Theory and Matter

Pierre Buraglio: Gauloises, 1978, collaged cigarette packages, 94 by 78 inches. Courtesy Musée d'art contemporain du Val-de-Marne. © Jacqueline Hyde.


Like many great art narratives, the tale of Supports/Surfaces has an air of improbability about it. After the euphoria of May 1968 implanted the notion in a generation of French youth that all was possible, that it was their task to dismantle every received structure, what were artists to do? Only a fool, or a Stalinist, of which there were many in the French Communist Party, would remain content with simple-minded protest art. In the era of Barthes, Derrida, Althusser and Lacan, after becoming enthralled by Mao’s Cultural Revolution, how could you be satisfied with anything less than the thorough deconstruction of your medium and the ideologies underlying it? And so, with the demolitions of Of Grammatology echoing in their minds, the promises of the barricades and visionary graffiti nagging in the background, a rising wave of radical French artists embraced . . . painting!

Painting? That most Establishment of mediums, which many people at the time thought thoroughly compromised and artistically exhausted? To grasp the perversity of Supports/Surfaces’s placing painting at the center of its practice, take a look at comparable movements in other countries, such as Arte Povera in Italy or Post-Minimalism in the U.S.—for nearly all the artists associated with these tendencies the whole point was to escape painting by every possible means.

Equally improbable was the type of painting Supports/Surfaces gravitated toward: monochrome expanses of color and simple geometric patterns that derived from American Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting, from Clement Greenberg’s dreaded formalism. In other words, these artists embraced the most counterrevolutionary of all options. The only way to understand the logic and consequences of their choices is to look carefully at the artworks and to read the texts that formed and framed them, texts written by theorists and critics as well as by the artists themselves. For a long time it has been almost impossible for the U.S. public to see examples of Supports/Surfaces art, and reading the relevant texts hasn’t been much easier. (Few have been translated, and even Francophone readers must track them down in rare periodicals and exhibition catalogues.)

While most of the texts remain, at least for now, inaccessible, the work itself was the subject of two gallery exhibitions in 2014: early in the year, at Cherry and Martin in Los Angeles and, over the summer, at Canada Gallery in New York. The Cherry and Martin show, titled “Supports/Surfaces is Alive and Well,” presented 1960s and 1970s works by six artists associated with the group (Pierre Buraglio, Louis Cane, Daniel Dezeuze, Noël Dolla, Jean-Michel Meurice, Claude Viallat), alongside pieces by two young Californians (Jennifer Boysen and Noam Rappaport). By contrast, the Canada show restricted itself to only French artists, adding five more (André-Pierre Arnal, Marc Devade, Bernard Pagès, Jean-Pierre Pincemin, Patrick Saytour).

The Canada exhibition, which was realized in conjunction with Bernard Ceysson, a French gallery owner and former museum director who has been a longtime champion of the movement, benefited greatly from the gallery’s high ceilings. As can be seen from photo-documentation, the original Supports/Surfaces exhibitions (1969-72) frequently featured artworks that could be unrolled and stretched seemingly without limit. Although Piero Manzoni had launched his potentially infinite line (in black paint on an enormous unspooling roll of paper) a decade earlier, the French artists engaged with color and structure in a way that hadn’t interested Manzoni. Equally important, their long-form abstractions were designed for display, intended to occupy as much physical space as possible, whereas Manzoni’s experiments with radical extension were meant to be rolled up in canisters.

More crucial than Manzoni for the Supports/Surfaces experiments were the modular structures of the American Minimalists, which implied infinite reiterations. Where Supports/Surfaces departed dramatically from Minimalism was in its rejection of industrial materials. By opting for flexibility and lightness (unstretched canvas, handkerchiefs, gauze) Supports/Surfaces artists were able to create works that were highly portable and could feasibly be extended to great scale. Judd’s boxes and Andre’s steel plates may have gone on forever in theory, but they were too heavy and too unwieldy to be easily extended very far. Similarly, Stella’s stripe paintings were restricted in size for purely practical reasons. Divesting itself of all rigid structures, Supports/Surfaces attained a remarkable physical freedom.

It’s impossible to separate this tendency toward the infinite from the circumstances of many early Supports/Surfaces exhibitions, which were held in the streets and on the hillsides of southern France, where the majority of the artists lived. Although the recent Los Angeles and New York shows offered no outdoor installations, the Canada exhibition, in particular, did acknowledge the importance of the idea of the endlessly unfurling work.

The first thing visitors to the show encountered was a 20-foot-high grid of knotted and dyed rope made by Claude Viallat in 1972. Suspended from the gallery’s ceiling, this supple structure set the stage for other works such as Daniel Dezeuze’s Échelle de bois souple (Flexible Wooden Ladder), 1974, a length of wood-veneer trellis of the sort you might find in a backyard garden, subtly altered by the artist with some selective staining; Patrick Saytour’s Déployé (Unfurled), 1970, 26-plus feet of shiny red fabric propped against the wall by a dozen thin plastic poles; and Noël Dolla’s Tarlatane (Gauze), 1976, a 12-foot-high painting made from a roll of the titular fabric. In a process typical of much Supports/Surfaces work, Dolla applied the paint while the gauze was still rolled up, which meant that he could see the painting only after he unrolled it. For other “Tarlatanes” Dolla has stretched rolls of gauze back and forth across enormous spaces. Similarly, Viallat has made paintings from awnings, tents and tarps that cover vast amounts of wall and floor space, and Dezeuze has unreeled his ladders from ceiling to floor and beyond.

The portability of these easily folded and rolled works suggests an interest in nomadism, one that echoed aspects of 1960s counterculture, while conveniently allowing for cheap and easy transportation of work—very desirable for struggling young artists. Viallat, especially, embraced the idea of nomadic art, inspired in part by a visit to the Plains Indian exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the early 1970s. He found equal inspiration close to home: Viallat’s colorful, pattern-filled paintings, which have long relied on an endlessly repeatable lumpy rectangular shape (based on the imprint of a housepainter’s sponge), are intensely Matissean.

Also important for Supports/Surfaces was the realm of the everyday: Viallat made paintings from shop awnings and curtain tassels, Saytour employed commercially printed fabrics, Buraglio collaged Gauloises cigarette packs, and, perhaps most radically of all, Dolla made Barnett Newman-inspired paintings from dishtowels and handkerchiefs, which he hung from white metal drying racks of the kind you would find in a typical French kitchen. Influenced by Fluxus, Dolla often turned to humble domestic items for his paintings in the late 1960s. In the mid-1970s he gained attention for his “Cross” series where the central cruciform motif is generated from a process of cutting, dyeing and folding a square piece of fabric.

Like Dolla, Dezeuze has an extremely varied practice. The Cherry and Martin show included some of his mid-1970s paintings on gauze that feature pale colors, scissored edges and eccentric shapes, as well as one of his works in which transparent plastic film is affixed to bare stretcher bars. Buraglio, too, has done a lot with very little, adding skinny striations of color to thin strips of masking tape along the edges of tracing paper, or making paintings from stapled scraps of canvas, combinations of stretcher bars and nylon cord or, as with one work in the Canada show, cut-up and scored-through pages from the newspaper Le Monde. (When Buraglio was young and unable to afford much in the way of painting materials, a roll of canvas remnants given to him by Simon Hantaï helped shape his practice. Through his use of folding, his passion for grids and his belief in letting process determine his compositions, Hantaï had a significant influence on Supports/Surfaces.)

Not all the Supports/Surfaces artists rejected the conventional stretched canvas. Marc Devade, who, ironically, was among the most politically radical of the group, to judge by his numerous contributions to the group’s journal Peinture: Cahiers Théoriques (Painting: Theoretic Notebooks), pursued a stripped-down but moody geometric style that involved letting paint or, more often, ink soak into raw stretched canvas within carefully delimited borders. Devade employed ink for its fluidity and translucency, but he also had a strong interest in Chinese painting. (If Hantaï was a crucial influence on other Supports/Surfaces artists, the expatriate American painter James Bishop, who achieved simple geometric compositions through the manipulation of watery paint, was important for Devade.) Coming late to painting from literature, and dead at the age of 40 in 1983, after many years on dialysis, Devade had a dramatically curtailed but fruitful career. Absent from the Cherry and Martin show and represented at Canada by only two small, early works, he’s a painter who deserves to be better known in this country.

Following a series of schisms, exclusions and resignations, the only Supports/Surfaces artists remaining involved with Peinture: Cahiers Théoriques after 1971 were Devade and Louis Cane. The Canada show included examples from Cane’s two best-known bodies of work: Toile tamponnée (Stamped Canvas), 1967, a large linen sheet on which Cane has rubber-stamped the words “Louis Cane Artiste Peintre” hundreds of times in red and blue columns, and Toile découpée (Cut Canvas), 1970, which relies on strategic cuts and folds, along with some bold primary colors. I’ve never understood the interest in Cane’s self-referential rubber-stamp paintings—they seem to me conceptually and visually inert—but the “toile découpée” works, many of which feature large flaps of painted canvas that extend onto the floor, are always impressive. In combining the language of formalist abstraction with a self-evident procedure, they tell us something new about painting. Cane composes like Ellsworth Kelly—in distinct units where color and support are one. But unlike the American, he lets us see how the painting has been made, and invites us to imagine how it might easily collapse, like a tent or a house of cards.   

In a 1970 tract signed by Cane, Devade and Dezeuze, Supports/Surfaces was defined as “a coherent group linked to the national and international people’s struggle.” Distributed as a protest during a show titled “Supports/Surfaces” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, this “green tract” (it was printed on pale green stationery) insisted that painting as a “specific practice” could “exist only through the systematic elimination of all subjective practice,” which could be achieved solely by careful reading of “texts rigorously founded on the theory and practice of the only truly revolutionary class: (the working class).” 1 Texts like this and Cane’s lengthy “Pour Un Programme Théorique Pictural” sought to impose a brand of revolutionary discipline on the Supports/Surfaces movement.

However, even if they shared certain political sympathies with Cane, Devade and Dezeuze, other members weren’t interested in following the dictates of any self-appointed commissars. The group rapidly splintered, dividing into what Dezeuze labeled the “theoreticians” in Paris (basically, Cane and Devade) and the “materialogists” in the South of France. For the former, Freud (filtered through Lacan and through writer Marcelin Pleynet’s psychoanalytic interpretations of Matisse) was as important as Marx and Mao. As Art Press editor Catherine Millet has explained, “The idea was that large formats, the fragmentation of the painting object, and the primacy of color over drawing transformed the viewer’s relation to the painting and thus brought about a kind of crisis in the painting subject and the beholding subject. This, went the idea, gave rise to movements between the unconscious and the conscious, as indeed psychoanalytic treatment did, too.” 2

The polemical, theoretical texts published in Peinture: Cahiers Théoriques and elsewhere are often freighted with contradictions and naiveté. Consider, for instance, how the journal devoted countless pages to the history of Chinese painting alongside articles praising Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which sought to brutally eradicate the very Chinese cultural history the French artists were celebrating. Enthusiasm for the Chinese Cultural Revolution was, of course, pervasive among French intellectuals in the late 1960s (many of today’s leading French thinkers like Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière got their start as young Maoists); equally pervasive was a blissful ignorance of the state terror accompanying the radical slogans of the Red Guards and the seas of little red books. 3

Nonetheless, it’s important to take into account the truly substantive theoretical and political discourse surrounding Supports/Surfaces. To not do so risks playing into a certain anti-intellectual strain in American criticism, and opens the way for continued misreadings of the movement. Peter Schjeldahl’s 1982 dismissal of the group is typical of such responses: “Through the mid-seventies, French painting was dominated by the theoretical activity of the so-called Support/Surface school, a come-lately version of reductive formalism with structuralist and (somehow) Marxist elements. Led by the critic Marcelin Pleynet, who has since gone Lacanian, this coterie poured out enormous dense texts about simple, generally agreeable abstract paintings.” 4 Barely able to conceal his contempt (the “so-called” school, the “somehow” Marxist elements, the critic “gone Lacanian”), Schjeldahl falsely portrays the artists as puppets of a critic: although the writing of Pleynet, who is a poet as well as a critic (a job description Schjeldahl should be familiar with) was hugely important to Supports/Surfaces, he was never in any way a leader of the movement.

But it’s not only theory-phobic New York critics who have been quick to dismiss the theoretical ambitions of Supports/Surfaces. Writing in Artforum in 1998 about a show in Paris, Yve-Alain Bois warned readers off from the group’s polemics: “If the corpse of Supports/Surfaces must be exhumed, it is better to let its texts remain in abeyance, if only for a little while.” 5 Such attempted decouplings of the art from its discursive context reminds me of some trenchant lyrics in “Movement” by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem: “It’s like the culture / Without the effort or all of the luggage / It’s like a discipline / Without the discipline of all of the discipline / It’s like a movement / Without the bother of the meaning.”

Fuller acknowledgment of the philosophical grounding of Supports/Surfaces might also contribute helpfully to the current debate about what has been called “Zombie Formalism.” Coined by artist-blogger Martin Mugar, the term has been popularized by artist-critic Walter Robinson, who denounces much recent market-friendly abstraction for bringing back to life the dead ideas of Greenberg and relying on cheap novelty and pretentious gestures toward concepts like “materiality.”




The absence of any serious discussion (by the artists themselves, as well as by sympathetic critics) about this new work might be one reason why it makes such an easy target for financial speculation. Trying to understand the original intentions of the Supports/Surfaces artists (who often anticipated aspects of current abstract practice) could challenge young painters to be more intellectually rigorous. The early history of Supports/Surfaces as a fiercely oppositional movement, generating works seemingly impossible to display in galleries but ideally suited for the most noncommercial venues imaginable, might also be refreshing for those who are distressed by today’s profit-driven “flipping” of artworks. 6

Judging by press coverage (including an enthusiastic review in the New York Times by Roberta Smith), extensive activity on social media and the large audience that turned up at Canada for a panel discussion during the opening (where I was one of the six participants), these shows have been very well received. That fact raises a question: Why now? Why is there an interest in Supports/Surfaces more than 40 years on? The primary reason has to do, I believe, with the existence of clear affinities between Supports/Surfaces and the work of many young American artists.

The kindred impulse—to deconstruct painting, to turn to the everyday world for materials, to favor process over image, to reject the brush but not painting itself, to foreground materiality—is seen everywhere in current abstraction. The Cherry and Martin show explicitly made this point, and it’s probably no accident that the artist-founders of Canada (Sarah Braman and Wallace Whitney) have themselves made work not so far removed from Supports/Surfaces. Numerous viewers in New York remarked on the striking similarity between Louis Cane’s Toile découpée and certain works of Joe Bradley (an accidental resemblance as far as I can tell), but a more profound rapport with Supports/Surfaces can be seen in the work of New York-based artists such as Gedi Sibony, Matt Connors and Blake Rayne, as well as chez Boysen and Rappaport in Los Angeles.

Although Supports/Surfaces has been barely visible in the U.S., over the last 20 years a few well-informed artists have benefited from its influence, most notably Polly Apfelbaum and Joe Fyfe. But I suspect that another reason the American art world is more hospitable to Supports/Surfaces now is because of the recent rediscovery of 1960s and ’70s works by U.S. artists who shared the French interest in unstretched paintings and innovative processes and materials. (I’m thinking, here, of Alan Shields, Howardena Pindell and Al Loving.)

There is perhaps one more factor to consider: after many decades of blanket dismissal of French contemporary art (by Schjeldahl et al.), the recent market success and art historical scrutiny of Hantaï and Martin Barré suggests that coming from France is no longer the worst thing for an artist’s reputation. Indeed, given the fact that New York’s Museum of Modern Art has become so over-identified with German art (via big retrospectives of Richter, Kippenberger, Polke and Isa Genzken), it may now actually be a sign of hipness to display an interest in French art. Plus ça change, plus ça change.

CURRENTLY ON VIEW Works by Pierre Buraglio, at Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris, Sept. 4- Oct. 11, and Galerie Bernard Ceysson, Paris, Sept. 5-Oct. 18.

“Claude Viallat: Recent Paintings and Objects,” Château de Ratilly, Auxerre, France, through Sept. 30.

Works by Claude Viallat, at Galerie Daniel Templon, Brussels, through Oct. 31.

“Viallat: A Retrospective,” at the Musée Fabre de Montpellier Agglomération, Montpellier, France, through Nov. 2.

RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN, a New York-based poet and critic, is professor of critical studies at the University of Houston.

UPDATE: This article originally indicated that a work by Daniel Dezeuze included a sheet of plexiglass on bare stretcher bars. The work actually consists of transparent plastic film on stretcher bars. The article has been updated to include that correction.