Simon Hantaï (1922-2008) was born in Hungary and moved to France in 1948. In the early 1960s, wishing to increase the degree of both chance and objectivity in his work, he developed his signature technique of dripping, splashing or pouring color onto large pieces of canvas that had been systematically folded and knotted. When unfolded, the sheets of canvas, like tie-dyed garments, were left with blank unstained areas that interrupted the fields of color, forming patterns or random configurations. Hantaï’s approach to abstract painting had significant influence on contemporaries such as Claude Viallat, Daniel Dezeuze and Noël Dolla of the Supports/Surfaces movement as well as the group BMPT (Daniel Buren, Olivier Mosset, Michel Parmentier, Niele Toroni).
The two earliest paintings in this exhibition, Peinture (1962-63) and m.c.8 (1962), reflect Hantaï’s move away from the improvisational techniques of Art Informel and Tachisme. Each large (roughly 10-foot-high) work features a dark, tangled mass of shapes cropped by the framing edge. Though there is something Pollock-like about their alloverness and shallow space, these compositions are not gestural in the conventional sense.
The other nine works on view represented some of the varied effects that Hantaï was able to achieve from his folding method. The large, green organic forms in Meun (1968) call to mind the voluptuous shapes in late Matisse collages. An allover pattern of wrinkles gives Étude (1969) the look of a high-contrast photograph of grass and flowers. The two largest paintings in the show-the red Tabula (1976) and the blue Tabula (1980), both about 14 feet wide-present mottled grids with ragged white dividing lines. Two examples from the “Laissée” (Leftover) series of the 1980s to mid-’90s allot equal visual weight to figure and ground, creating a perceptual back-and-forth.
Hantaï’s work is not widely shown in this country-his last shows in New York were at Pierre Matisse (1970, 1975) and André Emmerich (1982), and he thereafter turned down all gallery exhibition offers (as well as a second Centre Pompidou retrospective)-so it’s unfortunate that this sparse exhibition gave a skewed vision of the artist’s oeuvre. Only one work from the ’70s was included. Moreover, although Hantaï often produced bright, multicolored canvases, this selection portrayed him as a relatively subdued monochromist. The 2001 “Suaire” (Shroud) series, consisting of digital prints on canvas based on a group of “Tabula” paintings from 1982, was not sampled at all-despite being his last major body of work and his first use of digital technology. Fortunately, the catalogue by art historian Molly Warnock, who curated the show, does a fine job of integrating Hantaï’s work into the context of late modernist painting in both Europe and the U.S.
Photo: Simon Hantaï: Étude, 1969, oil on canvas, 103 1⁄8 by 89 3⁄4 inches; at Paul Kasmin.