The Surface of the East Coast
TURN GALLERY & EMMANUEL BARBAULT GALLERY
JUNE 19 – JULY 31, 2018
A consortium of five New York galleries have mostly reproduced a French museum show with the same name—The Surface of the East Coast—held in Nice in the summer of 2017. Some twenty-two of the twenty-four artists in its European version are offered on our side of the Atlantic; the purpose of the exhibition, curated by Marie Maertens, was to pair artists from the late 1960s in France, who belonged to the Supports/Surfaces movement active at the time—its participants wanted to meld Marxist and Freudian thought, along with contemporary American criticism—with abstraction. This review will concentrate on two of the galleries showing members of the group: Turn Gallery and Emmanuel Barbault Gallery, (the other spaces are OSMOS, Josée Bienvenu Gallery, and Ceysson & Bénétière Gallery). Generally, the work gravitates toward direct, simple abstraction—something the French are very good at (and the Americans as well). Minimalist materials comply with the social engagement the artists were seeking; the American work, by today’s generation, which is not politicized in the same way as the French was in the 1960s, does bring about a dialogue with the European-made art.
Indeed, the Americans in the shows at TURN and Barbault Galleries demonstrate the persistence of an attitude, if not a stated goal, that incorporates poor materials in an unspoken rebellion against luxury. Now that the market is dominant in determining success in New York, it may be that one way of speaking up is the choice of impoverished goods with which to create the art we see. One cannot make too much of this decision; ephemeral components in visual art now go back a long way, at least to the fifties, when an artist like Rauschenberg was creating assemblages from what he found on the street. But the point that art should keep an arm’s length from comfort remains central to much image-making today. In shows in both galleries, the tendency toward a simplified, nonobjective image cannot be transparently understood as a radicalized visual language. But it is true that since the Constructivist and Suprematist movements, there has been a history joining such visuals with left-wing politics.
Now in his mid-70s, established French painter and sculptor Louis Cane is presenting two paintings at Barbault Gallery: two largish red ink on fabric pieces, both made in 1966. One consists of rows of X’s—about as nonobjective an image as one would want to have. The other image consists of rows of reddish rectangles, with the middle of each rectangle seemingly untouched—the fabric is whitish but unrecognizable as any realist image. The first piece mentioned ends, on the viewer’s right, with a partial X; the second work also tails off abruptly. Despite being more than fifty years old, they emanate a sense of innovation and radical inventiveness. Gedi Sibony, a New York artist in his mid-forties, offers two works: The Give (2018) and The Gaver (2015). Working out of established minimalist, Arte Povera-like, and generally improvisational impulses, Sibony creates a wooden structure, a bit like a ladder, with arms extending outward. The top of the sculpture and its arms are painted white; it looks like something pieced together in the moment, and that is the cause of its attraction. The Gaver is a large abstract painting, mostly white framed with red, on aluminum. Like the first work mentioned, this piece presents a close-to-aggressive nonchalance, its methodology also seemingly a pure improvisation.
Cane and Sibony do come from different backgrounds, but they share a wariness for anything that might seem over-worked in image-making. Sibony, in the American fashion, is free with his thought and his hands; Cane, from a more formal culture, demonstrates greater restraint. In TURN Gallery’s offerings, French artist André-Pierre Arnal presents a simplified image: a spray paint on canvas painting Untitled (1971), defined by two red lines that look like the edges of squares partly in view of, partly beyond, the canvas. Arnal was an active member of Supports/Surfaces, and this nicely attractive painting shows that, in addition to his intellectual leanings, he has been a gifted artist for a long time. His American counterpart, Sarah Braman, is based in Brooklyn. She is showing a work painted on wood: TV (2016). It consists of two geometric shapes, both in orange—a square on the left, and a rhombus on the right—televisions for art consumption. Both shapes are shown against a background of deep purple. Braman’s hard-edge geometry looks familiar to most viewers acquainted with modern and contemporary art, but her offbeat color scheme underscores current freedoms with contrasts of hue. At the same time, the image works both abstractly and figuratively.
French painter Claude Viallat is presenting two paintings; both have soft, cloud-like forms, structured so they appear vertically aligned in vertical rows. This kind of abstraction is slightly generic, so it fits easily into abstract painting’s history without appearing to belong to a specific moment in time. Nonetheless, they nicely exemplify postwar efforts in European art. American artist Justin Adian is showing an idiosyncratically shaped painting made of two pieces: a thick, light blue cloud-like shape that dips into a green horizontal component that has a square rising on its left and a thinnish column on the right. Its function is as much sculptural as painterly, as the painting is three or four inches deep. All in all, the artists in the TURN Gallery show reiterate what we experience with Barbault’s show: a version of the slightly earlier art informel, with an emphasis on simplicity of form and manufacture. The two galleries, like the others in this group effort, do an excellent job of portraying the spirit of exploration evident in the Supports/Surfaces moment, which is turning out to have real historical meaningfulness. The American contemporary art shown correlates—nearly magically—with its older French counterparts. But today in New York we tend to reject theory and intellectually abstract argument, not to mention implied politicization, in favor of a more informal concept and output. Thus, cultural differences assert themselves. Even so, it is remarkable that so close a dialogue can be established between two bodies of work separated by geography and time. The two shows are not only highly informative, they are as accomplished as we might want.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.