Claude Lalanne photographed in September with a herd of sheep designed by her late husband François-Xavier. photograph by Mathias Braschler & Monika Fischer. © Courtesy the Artists and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

NEW YORK - Over tea and berries at Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel, the French artist Claude Lalanne cuts an unassuming figure. Clad in a denim pant suit with Chinese frog buttons, her hair pulled back and wearing no makeup or jewellery, she is flanked by her New York dealer, Paul Kasmin, and one of her most avid patrons of late, the real estate mogul, Michael Shvo.

At 89, Lalanne is visiting from her home outside of Paris upon the invitation of Shvo and Kasmin, who conspired recently to bring a taste of the French countryside to the wilds of Chelsea. The pair placed 25 sheep sculptures by Claude’s late husband, François-Xavier, along the suddenly-grassy surface of a former gas station at the corner of West 24th Street and 10th Avenue, a site now owned by Shvo and slated to become luxury housing. 

The Sheep Station
, François-Xavier Lalanne.

The installation was very much in the spirit of Les Lalanne, as the husband-and-wife pair who has exhibited together since the 1960s is known. François-Xavier had a fondness for oversized animals, which often bear secret compartments or double as pieces of furniture. Claude Lalanne is noted for her preference for flora over fauna – one of her most famous works is L’Homme à Tête de Chou (as its title suggests, a man with the head of a cabbage), which graced Serge Gainsbourg’s 1976 album of the same title. While Claude has tackled the intricacies of tableware and jewelry, François-Xavier favored the outsized – creating, in 1964, his famous Rhinocrétaire, a life-sized rhinoceros with a built-in writing desk. 

On the horizon Shvo and Kasmin are planning a selling exhibition of works by Les Lalanne at Sotheby’s S|2 from 31 October until 22 November. The gallery space will be transformed into a garden with moss flooring and ivy-covered walls. Highlights include François-Xavier’s monumental bronze bear, La Grande Ourse, several of his iconic sheep, and Claude’s elegant bronze rabbit, Nouveau Lapin de Victoire (Grand).

Claude Lalanne’s Nouveau Lapin De Victoire (Grand) from 2010.

Shvo with great enthusiasm says that he wanted to introduce people to Les Lalanne in the same fashion that the architect Peter Marino – another prolific collector of their work – did back when Marino and Shvo were collaborating on a large project in Dubai. The two ventured to an art show after hours: “There, I saw this beautiful apple, and since then it was really a love affair with their work,” says Shvo, who notes that Marino encouraged him to look up Les Lalanne.

The Sotheby’s sale caps a brilliant career run of late for the artists with fresh auction records and a slew of museum and gallery shows – notably, a 2010 retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

But things haven’t always been so auspicious for the couple. When they had their first show in 1964 at Galerie J. in Paris, they were ignored by critics and felt their work wasn’t valued. A key player took notice, however: the gallerist Alexander Iolas, a champion of the Surrealists, who would quickly become their dealer. “We received a phone call,” says Lalanne, “and he said ‘Children, come and visit me.’” The rest is history.

Iolas was not their only bridge to the artistic happenings of their age. In the 1950s and 1960s, Les Lalanne lived in Montparnasse and operated an atelier in the Impasse Ronsin. Their next-door neighbour was the sculptor Brancusi. “Every night he’d come and knock on the door and arrive with a bottle of vodka, cigarettes and some plums,” says Lalanne.

François-Xavier Lalanne’s La Grande Ourse from 1994 will be exhibited at Les Lalanne: The Poetry of Sculpture, a selling exhibition at Sotheby’s S|2 in November.

But it was the American sculptor James Metcalf, who would crucially shape the artistic identity of Les Lalanne. When the pair was first working anonymously for the Paris Opera, making sets and taking orders, he told them they were crazy and should declare themselves sculptors. The label stuck.

“They’ve been through a lot where people keep saying this is one thing, that’s another thing, then five years later it’s something else,” says Kasmin of the difficulty in classifying the work of Les Lalanne. “So Claude has had a very long journey in this. She in the beginning said ‘I’m a sculptor’ and still sees herself as a sculptor.”

Today, Metcalf’s son, Darius, is married to Lalanne’s granddaughter, Julie Hamisky, and the two work alongside Ms Lalanne, assisting her with her sculptures. Age hasn’t slowed the artist, who sculpts every day starting at 8 AM.

If her declaration of being a sculptor sounds grand, the whimsicality of her and her late husband’s art stands in contrast. As Shvo observes, “Their work speaks to everybody. You do not have to be the most knowledgeable art collector – though it speaks to great collectors, it also speaks to a child walking by the gas station. It is universal.”

Kasmin chimes in that beyond accessibility, their oeuvre is quite signature in its aesthetic: “Most great artists have this clarity, where people say, ‘That’s a Picasso’ or ‘That’s a Lalanne.’ It’s very clear with them isn’t it?” And, on that note, porcelain cups are whisked away, and the trio is off to once again conquer the
art world.

Bridget Moriarity, based in New York, writes on art and culture.

Les Lalanne: The Poetry of Sculpture, a selling exhibition curated by Paul Kasmin and Michael Shvo, will be at Sotheby’s S|2 31 October to 22 November.



Tags:Selling Exhibitions, Contemporary Art, London