New York Swiss-born artist Jean Crotti (1879-1958) is an art historical curiosity. He is best known as Marcel Duchamp’s one-time studio mate who, subsequently, married his sister, Suzanne Duchamp. Crotti was an early abstract painter active in a number of key art movements in the first half of the 20th century, including Cubism, Dada, Orphism and Futurism. Yet his work is rarely exhibited and his career has been largely overlooked.
Born in the French-speaking Swiss canton of Fribourg, Crotti studied theater design in Marseille before settling into a bohemian life in Paris in 1901. Several years later, he befriended Duchamp, who was a neighbor, as well as the abstract pioneer František Kupka, whose painting had perhaps the most profound impact on Crotti, as evidenced by the works in this recent show. Overcrowded but illuminating, “Jean Crotti: Inhabiting Abstraction” contained 46 small and medium-size paintings, one composition in stained glass and several vitrines filled with documentary material.
The first U.S. show devoted to the artist in over 40 years, the exhibition traced the evolution of his painting from Cubist experiments in shades of gray and brown, such as Synthetic Landscape and Composition (both 1916)—betraying the influence of Picasso and Braque—to wildly colorful pieces, including Spiral (1920) and Composition with Stars I (ca. 1940)—akin to works by Kupka and Robert Delaunay. Crotti clearly absorbed and understood the precepts of the avant-garde, and his efforts are often engaging, but the work sometimes lacks the painterly finesse of his better-known colleagues. His brushwork can seem awkward at times, and his compositions occasionally appear tentative or insecure.
Nevertheless, Crotti exhibited regularly at the Salon d’Automne before World War I, and was firmly ensconced in the Parisian avant-garde. In 1922, he even launched an art and literature movement dubbed Tabu. A collaboration with Suzanne Duchamp (whom he married in 1919), Tabu was short-lived and is now largely forgotten. It was a kind of amalgam of a number of previous movements, to which Crotti added a quasi-religious spin in his Tabu-related writings. Works in the show, such as Tabu Painting (1922), a lively composition of small white orbs dispersed over diagonal bands of green, red and purple, were meant to convey the cosmic and spiritual aspects of abstraction.
In later years, Crotti gained notice for developing a stained glass process known as Gemmail. The sole example included in the show, Untitled (ca. 1940), is one of the most intriguing pieces on view. A luminous abstracted landscape, it hints that there is much more to discover in the work of this neglected artist.
Photo: Jean Crotti: Tabu Painting, 1922, oil on canvas, 36 3/8 by 28 1/4 inches; at Francis M. Naumann.