press release

The Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College is proud to present an exhibition of works by French artists from the Supports/Surfaces movement. The exhibition comprises works from 1964 to 1981 by ten of the twelve artists associated with the group: André-Pierre Arnal (b. Nimes, 1939); Vincent Bioulès (b. 1938, Charenton); Pierre Buraglio (b. Charenton, 1939); Louis Cane (b. Beaulieu-sur-Mer, 1943); Marc Devade (b. Paris, 1943–1983); Daniel Dezeuze (b. Alès, 1942); Noël Dolla (b. Nice, 1945); Jean-Michel Meurice (b. Lille, 1938); Bernard Pagès (b. Cahors, 1940); Jean-Pierre Pincemin (b. Paris, 1944–2005); Patrick Saytour (b. Nice, 1935); André Valensi (b. Paris, 1949–1999); and Claude Viallat (b. Nimes, 1936).
Curated by Wallace Whitney, Stephanie Snyder

Supports/Surfaces is an artistic movement that coalesced in Southern France in the late 1960s through the shared concerns of twelve artists dedicated to liberating painting, and everyday life, from the artistic conventions and social inequities of the post-war period. Invigorated by the protests of May 1968, the artists were inspired, artistically, by the works of Simon Hantaï and Henri Matisse; American Color Field painting (which was on view at the time at the Fournier Gallery in Paris); and Chinese ink painting. The Supports/Surfaces artists deconstructed painting in terms of its most essential qualities—color, surface, and pliability—embracing its capacity for beauty and touch. Studying Matisse, they collapsed foreground and background into vibrant, lyrical patterns and motifs. As described by Marc Devade: “…the object of a pictorial structure is not therefore the result of the exteriority of formal elements in relation to format: it is, on the contrary, the very form of the structure that develops its own effects” (Dezeuze 1971). In the 1964 words of Marshall McLuhan, whose work the artists referenced: the medium is the message.

With a deep love of painting politically fueled by Marxist and psychoanalytic theory, most of the Supports/Surfaces artists rejected “elitist” tools such as fine-art brushes and oil paint, working instead with liquid dyes, spray paint, soot, sponges, stencils, razors, and utility brushes. They worked on fabric, gauze, rope, wood, vinyl, and found objects such as dish towels and tablecloths, engaging these surfaces in reverse and from all sides, often blind to the immediate results of their actions. They stained, folded, creased, rolled, burned, and doused their paintings into being, trusting the materials to do their work. Artist Daniel Dezeuze described the movement as “… revolting against the art world and the world in general without having to make anti-art,” (Rubinstein 2004).

In the early years (1966–1970) before Supports/Surfaces became an official movement, many of the artists installed their work in public spaces and the natural environment, organizing and participating in projects in Southern France, in Céret, 1966; Cannes, 1968; Coaraze, 1969; and along the French coast, in 1970. Works were suspended from electrical lines, hung on buildings, and unrolled across streets and beaches. The artists expanded their work to the scale of public life. While many of the group preferred the engagement of public space over the static atmosphere of the museum, they participated in important museum exhibitions, including: Supports/Surfaces, ARC, Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville, Paris, in 1970; and 12 Ans d’Art Contemporain en France, at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1972. At various times, though, members of the group actively protested Supports/Surfaces exhibitions or refused to participate in them altogether.

A vital aspect of the Supports/Surfaces movement was its participation in French intellectual culture. In 1971, four of the group’s members—Bioulès, Dezeuze, Devade, and Cane—founded the journal Peinture, cahiers théoriques (Painting: theoretical notebooks) in Paris. Working closely with Marcelin Pleynet, the literary editor of the influential journal Tel Quel, and a major Supports/Surfaces advocate, the Peinture editorspublished Supports/Surfaces writings amidst an astonishing variety of critical texts on art, philosophy, and literature. Absorbing and debating the theories of Karl Marx, Jacques Derrida, Marshall McLuhan, and Louis Althusser, the editors set about theorizing painting and art history as an object of knowledge. In the first issue of Peinture, cahiers théoriques, they declared: “To consider painting as a significant practice takes into account not the object produced, but the work of the maker—not the merchandise, but the productive force: which is to say, the way in which the subject of the painting (the painter) effaces himself in the work (death drive/sublimation) and brings about the creation/deconstruction of the painting,” (Dezeuze 1971). This Marxist/psychoanalytic position privileges the artist’s labor while de-emphasizing the ego and narcissism of the artist—and the viewer.

By 1974 the Supports/Surfaces the artists were established members of the French art world. That year, former Pompidou director Bernard Ceysson featured the artists in a major traveling painting exhibition that originated in Saint-Étienne, where he was the director. But by 1973, four members of the group had already resigned from the movement. The reasons were complex. As articulated by noted Supports/Surfaces scholar Raphael Rubinstein: “The group rapidly splintered, dividing into what Dezeuze labeled the 'theoreticians' in Paris and the 'materiologists' in the South of France. For the former, Freud (filtered through Lacan and through writer Marcelin Pleynet’s psychoanalytic interpretations of Matisse) was as important as Marx and Mao,” (Rubinstein 2014). Pleynet was also a great admirer of Clement Greenberg’s writings, in particular his 1955 essay “American-Style Painting” in which Greenberg stated that “… painting has turned out to have a greater number of expendable conventions embedded in it, or at least a greater number of conventions that are difficult to isolate in order to expend,” (Greenberg 1955). Pleynet pushed Greenberg’s formalism further, using it to theorize Supports/Surfaces’ move beyond opticality into the linings, hidden spaces, and constituent elements of painting.

Though the official Supports/Surfaces collective dissolved just a few years after it was born, the artists continued—and continue—to work together. In Claude Viallat’s words, the group “… was formed through friendship and mutual confidence in the work which was being made, or that one thought could be done. This was both the weakness and the greatness of the group …” (Laks 2010). Over the years, no one did more to support the group than Bernard Ceysson, who curated their work and eventually opened a gallery that represents them to this day. In a 2014 interview Ceysson reflects on the legacy of Supports/Surfaces: “By adopting strategies of esthetic and political action, they were able to invest their work with conceptual rigor. The early explorations of the limits of materials, the liberating process of doing, the transgression of boundaries between the event and the public became situations where the works formed links with each other” (Ceysson 2014). Supports/Surfaces’ unique marriage of political conviction and material exploration surely possesses invaluable considerations for the present.

Stephanie Snyder