“The divine will as present spirit, unfolding as the actual shape and organization of the world” Hegel, The Philosophy of Right
The Mariales and the Meuns (1960-68)
The first phase of folded paintings begins with the Mariale of 1960-1962 and concludes with the Meuns series of 1967-1968, the latter named after the small village in the Fontainbleau Forest where the artist had moved in 1965. The clear reference for the Mariales is to the idiom of landscape, while in the Meuns series the artist explores the theme of the figure. Painted five years apart, these two complementary series constitute the foundation of Hantaï’s mature wor.
When the artist begins painting the ‘Cloaks’, the international art world is in transition from Abstract Expressionism to the various post-war avant-garde movements of Pop, Minimalism, Land and Process art. Hantaï’s oeuvre spans all of these tendencies and enters into a dialogue of exchange with different generations of international artists: in America, with Pollock, Newman, de Kooning and Rothko, and then with Warhol, Smithson, Judd and Nauman, among others; in Europe, with late Picasso, Dubuffet, Klein, Beuys, the ‘décollage’ artists of Nouveau réalisme, Fluxus and Arte Povera
This was also the era of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War subsequent to the division of Europe into East and West, and the international cultural youth movements which have transformed life-styles in western society. What relationship does aesthetic innovation, represented by the ‘folding method’ of Hantaï, maintain with such larger social and historical upheavals? A point of reference: Hantaï’s ‘Meun’ series was painted as the student revolution of ‘May 68’ was taking place in Paris. Elements of rift and conflict permeate Hantaï’s folding method.
The Studies and the Whites (1969-74)
1969: A new phase in Hantaï’s work begins with the ‘Studies’. Moving from the landscape and figure references of the ‘Cloak’ and ‘Meun’ series, Hantaï develops a new synthesis where interlocking forms gradually open up to allow the white canvas background an independent life of its own. The ‘Studies’ represent a fresh break-through discovery in the artist’s work. He has stated: “It was while working on the ‘Studies’ that I realized what my true subject was – the resurgence of the ground underneath my painting.”
1971: This key discovery, made through the ‘Studies’, is linked to the release of color in the succeeding series of small scale ‘Watercolors’.
1973-74: The ‘Whites’ appear over a two year period. The series is aptly named because the white ground is given full and active expression. From this series on, the theme of energy releasing light and revealing color becomes the focus of Hantaï’s work.
1974-76: First phase of ‘Tabula’ paintings. An over-view of Hantaï’s career reveals the 'Tabula' series of large scale paintings as the central affirmation of his artistic vision. Based on a square motif, these paintings could be considered intentionally reductive, minimalist and rigorously abstract. It would be mistaken, however, to think that Hantaï is interested in a ‘formalist’ approach to art, simply because it is abstract.
This point is notably made when it is realized that the apparently geometric forms of the ‘Tabula’ paintings reach back to an origin of personal inspiration in Hantaï’s art, as revealed in the famous photograph of his mother, wearing a traditional ironed skirt from Bia, Hungary. A comparison of this photograph with the ‘Tabula’ paintings makes the case that Hantaï’s art is based in the real world of lived experience. The ‘Tabulas’, some measuring as large as 10 by 20 feet, have a monumental feel. In the first phase, the square forms are tightly compressed and densely painted, in reminiscence of the mother’s photograph.
1980-82: Second phase of the ‘Tabula’ series. The square forms begin to be enlarged and break open and, once again, in an accelerating explosion of form, the white ground breaks through and imposes its presence.
There is both great calm and great drama in the ‘Tabula’ paintings.
The Left-Overs (1981-94)
It might have been thought in the mid-1980’s that Hantaï had fully explored the ‘folding method’. Much has been written about the artist's famous silence over the years. In 1998, after fifteen years without exhibiting his work, he presented a new series, the ‘Left Overs’, dated 1981-94, in the Espace Renn, an ephemeral private exhibition space in Paris, and again one year later, in the exhibition ‘Simon Hantaï: Work from 1960 to 1995’ at the art museum in Munster, Germany, to a burst of approving attention from the specialist art press and general circulation newspapers. The story behind these ‘left over’ paintings is surely unique in the history of art.
At the end of the ‘Tabula’ series, Hantaï had made a group of enormous, out-size paintings for an exhibition at the CAPC museum in Bordeaux. The space resembles what might best be described as an industrial cathedral and the installation photographs of the event show viewers dwarfed by the enormous canvases surrounding them. With hindsight, however, the artist decided that he would keep only a small selection of these paintings and destroy the rest. In the summer of 1994 he began to cut up these paintings in order to dispose of them. Their forms had been conceived on a vast scale and were now being collapsed to that of the human body. The artist discovered that certain forms, when detached from their original compositions, began to function in an independent manner and he decided that they constituted a series of new paintings in their own right
The ‘Left Over’ series represents an extraordinary shift in the artist’s work. Absent is the research into light and color of the ‘Tabulas’. These are somber paintings that, to the contrary, seem to suck in and pulverize light, letting nothing escape from a decentralized void. These paintings constitute a distinct and authentic ‘late phase’ in the artist’s work. The ‘Left Overs’ observe us from a point of suspension in a time warp. They seem to contain a truth that the artist has decided not to tell. Or maybe they are the portrait of an artist who has shown us much and now invites us to think for ourselves.