( 1942, Alès, France)
Making Painting Light: Daniel Dezeuze
Daniel Dezeuze's career began forty years ago with an object whose mythic dimensions of tabula rasa and iconoclasm have largely masked the possibilities for which it did in fact open the way. In January 1968, at the exhibition "Jeune Peinture" in Montpellier, the young artist presented a wooden stretcher, covered with a transparent sheet of plastic (instead of an opaque cloth canvas), simply leaning against the wall. This object was generally understood as a sort of zero degree of painting highlighting one of the components of easel painting, fundamental but habitually invisible in an exhibition situation, and in any case never worthy of attention. It was rapidly covered by the reductive discourse that surrounds the first experimentations of the group Support(s)-Surface(s). For Dezeuze, the stretcher without canvas, for Claude Viallat the free floating stretcherless canvas: that is how a history of art made easy would sum it up. So much so that the work itself has almost literally disappeared in favour of the iconoclastic quasi-Duchampian gesture that it is supposed to embody (in certain versions, for that matter, there is no plastic sheet and we are practically confronted with a ready-made). What we usually do not notice is that the stretcher is also a wood assemblage covered unevenly with walnut stain (denser in some areas than in others with small inflections that create chromatic variations). It is perhaps this aspect that allowed the artist to point out the conjunction of Duchamp and Pollock in a project for an article that he sent to Tel Quel in 1968. Yet the choice of materials also refers to a sort of primitive version of painting, barely separated from sculpture, like a distant echo of the works painted with walnut stain with which Pierre Soulages had begun his work twenty years before. (Dezeuze would only discover Soulages' works from the forties much later; at the time his use of walnut stain was simply inspired by the neighborhood around Bastille where his studio was and where he bought materials in the same shops used by the furniture makers there.)
It must be emphasized that in the context of the neo-avant-gardes at the end of the sixties, it would have been logical for such a gesture to indicate the last degree of painting after which painting could be abandoned as in all the "last paintings" painted during the same era by the founders of Conceptual Art (Lawrence Wiener, Jan Dibbets, Robert Barry, among others). But here it is exactly the opposite that happened: far from representing an end, this object is in fact a starting point for exploring the potentialities of painting and of the canvas, in investigations playing on contradictions which several decades later continue to be productive. If the stretcher is indeed a gesture, it is not so much a gesture of destruction or deconstruction of painting (not withstanding its intentionally ironic and derisive character). Rather it constitutes a putting back the clock of art to zero: after this everything is possible. An extensive and long lasting exploration of what is before us in the form of potentialities can be envisaged. Or, to quote the terms used by Dezeuze in a 1969 text, "Seen in this way, pictorial practice can, without being necessarily reduced, be developed in a new way".
Other less well known objects made at the same time, although less well known, that could just as well lay claim to an inaugural status also point in this direction. Les Toiles Ajourées (Pierced Canvases) are white paintings (the non-colour upon which colour is applied) pierced with thin rectangular openings creating a negative irregular geometric pattern through which the viewer can make out more or less clearly the wall on which the painting is hung or the stretcher itself. In the Toiles Ajourées the artist's subjectivity is not displayed (as it was, spectacularly, in Fontana's pierced canvases, the Attese) and the regularity of the motif gives a mechanical prosaic quality (recalling large loom Jacquard patterns). Here the space that is behind the surface of the painting is invoked, not through negation of the painting, but simply by the transformation of the physical experience proposed to the spectator.
This reference to space is without doubt the first point that the inaugural works have in common. It is less a question of displaying an image to the viewer's gaze than making him perceive how our senses could be set free in a complex space not limited to the two dimensions specific to vision (the focus point for the all-conquering American formalism as well as the School of Paris from which Dezeuze wanted to distance himself). Dezeuze's space includes the third dimension and is not only perceptible but also cultural, historical and political.
Certainly the second point these works have in common is that they play with the object with which western art has been identified historically, the geometrically rectangular painting (and its relation with drawing, sculpture and the real space in which it is placed). The third point, made explicitly perceptible, is the acceptance of a non-heroic character of the work of art, which at first glance refuses to present itself as a demonstration of exceptional skill but rather as a very simple object where nothing is hidden ("formulation that there is no deus, no superior skill, no genius" wrote the artist in 1970) - and yet which insists that the viewer look attentively at subtleties of form. From the start of Dezeuze's oeuvre until today these three aspects are constant in his work in a way that is not so much a question of repetition (although the artist has often worked in series, he has not done so systematically and for example for his inaugural works he did not create series) as of rumination (in the sense that this term can have for Nietzsche) and of what derives from one work where winding paths always lead back to the same crossroads.
During the exhibitions and events of the group Support(s)-Surfaces(s) until the artist resigned (in June 1972) and then outside the group until 1975-76 Dezeuze principally presented objects that could appear as an extension (literally) of the traditional painting stretcher playing on the appearance of a ready-made. During the summer of 1969 in Coaraze, a village inland from Nice, he had hung on an outside wall of a house one of his "extendables" which could be taken to be a trellis for decorative climbing plants. The next summer, in different sites in the South, he had trellises or flexible ladders presented on rocks, grass and on the sand. Afterwards different versions of these works were shown in exhibition spaces in interiors (Gallery Jean Fournier, April 1971 for the "Summer 70" works, the same month for the exhibition "Supports/Surfaces, Art et prospective" at the Théâtre de la cité internationale, in May in a solo show at the Yvon Lambert Gallery, and then in June at the exhibition "Supports/Surfaces" at the MunicipalTheatre in Nice).
Even more than for the other members of the group (where scissions and polemics were rife), Dezeuze's works are extremely adaptable and can be shown on the ground or wall and in different intermediary positions: either entirely unrolled following the eventual unevenness of the terrain, hanging right down to the ground or shown continuing from one wall to another with a part remaining in a roll. They can also be displayed standing in a vertical roll with the option of leaving a portion free, or simply unrolled in a tangle that counters geometric regularity and moves along in a loose progression on the ground. Because of the strongly politicized context in which these events took place the way the works reflected traditional rural culture (sublimated by Maoist references to the peasants as spearhead of the Chinese revolution) and the idea that they proposed a deconstruction (supposedly materialist) of the Western structure of painting were greatly insisted on.
One of their most important aspects was almost neglected. The works were not ready-mades but in fact objects transformed by the artist through the application of coloured marks, sometimes only tar stains or burnmarks, sometimes and more and more often like a polychrome range of dyes (often used on the reverse side of the trellises and so seen only sporadically on the other side). At times, as in the 1975 Pièce orange et verte the work becomes truly colourful although the orange only appears surreptitiously. Taking note of this chromatic dimension, the viewer is led to pay attention to the variations of form to be seen, to the different thicknesses of wood veneering used and to the irregularities with which they were assembled.
These artistic variations point to the persistence of the pictorial model which is under attack. But they do not differ from the variations in utilitarian objects from which their form is derived (most garden trellises have small differences because they are not made industrially). They escape as well from the principle of traditional composition (that functions through a harmonious balance among the different parts) by emphasizing the regularity of the initial motif and the way it is deformed in function of the manner of presentation. The chromatic and visual effect of the random markings is what counts. Dezeuze's works only differ from utilitarian objects in quality, quantity and a gentle and subterraneous persistence that allows the viewer to recognize the exercise of an aesthetic pleasure felt by the artist and offered to the viewer's own delectation.
Doubtlessly this insistence is all the more perceptible today because, since the middle of the 90's, Dezeuze has returned to the themes of extendable lattices, stretchers and screens. The 1997 Stretcher with red keys is a good example where the red colour of the row of six small keys on the second bar of the stretcher resonates with the very particular blue chosen for the wood assemblage. The Flèches (Spires), a series begun the same year (also called Furtive Paintings) are a sharply pointed, dense form of the extendable panels that could be presented stretched out (creating a long diagonal criss-cross pattern) or squeezed closed to form a parallelepiped. At the same time as the Spires, Dezeuze started another series of Extendables, now painting them brightly on one side only. They are exhibited showing the unpainted side so that only traces of the vivid colours are seen. The reverse side remains hidden (except in the 1998-99 series Peintures sur chevalet (Paintings on easel), where the extendable panel is placed in a sculptural free-standing position so that the two sides are visible.) The Spires, here tightly squeezed together so that they present a dense dented surface without any openings, are definitively fixed in elongated diamond shapes. They can be seen as coloured shaped canvases, paintings whose frontality is undercut by their layered thickness and uneven surfaces. The viewer's gaze follows the paths of the visible drops of paint or penetrates into the hidden interstices between the strips of wood now folded together. It did not need much, just a process of accumulation, for these paintings in relief to become sculptures. Thus, the yellow Cube, again from 1997, is made by adding a number of extendable panels one to another until their repetition forms the simple geometric figure of the title, now able to exist as a sculpture in its own right. It is one of those works where the pleasure in colour bursts out in a monumental form, radicalizing the possibilities that were already present more discreetly in the extendable panels presented on the walls. The Cube is shown surrounded by the Spires dating from the same time.
Without doubt, the works of the summer 2007 Petites Echelles pour vent ouest (Small Ladders for the West Wind) and Peintures qui perlent (Beading paintings) develop a sense of delight still further. Posed against the wall, of modest dimensions, the Small Ladders for the West Wind allow the viewer to appreciate the mutations of colour that have been disposed irregularly on a narrow vertical extendable wood panel covered with a metal mesh. The mesh makes the blues, reds, whites, greens, pinks etc. of the wood diaphanous and is rolled at the top of each work forming a metallic mass of greater density. These purely metallic rolls are chromatic blocks that, paradoxically, are colourless, and where the effect keeps changing in function of the way the light goes through the layers of mesh. The structure itself is multiplied because of the iridescence of the mesh and the shadows projected on the wall. With the Peintures qui perlent, the colour which punctuates the geometric grids of the panels (squares turned through 45 degrees onto their points or rectangular grids, in explicit homage to similar compositions by Mondrian) is no longer paint but other materials closer in status to a ready made, wooden or plastic beads, of diverse shapes and colours, attached to the ends of short pieces of stiff wire. To the regularity of the structure upon which the wires are attached, always perceptible, is superimposed an iridescent shimmer of colours, paradoxically objectified, in a more or less regular constellation (certain works in the series play on sudden disjunctions; others are chromatically balanced through repetition in the positioning of the colours).
These recent works demonstrate how much Dezeuze has striven to detach the aspects of painting that are colour and image (the two merging into each other at times, but often separate) from any underlying two-dimensional structure. I am thinking of his way of adding colour to three dimensional objects like the Arms of the years from 1985 to 1991 (to be exact, these objects are stained rather than painted, to use a distinction applied by Leiris to some of Miró's paintings) or the Objets de cueillette (Gathering Devices) of 1992-1992 (assemblages of diversely coloured materials, the chromatic composition affected by wear and tear). Above all I am thinking of the way that, ever since the Gauzes series of 1977-1981, colour does not seem to adhere to its underlying structure but rather to emanate from it without seeming to derive from a precise place (the equivalent in drawing would surely be the use of a fragmented but serpentine line that does not constitute a continuous set figure but rather a tentative, diffuse space).
Certainly it is not a question for the artist of turning back from the refusal of illusionism announced with the inaugural works of 1967-68 (although certain declarations since the 1990's could to be taken to mean the opposite, as in this one, from 1998: "Shouldn't art be the cult of illusion?"). In this sense it remains fundamental that Dezeuze began to pull away from the style of the School of Paris or from more traditional mimetic painting under two complementary circumstances, so to speak, exterior to his own artistic practice; first his studies in comparative literature (that he continued until his doctorate, presented in 1970, which is to say that it was not merely a parallel concern) and secondly, during his stay in North America (from 1965 to 1967), his discovery of American minimalism, justly termed a "literal" art by its enemy Michael Fried. Minimalism taught him to be concerned first of all with the real components of artworks, their concrete presence, without referring to anything exterior to the work, while literary analysis showed him that these real effects could not be reduced to the surface contents but had a complex relationship to diachronic and synchronic contexts.
Like a number of artists of his generation, and notably those whose works were brought together by Lucy Lippard in 1966 in the exhibition "Eccentric Abstraction" (such as Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman or Keith Sonnier), Dezeuze quickly understood that minimalism's phenomenological lessons became more far-reaching when they included the complex relation with the body (of the artist and the viewer) and implicated the artist's and viewer's situation (even his or her political one). One of the most enduring echoes in his work of this awareness is found in the way that the proposed objects are valued as much for the materials they are made of as for the visual activity that they allow and that they emphasize by their very form. Ladders and Screens from the beginning of the 70's could be understood as variations of the pictorial stretcher; they also become more and more with the passing of time paradoxical devices for viewing, aiming and focusing. When the works are shown unrolled against the wall or on the floor (or on both in some cases) they invite the viewer to mental and physical changes of position. The viewer follows the progressive unfurling of the loosely disposed structure to observe the variations constituted by the different marks or traces on it. Confined to more explicitly limited figures, the Triangulations of 1975, structures formed of strips of wood veneering, can be seen to be like more or less complex photographic viewfinders. The viewer's gaze is drawn along the lines of force of these structures only to concentrate on certain places (notably those highlighted by brown or blue paint, especially the places where the paint goes beyond the limit of its section and into an unpainted part of the work). Then the gaze is pulled either in centrifugal directions suggested by the points of the triangular figure or, (in the works where the lower network of wooden strips stop at irregular lengths), downwards in a virtual prolongation. Here it is more a question of proposing changes in the framing of perception and thought than of showing the possible evolutions of the frame inherited from the Renaissance (with its almost simultaneous, and epistemologically related, inventions of the rectangular easel painting and the perspectivist grid).
In 1975-76, Dezeuze started drawing again, a practice he had abandoned for several years. First his drawings took the form of pencil triangular grids (the multiplication on the same page of crosses punctuated with strong diagonal lines). Some ten years later, his drawings derived from motifs of defensive architecture - mediaeval fortified castles and Vaubanesque fortresses. Both series can be explained by the same preoccupation that will find a more literal form in his fabrication of Arms and the Gathering Devices habitually associated respectively with ballistics and prehension (in this sense, if Dezeuze, as Patrick Javault maintained, is indeed a poacher he is also a guerillero). In accepting and then carrying through the commission in 1987-1988 for the mosaic floor at the Saint-Laurent du Puy church, Dezeuze continued this operation of aiming in another domain, that of a decorative environment. As Georges Duby has rightly demonstrated, the motif used on the floor organizes the way that visitors to the church will move inside it, from the entrance of the church until the altar, from the grid that is the source of the long lines finishing in volutes and circling each pillar in the nave, until another grid in the chancel. The goal aimed at by the artist has been attained. As the motif is only perceptible in a fragmentary manner once the chairs are in place in the nave, the visitor must follow this trajectory (the same as the liturgical one) mentally instead of physically. Bodily movement becomes the act of taking aim. In the same way, Dezeuze in his redecoration of the first floor in the Hôtel de Sully, done along with the building's renovation, used vivid colours- blue and magenta in the reception hall, red for the administrative office, yellow for the secretarial office, blue for the president's office- for the walls as tools for making the existing spaces and the way they interconnect more explicit and strengthening their impact. The painted walls are, so to speak, discreet structures through which the viewer's gaze is aimed, filling a double function, giving the rooms clearer meaning and greater energy. They change the framework for the dynamics of the group of rooms in their entirety and demonstrate that Dezeuze designed his work for the men and women working in these offices not through offering them images but rather a framework for their ideas and activities.
Perhaps the most fruitful development of this relation between the object seen and the object aimed at resides in the play between the literal application of colour and its "gasification" in space - what the artist calls "iridescentization" in an interview with Jacques Beauffet in 1980. In a well-known book (L'art à l'état gazeux, which came out in paperback in 2004) Yves Michaud pointed out that art had now like a gas dissolved into the whole social environment as beauty or prettiness but had disappeared as separate objects - and thus as objects of reflection. The art object has been supplanted by widespread aestheticization. Evidently we are not speaking of this kind of "gasification" here but of an action at once more complex and simpler. It is not a question of being bodiless and ethereal but of a "gasification" that maintains its visible and vibrant link with a precise place and time, with an object that produces both focalization and defocalization. To come back to Christian Besson's terminology, Dezeuze, in the Gauzes, reached a peak in "lightness, transparence and evanescence". The artist chose this term rather than using the title "Tarlatans" which would have been the technically appropriate one since they are in fact pieces of starched, stiffened muslin, cut in irregular shapes and then painted, according to the different periods of production, only on the edges or on the whole surface, with only brownish discontinuous markings or large areas of shimmering colours. The most colourful Gauzes (those of 1979 to 1980) more particularly show this ability of "gasifying" colour in relation to the image, especially when several of them are placed on the same wall. "What is at issue here", remarked the artist himself in a 1978 interview with Chantal Béret, "is preventing the viewer's gaze from 'taking hold'".
If at first the viewer's gaze can assign a single place and moment to each shape, the applied colours, with their indeterminate limits, in the cases of both the felt-tip pen and bitumen marks, create an effect of hazy colour in an undefined space, laterally, on either side of each work (according to the lines of force suggested by the exterior edges) but also in depth, through the works, since the tarlatan is not a homogeneous flat surface and the colour goes through the weave. Furthermore, how the colour is perceived changes with the position of the viewer. The hazy effect is increased by the variously shaped holes cut out in the tarlatan revealing the wall inside the works. Through cutting into the material, as Dezeuze had already done in his inaugural works of 1967, he emphasizes the fragility of the surface colour and at the same time he indicates its correlation with the environment in which it is placed. Where easel paintings outline a homogeneous surface on the wall, a space set apart into which the gaze can plunge regardless of the surroundings, the holes cut into the Gauzes force the viewer, without leaving the two dimensional realm, to take a vaster space into account, the very space he occupies.
In the immediately following series, the Doors, Diptychs, and Wooden Blocks 1982 -1983, Dezeuze again chooses an external or internal cutting into the material in order to lighten the solid volumes. Acting as intermediaries between painting and sculpture, these doors are placed on the ground, leaning against the wall. Employing naturally dense objects (of a density that pertains at once to their materiality and to their former function, which is evoked or of which traces remain), Dezeuze cuts into the work, applies paint to it, or designs a motif with another medium (a spiral of upholsterer's tacks for example, in an untitled work from 1982) or even just quickly brushes it with paint (the Wooden Block from 1982). All these actions play against the expectation of unbroken solidity. What the artist does seems very little and is never sufficiently repeated to be remarked upon as explicitly intended as an affirmation of a style (in contrast with Pierre Buraglio's Windows, for example, which are otherwise close to Dezeuze's Doors). Dealing with found objects, presumably discarded (left over from new buildings or house moving) at a time of frequent renovation of state-owned housing), Dezeuze's treatment of the materials could seem like vandalism if it were not for the rough, random character of outlines of the works and the markings on them. Violence, certainly, but halted and frozen in time.
The repeated utilization in the drawings of crushed pigment and of semi-erasure (presumably with the palm of the hand) that plays with the fragmented character of the lines is a parallel means of producing this lightening through "gasification". The graphite pencil drawings from the beginning of the 1980's present a particular variety of thickness in the line, which cannot be perceived as an organic development, or as a result of an elegant movement of the hand holding the pencil but as a sequence of discontinuous actions which cumulatively form a provisional or precarious figure here flattened, there finer in line, without providing continuity in a strict sense except that of a continually re-enacted diffraction. The use, in some cases, of coloured chalks and of colour wash reinforce this aspect. In the 1990's Dezeuze's drawings incorporate forms derived from the plant and animal world or, more exactly, allow the lines and hazy areas to suggest flowers, plants or insects, but with forms that are unfixed, indefinite, merging with their surroundings. Evoked are the iridescence of butterfly wings or flower petals in the Butterflies and Grotesques series of 1997 - 2002 or the imaginary vegetation drawn in pen and ink with which Dezeuze illustrated his short troubadour- inspired blazons in Courtoises frimousses avec fleurs (Faces of Courtly Love with Flowers) (Editions Tarabuste, 2006).
Considering Dezeuze's drawings helps to understand that when I spoke of detaching colour from image it was partly just a way of expressing an idea. For it is not so much colour in the strict sense of the word that is in question here as light and space, or rather space created by a dispersion of light that can on occasion take on colours of various intensity. What counts is the "gasification" of painterly elements, lightening, even detaching painterly elements from the material components of the drawing, before the interaction with the viewer's gaze and mind partially liberates the image from the surface from which it emanates.
The Cinq Nefs (Five Naves) of 2000, large white constructions each made up of three curved white polyethylene lattice panels, the third one encased between the other two, are up to now the furthest Dezeuze has gone, at least though their monumentality, in this direction. He uses materials similar to that of the first Echelles and the Treillages and found, as for the other works, in gardening shops. Following the increased industrialization in the fabrication of garden materials (as shown by the numerous chains of gardening centers in France and Europe in general) he does not directly paint or otherwise put marks on them. It is enough for him to simply make them autonomous in relation to both wall and floor, units standing like sculptures without pedestals in an intermediary state between horizontality and verticality. Nevertheless their distinct status as entities and the possibility of seeing them as closed objects is always temporary. On one hand, plainly, each nave only exists because the three panels that are the components have been bent and tied together. Untied, they become three flat separate pieces. At the extremity of each of the precariously created mandorlas a succession of little ties attest to both the method of creation and the possible return to a previous state (as merchandise). On the other hand, and above all, this apparent entity has been cut into in repetitive patterns that vary from piece to piece - at times left in its original state (as it came out of the factory), - taking away parts of the structure in order to increase or decrease the areas penetrated by light. Thus the colour, the space-light, is now noything but a reversal from negative to positive, an opening of the closed and stable form. The sensations that have their meeting point in the work are "gasified", dispersed, a method that is to be found again, with the addition of colour, in the Petites échelles of 2007.
In some way what all Dezeuze's work has shown, for over more than forty years, is that the refusal of illusionism, in order to be meaningful, (and it must be if one credits the idea that there really can be some political relevance) must encompass several elements. The artist must refuse, before the creative act, the travesties and small secrets of fabrication and the false heroism of the creator, and accept, after the creative act, the free development of effects in a real world where the interactions (with other works, with the presentation space, with the spectators there, and the complexity of each of these factors) give rise to modifications. His principal force is having perceived that in a world where images claim to occupy all the space of our vision and impose their message, it is vital to propose images whose value stems from the absences they indicate and the emanations, the dispersions they generate.