Sunday, December 31, 2017

César, La Rétrospective @ Centre Pompidou

César, Blu Francia 490, 1998
I chose the César retrospective over the Dérain at the Pompidou purely on the basis of the fact that the lines were slightly shorter. And what a great decision that was. This exhibition is a delight, and as the number of children, and their level of engagement with the art demonstrated, the work has a broad accessibility while still being challenging aesthetically and ostensibly politically motivated. 

As I see them, the sculptures from across his career fall into roughly two camps: those that recycle iron and other metals into figurative sculptures that, generally speaking, end up representing the human body, and the abstract works. Of course, given my penchant for abstract and experimental art, it’s the latter that I found fascinating.
César, Enveloppage, 1971
The most exciting for me (and those that seemed to attract a lot of attention from the children) were what he named “the Expansions.” To create these massive blobs, glugs, and what looked like syrupy mixtures César added freon to polyurethane foam with the result of a material that swells as it dries, which apparently happens very quickly. The works themselves reminded me of huge piles of scatological waste, but at the same time, because César controls their form as he pours (ie. before they set) the finished pieces are slick. This also results from his addition of a fiberglass reinforced resin to the mixture to gives the amorphous shapes a clean, shiny surface. I found them very challenging because they are on the one hand just a mess of material, and on the other, there is something very beautiful and highly sensuous about the finished product. The works are, in a way, about nothing more than the artist’s process of working with the material – which can be seen in the visualization of the very folds that results from the pouring of the liquid. This reduction—or elevation—of the work to the process of making it reminded me of the experimental film works that were being made in the 1960s, particularly in the US, but to some extent in Europe. That is, César’s sculptures establishing an interesting and very unusual interface with the cinema as the medium of transitoriness and simultaneous substantive reference of reality.
Giant Thumb Outside the Pompidou
The fact that César’s sculptures are also made in the 1960s made them provocative: this moment in the development of American art when everything was about stripping away the decoration, the excess and the drama of the art work. In the “in-forme” abjection of the amorphous sculptures, it was as though César took the very characteristics that were jettisoned by the art world in the 1960s and made them into works worthy of museum display.
César, Dauphine, 1959
The other works that I found fascinating, were those he called ‘the Compressions.” I have to say, my first thought when I saw these cars slammed in a machine that made them either flat or into a cube of crumpled metal was John Chamberlain. But unlike Chamberlain’s sculptures of recycled car metal, César’s are neither expressionist, nor fully abstracted. We are in no doubt as to what this pile of metal was before it was put into a press and made into an art object. The remains of the car make the works highly political. We see cars is made into an art works and then placed on a wall of a gallery, in the very same mode of exhibition as a painting. Clearly, there is a lot going on here: the fetishization of the car as possession; the critique of the consumption of convenience objects such as the car; the critique of the museum’s applause for works that have little commercial value; the retrieval of waste and subsequent recycle into aesthetic objects to be pondered.
César, Compression, Ricard, 1962

A word about his process in all the works: everything César made was apparently done so from found materials. The museum text reiterated his lifelong poverty and as a result, his reliance on the materials he could find. He is quoted by the museum literature as making works that are dictated by the material. And so, we get see objects in which the artist himself is completely removed from the process of production: he welds, pours, folds, casts, envelopes in plastic, objects and materials that already exist. He is not creating anything anew, so to speak. But rather, César’s art is always a production process. And yet, he is everywhere present in all the works: if it’s not his thumb being reproduced all over the place, his presence to the work is shown through the fact that they are reproductions of his process.
César, Expansion, no. 14, 1970

This is a fascinating exhibition, and as I say, one for the whole family at holiday time!

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