On Simon Hantaï in America, by Carter Ratcliff

December 2006

The paradoxical brilliance of Carter Ratcliff's text 'Simon Hantaï in America' lies in its title. Simon Hantaï, the Hungarian-born, Paris-based artist whose career spans the second half of the twentieth century, has never in fact been in America. Yet, as Ratcliff reveals, in a more significant sense than mere personal, physical presence, Hantaï’s painting is inseparable from contemporary American art, from Abstract Expressionism to the present.

At the outset, Ratcliff brings our attention to the issue of whether painting is a valid medium for the concerns of contemporary art.  Advocates of painting have always dismissed this notion as a false, if not fatuous, question but we have to acknowledge that many of the most prominent and influential American artists of the 1960's – Judd, Nauman, Smithson, among them - turned away from painting, not simply because they were attracted by other media, but because they felt stridently that it was no longer relevant to their concerns. For these arbiters of contemporary art and their followers, it would not be enough to point out that many of the most celebrated and successful artists on the current scene continue to be painters.  It would be necessary to show that painting is not, as Marcel Duchamp liked to remark, a merely 'retinal' medium.  Painting had to demonstrate that it could still be intelligent, as it presumably had been in the hands of Cezanne and Picasso at the century's turn.  Ratcliff's essay addresses this issue head on and shows how Hantaï used painting as a vehicle of originalaesthetic 'thought' to explore, and often anticipate, the central issues ofthe 1960's American avant-garde in its various Pop, Minimal, Earth, Body and Conceptual modes.

Behind the positions on painting of Judd, Nauman and Smithson, one finds the presence of Jackson Pollock.  Again, the issue for these '60's artists seems to have been: "How is it possible to go on from Pollock?"  What was so impressive about Pollock was that he had invented a whole new way of painting which seemed to have changed, in some profound way, the relationship of the artist to his subject.  These artists believed that Pollock's technique was so idiosyncratic that it belonged to him alone and so could not be followed in painting.  However, they noted that the projection of the body into the painting process, which Pollock's technique required, seemed to open a way to work directly in and with 'real' space, first of all in sculpture and then in ever more innovative and unconventional manners.  Ratcliff's text on Hantaï shows that there was another way within painting.  It did not require following Pollock's formal technique, nor embracing an aesthetic fundamentalism of real space, but required an exploration of the complex philosophical and phenomenological conflicts that had given birth to Pollock's painting in the first place.  This understanding allowed Hantaï to move beyond Pollock with the invention of an entirely new painting technique, known as the 'folding method'.

What can be seen with hindsight is that Hantaï shared a common purpose with the leaders of the American '60's avant-garde in forcing through a paradigm shift in the epistemological thinking of the modern aesthetic. The ambition of this endeavor was vast, to overturn the hierarchy of transcendent vision inherited from Greek Idealist philosophy. In his relatively short text, Ratcliff can only briefly sketch how each of these artists, including Hantaï, addressed this challenge with varying shades of success.   However, quoting Hantaï’s aphoristic remark that “impurity is the true situation”, he convincingly makes the case that the artist has been able to explore these ideas in painting and that he can claim, consequently, a key role in shaping the art of the 1960’s, 70’s and beyond.  No approach to this period is adequate without recognition of Hantaï’s achievement. 

All this may seem very far removed from the present-day concerns of the contemporary art world where many have argued that the philosophical vision of the modern aesthetic has been replaced by a new sociological account of contemporary art. Carter Ratcliff’s text suggests that an entirely fresh and original view on this debate can be gained from looking at Simon Hantaï’s painting.

Paul Rodgers