|Serge Poliakoff, Composition en Rose,1954|
The first thing to say about the Serge Poliakoff Exhibition that has just opened at the Musée d’Art Moderne is that it’s huge. And it’s an exhibition that requires patience and persistence. I found the delight of these works revealed itself slowly, across the entirety of the exhibition, to the point where it wasn’t until the final rooms that I was able to understand what Poliakoff was doing, or rather, what he was searching for, across a career in which many of the paintings looked the same.
|Serge Poliakoff, Espace Orange, 1948|
In so many ways, Poliakoff’s work is the quintessential abstract painting. The radicality of the non-representation is, at times, incredible. I could count on one hand the number of times I imagined figuration, when I saw objects or things in the coloured shapes and forms. In this, I was reminded of the late Mondrian as he came closer and closer to a pure abstraction. I was completely preoccupied by the unusual and unexpected colours, their texture, the geometricality of the forms, the arrangement of colours, the tonalities, energy. And as the exhibition developed, there was no visible dimensionality to the forms as they vibrate and move around the picture plane.
|Serge Poliakoff, Forme, 1968|
Like Mondrian’s search for balance and rhythm and vibration in silence, Poliakoff is doing something outside of tradition was at the time he was painting. Unlike Mondrian, Poliakoff’s medium is in the relationship between form and colour, rather than that between line and color. But it was only in the end when, in paintings such as Forme, 1968 in which a colour that breaks the rhythm of the surface in the centre of the composition, that I realized this. By the end of the exhibition, this relationship of colour to colour has become the subject of the paintings. The other characteristic of the paintings that I admired for its approach to pure abstraction was the lack of emotional response that was asked of me. This is not to say the works are cold, they are not. On the contrary, the colours are warm and there is such luminosity, but I don’t feel anything, just the stillness and silence of the space they create around them.
|Serge Poliakoff, Composition Murale, 1965-67|
What do they look like? The surfaces are dense, textured, and the musicality he talks about in relationship to his painting can be felt as we stand before the forms always in unusual colours. Poliakoff talks about the influence of Egyptian sarcophaguses, and the spare, rough texture of his own-ground paint can be felt and smelt. Poliakoff apparently ground his own pigments, and with minimal oil, created a fresco like texture to the paint. As well as being influenced by Egyptian sarcophaguses and as well as seeing the history of nineteenth and twentieth century painting in these canvases the influence of Russian icons cannot be mistaken. As well as the more obvious references of a wall of paintings such as Composition Murale, 1965-67, the iconoclastic reverence for colour as absence of representation, is a constant reference throughout the exhibition. Moreover, the influences of the history of art are everywhere — not just the obvious Monet, Malevich, Mondrian, but the less obvious of Turner, Whistler, Rothko, even at moments when he overpaints with a lighter colour, leaving the darker colour underneath to demonstrate luminosity, tone, a silencing of colour, the works reminded me of those of Jasper Johns.
As I wandered through room after room, I kept wondering what he was doing, where he was going with the forms. I saw different coloured forms, different relationships between the undercolours and the forms, I saw the same vibrations between colours, the same imperfection of the forms. But for all intents and purposes there was little change across the oeuvre. One thing I did notice was that the effect and result of the different materials was visible. When he painted on wood he emphasized the separation of colour, the canvas paintings enabled the distinction of brushstrokes. And then everything fell into place in a small through room, leading to the final rooms where three paintings that were remarkable for their difference from all of the others were displayed. Needless to say, they were painted in grey. In Diptyque, 1961 and Gris Bleu, 1962 these so-called allover paintings summed up all there was to say in this prolific body of work.
|Serge Poliakoff, Gris Bleu, 1962|
These two works are an anomaly because they resemble dust storms, whirlpools, they are much more organic. It’s the effect that Poliakoff finds in some of the forms, but in Diptyque and Gris Bleu it has been elevated to the entirety of the canvas. Everything feels very churned up. Gris Bleu looks radical because of the blurring or misting of the edges of the forms where in every other painting they are defined and certain. Then we ask, is it grey? Is it blue? It is neither and both – always these in between colours where colour is as abstract as the form. In these two works, everything coheres, because for the first time, we see synthesis, coherence and are encouraged to look back on fragmentation, monumentality objectively.
All this said, I still came away wondering, is Poliakoff’s work radical? And still, I am not sure. I think to answer this question I would need to go back to the beginning and start again, with the clear knowledge of where the exhibition ends.