Contributed by Sharon Butler / During the 1960s, the world was rocked by massive political upheaval. In May 1968, two weeks of student riots in Paris blasted traditional approaches seemingly across the socio-political board, from government to gender roles to education. Civil rights and anti-war protests roiled the United States. Africa fitfully de-colonized, and Cold War political tensions increased in Latin America. Artists, too, wanted change, and for painters this meant rethinking what a painting might be. Unlimited: Painting in France in the 1960s & 1970s, in two small rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, brings together work by two artists’ groups inspired by the social disruption: B.M.P.T. (the initials of the artists involved–Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroniand); and Supports/Surfaces.
To get a sense of the era, keep in mind that the bloody French-Algerian War, which lasted about eight years and divided French society, had ended in 1962. By 1968, student unhappiness over archaic university rules (for instance, men were not allowed in women’s dorms) precipitated their march toward the Sorbonne, where they planned to occupy the administration building until their demands were met. Police quickly barricaded the streets, blocking their admittance, and, in response, the clever students set up barricades to box the police in. Eventually the government decided that, in the name of public safety, all street obstructions had to be removed. But after the barricades were dismantled, direct, violent altercations between the protestors and the police ensued.
One might suppose that ordinary French citizens, after a long history of revolution and counter-revolution, would be blasé about the student protests. In fact, the DeGaulle administration’s overreaction horrified them. Politically fortified, students and workers forged a bond, organizing general strikes that shut down factories and other businesses throughout the city and bringing the French economy to a standstill. As goods disappeared from shelves and city services came to a halt, DeGaulle’s government teetered on the verge of collapse, and he decamped to West Germany for a few days before realizing that he had to return to Paris and pull the country back together.
Widespread negotiations led to reforms throughout French society, including new freedoms for workers and students alike. Committees formed to restructure many existing institutions. In the art scene, the B.M.P.T. and Supports/Surfaces were intent on establishing a new approach to art making, and in particular on expanding the limits and definition of painting. The incisive, elegantly installed exhibition in Philadelphia, comprising work made from 1964 through 1974, highlights some of the ideas that were percolating before and after the 1968 riots.
Artists began to consider how they were using traditional materials in the service of painting images. Perhaps, they thought, there might be room for revolutionary activity in painting? Artists began looking at paintings as image-objects, using not just the canvas, but the wooden stretchers, too, as part of the painting. The stretchers, no longer hidden behind the canvas, referenced the architectonic grid that emerged in the early twentieth century among Russian Constructivists such as Aleksandr Rodchenko and the Dutch artists in de Stijl, particularly Piet Mondrian. For his piece on view in Philadelphia, Jean-Michel Sanejouand stretched colorful preprinted awning canvas over the the center part of the stretcher, leaving the left and right stretcher bars exposed.
Daniel Dezeuze explored a sculptural approach as well. In Flexible Wood Ladder (Echelle de bois souple) (1974), thin strips of wood form a grid that refers to stretcher construction, and then unfurls on the floor, imitating the flexible qualities of canvas as if to celebrate the societal shifts taking place. Everything seemed possible.
Daniel Buren‘s horizontal stripe paintings, one of which is placed on the floor, leaning against the wall, challenge the ideas of originality, repetition, and representation.
André Cadere, dedicated to taking art beyond the walls of galleries and museums, painted on round pieces of lumber, like totems or flag poles, that he carried around town.
Claude Viallat, who has a solo show on view this summer at Ceysson & Bénétière’s new NYC gallery, is represented by a painting made on an unstretched bed sheet. Like Buren, he teases out ideas about originality and repetition. The sheet is tinted the colors of the French flag, and Viallat repeats his signature mark, which looks like a dog bone or a big car-washing sponge, in a grid formation.
The exhibition is an eloquent reminder that while art may not be overtly political, it is born of politics. Painting, in particular, through process and materials, provides a rich arena for artists to explore collective feelings that bubble to the surface during times of difficult social and cultural disruption.
“Unlimited: Painting in France in the 1960s & 1970s,” Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.