In fact, this process, without me being aware of it, works in a mediumistic way to heighten the concentration of the situation.” Jauntily mustachioed, given to wearing a jumpsuit, scarves and materials draped around his waist, Mathieu had clearly borrowed from the Salvador Dali playbook, but he was well aware of Pollock, another painter who knew how to make his workspace into an arena, and had indeed introduced his work to the French art world in the 50s.
That was not the Frenchman’s only trans-Atlantic pull. “I was a major fan of Mathieu’s,” I was told by the New York-based artist Red Grooms, who had begun channeling parallel moves into his work in the late ‘50s, beginning with a theatrical piece. “I called it A Play Called Fire. It was just me making a pretty large painting, and an audience sitting on the floor.” He called such works “plays” but then Allan Kaprow got involved and came up with a catchier word, “Happenings”. The performative element is now as huge in art-making as ever. High time for another look at Georges Mathieu.
If Hans Hartung’s career was less showy than Mathieu’s it was hardly lacking in drama. Born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1904, he so loathed the Nazis and moved first to the Balearics, islands off Spain, then to Paris in 1932. With the outbreak of war he joined the Foreign Legion and lost a leg. After the war he returned to Paris and his painting. In this, he was an abstractionist from the get go, achieving a mature style in which chance played a major part and which balanced fields of color against the slashing elegance of grouped calligraphic lines.
Hartung met with Mondrian and Kandinsky, worked with Calder, and his work achieved substantial recognition. A visit to his studio was filmed by the young Alain Resnais, the director-to-be of Last Year in Marienbad and Hiroshima, Mon Amour. It got into the prestige quintcentennial art exhibition, documenta in Kassel, Germany and was awarded the Prix Guggenheim in 1956 and the Great International Prize for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1960. In 1980 a black on blue Harting abstraction was plonked onto a French postage stamp, his name printed on the bottom right corner.
Hartung died in 1989, aged 85. Mathieu died in 2012 at 91. Both their posthumous careers were sleepy, in the case of Mathieu partly because the performative element, which Pollock had dreaded would be seen as part of his practice, was so unabashedly a part of Mathieu’s, but both reputations have been reborn, and these are not isolated phenomena. The shiny period of American Triumphalism is over and the posthumous careers of substsntial Euros are bring re-surfaced one by one. Not that the Ab Ex greats are being dissed., indeed they are sometimes put to use in that process, as when Domique Levy and Bretty Gorvy opened their New York gallery, Levy Gorvy in January 2017 with a show which partnered Zao Wou-Ki, a Chinese artist who had moved to Paris in 1948, with Willem de Kooning. Last year Zao Wou-Ki had a solo show at Gagosian on Madison.
Which brings us to the American component in Power Lines, John Helton. These three artists are, shall we say, highly strung, and Helton particularly. The energy of his pieces brings to mind the Futurist, Umberto Boccioni, and the way Helton’s are stripped down to line can be likened to Giacometti. You don’t have to be deeply read in Marinetti’s manifestoes though to be aware that Boccioni’s work expresses a machine age vision whereas that of Helton celebrates the athletic physicality of the natural world.
And Giacometti? It’s clear to the eye that the lines of the Italian-Swiss have been pared down in a painful furore of energy. As had been his mindset from his early years. I could not understand it, he wrote of his youthful work. All my sculptures ended up one centimeter high. One touch more and hop! The statue vanishes. Helton’s work, although that too compresses large energies into a small compass, has a positive vibrancy. It’s about life. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest is an internationally known writer and artist.
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