Until Mon Sep 2 2013
'Etude', 1969 / National Gallery of Art, Washington / © Adagp, Paris 2013
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When he came to live in Paris after WW2, the Hungarian artist Simon Hantaï (1922-2008) became involved in the legacy of the surrealist movement. Playing with colours, textures (scratching) and collages of animal bones, he re-appropriated the surrealist vocabulary twisted it, talking steps towards abstraction with brightly-coloured of liquid forms. Subsequently, Hantaï began a laborious quest that guided his art for several decades: the search for the perfect way to approach the canvas. Influenced by Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’, Hantaï tried to find his own language by working, for example, with a little circle of metal taken from an old alarm clock. Some experiments were a bit dubious, others impressive, like the frenetic ‘Ecriture Rose’, a monumental canvas on which, every morning for a year, Hantaï transcribed religious texts, poetry and philosophy.
Then, during the ’60s, the penny dropped. When folded, creased and crumpled, suddenly the canvas wasn’t a flat, blank surface that mocked the painter. Once it became a malleable material, shaped by chance, it produced folds with blind zones that stayed white or preserved strange marks. It was only once having folded the work that the painter could discover the work that he had made, without having really controlled the execution. So Hantaï created immense pieces, in which white and colour struggle together to produce a magnetic form. Sometimes heavy and wearying, often as luminous as a stained-glass window, his works from the end of the ’60s, in which the white spaces seem to be enveloped in a swarm of birds, achieve a surprising grace that recalls, in the end, Matisse’s paper cut-outs rather than abstract expressionism.