In New York, shows of French abstraction are on the increase. Yet many reprise artists known here in the distant past: Perrotin exhibited Georges Mathieu in 2021 and gave over its entire space to Hans Hartung twice in the past five years. And twice in two years Lévy Gorvy (now Lévy Gorvy Dayan) has featured Pierre Soulages.
On the other hand, Ceysson & Bénétière has annually given its Madison Avenue gallery over to one artist or another from the historical Supports/Surfaces group, who were famous in France in the years following soixante-huit but never got much exposure in the United States. These include Patrick Saytour, Louis Cane, Bernard Pagès, and this past September, Nöel Dolla — the last a good example of that group’s playful, morphological dismantling of painting and use of unconventional materials, like his tarlatan substrate.
Soulages’s early paintings, which were included in a recent survey exhibition at Lévy Gorvy Dayan, From Midnight to Twilight, evoke the archaic shadows of a destroyed post-World War II Europe, crowding out their light with forcibly handled dark shapes. The artist has said that black represented the darkness of caves, where the first paintings in history were created. He worked until he was 101, progressively and dramatically enlarging scale as he embedded striations, indentations, and textures in heavy factures of thick black paint. In the gallery’s grandiose space on 64th street, they look like they belong there, for all their radicality.
Soulages, a mainstay of a post-war style called lyrique abstract, a kind of free improvisational painting named by the French art critic Jean José Marchand, shared certain qualities with the Swiss-born Gérard Schneider, whose work is currently on the ground floor of Perrotin, with the solo exhibition Rhapsody in Blue. The press release describes his paintings as “raw and vibrant, physical and unrestrained,” but they are carefully exuberant, and more mannered than raw — an example of how, unlike the Americans, modern European painters usually remained within the boundaries of the frame and were comfortably familiar with easel painting. Schneider’s colors are vibrant yellows, greens, and blacks on blue grounds. His decisive swerves of the brush are thin in the background and more heavily loaded as he tops them off. His compositions begin and end within the pictures’ margins.
Still, Schneider and Soulages, and other Parisian artists of the period, in their calculated use of thickened paint, hint at an objectification of the painting process, anticipating strategies of the next generation, where a further detachment and analysis between hand and material moved to the forefront.
Martin Barré was a slightly younger lyrique abstract painter who veered off after an encounter with the monochromes of Yves Klein. Barré indicated new expanses within the two dimensions of rectangles as he endlessly re-examined the act of making a mark, in one cunningly reticent series after another. Only in the past 20 years have Barré’s paintings been exhibited in New York, and only sporadically. He is cited as an influence in the art historian Yve-Alain Bois’s essay on the work of Christophe Verfaille, a little-known French artist whom Bois knew since they were teenagers. Verfaille had brief gallery representation in France, but mostly taught high-school semiotics. He was plagued by health issues and died at age 58 after a long illness.
Following a posthumous exhibition of Verfaille’s work at Galerie Buchholz in Cologne, Bois has curated a show at the gallery’s New York location. However unassuming they might at first appear, as generic and often diminutive hard-edged color field abstractions, Verfaille’s paintings are richly evocative, deceptively intricate, and intelligently modest. Upon encountering these equally jewel-like and workmanlike paintings at the gallery, with their limited vocabulary of shapes made from squares and knifelike triangles angling in from the edges and their variegated off-Crayola color, I thought, thank God, someone not trying to astonish me.
The paintings (all from the 1990s) are on various sizes of cut plywood that looks a little knocked around in a favorable way. A degree of sanding is visible between the painted shapes on the flat surfaces. More than any other French painter of the period I was reminded of the slightly earlier Blinky Palermo, the meteoric German who imported the industrial aesthetic from American minimalist sculpture into his painting in several series of acrylic on aluminum panels.
Verfaille revised some works almost endlessly through the decade, the compositions becoming more complex rather than simpler as the ’90s progressed, while the earlier ones, made up of primaries and secondaries (including lots of yellow) are more effulgent. The many overlapping triangular shapes and diagonal bands create a degree of shallow illusionism: You can look down into them, but it is a slow sensation, almost like that of a monochrome; they lack the dynamism that one might expect from a style like this. Verfaille understood that a painting has an invisible underlying structure, and however it is addressed, whatever stylistic choice is made, it remains arbitrary.
Verfaille’s self-effacing abstractions illustrate a remark the painter Christian Bonnefoi once made that “Abstraction is not decomposition or simplification … [but] something under the figure, something older”; to Bonnefoi abstraction is “a difference of levels.” I keep returning to later French abstraction, including this marvelous discovery, because I think that abstraction, which at the moment appears as an esoteric form, is a social practice. Most visual culture attempts to busy the viewer’s eyes with some form of spectacle. But is it not social practice to provide an experience in which a different kind of attention and, above all, a different kind of thinking is demanded?
Gérard Schneider: Rhapsody in Blue continues at Perrotin (130 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through December 22. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
Christophe Verfaille continues at Galerie Buchholz (17 East 82nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 6. The exhibition was curated by Yve-Alain Bois.