June 18, 2012
Permanent Transformation: Jean Hélion at Schroeder Romero & Shredder
Just what is it about America’s love-hate relationship with French culture? There was a time when it tipped to love: Americans were among the most significant collectors of 19th- and early 20th-century French art. By the postwar era, however, Clement Greenberg was arguing for the “force” of American painters over the “charm” of the French. Donald Judd was even less enamored. In a 1964 interview, he dismissed the “structures, values, feelings of the whole European tradition,” adding for good measure, “It suits me fine if that’s all down the drain.”
The change of heart, of course, paralleled the waning of the French School and the ascendancy of New York. But it also had something to do with the nature of French art itself: its very stylishness, and its predilection for the fastidious and idiosyncratic. When we were seduced by it, we fell hard; when we weren’t, we wouldn’t go near it.
Art, though, is not fashion, and style not the final measure of an artist. There’s no better reminder of this than Schroeder Romero and Shredder’s remarkable retrospective of nearly thirty drawings and paintings by Jean Hélion (1904-1987), an artist whose work powerfully combined the raw and the elegant, the primal and the complex. Curated by Deborah Rosenthal, the exhibition spans over fifty years of the artist’s work, illuminating the consistency of his aesthetic even as it evolved from pure abstraction to the highly figurative. Coinciding with the exhibition is the reprinting of “They Shall Not Have Me” (Arcade Publishing, $24.95), Hélion’s gripping account of his two-year incarceration and escape from a Nazi prisoner of war camp.
Given his propensity for crafted forms, massaged contours and provocative color, you’ll seldom find a more distinctly French painter than Hélion. But what really matters is that he was a great artist—a forceful draftsman, a superb colorist, as well as a first-rate modernist: a cerebral painter who didn’t conceal strategies inspired by a profound understanding of the masters.
Mondrian was an early influence, and Hélion found original ways of re-creating the Dutch master’s climactic sequences and intervals. In one of the earliest pieces in the show—a small, briskly executed gouache from 1934—rough pairings of shapes sea-saw and clamber up the paper, each uniquely characterized: a heavily incised rectangle balancing a lighter, rounding form; smaller shapes above, echoing and extrapolating on these tensions. Imagine a painting by Mondrian, loosened in motif and technique, but relinquishing not a spark of its rhythmic intensity.
Hélion wrote eloquently about art, and he described his process in a 1937 essay titled “Avowals and Comments”:
By all kinds of successive manipulations, some instinctive and dark, some intellectual and conscious, I reach a structure which, at certain times, becomes strong, dominant, individual.
The nearly four-by-five-foot canvas Équilibre (1936) reveals a far higher degree of finish than this gouache, but its forms are every bit as energetic. The design circulates between four cores of overlapping, shield-like forms, each articulated to a different degree, with angled planes stretching in-between. Some shapes orbit others, or speed towards a stable point, or pace out an extended passage. The pressure of colors—dense, vacant, burning, limpid—charges the measure of each interval with emotion. Or do colors measure the emotions of forms? Like all Hélion’s work, Équilibre seems simultaneously propelled by the rational and the sensual.
Describing one of the Louvre’s great Poussins in his 1938 essay “Poussin, Seurat and Double Rhythm,” Hélion illuminates the animating effect of color:
Thus a current is running though the picture, carrying the spectator to all points, everywhere gaining an acceleration, a new speed, a new quality. By a series of rebounds, the color transforms itself. One red jumps over to a blue to an orange. One brown jumps to red over a black…
In Équilibre no element is more crucial than one of the smallest: a slender, horizontal wedge of blue near the canvas’ lower edge that anchors the circulating masses, and holds them just below our point of view. It serves as a kind of floor line, establishing the support of earth, the departure of verticals, the density of space around them: in other words, the most primal sensations accompanying our own occupations of space.
Stylistically, Hélion’s paintings from the late ‘30s bear some resemblance to Léger’s, but Hélion is drawn more to strange, glancing particulars. Though highly abstracted, his images conjure surprisingly earthy effects. Bobbing at one end of the long horizontal canvas Abstraction (1939), for instance, two faceted forms have all the presence of heads, though lacking any kind of facial features. At the canvas’ opposite extremity, a condensation of arcing and minutely overlapping forms becomes a cloven mound, viewed from slightly above. The intensity of its presence, and of our relationship to it, is uncanny. “In a picture an element is real when it behaves like nature, when it coincides with its currents,” Hélion wrote in his essay on Poussin.
It’s really not that much of a leap, then, to the figurative images he pursued from the late 1930’s on. The small gouache Pegeen (1944) tangibly captures the presence of the artist’s wife—despite her absurdly long neck and highly abstracted hair—in front of the fellow-forms of a sport coat in a store window and a wall’s patch of flaking paint. Again, colors weight all: sidewalk below, storefront held above, figure before, our viewpoint held by punctuating details. We’ve seen this conviction of form before in Courbet and Matisse, but Hélion edits his perceptions in an original way, extracting his subject out of raw events with almost unsettling poise.
Considering its intimate scale, “Jean Hélion: Five Decades” touches on a surprisingly wide range of the artist’s explorations. A crisply angular portrait of a be-hatted man in a 1939 painting seems just a stone’s throw from the earliest abstractions. A 1949 canvas of a seated nude reveals the outlined arabesques and odd, rippling details of work from the late 40s. A number of more realistic drawings and paintings, dating to the 50s and 60s, combine multiple studies of a particular motif on a single sheet or canvas. In each of the ten scenes comprising Page de Musique, (1962) the artist employs a “simple” palette—buoyant off-whites, retiring blue-grays, deeply absorbent earth-reds, insistent green-ochres—to vividly locate the curves of a tuba between an angling skylight and the floor’s diagonal shadows. By some magic, Hélion makes the resilient contours sensuous, and the sunlight concrete.
Though more painterly in technique, canvases from his last active years reflect the same eye for the essential and oddly telling moment. The shadows cast by an umbrella in Mannequinerie en solde (1978) crucially advance one’s eye through a web of color-located spaces, each hue preparing the leap to the next: soldier to manikin, to bucket, to object-laden table. For me, Hélion’s late paintings sometimes have the aspect of flamboyant exercises—cerebral rhymings between objects and their stand-ins, arrangements for the sake of arranging—rather than the spontaneous, portrait-like summations of even his most abstract works. Elements, at times, locomote without gaining momentum. But more often the late work simmers with Hélion’s usual energy, as does the small pastel-and-gouache Suite Pucière (1978), which potently measures out a procession of piled hats and pitchers along a bench top.
Expectations of art have changed a great deal since the Havemeyers bought Monets and Albert Barnes acquired Matisses. We’ve grown more sophisticated about art, and have added auras of appreciation to the art we encounter. Abstract Expressionism showed us how a painting could measure the psychic tremors of an artist’s searchings. Pop Art demonstrated that an artwork might magnify cultural purposes by recontextualizing them. Minimalism showed us how a sculpture could recall the transcendence of life by incarnating the transcendence of art.
None of these auras illuminate the work of Hélion. Rather than presuming a role for art—as transcendent object, or omniscient sign—Hélion simply absorbed, with a remarkably astute eye, great instances of traditional painting, and pursued its possibilities in his own way. While many a postmodernist artist might toss all of tradition down the drain, Hélion found it vibrant and rich enough to re-invent from within.
And yet, a wide, anarchic streak informs Hélion’s process, relying as it did on independent and spontaneous experience. In the same “Poussin” essay, he wrote: “Art is not the praising of eternal values; it is the permanent transformation of those values.”
And though the New York School, a decade later, practically fetishized the idea of being “in” the painting, Hélion affirms that for the best artists of any era, whatever their style, the connection to the work is always consuming, evolving, and regenerating. From “Poussin,” again: “The created form becomes creative. What is built, rebuilds the conception. A continuity between man and his work is started.”
Love or hate his style, you should include Hélion in your personal canon of notable artists. He’s our best recent link to Mondrian, Poussin, Giotto, and beyond.