Letter Exchange on Simon Hantaï, ARTFORUM

February 2014


To the editors:

In her review of Simon Hantaï's milestone retrospective at the Pompidou Center in Paris this summer, Molly Warnock has performed a significant and necessary service to all who think about modern and contemporary art today. Dr. Warnock offers full acknowledgement of the artist’s peculiar relevance when she affirms “Hantaï's place among the most searching and protean artists of the later twentieth century” and asserts that his work “is ripe for reassessment”.

Paul Rodgers's reply
Saturday, March 15, 2014

Dear Molly,

I wrote to the editors of Artforum (February, 2014, issue), what I think was a fairly appreciative letter about your review of Simon Hantai's Paris retrospective in the September, 2013, issue of the magazine.  I can't say that I was entirely surprised by your very defensive rejoinder but I do think it serves no one's interest, certainly not the artist's, not that of the reading public which would like to better understand the issues, not that of your editors at Artforum who made the decision to publish my letter, and probably, least of all, not your own.

I understand that you are trying to build an academic career in America on the artistic and intellectual history of Simon Hantai and of post-war Paris.  It's a fascinating topic.  When Simon Hantai told me that he had been approached by a young art historian-in-training from America, which must have been in the late 1990's, I was delighted at the news.  I had explored this ground twenty years earlier, back in the 1970's when I lived in Paris, and the published traces of that interest remain (I would mention my two articles on the Paris art scene in Artforum, in 1979/80, inadequate for many reasons though they may be, and my The Subject of Art, which I published in 1981, after I got to New York).  I decided not to pursue an academic career for reasons that the briefest perusal of The Subjectwill reveal.  I leave the field to you and good luck!  However, to pretend that somehow I have no standing or competence to write my letter to Artforum, as your contemptuous rejoinder would imply, is disingenuous at best.  You need to understand that this raises a question in people's minds, not least in those of your professional colleagues.

When you write that what I have to say in my letter "has no bearing on my [that is your] account of Mr. Hantai's art", we see the problem right there. I have read your various publications.  I see that you want to situate Hantai's painting in the context of contemporary 'theory', as it is taught in American universities.  That is no concern of mine.  What concerns me is Simon Hantai's painting.  I am concerned, of course, in first instance, with its understanding and legacy.  However, I am also very conscious of its significance for the broader matter of modern art as a vital, on-going tradition.  In other words, this is about Simon Hantai and modern and contemporary art, not about you. 

You have already elsewhere put forward one fundamentally erroneous notion in calling Hantai a 'modernist' ('Notes on Simon Hantai's Modernism', Paul Kasmin Gallery, 2010).  I wrote a letter to Art in America (December, 2010) on that occasion to insist that Hantai is a 'modern' not a 'modernist' artist and that it is a mistake to affirm that the two terms, as is generally accepted, are synonymous.  This is a crucial issue for understanding Hantai's painting. It needs to be re-affirmed that Hantai kept his painting separate from the 'modernist' account and that throughout his life, with ever increasing emphasis in his later years, he insisted that we needed to develop a fresh account of modern art that would be free of the 'modernist' interpretation.

Now, in this new letter to Artforum, I make the clear case that Breton's and Duchamp's interest in art was primarily motivated by ideological concerns.  I go one step further to suggest that they actually replaced the aesthetic model of art with an ideological one.  In other words, they authorized young artists to base their work on ideological issues and not on aesthetic issues.  We can see everywhere the nefarious influence this has had on contemporary art.  This was another crucial issue for Hantai.  He had deeply engaged with Surrealism, as had the American artists of the 1940's and '50's before him.  Again like them, he came to reject this ideological bias, together with surrealist academic form, which is linked to it, in order to address the great aesthetic issues of modern art.  This is how he broke through to a significant relationship with the work of his American predecessors, together with the earlier modern masters, most notably Cezanne and Matisse.

These issues have enormous significance for the history of modern art.  I have been inviting you to address them.  Certainly, you cannot dismiss them.


Paul Rodgers