I write to give you certain information, which you requested, on Simon Hantaï's 1973/74 series titled in French les Blancs, which can quite well translate into English as the White Paintings. The White Paintings, as anyone who has seen an example will know, are in fact brightly colored polychromes. Their given name of 'White Paintings' refers to the prepared ground on which the acrylic color has been applied.
First, it would be a good idea to look at the video film made by Jean-Michel Meurice in 1976, and titled Les silences rétiniens, to coincide with the artist's first, or mid-career, retrospective at the Musée national d'art moderne in Paris, which was then housed on the Avenue President Wilson, while Beaubourg was being constructed in the Marais. At that time, there was much talk of the role of color in Hantaï's circle.
One important reference was to the color theories of Goethe, centering on the idea that white was the sum total of all color. This notion of the color white's potential was then associated, certainly by me, but perhaps by others, with Georges Bataille's philosophy of excess solar energy.
It is important to link Hantaï's White Paintings with earlier developments in his oeuvre, notably the series of Etudes, or Studies, from 1969 and the Aquarelles, or Watercolors, another series of small format works from 1971.
Hantaï had made his first major statement in an initial phase, using the innovative technique of 'folding', with the two great series from the 1960's: first the Mariales of 1960-62 and then the Meuns of 1967-68. There is a considerable body of transitional work with different titles, the Catamurons, Panses, Pre-Meuns from the intermediary years, which should also be taken into account. This work was shown in spring, 2015, in the Simon Hantaï exhibition at the Robert Mnuchin Gallery, which I initiated.
The influence of Goethe, I think, accounts for one specific tendency in the White Paintings, in which the primary colors dominate. This notion of white as the sum total of all color must be linked to what Hantaï felt to be a fundamental breakthrough in his work on an earlier series, called the Studies. He spoke to me at great length about this breakthrough. He stated that it was while working on the Studies in 1969 that he discovered what his true 'subject' was, namely "the resurgence of the unpainted surface of the opening fold". In other terms, he spoke of the "resurgence of the ground beneath my feet" or again "beneath my painting". It should be remarked that the particular approach to folding adopted in the Studies allowed, for the first time, for a very significant expansion of the canvas format to wall size paintings. The expansion of the format, linked with resurgence of the ground, should be connected to the all-over approaches of Newman, Pollock and Rothko. These artists, including Hantaï, were beginning to replace classical notions of linear composition with the conception of painting as an energy field. It is to be remarked that the recent Pompidou retrospective in 2013 completely ignored this aspect of canvas expansion in the Studies, presenting only a static selection of mid-size paintings from the series.
Hantaï then spoke to me of a 'second phase' of the White Paintings in which he chose to employ a more local palette of colors drawn from nature: a range of blues, browns, greens, violets and ochres. Hantaï declared to me that his intention was to reconnect with Cézanne's painting.
This desire to reconnect with Cézanne's color palette must be seen against the context of aesthetic disruption brought about by the war trauma which separates us from Cézanne's world. There was a very interesting recent exhibition entitled 'Destroy the Picture', curated by Paul Schimmel at MOCA, Los Angeles, which afterwards traveled to the Contemporary in Chicago, where I saw it. Schimmel convincingly shows that artists felt cut off from the Arcadian associations of earlier modern art after the dropping of the atomic bomb. Their paintings seem calcified in the aftershock of those atomic explosions. Hantaï was not in that exhibition, but he, like the artists in the show, was deeply caught up in these issues and his paintings of the 1950's explicitly deal with them in a very forceful manner. With the Studies, the Watercolors and the White Paintings, Hantaï declared his resolve to break through the cultural barrier of the mid-century, establish a relationship with Cézanne and pursue the discoveries of modern art.
The return to an explicit concern with Cézanne had been anticipated in the 1971 series of Watercolors, where the medium is an explicit homage to the older master. Again, following on from the Studies, the Watercolors develop the artist's concern with the unpainted ground and here it is explicitly associated with the great issue of unpainted canvas in Cézanne's work, which prompted Zola to declare Cézanne a failure. Interestingly, again, Hantaï’s 2013 Pompidou retrospective passes over the Watercolors in silence. None were presented in the exhibition. Hantaï takes up this great issue of the unpainted areas in Cézanne's painting in order to give it new meaning.
Hantaï’s White Paintings stake his claim to inherit the great color innovations of modern art. He addresses the Cézannian legacy, but he will go on, from the mid-1970's, to engage Matisse in the vast series of Tabulas which will preoccupy him for the rest of his life. Central for Hantaï, was the question as to whether it was possible to have an authentic relationship to the experience of color, given what had transpired in twentieth century history. His painting answered that it was. In this regard, Hantaï’s color should be distinguished from other approaches such as the synthetic colors of artists such as Stella and Warhol, offering a homage to commercial production, the absence of color of such artists as Manzoni or Ryman, the idealization of Klein's celebrated IKB and the more recent manipulations of Richter's abstractions which seem to labor with the idea that color is gone and so some kind of maudlin monument must be erected to its disappearance. Hantaï does not share any of these approaches. To the contrary, he wants to reaffirm the history of color in modern art and explore future meanings for color in painting.