Center Contemporain Perrotin and Nahmad Georges Mathieu in Art History –

Forerunner of Happenings and the art of performance, and an intriguing example of asemic writing – which resembles language but carries no meaning – the work of French painter Georges Mathieu (1921-2012) was both influential and premonitory. Yet Mathieu’s accomplishments have largely disappeared, at least in the United States. This remarkable New York survey, bringing together some thirty-six major works in two locations, marks the artist’s centenary.

During his lifetime, and especially at the height of his career in the 1950s to the mid-1960s, Mathieu was a controversial and polarizing figure. Born into a banking family in a French coastal town, he adhered all his life to an eccentric royalist political stance that often angered his avant-garde colleagues in America and Europe. The aristocratic posture ultimately set him aside from the annals of recent American art; in an essay for the catalog of this exhibition, the late art historian and critic Germano Celant describes Mathieu as “an antagonist both reactionary and revolutionary”. The latter descriptor might refer to Mathieu’s role in defending the work of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and other American Abstract Expressionists, who by the late 1940s were largely unknown in Europe. After visiting New York and seeing the work of these young artists, Mathieu was inspired to co-found the movement known today as lyrical abstraction or tachism, considered part of informal art, the European response to AbEx — with artists such as Hans Hartung, Wols, Jean Fautrier and Pierre Soulages. Responding with anguish to the atrocities of World War II, these artists sought an abstract visual language that emphasized the fervent gesture and raw material properties of the work. The group opposed formal constructions and the order of geometric abstraction.

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Over the next several years, under the aegis of Lyrical Abstraction, Mathieu presented a series of live “painting actions” that were acclaimed around the world, including in Japan, where the artists Gutai wrote in their manifests that his work “reveals the cry of matter. himself. Documentary images of these events, exhibited at Perrotin, show Mathieu violently attacking the canvases with elongated brushes as if engaged in a frenzied sword fight. Unlike this aggressive and macho performance, Mathieu often dressed for these events with flamboyant outfits worthy of his royalist dandy character that were smeared with paint at the end. The convulsive and sharp brushstrokes combined with sinuous, richly textured lines made of pigment pressed straight from the tube produced spontaneous yet elegant calligraphy-like configurations. These elusive signs, typically centered in the composition and floating in an ethereal space, are sometimes reminiscent of medieval heraldry.

A large horizontal canvas is dominated by abstract red, white and blue markings on a brown background.

Georges Mathieu, Denain’s victory, 1963, oil on canvas, 108 ¼ by 275 ⅝ inches.
Photo Guillaume Ziccarelli / © Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris & ARS, New York, 2021 / Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin

Mathieu often titled his works after medieval battles or before the French Revolution, as with Denain’s victory (1963), one of the many amazing examples at Perrotin. Here, on a hazy background, tinted with coffee – modulated from deep shadow in the lower right to muted beige in the upper left – thick and sharp brushstrokes of red, white and blue, from left to right, crossing the middle part of the twenty-three foot wide canvas. In the palette and the composition, the work recalls the painting by Jean Alaux of 1839 on the same subject, which represents a French victory in 1712 in the War of the Spanish Succession. In Mathieu’s painting, and in many of his other epic compositions, he summarizes and critiques the tradition of grandiose history painting. The intensity of Mathieu’s gestures, and the resulting complex cursive, also evokes the wild graffiti and certain works that Futura and Rammellzee produced in the 1980s.

One of the largest and most sumptuous works by Mathieu à Perrotin, measuring nearly ten feet by thirty, is Paris, Capital of the Arts (1965), where a central configuration of highly textured gestural marks in red, yellow and white hovers over a shiny cerulean floor. Here and there Mathieu uses pops of black or other dark hues to emphasize the bright flourishes, creating subtle drop shadows. The illusionist device gives a 3D effect and an impression of solidity to the asemic signage which appears almost like a bas-relief. The technical refinements of this work reappear in some of Nahmad Contemporary’s best paintings, such as Homage to Corelli (Homage to Corelli), 1970, a synesthetic work named after the Italian composer, and Sunion II (1976), with more architectural features reminiscent of the titular Greek temple. With their spiky or flourish embellishments and new color relationships, these efforts are visually appealing and border on ornament. (Indeed, Mathieu has enjoyed great success in recent years lending his signature style to a range of applied arts.) Mathieu is still able to convey a sense of energy in these works, but they cannot to match the visceral power of his early efforts associated with action painting. In an austere composition like First avenue (1957, at Perrotin), featuring only a few convulsive splashes and drops of white thrown into the center of a black background, with several poignant sharp red lines at the top right, Mathieu responds directly to the New York School of Pollock and Franz Kline , as a representative of Paris’s own brand of post-war angst focused on testosterone.

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