Nicolas de Stael, “Plage,” 1954. Oil on canvas, 24 x 33 cm. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak
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“The wondrous envelopes us and deluges us like the atmosphere, but we don’t see it.”
— Charles Baudelaire, cited by Eli Faure in “Histoire de l’art: L’art moderne, I,” Editions Denoel, 1987
PARIS — The concrete plaque on the fence midway up the rue Menilmontant above the weed-submerged tracks of the “Petite Ceinture” which winds around Paris commemorates the three men, aged 20 to 53, who gave their lives in August 1944 to liberate their city from the German occupiers, in the conviction that waiting for the Allied troops — which landed on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago today — to do so would be to surrender their future to the Yankees. So why has the mayor of Paris — who made sure passersby knew the fresh flowers tacked to the plaque were from her — so readily ceded to the increasingly rampant Americanization of Lutèce without a fight?
Up the street from this newly opened to the public parcel of the Petite Ceinture, where you can pique-nique on freshly-fallen Queen Anne cherries while reclining on homey chaises composed of unvarnished planks of wood, a bakery-café too tony for the neighborhood is selling Mrs. Field-style cookies for 4 Euros a pop. I prefer the sunflower-encrusted variety the French Arab boulangerie on the Boulevard Menilmontant below offers for .50 cents apiece. And unlike what one older woman I dated during my recent visit to Lutèce (who claimed to be a Leftist atheist) contended, to me the biggest threat to traditional French values isn’t the scarf with which the bakery babushka chooses to cover her head but boutiques selling “cookie pauses,” restaurants calling themselves “Thank God for Broccoli,” and cafés promising “the best brunch on the Canal,” all in English. This isn’t just a question of going exotic that can be likened to a New York restaurant calling itself, say, Lutèce; it’s an appeal by Yankee commercants to Yankee customers who resume going local to ordering a croissant and café creme.
Roger Bissière, “Vert et noir (Esprits de la Fôret),” 1955. Oil on paper pasted on canvas. Photo copyright Veignant. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
If I still harbored any doubts that City Hall is just rolling over in the face of this lingual imperialism, they were dispelled by the American high school chorus chanting Frankie Valli’s ‘I love you, baby” from the chandelier’d top floor of the Hotel de la Ville on a recent Thursday evening as I returned from a twilight pique-nique on the Ile St. Louis where I’d been flirting with a red-headed, purple-stockinged German children’s book designer named Betty, in English (as we contemplated an evolving Notre-Dame whose dome now sports a white yarmulke which just might remain there long enough for some wag to observe, “Funny, you don’t look Blue-ish”; only 13 million of the 800 million Euros pledged for the church’s reconstruction has been delivered; the leading industrialist who committed 200 million just found out his gift won’t be as tax-deductable as he originally thought; and the main French patrimony foundation organizing the fundraising has rightly decided to steer future donations to some of the country’s other 2,500 sagging monuments), she sharing nightmares of walking into bottomless escalators, me of returning to school and constantly missing classes I really wanted to take. When the chorus segued into Cindy Lauper’s “Girls just want to have fun” (Cindy had accompanied my Princeton years) I had to second the emotion of the chic Parisienne striding confidently towards me who twisted the finger ballet she’d been performing into a gun and pointed it in the direction of the singing.
All this is a far cry from the mutually respectful meeting and melding of cultures promoted by Boris Vian, who, picking up after the war where Josephine Baker, the Revue Negre, and, later, Charles Trenet and the Zazous (the French version of the Zoot Suits) had left off, introduced Duke Ellington to France and ravenously devoured American jazz magazines so he could translate their choicest morsels for French jazz fans. Vian, who with Miles Davis and Juliette Greco set the tone in Saint-Germain-des-Près (“I didn’t know he was Black,” Greco quoted by Malcolm McLaren in his album “Paris” said of Davis. “And when I found out he was Black, I just cried.”), would blow his heart out on the cornet and trumpet by the age of 39, dying of a heart attack at a 1959 preview of the film version he’d opposed of his novel “I’ll spit on your graves,” the first-person account of a Black American who decides to kill as many white people as he can. Jean-François Jaeger, on the other hand — who, after taking over as director of the Jeanne Bucher gallery in 1947 upon Bucher’s death, helped the Paris abstract art movement carve out a distinct identity which left the American school in the dust — is still kicking at ninety-something. And his legacy — as personified by artists like Nicolas de Stael, Jean Dubuffet, Roger Bissiere, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva — is still vibrant, as demonstrated by a new exhibition running at the Galerie Jaeger-Bucher’s Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, “La Garde des anges,” 1950. Oil on canvas, 60 x 92 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
What I love about the French abstract art of this era — the way it feeds and sustains me — is that it’s so dense. While Picasso was busy scrawling silly clowns that would make Red Skelton blanche on napkins and noble doves for the peace posters of the French Communist Party as it buried its head in the sand to the gulags, these artists were delivering genuine revolutions in every painting. (And not just at the Bucher nor only under the aegis of gallerists like Jaeger; Jean-Michel Atlan, Pierre Soulages, Wols, the COBRA group, and the critics who championed them like Michel Ragon, another “passeur,” or transmitter, also get some of the credit.) Or as Jaeger put it in 1997, “For us there are only beginnings, successive births at the will of solicitations to throw our points of view into question, each one completely owned, each one eventually contradicted by an adventure of another type, without losing the essential attachment to the quality of the mode of expression. Possessing no power of creation ourselves, we’re placed at the advance posts, the first to be subjected to the shock of a revelation born in the studio, the first to assimilate it with the goal of accomplishing our role of passeur.” Contrast this humble and self-effacing attitude with what — at least as reflected in much of the work I see in the galleries of Paris these days — seems to be the optic of Jaeger’s successors, which is to program work which confirms and assures them in their tastes.
Jean Dubuffet, “Le Bar,” 1965. Vinyl on paper mounted on canvas. 81x 100 cm. Photo copyright Jean-Louis Losi. Courtesy Galerie Jeanne Bucher Jaeger, from the exhibition running at its Saint-Germain-des-Près space through July 20.
Literalists like me can certainly find stories — or at least figuration — in some of the work on view at the Jaeger-Bucher if we want to, but we can also just allow it to deluge (or as Baudelaire might say, ‘abreuve’) us with sensations. (After all, if they could have said it in words, they would have become writers.) What I appreciate about this period is that art, even abstract, impenetrable art, was everywhere. Dali landscapes and Miro ‘bonhommes’ were decorating the albums of Jacky Gleason and Dave Brubeck alike. (Re-viewing several seasons of Mad Men recently after covering last year’s Aix-en-Provence exhibition of Stael’s later, Mediterranean color and light-infused paintings, I was delighted to spot one of them hanging behind the desk of the ad executive Roger Sterling, who might have been one of those American soldiers marching towards Paris.) These days, instead of European art enhancing American pop culture, a new, unimaginative generation of American pop culture artists (often with no technical training, and bragging about it) is turning up in Parisian art galleries, notably in the Marais. (The Americanization of the Marais isn’t confined to its artistic venues. Emerging earlier this year from a palatial space given over to monotonously repetitive big-eyed, long-nosed women designed by a young American artist which owed more to the Sunday comic strip “The Fusco Brothers” than Robert Rauschenberg, I ran smack dab into a window display hawking a Krispy-Kreme-scale donut with a thimble-sized cup of coffee for six Euros.) English is often the go-to language at the vernissages and in the guided tours at these venues, the press releases are in English, the exhibition titles are in English, and much of the (American) art is so crappy it would never dare to show its face in Brooklyn. Some of it (and not just the American) is so buried in conceptual (often textual) mazes that I can’t find the graphic matter.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Two. Silkscreen painting in color, signed and justified. 11.81 x 11.81 inches / 18.89 x 16.53 inches. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
The Germainopretan galleries, on the other hand, remain resolutely international in their selection and (for the most part) rigorous in their aesthetic standards. (Even the snob factor has diminished enough that I’m tempted to reverse Vian’s formula: “Encore moins snob que tout a l’heure.”) After leaving the Jaeger-Bucher earlier on the same Thursday evening that terminated on the other side of the Seine with being serenaded by American girls just wanting to have fun at City Hall, I crossed the rue de Seine to a gallery half its size where, instead of the usual jeunotte annoyed at being interrupted in whatever she was doing in front of her computer screen that was more important than me I found two young women in glasses busily arranging dozens of Victor Vasarely optical illusions neatly arrayed on the floor.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled Three. Silkscreen painting in color, signed in crayon and justified. 75.5cm x 75.5cm / 83 cm x 83 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
“If you have any questions, let us know!” one enthusiastically invited me (in French). And I’m glad I did; they both knew more about the art than I did, specifically explaining to me that before Vasarely there was Agram, both of whom lead a movement sometimes called ‘cinetic’ art (Vasarely’s approach has also been described as photo-graphisme), which looks like it provided the model for the various unknown sectors the starship Enterprise would stray into a decade later. The last time I’d come upon this particular artistic genre, at a Latin American-themed gallery in the Marais whose exhibition was more mobile-oriented, the — older — galleriste had huffed when she discovered I didn’t already know what cinetic art was, “It’s very well-known!” Here, by contrast, the two young gallerists not only explained to me that ‘serigraphs’ meant ‘silk-screens,’ but when I asked what exactly this entailed, one of them, “Louise,” left the room to fetch two blank sheets of paper so she could demonstrate the process.
Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled Two. Silkscreen, signed and justified. 75.5 cm 75 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
When I finally identified myself as a journalist and asked if she had jpegs of the art available, Louise encouraged me to visit the gallery’s website and pull what I needed. (Contrast this to the attitude of the Reunion of the National Museums, which handles the publicity for the Luxembourg, Grand Palais, and other institutions, whose press offices set up so many roadblocks — often at the dictate of ADAGP, the artist rights’ syndicate which apparently thinks art magazines still make money — to featuring their art in articles about their exhibitions ((in other words, free advertising)) that I’ve given up covering them. In fact in theory I’ve given up writing about art, period, because it doesn’t keep me in croissants let alone the dentures to be able to nibble them, but the problem is that every time I go outside in Paris it seems to find me.) When, before leaving to not look for more art, I told the gallerists at the Grillon — as the space is called (Jimminy Cricket!) — about the (non) reception that usually greets me at art galleries, another, older woman who had just entered and sat down behind a desk replied, “C’est pas comme ca que ca marche ici,” that’s not how it works here.
Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Untitled One. Silkscreen in colors, signed in crayon and justified. 57 cm x 45 cm / 75 cm x 60 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.
After testing my new choppers (the family paid for them) on the cornichons and pretzel sticks at a third space on the rue de Seine, the Petite Gallery (unfortunately the only galleries that still offer food and drink at vernissages these days seem to be the ones with the least interesting art, which is why I’m not talking about it here), I was still doing pretty good Germainopretan snob quotient-wise until I entered a fourth gallery whose name I’ve purposely forgotten but was something like “The eyes have it” or “The eyes are everywhere” and which was offering a group exhibition under the rubric “Surrealism, the Second Generation,” purporting to cover the period 1945 – 1965. Intrigued that most of the art displayed seem to come from the collection of the Duchamp specialist Arturo Schwartz, I asked the gallerist why. Taking me aside and shaking his head (not at me but at the institution in question), he explained, “He left 700 works to the Jerusalem Museum. They promptly sold off most of them so they could buy more contemporary work.” Reverse-intrigued, I asked him why he didn’t have any Leonor Fini among the mostly male assemblage. “She wasn’t really a surrealist,” the gallerist sniffed dismissively — and typically. (Read: She was a female artist who refused to be subsumed by and subsetted into a male universe. Around Leonor’s pad in the hills above Trieste, the men wore gowns.) If you’re wondering why I’m not citing a single name of an artist who was included in the exhibition, it’s not to venge Fini but because when I took one of several copies of a list pairing works with artists as a memori menti for this article, a thin van-dycked gallery assistant with slicked-back hair chased me out of the gallery and down the rue des Beaux Arts to recuperate the material. “Hey, come back here! You can’t take that!”
Leonor Fini, “Dithyrambe, 1972. Oil on paper laid down on canvas. 30 x 21.25 inches. Courtesy CFM Gallery.
After an unhealthily more than cursory look (okay, digging-through) of a box someone had left outside another gallery with a sign “Free for the taking!” but which consisted mostly of battery-less gold-painted hand-clocks not even Dali would want to recuperate, I continued towards the Seine and the Ile St. Louis. The deal I’d made with myself was that I’d already prepared a cauliflower-potato-chicken-curry salad for the pique-nique and packed a plastic bottle of Algerian lemon soda scored at the Belleville market for 15 cents, and if I didn’t like it on the Ile, I could just get up and leave. The reasons I thought I wouldn’t like it were a) the first time that I’d retrieved “my” bench on the Ile during this Paris visit, I’d run down to the Seine from Beaubourg (the Pompidou) so fast — you might have thought Niki de Saint Phalle’s big-breasted mermaid had jumped out of the Stravinsky fountain (yet another that’s been left out to dry) and was chasing after me — that I’d no sooner sat down on “my” bench than I felt like I was about to have the runs and had to run back up to the Right Bank, where my go-to toilet outside the Metro Pont-Marie was flashing the dreaded red ‘out-of-order’ sign, and the open toilet I finally found near the Theater Sarah Bernhardt just as time was running out was out of toilet paper, leaving me to show up at a Valentine’s Day vernissage in the Marais with proof that my shit really did stink too. (Looking up at a dried-out David Hockney tree I felt very wet.), b) the second time I’d tried, after an initial post-fire visit to Notre-Dame to size up the damage for you, I’d been scared off by four bulky British rugby-players bunched onto “my” bench and blasting their music de merde on their portables (there used to be an unspoken rule among We the People of the Ile that you didn’t impose your music on others), and c) the years I used to spend every Friday night on the Ile after trolling for used records off the rue Mouffetard where I’d had my cheap cafe latté standing at a tall table contemplating the curvy form and curve-throwing bon mots of MissTic were my drinking years, only unlike Baudelaire I had no Gauthier to record the resultant reveries of this artificial Paradise, so all I remember besides the way the rippling of the Seine seemed to glitter more brightly as the Sun set over Notre-Dame after a glass of pastis is how heavy I felt walking towards Pont-Marie afterwards (the pique-nique also contributed; I wasn’t just drinking), and how when I tried to replace the half a bottle of red or two cans of Pelforth Brune with a whole bottle of tomato juice it just wasn’t the same. If I didn’t have a scribe like Gauthier or Baudelaire (whose building at 33 rue Lamartine had been my first after moving to Paris) to lend these evenings a literary flavor, I did have a librarian: A bouquiniste, Marcel, whose noble trade — having a best friend who sold books along the Seine made me feel like a real Paris insider — blinded me to his fickle soul. I hadn’t had any contact with Marcel since 2014, when he wrote to say that according to his new and young White Russian bride (the same who, after a French Arab man who was more French than she was left the elevator we’d shared at the Metro Place de Lilas had scowled, “They should all go back where they came from”), “You look like a Hobo” (the teeth no doubt).
Thus it was that telling myself if I didn’t like it — if I encountered more music de merde to perturb my tranquility — I didn’t have to stay I made my way to the Ile along the newly pedestrianized Right Bank of the Seine, discovering the spanking new mahogany benches around tables where people were eating, drinking, and partying, and of course, the one decent toilet within five kilometers, an equally spanking new white facility. (You’re just too good to be true, can’t keep my eyes off of you.)
Taking the stairs back up to the street after passing the Hotel de la Ville so I could access the bridge to the Ile — the urge to see if Marcel (not his real name) was still there manning his ‘box’ above a ramp leading down to the river was also a factor — I didn’t find my literary friend but further on was reassured to see that Pierre, a bouquiniste to whom Marcel had shown the ropes, was faithfully at his station, and recognized me enough to nod.
The last time I’d seen Pierre — I’d just fled from a late-career, ear-splitting Pina Bausch spectacle at the Bernhardt and decided to linger in the neighborhood so that I could go back for the after-party and at least have some food and drink to compensate for the ear damage, plus my friend Sabine had stayed for the second act — he’d insisted that I was working for the CIA. “That’s why your teeth are so bad — It’s a disguise!” When he’d announced after hanging up the cell phone he’d told me a Chinese guy had sold him that he had to take off for a rendez-vous with a Vietnamese woman, I’d responded, “I know. We’re the ones who told the Chinese guy to sell you the cell phone after we put a bug in it.” By his laughing reaction I wondered if Pierre had just been ribbing me.
On this recent retrieval, Pierre’s curly hair was scanter and his face more arid from the exposure to the Sun and wind ricocheting off the Seine, and he was sporting an aborted handle-bar mustache and sharing a bottle of red with his potes around a small fold-up table he’d set up in front of his stand, where the books were piled up in pell-mell chaos. The new teeth had apparently improved my stature. “You’re a bouquiniste also, right?” “No, I’m a friend of Marcel’s.” Indicating the Red Guards cap on his head, I observed, “Last time I saw you were wearing a Chinese peasant lamp-shade hat to protect you from the Sun.” “Vietnamese!” Pierre corrected me, pulling the lampshade out from behind a pile. Then nodding up at a row of lantern-cages with stuffed parrots in them hanging like birds on a wire from the green-iron hood of the stand above the piles of books, he suggested, “Tapper and see what happens.” As I prepared to deliver a round-house wallop on the first cage he chided me impatiently, “No no, clap your hands *together.*” I did, and the lanterns lit up as the birds began to sing.
Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), Untitled One. Silkscreen, signed and justified, 77 cm x 70.5 cm. Courtesy Galerie Grillon, Paris.