Art Informel

BY: Dr. Kent Mitchell Minturn

The term Art informel was coined in 1952 by Michel Tapié (1909-1987), French art critic, saxophonist, and second cousin of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, in Un art autre [An Other Art] (Paris, Gabriel-Giraud et fils), a book/manifesto that served as the catalog for an exhibition he organized at the Studio Paul Fachetti, au 17, rue de Lille, which featured works by artists as disparate as Jean Dubuffet, Jean Fautrier, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Georges Mathieu, Pierre Soulages Camille Bryen, Germaine Richier, Ruth Francken, Wols (aka., Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze), and Henri Michaux. Tapié’s term stuck, and over time has become virtually synonymous with Tachisme (from the French “tacher,” to stain) and Lyrical Abstraction. Other key artists eventually associated with informel include: Alberto Burri, Maria Helen Vieira da Silva, Antoni Tàpies and Hans Hartung (as a precursor). The commonplace English translation of the term, as “informalism,” remains inadequate. Informel connotes not so much “informal,” “relaxed” or “friendly” art, nor does it posit absolute formlessness [l’informe], but rather, art created spontaneously, without assigned or predetermined forms.

Maria Elena Vieira da Silva, Jacques Germain, Georges Mathieu, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Zao Wou-Ki and Pierre Loeb. © Denise Colomb. © Ministère de la Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Tapié’s text for the show, at times hyperbolic and quasi-mystical, is a thinly veiled rebuttal to early geometric abstractionists, and to the then fashionable, “Jeunes Peintres de Tradition Française” (Young Painters of the French Tradition), who during the Nazi Occupation exhibited their retrograde, tidied-up, fauvist and cubist inspired abstractions. Countering these trends, the artists Tapié champions are those who have willfully, “left behind the forms of the past, they are artists who do not work against ideas of the past, but outside of them,” given the fact that, “life has become totally estranged from form, expressiveness is no longer compatible with it.”[1]

Michel Tapié, Un art autre, Paris 1952. First Edition.

Not all artists at the time appreciated being grouped together under this umbrella term. Jean Dubuffet, who had just finished his series of Corps de Dames [Ladies’ Bodies] and Mental Landscapes (of which Paysage fantôme, 1952, is a prime example), wrote a letter to Tapié after he received a copy of his book: “What a funny mania prevails in our epoch to invent a slogan and a group, and a party, and then legislate it [. . . ] I refuse as strongly as possible to join forces with all that; I am not at all an informiste, vehemeniste, éclaboussuriste.”[2] Dubuffet, however, seems to have missed the main point of Tapié’s manifesto: informel is an open-ended concept, it is not a school, nor a movement or style, but rather, a celebration of artistic diversity, a call for the direct and immediate personal expression of each artist. In Tapié’s words, “Our interest is not in movements, but in something much rarer, authentic Individuals.”[3]

This authentic individualism is precisely what prevails in the informel works from The David M. Solinger Collection. Solinger, a practicing artist as well as a high-powered New York lawyer and art collector, was clearly attracted to the nuanced idiosyncrasies of each work, as expressed through each artist’s inimitable gestures, processes, and handling of the materials used to create them. These works do not share a family resemblance, far from it. Each work must be viewed on its own terms, and each calls for a new kind of somatically-engaged looking, something that Solinger obviously excelled at: “I look at pictures. I like pictures that seduce the eye. That is not to say that I don’t also like pictures that are like a blow between the eyes, that are very strong, and are very powerful, that are very moving.”[4]

Georges Mathieu pictured with Camp de Carthage in his studio in Paris, 1954. Photo: Harper’s Bazaar. Art © 2022 Georges Mathieu / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Mathieu Archives

A striking example of authentic individualism is to be found in Georges Mathieu’s Camp de Carthage (1951). The large, vertically aligned picture, at once frenetic and controlled, amounts to a visual record of the immediate and spontaneous movements of the artist’s body during the act of its creation, especially the radius of the black arc which correlates with the sweeping extension of the artist’s right arm, and the bright red elements directly applied to the canvas by squeezing tubes of paint with his hand. As such, this work foreshadows Mathieu’s more theatrical painting-performances in the late 50’s, and 60’s, captured in the documentary film, Georges Mathieu ou la fureur d’être [Georges Mathieu, or The Fury of Being] (dir. Frédéric Rossif, 1971). In Camp de Carthage Mathieu develops a new visual language of his own, writ large, we might say. Whereas it conjures up writing, the artist never fully commits to it as such. Mathieu later explained, “I note that ‘calligraphy,’ the art of the sign par excellence, has managed to liberate itself from the literal content signifier of writing, and it is henceforth only the direct power of meaning, with writing itself outstripping its own fundamental value.”[5]

In Hans Hartung’s T1946-32 (1946), the black lines of varying thicknesses and densities, set against a vibrant background of green, yellow, red and blue, likewise bring to mind a species of illegible calligraphy, or personal hieroglyphics, they are indeed “signs without literal content.” Simultaneously, one quickly notices that each black mark is unique and autonomous; there is no obvious pattern here. Together they float and dance across the canvas in a manner that visually equates to an improvisational Be-Bop jazz jam session, impossible to notate or repeat.

Hans Hartung, T 1946-32. The David M. Solinger Collection, Sotheby’s Paris, December 2022
Franz Kline, Chief, 1950. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift, David M. Solinger. Art © 2022 Franz Kline / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

One of the most important informel artists Solinger collected, Pierre Soulages, is still with us (age 102), and he is the only artist represented here who has been honored with a bricks and mortar one-person museum, which opened in his hometown of Rodez, France in 2014. In 7 feb. 54, 1954, the artist reminds us, as he did throughout his career, that “black is also a color.” The troweled-on anti-rectilinear verticals and horizontals set against a white background create an unstable armature akin to those found in American Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline’s paintings from the 50s including, Chief (1950) (a sketch for which, featured here, was given to Solinger by the artist in 1952). However, in contrast to the flat, chalky, and charred appearance of Kline’s surfaces, Soulages’ application of paint is thick, fleshy and unctuous -- reminiscent of Rembrandt’s of Flayed Ox of 1655 (Louvre) -- and gives the painting a unique sheen that ceaselessly reflects light vis-à-vis the viewer’s position and proximity.

Belying its muted, black, white, and grey tones, and scabrous surface, Nicolas de Staël’s, Composition, 195l, contains undeniably ludic elements. The imperfect, irregular squares and rectangles created with each brushstroke fuse together like an impromptu game of chess which the artist plays against himself, and by his own rules. In the end it appears to be a painting based on chance operational decisions, rather than traditional compositional ones. One move after another, until the artist decides the match is finished. The uneven surface, and the apparent weaving of one plane under another, also suggests a playful game of hide-and-seek, similar to, and in anticipation of, French artist François Rouan’s famous Tressages [braidings] from the 1970s.

Alberto Burri, Saco e oro, 1953. Fondazione Burri, Citta di Castello. Image: Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SIAE, Rome

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, an artist who is finally receiving the international attention she has always deserved, was forced to abandon her Paris studio 1939. In face of the threat of Nazi Occupation she returned to Lisbon for a while, and then with her husband relocated to Árpád Szenes in Rio de Janeiro. In the spring of 1947, she returned to Paris and moved back into the very same studio. The space was familiar, but the world had forever changed. Sans Titre (1950), with its sumptuous blues and soothing undulating lines, indeed “seduces the eye.” It seems to express a nostalgic past memory of a beautiful seascape, peace, bonheur, serenity. At the same time, it comes as “blow between the eyes,” and it is with shock that one realizes that these pleasant hues are atop a rough burlap support, which relates the harsher realities of the postwar period. Italian informel artist Alberto Burri also used burlap in his collaged Sacchi (Sacks), which he first began to make in 1949. Burlap, it has been suggested, relates directly to the bags used to deliver relief supplies in the immediate postwar period, or to gauze bandages used to cover wounds.

André Lanskoy, Fruits confits, The David M. Solinger Collection, Sotheby’s Paris, December 2022; Adolph Gottlieb, Figure (Modern Day Auction); and a selection of Pre-Columbian and Mezcala figures

Commenting on the Solinger Collection in 2001, the eminent art historian Robert Rosenblum reminded his readers that it is, “among other things, a valuable lesson in history.” “From the vantage-point of the early twenty-first century, the volcanic look of the art in the Solinger collection now seems very much a part of museum-worthy history, in no way disruptive of traditions.” But in reality, what the collection demands from us today is the “challenging task of experiencing, perhaps for the first time, a broad international sweep of what new art looked like when David M. Solinger cut his teeth as a collector.”[6] With this in mind, and with 20/20 hindsight, the last word rightly belongs to Michel Tapié, who, after all, malgré tout, was correct when, in 1952, he presciently argued that these informel artists, shown here today, do not recapitulate ideas or forms of the past, but rather, through their spontaneous and authentically individual creations, pave the way for a new future, “a new becoming.”[7]

[1] Michel Tapié, from An Other Art (1952), translated in Art and Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003): p. 629-631.

[2] Jean Dubuffet, letter to Michel Tapié dated December 21, 1952, in Hubert Damisch, ed., Prospectus et tous écrits suivants vol. II (Paris: Gallimard, 1967): 308.

[3] Michel Tapié, An Other Art (1952), p. 630.

[4] Transcript of David M. Solinger’s interview with Paul Cummings on May 6, 1977 (Archives of American Art, Smithsonian).

[5] Georges Mathieu, Au-delà du tachisme [Beyond Tachism] (Paris: Julliard,1963): 65.

[6] Robert Rosenblum, “Art at Mid-Century: The David M. Solinger Collection,” in The David M. Solinger Collection: Masterworks of the Twentieth Century (Ithaca, NY: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University): 11-14.

[7] Michel Tapié, from An Other Art (1952), p. 631.

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