Hartung in Brazil, Then and now : A look into perspective and other thoughts - Extract from Hans Hartung oficina do gesto, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Sao Paulo, Exh. Cat.
by Marilia Pantz
The year was 1955. The 3rd International Biennial of São Paulo was in progress, under the artistic direction of Sergio Milliet. The French delegation, managed by Jean Cassou, featured the work of Fernand Leger. The works of Franco-German Hans Hartung were present as part of French abstract works, especially what has broadly come to called informalism. The artist’s history placed him as a precursor of abstractionism in Europe. This was perhaps the first really effective contact with his art on Brazilian soil. Did Brazil really notice Hartung back in 1955?
It is known that the Biennial had a strong presence of abstractionists of various leanings since its first edition. Established in 1951, it echoed the post-war debate and trends. And even if in Brazil a real battle between the advocates of figurativism – in particular the modernists in the initial stage of the movement (associated with the 1922 Modern Art Week and its ramifications) – and those who were conducting research in the of informal abstraction and concrete and neo-concrete art, six years later Mário Pedrosa proposed a biennial on abstraction. Mario stated in the introduction for the exhibition’s catalogue: “The 6th Biennial is the culmination of ten years of successful efforts and sacrifice (...) conceived as the Biennale for taking stock of the accomplishments over those years”. Certainly, the focus was associated with a comprehensive view of the 1950s, both in Brazil and globally. In this sense, the Biennale was a retrospective one. It is also important that Pedrosa was bringing the production of young Africans and Australian aborigines, in addition to Japanese calligraphers of the Middle Ages, which amplified the perspective of abstraction. In return, there was the space devoted to new artists who approached conceptual dimensions. In this sense, it was forward-looking.
While it is fair to say that the constructive lines are a factor driving the directions of Brazilian contemporary art, both in its poetic and theoretical production, including its anti-informalism, sign painting is already present, including in the experimentations of some great figurative artists such as Cicero Dias, for example. The coming of foreign artists to Brazil as exiles from World War II, in the 1940s – especially Maria Helena Vieira da Silva and Arpad Szenes – and the outreach of Brazil with European constructive dimensions set the stage for research to be conducted at an abstraction level. Paris was a frequent destination to Brazilian artists in the first half of the twentieth century, so the debates shifted from Europe to Brazil. There was also the work of the group of Japanese descent, and of course, Antonio Bandeira and his production in coordination with that by Wols, in France.
In 1955, Hartung brings his paintings with meaningful gestures associated with the use of a repertoire of signs that defines his production. The description here has the power of a wide and quick gesture, skilled hands – an organic approach to the screen surface. The artist, however, works with accurate traits that often takes to the canvas the image already produced, to a lesser extent, in his drawings. This feature seems to point to a particular line of action within informalism (distant both from dripping painting and lyrical abstractionism). With recurring lettering in his works in the 1930s and 1940s – half lettering, half scribbling, in contact with colour fields – these works have light traits that disappear in his subsequent works. Black starts to occupy a larger space. The gesture that inscribes this black seems to acquire violence, while being superscript, redrawing and erasure. Both in his painting and in his graphic works, a much greater pressure-strain on the support becomes apparent. It’s virtually about creating scars. This intervention in the surface differs from that which is brought to the Biennale in Brazil, where there is certain lightness in traits, distinct values in lines and frequent watercolours.
In the 1950s, we find the brush on a vertical, repeated movement, or the use of large broaches in order to darken the field with black. In drawing, pastel makes such coverage in a frantic back-and-forth movement of a pencil on paper. Explosion, lightning, annihilation, reconstructions. Arrays of brush strokes erupt over the colour background. One must not forget that Hartung was also an engraver and researcher of that approach.
The languages of painting and engraving seem to merge in the various mediums and techniques he avails himself of. The deepening of such research leads him to invent his tools. The exchange the artist establishes with his printers in large workshops in Paris, or in the Erker-Presse, in Switzerland, a stronghold for other great artists of the time, seems to bring about transformations in his vast production of signs in constant notation. After all, as Giulio Carlo Argan says in a note about the focus of his work: “The object of your research is, indeed, the origin of signs, not in the original sense of the sign, but especially the act of producing them”. In other words, the status of the sign is more matter-like and procedural here, it is more associated with the act of lettering (as a mnemonic trait, perhaps) than as the development of shared sense, of meaning. “The space that Hartung defines in the relationship between the sign and the background is the space of action decided upon and consummated; his sign is the sign of volitivity and action”. The artist tenses the range of possibilities in metal engraving, falls in love with lithography, and later experiments with woodcutting.
In paintings produced between the late 1950s and early 1980s, he experiments extensively with various materials. Special mention should be made of the introduction of the brush roll (like the inking graphic arrays) in painting, certain textures obtained by scraping the paint already used, or the revelation of a previous mark, made with a blunt object without pigment and then covered with ink (as in a woodcutting array or metal engraving work). The curves made with this instrument emerge, which is a set of brushes secured to what appears to be the cradle of a wide brush (with an effect that resembles the veined burin of engraving) and the airbrush, which causes a huge change in marks. There is a clear decrease in his repertoire of signs in this period, as an affirmation of certain gestures present in the artist’s works from the beginning, but now clearly defined as structural in his work.
His work in his later years – the exhibition features five of his 360 large canvas, produced in the year of his death – is of a different nature. In the photos and videos showing the artist while he paints, sits in his wheelchair, operates the brush with a huge rod (how could one not remember that other, so well known, showing an elderly Matisse in full swing?), or the compressor that allows him to interfere by using lines formed by a succession of drops of ink (so dear to artists in the action painting movement), Hartung is surrounded by his assistants and produces with a sort of urgency, of frenzy. These canvasses regain the lightness of his early works, in a different scale and with different characteristics. Perhaps the lightning of his childhood notebooks reappear here.
The experience of attending an exhibition that covers the artist’s history impresses since his earliest production, when he was very young, back in the 1920s and with no contact with the first and final abstractionist experiments in Europe already has much of the repertoire developed throughout his (long) life. Important is the fact that Hartung was an exile from his native country (as Nazism grew in strength). Now, in France, he fought in the Foreign Legion, where he lost a leg. He fully experienced the tragedy of war. One can think of him joining the antiform current as a political act. His attitude is consistent with the line of thinking that becomes significant to great artists after the end of World War I: a disbelief in relation to the values of rationality that produces chaos and death. The disappearance of form here means insurrection. In the case of artists who place themselves in this perspective, there is the double negation of realistic representation and their expressionist consequences and formalism represented by the currents of geometric abstraction, where form persists.
(Re)viewing Hartung now, more than half a century after his attendance at the Biennale, allows us to go through the stages of its production and to contextualise his works within his legacy. With historical distancing in relation to the issues posed by informalism during its critical period, one can have a clear notion of the innovations proposed by him and his independent stance regarding the movements that followed. So we are at the mercy of the impact of the melee with canvasses and papers. We are exposed to successive lightning that the artist targeted us with, scars to our eyes, in the purest tradition of capturing signs in the back of our eyes. Welcome to the storm.
Hartung's firm gesture - Extract from Hans Hartung oficina do gesto, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Sao Paulo, Exh. Cat.
by Achille Bonito Oliva
Painting is the locus of appearances, the place in which energies – necessarily in collision with each other – explode. If in the past artists used their manual ability to render a unitary vision of the world, in contemporary art, particularly after the Second World War, they have worked to affirm the centrality of the fragment. The dominion of paintings is inhabited, enduringly, by constellations of internalized data, and this means that in any discourse on art, the particular will erupt in all its discontinuity.
The gestural art of informal painting derived from a Romantic urge: it sought to refound a total vision of the world through a problematic handling of fragments. Although the world eludes being viewed in its totality, action painters attempted nonetheless to reestablish, through the vitality of their gestural art, a reassuring and even exhilarating connection with the fragments into which reality had seemingly disintegrated. Thus painting became the arrival point of a solitary rite through which art celebrated the possibility of redemption from the negativity of history.
The flux of human existence found purification in the vertical instant that produced a work of art, although, at the same time, it was an admission that life had become impracticable, when faced squarely on. Only art could redeem the inertia of commonplace life, through exemplary (and anything but commonplace) gestures. As a result, art and life entered into permanent and irreducible conflict, with no hope of conciliation. On one side, life, with its irreparable disconnections; on the other side, art, with its insightful lacerations.
For the insights afforded by art – even if informal – derive from the discipline given to form, by linguistic constraints which make no concession to improvisation or extemporaneousness. The destiny of form is irreversible, and it invests every artistic production.
Gestural art cannot escape that destiny; if anything, it augments that bond precisely through the emotions deposited on canvas surfaces assailed by a relentless hand. Only through the constraints of language does gesture find its exemplary force and the adequate measure of its expressive tension.
As Hans Hartung stated: “Scribbling, scratching, acting upon the canvas are human activities which, to me, seem as immediate, spontaneous and simple as dancing, or the gambols of an animal that prances, runs, frisks. A plant that sprouts, blood that pulsates, everything that germinates, grows, explodes with vitality, with the force of life, with sufferance or joy, all these things can find their peculiar incarnation - their own sign - in a drawn line which can be soft or flexible, curved or erect, rigid or muscular, and in blotches of color, strident, joyful or sinister”.
Beginning in 1922, Hartung’s work took him through many ofthe relay points of contemporary research. This resulted in an ever expanding and inexorable production, for the point of arrival was never a single beautiful form, frozen on canvas, but rather the surmounting of the previous forms – a continuous process.
His starting point was the idea that painting was a meandering, an unshackled movement, but a wandering always within the territory of signs and colors, There was a constant in these meanderings: the forces in the painting were to crisscross on its skin in a way far from gestural vitalism.
The skin of the painting is where this unfurls, where image becomes, irreversibly, appearance. Outside of the image there is nothing, except the unfathomable depths of the unconscious – which can take shape on the surface of the painting only as signs and colors. Paintings do not admit interdictions or censorship, but neither do they admit references outside their own dominion. There is a kind of eroticism in ail this and Hartung works on it, splendidly polluting the forms and colors that plane on the surface of his canvases or emerge from underneath.
He does so explicitly: he gives painting the possibility of not being reticent, of expressing its potential without measuring its means. Indeed, Hartung never tried to save on expenses, he produced continually and leveraged the future to do so. Picture after picture, the pictorial material blended with extra pictorial materials, unceasingly. For art does not admit standing still nor, in painting, settling down within a manner. This is the essence of Hartungs painting: his investment in his role was one of total application.
His painting is a struggle conducted withing the modes offered by the Nordic chromatic tradition in painting – his linguistic forefathers. His sense of color is matched rigorously by his perceptive sense of measure (he never abandons himself to the pure pleasure of imagery). The eroticism, just mentioned, derives from the capacity of hartung to bring together (and hold together) the two polarities of his work: the color and the spatial layout of his painting. The uninhibited image never steps beyong the calibrated tension holding it together; the design contains the painting. The artist is aware that paintings are glass houses, continually exposed to the ravages of the hand’s movements; they require a nomad’s restraint and delicacy, lest the hand defile the skin holding the work together.
Painting is born out of its history which means out of the sentiments of individual artists who managed to mobilize their inner forces delicately enough to create paintings. For painting is not a spectacular, explicit action; it requires movement and even assaults, but mostly a state of grace and introspection. The inner being of pictorial action is born out of the disciplined imbalance of the artist who possesses within himself the notions of space and of time. These two do not exist simply on the outside; or rather, if they exist as such, it is as the support and the bulwark of daily activity. But outside of daily activity, within the exemplary domain of art, time and space are introjected dimensions. They are the deposit and the structure of the imaginary. They live incarnated in the substance of fantasy, intimately and inextricably.
In Hartung’s painting, space and time celebrate the rite of a diverse appearing; they are arrayed outside of any traditional functioníng. Western logocentrism has always considered these two dimensions as the backdrop and scansion of human activity, as the support – both holding up and holding in – of the whims of intelligence. Space, in the history of painting, has slowly but surely assumed differentiated symbolic forms producing a renewed conception, according to the principles of political ideology and science.
The temporal dimension, in the history of art, has likewise obeyed the dictates of the progressive development of the history of ideas, according to logocentric thought. With the advent of the historical avant-gardes and new methodologies, time and space began to be conceived differently, less rigidly bound by rationality. They found a more adequate sets the parameters. “Inner being” means uncertainties, imbalances, changing dynamics and discontinuity. It means referring to a reality that lies beyond the safe bulwarks of certainty known in advance.It means constructing on the slippery slope of precariousness and chance. The spatial-temporal coordinates thus penetrate the image, not as a rigid support, but as an ingredient that mixes with the visual event that participates in the epiphany. They yield themselves, fantastically, to the image itself. Hartung always internalized those two dimensions and this placed him beyond the rhetoric of “action painting”, beyond the commonplace according to which the agitated gesturality of post WWII art represented a strategy of occupying external reality. Instead, Hartung pursued relentlessly the internalization of gesturality; he tied his creativity to a discipline that was anything but extemporaneous, although marked by (calibrated) impetus.
Thus, space and time have become extensions of our inner self, undefinable before images define them. Indeed, they – and images – can be said to exist contemporaneously; they are consubstantial and intertwined with visual substance. For Hartung it is as if space existed as a gaseous state, as a mobile dematerialization of reality that only art can transform into a concrete, dense substance. Except that giving form to space is not a one time operation, that can be captured definitively in a formalized image. On the contrary, since space is mobile, it calls for a mobile dislocation, a way of seeing it that is precarious and unstable. Only artists, who have the state of grace that permits them to live that precariousness without qualms (indeed, live it as the only path worth following), manage to cope fruitfully with this dimension.
Hartung has precisely this state of grace. This permits him to have the illuminations that confer on space their epiphanic sense. Thus his images are distributed on the surface of hispaintings without spatial gradation. They are governed by simultaneity: the copresence of every possible viewpoint creates the view. Meanwhile, time, too, intertwines with space and is entirely resolved. Images expand and contracting a single, perceived time frame; they breathe biologically, rhythmically, synchronically with our organic pleasure in viewing them. This explains why, in Hartung’s paintings, there is no depth to speak of, but rather a skin-deep reworking of the surface. Depth would mean spatial and temporal gradations: but only a bidimensional uniformity gives us the perception of simultaneity and instantaneousness.
Bidimensionality is therefore the means through which Hartung resolves his spatial-temporal epiphanies; it permits him to give continuity and fluidity to a cosmic idea of these dimensions and discontinuity. It means referring to a reality that lies beyond the safe bulwarks of certainty known in advance.It means constructing on the slippery slope of precariousness and chance. The spatial-temporal coordinates thus penetrate the image, not as a rigid support, but as an ingredient that mixes with the visual event that participates in the epiphany. They yield themselves, fantastically, to the image itself. Hartung always internalized those two dimensions and this placed him beyond the rhetoric of “action painting”, beyond the commonplace according to which the agitated gesturality of post WWII art represented a strategy of occupying external reality. Instead, Hartung pursued relentlessly the internalization of gesturality; he tied his creativity to a discipline that was anything but extemporaneous, although marked by (calibrated) impetus.
Before a work exists, it is as if neither time nor space exist; it is as if the artist was moving in an absolute void – a non-dimension. The painting is the terrain on which an explosion takes place, where fragments of time and of space shower down simultaneously (albeit philosophically) as impalpable and untouchable substances that can be perceived by brushing with them only slightly, ever so lightly.
Indeed, space in Hartung’s paintings is, rather than closed, an expanding nebula, a state of uncertainty that marks an intermediate kind of eroticism that is beyond confines just as it is beyond any climax.
A philosophical cynicism governs Hartung’s work: perfect in difference toward themes and images. Anything is an occasion for painting, since everything is subject to the law of time and space. Forms, and the surfaces on which they appear, are consubstantial – yet forms are never crushed. They participate in – while at the same time escape from – a definitiveness. They seem to rest motionless but, at the same time, exhibit symptoms of movement. There is no proper angle from which to view them, since they have no front or back. Their appearance does not obey the conventions of sight but rather insinuates itself between the two sides of the canvas.
By means of this contact, and more precisely through it, an image acquires movement and eroticism. It expands and contracts outside of the rigid parameters of geometry. It hints at extending itself outside the institutionalized confines of a painting. That hint, while purely mental, is not the result of a project intellectually conceived : rather, it is a flagrant artistic event, a calibrated, vibrating gesture that perforates the canvas; it is an exemplary measure. Thus art remains the ultimate parameter of Hartung’s work, born out of a necessary and biological creative impulse which contains, within itself, its own laws.
The fundamental law is that dictating the disparity between sign and color, even when paintings verge tenderly towards white. For white does not mean neutrality, absence of emotion, but instead depletion, reduction: this lessens the purely dramatic force of gestures, keeping them within the confines of the artist’s inner being. Within a painting, white reverberates splendidly.
That reverberation is also a sign indicating memory, and thus culture. Artists are always assisted by expertise – and that expertise arises from both an inclination and a knowledge of the history of art. Except that, for Hartung, there are no models. And so that reverberation is a way of distancing himself from the precision of the models furnished by his linguistic ancestors. It is a sort of subliminal memory, permitting the artist to absorb, in his work, hints of preceding works (reduced to mere atmosphere).
Painting is always a manner, a correct disposition : it is sustained by subjective and objective memory. Subjective memory furnishes the stratification of language and style found in every work of art. In Hartung’s paintings both memories condense inextricably into images that become the blinding field of unrepeatable memory (for it cannot be stated in any other way).
These images forgo nothing pictorially in their reverberation, although references are attenuated and encapsulated within the all absorbing image. Absorption is total, painless – the biological nature of painting makes it seem natural. Hartung transforms the signs stored in cultural memory into the signs of his immanent creativity, tending towards ulterior immanence. This arises from an idea of the “unfinished”, which inhabits his paintings, an urgency which precipitates and condenses the image into a form capable of further reworking. This is exactly what the biology of art permits.
For art has its own biology, composed of accelerations and stoppages, of cultural references and improvisations, of deposits of energy and external drifts. Art always fishes in troubled waters, in a repertory of the imagination that tends to conserve its own pulsations, even when formalized within the confines of a painting. Hartung knows full well that artistic forms are only the momentary halts of an unstoppable living movement. Time and space in his paintings are governed by a Bergsonian mentality that tends to interpret those dimensions dynamically.
The artist’s cosmic dynamism is synchronic, made up of progressive stylistic mutations, of intentional expressive volubility, of sudden breaks from preceding experiences. Hartung’s poetics are mobile and flexible, he works on a porject that he continually subverts and eludes. His poetics, in any case, are not those of traditional faithfulness in style and pictorial material, but instead of faithfulness of the image to the creative impulse.
Thus art becomes a living flux of paint freely flowing along a surface (along the skin). Forms, composed of signs and colors, also flow unhindered along the canvas, a meandering that will take them in various directions.
Expansion is the reach of these images, which run through space without the heady velocity of the futurists, yet comforted by a void that slowly becomes a space, as the image condenses and is formed. Time is slowed down through the flattened forms – never jagged but sinuous and roundish.
The basic movement in Hartung’s work seems to be transitions – he passes from one painting to another, one kind of material to another, one language or one form to another... Even when he seems to be stationary, completing a painting in the same place, his attitude is on the move, and this keeps him away from static expressions or formal stereotypes.
All this is not due, however, simply to the existential unrest typical of his generation, but instead to a vitality that necessarily resorts to linguistic kleptomania, immediately transformed into stylistic originality.
This is because Hartung does not consider art to be a territory to conquer; it is a terrain of transit and mobility that creates other forms of mobility. His paintings do not affirm proprietary rights, due to some impelling need for novelty. For proprietary rights call for fixity, while mobility makes conquest and dominion impossible. Hartung’s idea of ownership is much more modern, and is based on the notion of mobile, non-violent possession - not far from the young painters of the last generation.
Therefore, while there is a well-founded difference between art and life, the two are never separate. The same unstoppable flux governs each individual territory, pushing painting into an area of transition. Contemporary artists have no other destiny but that. They necessarily adopt an irresistible mobility, since it is the natural (and healthy) condition of any artistic activity. Hartung lends them a hand, dematerializing the matter of painting, thus helping them accomplish this movement. It is a movement with ties to music, which is also made of perceptible shifts and sudden emergencies – the sign of a language that skits away effortlessly because its inner state is replete.
Leonardo da Vinci said that painting is mental; Hartung agreed, adding that it is attained through design and a firm sign.
Extract from Hans Hartung, The Museum of fine arts, Houston, Texas exh. cat.
by Bernard Dorival
Since 1922, when he began to paint, Hans Hartung has been working to make art into an instrument capable of directly recording his inner experiences. His unwavering purpose has been controlled improvisation, undisturbed by objects. He has never used any other modern paintings as his models but has been guided solely by theoretical considerations. Like Kandinsky, he feels that a state of mind can be transmuted directly and spontaneously into forms and colors. "Line is a force which borrows its energy from the man who traces it." In pursuing this idea which became almost an obsession with him, Hartung soon began to look upon the entire field of formal elements as an arsenal of psychographic characters. On this basis, he developed his meditative technique.
The act of creation begins even before the artist picks up his brush, with the primary field of the waiting white canvas. His meditation on it releases the first productive movement; the colors are summoned to action. The loosely applied paint lays the general foundation. Into this pregnant atmosphere, an intense energy is released. It records itself spontaneously in linear diagrams. In their various constellations the trajectories of energy in search of form are disclosed and contrasted; an endless sensitive line gropes its way forward, sending out feelers and repeatedly turning back; a swirling bundle of crackling lines of force conveys the emergence of a conflict; a network of furiously intersecting lines rejects a possible solution. Bands of lines resembling steel springs pressed together and massive heavy lines produce a new assertion. But the lines themselves are independent formal entities with a dynamic expressiveness of their own. They may be thin as cobwebs, produced by a twisting movement of the lightly dancing hand; they may be swift, slow, hurried, or hesitant; thus the drama, the search, the rejections, the assertions are encoded in the simultaneous texture of the process at work.
His art of psychic improvisation was developed under the most difficult living conditions and bears their mark. In 1935, Hartung escaped from Nazi Germany to Paris. With the approach of the German armies, he fled to Spain, where he was interned. On his release, he rejoined the fighting French forces. In 1944, he was seriously wounded and lost a leg. In spite of these hards hips, he pursued his artistic goal unflaggingly. When his work was shown at Paris exhibitions shortly after the war, he was immediately recognized as a leading figure of the Paris school and as one of the outstanding representatives of western painting.
In 1956, after numerous exhibitions in principal European capitals, Hartung received the Guggenheim International prize; in 1958, the Rubens prize; and in 1960, the much-coveted international award, "the grand prize in painting of the Venice Biennale."
Hans Hartung is today one of the most important representatives of the Ecole de Paris, and continues a dynamic and influential force in the entire abstract art world .
The Museum of Fine Arts is deeply indebted to Hans Hartung for his generous assistance in the location of his works in Europe and the United States.
We are also particularly grateful to Bernard Dorival for the important foreword to this catalogue; to Anna-Eva Bergman and Marie Aanderaa for their constant encouragement in many facets of the show's organization; and to Mme Myriam Prevot-Douatte for her superb cooperation.
Those from abroad who have so willingly lent their works are Mme Roberta GonzalezRichards, l' Hay-les-Roses; Mme Myriam Prevot-Douatte, Paris; Private Collection, Paris; Mr. J . Pugliesi-Conti, Paris; Mr. Andre Bernheim, Paris; Coll ec tion Graindorge, Liege; Dr. and Mrs. William R. Staehelin , Zurich; Private Collection, Rome; and Dott. Emilio Jesi, Milan.
In the United States, the Museum is most appreciative for loans from Mr. and Mrs. Henri Kamer, New York City; Miss Marion R. Lefebre, New York City; and Mrs. C. B. Negley, San Antonio.
Among the museums which have generously cooperated are Mobilier National, Paris; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf; Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Phoenix Art Museum.
Special gratitude is extended to Frederick A. Buxton for his design of the installation, and to C. A. Russell, Inc. and Dee Foundries, Inc. for their generous cooperation in supplying the materials. Sincere thanks are also due to the full staff of the Museum for its devoted work in the installation and in the preparation of this catalogue, particularly to Edward Mayo, Emeline Smith, Clare Ayo, Edward Stone, Cathy Petro, Robert Spangler, Jim Smith, Craig Gardner, Jim Hall, Roy Scroggins, Jim Walls, and Mathis Williams.
Mary Hancock Buxton
There are, in the history of contemporary painting, some truths which everyone knows, and everyone forgets or pretends to forget; some truths it is necessary to reassert by such events as the retrospective exhibition organized in Hartung's honor by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The Hartung Exhibition will recall what has been admirably termed his "anteriorite redoutable" or "frightening priority."
There are facts indeed - his production from 1922 to 1929 - to prove that he had practiced abstraction before those who were the champions of that art after the outbreak of the second world war. It is proven also that between the pioneers and these men, he was one of the few representatives of a second generation persisting in abstraction at a time when most of their contemporaries, especially the Surrealists, were returning to figurative painting. Moreover, his precise colorwashes (1922), his water-colors of the same period, before the pictures painted in Minorca and later in Paris (from 1933 to 1939), prove that Hartung was the first to elaborate on, what later was called in France, "Tachisme," and what was called in America, still later, "Action Painting." That our painter deserves to be praised as a precursor is all the less questionable, as he invented that abstract mode of expression on his own, in the solitude of his native Saxony , without knowing that others had already elaborated on it, and under the stress of the same inner necessity. He was the Christopher Columbus of a continent previously discovered and, like the Genoese, he was unaware of his predecessors when he set forth to conquer. We can realize how disappointed he felt when, on hearing a lecture given in Leipzig by Kandinsky in 1925, he found that others before him had stepped on those lands he thought hitherto untrodden.
There is all the more cause to admire the obstinacy with which he continued steadfastly on his way, in a spirit that was neither that of the Bauhaus in Germany, nor that of the "Abstraction-Creation" movement in France. Geometric abstraction was then all the fashion. He will have none of it; he denounces its impersonal formality; he sets against it his own freedom of invention and pleads against it the rights of imagination and subjectivity, the rights of poetry and lyricism. Did that mean reverting to the abstract expressionism which had been seething throughout Europe, before Malevitch , Mondrian, and, even before those two, Kupka, with his "Plans verticaux," who had made abstract geometry fashionable? By no means. From the Kandinsky of the Blaue Reiter, and from all those who at the same time had exploited the lyrical potentialities of abstract painting in its infancy, he is different in two ways: In the first place, because of his instinctive taste, he rejects the gaudy palette and prefers, because of his exposure to the Cubist movement (Paris, 1929), dull and subdued tones, shades of ochre, brown, olive green, dark blue, and, above all, black-black being, so to speak, imposed upon him by his need to draw signs, his propensity to practice a graphic form of art. In the second place, he somewhat mistrusts expressionism, and his attitude is by no means exceptional in Klee's Germany. As a figurative painter, he rejected complacent distortions of reality practiced by Expressionists. As an abstract painter, he never consented to this blind yielding to subjective forces, to this denial of self-control, to this wallowing in the worship of a magnified ego, to this deliberate confinement within a subjectivism so exclusive that the painter no longer holds converse with others or, more deplorably, with his own art or even his own technique. It is a case of lyrical abstraction, but by no means one of abstract expressionism.
From his youth, he was the man who rejects, the man who wants to be himself only.
That his attitude involved a lesson of courage and intellectual honesty, is not to be denied. But it is not the only lesson taught by the early Hartung, and in our days we ought to reflect on the example he gives of a need for culture, and of the great profit an artist, especially an innovating artist, may derive from this culture. Contrary to so many young artists nowadays who are determined wholly to ignore any art previous to theirs, and who expect to achieve originality all the sooner by that means (after all, that is no more than the admission of their distrust of a personality whose weakness they implicitly acknowledge), the Hartung of the twenties not only studies in the Art Academies in Leipzig and Dresden, but also haunts the museums of Germany and takes a yearly trip abroad, to Italy, Belgium, Holland; above all, France. He spends winters in Paris from 1926 through 1929 and even attends, at the University of Leipzig, courses in art history and philosophy. He dares to confront the aestheticians' lessons with those of the masters who, from Giorgione, Holbein, and El Greco, to Rouault, Matisse, and Picasso, stand like so many Socrates figures, delivering him to the painter he bears within himself. But that painter will not be the mere echo and reflection of them. That painter will be Hartung, a Hartung already fully himself as early as 1935, the year when he solves, in his large, perfectly mature canvases, the problems he had set to himself one by one thirteen years before in his ink drawings and water-colors. The former were graphic signs; the latter, mere blots of color. Through the former, he was conveying his sense of the infinity of space, whereas in the latter he was telling of the vital energy he felt within himself, the personal share he took in the forces of the universe, his desire to associate himself with their dynamism, by acting in his turn, by asserting himself on paper or canvas, by planting himself on it, through a gesture, greater and more meaningful than a mere gesture, amounting to power and possession. Thus did, through a kind of diptych, the divided young artist assert his certainties and his needs-he who never expressed more than one half of himself and to whom it was a problem to express his whole self-by integrating his signs in his blots.
That problem was not an easy one, as is shown by the fact that Hartung repeatedly, while in full command of his abilities, took pleasure in creating either "informal" paintings, in which blots, trails, and blurs of color are blending into one another; or drawings, pastels, and even pictures in which the graphic element prevails. But most often the artist is content with nothing short of works in which sign and blot, writing and color, calligraphy and space are associated. The commonest instrument of that association is the background; a background which sometimes succeeds in swallowing up the blot, in substituting itself for it, in becoming itself a blot, but a blot not so pervasive as to fill up the whole surface of the background. Often indeed, between the outlines of the blot, however hazy, and the edge of the background, there appears a band, shifting like a strip of haze, so that this background is not a background, properly speaking, but a plane in front of a remoter second plane. To perceive this, is already to have a presentiment of one of the most important and original aspects of Hartung's painting: The place held in it by light.
Light it is that secures the harmony between sign, blot, and background. If his line is neither an outline enclosing the colored space, nor an actor dancing in front of a background foreign to his motions; if that space is not superimposed upon the background; if the background itself is not an indifferent witness of the play performed by lines and colors on the stage; if the whole work on the contrary is a living body whose flesh bears slashes inflicted by sharp pen-strokes and hues imparted to it by the internal flow of its own blood; the reason for all this is that the unity of this organism is created by light, which is at one and the same time bathing it from the outside, and beamed upon by its glance, thus establishing in a twofold manner the characteristic individuality of the picture.
Is this to be identified with chiaroscuro? Hartung's understanding of lights seems rather remote from that kind of effect. It does not imply any intrusion of light into the gloom, but every element of the picture being steeped in that light which seems to include even the blacks in its tonality. It was not for naught that Hartung came after the Impressionists and the Cubists whose teaching coincides at that point. Like theirs, his light play is both regular and gradual. It is an instrument which creates unity through diversity, a creation of life, if life is both unity and discrepancy, both permanence and transformation. This is enough to show how much his art, drastically removed from all figuration, is nonetheless genuine and true. There is nothing dead or lifeless in the painting of a man who may have rejected geometric abstraction only because he thought it artificial, superficial, merely decorative, and who certainly worked out his own mode of abstract expression only because it was consonant with his sense of reality.
But if that abstract language was, except for some youthful works, the very language needed by Hartung, he nevertheless handed it in a wide variety of ways. It is a far cry, for instance, from the angular hieroglyphs, conjured by harsh gestures, which he painted in Minorca in 1933, to the sheaves of flexible lines, as lithe as flowers, or rather feathers, which he lighthandedly produced with his caressing brush about 1955. More important still is the fact that, throughout his career, are to be noticed not only certain plastic constants but also the same creative process.
Ever reluctant to use thick substances and, on the contrary, attracted by watercolor, washdrawing, glazings, and transparent coatings, he persistently stood as the champion of certain types of form, rhythm, order. He liked, for instance, skeins of interwoven lines, cross-lines, sheaves, diagonals. All these elements, he worked out by the surrendering to instinctive invention before he practiced slow elaboration, in which self-control, clear-sightedness, even a certain asceticism predominated, while he insisted on blending a degree of formal logic with the spontaneity of the subjective art of creation. He confessed once, "What I like is to leave my mark on my canvas." But it was only to acknowledge also that the canvas, in its turn, left its mark upon him and that "the first plastic signs contained others, colors lead to graphic lines, which in their turn suggest blots, whose part may be complementary or counteractive as well as stabilizing. Hartung concludes and sums up thus: "At the beginning, I act in total freedom Work, by following its own course, constrains me more and more, and I am less and less at liberty to choose." He is the opposite in that respect of some of his followers who were fond of action-painting, and again when he rejects the interpretation of his work as the mere echo of a psychicism, to which one of his historians would like to reduce it. "Interior movements," he rightly objects, "may be a basis, an intentive, no more than an incentive." Art nevertheless remains different, and Hartung asserts that, "A cry is not art ... In order to become art, a cry must obey certain laws. A regard for such laws implies the use of time. You must let your subject ripen, you must think it over thoroughly, you must concentrate on the essentials ... and yet, you must try to preserve in the performance the freshness, directness, spontaneity, characteristic of improvisation." This accounts for some of his practices and some of his refusals. Color does not flow freely over his canvases, nor is chance resorted to. The work has to be patiently elaborated, from material suddenly emerging from the core of the artist's being. The elaboration will occasionally increase its momentum of its own accord, allow itself to be carried away by the creative play, only to subside later on. Thus, by dint of concentrating a slow gestation into an immediately perceptible work, Hartung introduces into it a whole phase of his interior life, and he reveals himself to us through it more completely, in the continuity of his life. So much the richer does his work thereby become.
Hartung is as uncommitted as he is undivided and determined to be himself; he is remote from sectarianism, because he knows that it is only through a complex art and the total expression of his own self that an artist accomplishes or rather constantly outdoes himself. No matter how many disciples Hartung has, he outdid them all. No better proof is needed of his greatness.
Extract from Hans Hartung, Lefebre Gallery, 1971, Exh. Cat.
by Michael Gibson
Although Hans Hartung was born in 1904, nearly 40 years after Kandinsky, he should by rights be numbered among the earliest pioneers of abstraction. At the age of 17, working on his own and as yet unfamiliar with the artistic mutation that was going on in Germany, not to speak of in other countries, Hartung was making the experimental transition, first basing himself on very free representational sketches in order to produce entirely abstract works using the same rhythmic elements, and finally dispensing entirely with the first step and plunging directly into abstraction.
Just 11 years before that Kandinsky had made his own first attempts at abstraction - a fact of which Hartung was of course unaware at the time.
Because of the firm, authoritative manner of these early ink drawings and watercolours one is inclined to forget that they are the work of an adolescent. They attest a remarkable talent and an objective, intelligent sense of simplification. The free and rather nervous pen strokes of his youthful drawings are already miniature prefigurations of the bold, black brush strokes so typical of his work in the fifties.
While priority in art has no absolute significance, it is sometimes worthwhile correcting a perspective, especially when the originality it implies is as generally ignored as it has been in America in Hartung's case.
From his early twenties to his early thirties Hartung made a large variety of strikingly gifted formal experiments, frequently anticipating forms that other artists would come
to after 1945. His precocious stylistic maturity did not prevent him from seeking new ways.
He was from the start concerned both with automatism and control. And both tendencies are exemplified as early as 1925, the first by informal ink scribblings, the latter, for instance, by some powerful, almost abstract landscapes and, in the years to come, by a number of abstract styles at which he was to try his hand.
One can see his whole pre-war period as an attempt to bring these two poles of automatism and control together, and his 1938 experiments with calligraphy and "tachisme" appear to have accomplished this.
Coming just before the tragic hiatus of the war, during which Hartung served in the French Foreign Legion, they can be considered the tore-runners of the definite synthesis he was to achieve in the post-war years.
In 1956, to mention but two more landmarks in his intuitively logical progression, the particular calligraphic style generally associated with the name of Hartung makes its appearance, although in a sense it was foreshadowed in earlier, indeed in his earliest works. And in 1960 he starts applying large areas of color to the canvas and then scratching his calligraphic statements through the paint.
The exceptional implications of Hartung's work become increasingly clear as the general historical significance of abstraction in art becomes clearer too.
Our society is constantly moving through changing perspectives in the spiritual continuum. At certain crucial turning points the obvious reality of yesterday suddenly fades into unreality and occasionally we find ourselves entering - with varying degrees of anxiety - a long dark tunnel from which we ultimately emerge into some new and equally convincing perspective - a perspective that will in turn inevitably be superseded by yet another one still further in the future.
It is this constant movement, this perpetual construction and destruction of the systems of reality within society that gives a vital relevance to the work of artists who are more especially sensitive to this spiritual drift.
The appearance of abstraction in art at the beginning of this century is indicative of such a change of perspective. Nature, ever since the Renaissance, had been considered the dominant concept that held all that could be known of reality in its embrace. Those artists who were concerned with reality - and even those who sought an ideal vision - took Leonardo's counsel and turned to the "imitation" of nature.
But since the beginning of our century it has been ever more acutely obvious that if Nature - objective, measurable Nature-was the ultimate reality, then man's own self-subjective and unmeasurable - could not be accounted real at all. There was no reason to tolerate such a nihilistic conclusion, and the abstract artists were among the first to grasp that a new definition of reality would be required. This intuition impelled them to start off in search of it, by ways as yet unknown to themselves.
Such, then, was the steep ascetic path that Hartung, along with others, began to follow when he was still in his teens.
He chose, because it suited his proud and solitary temper, the impetus of his creative hand as the basis of all his work. As a child he had filled notebooks with his attempts at drawing flashes of lightning as soon as they occurred. The most typical of his recent work, the nest of black bamboo blades and the crisp brittle scratches that cut a white path through darker fields of color have something of an explosive, stormy spark bursting on the canvas-the spark of a solitary individuality shining in the void.
"I like to act upon the canvas," says Hartung, and his paintings themselves are acts rather than representations. Across the void that is the permanent background of his work the black sparks or dark clouds of his mature period slash or spread even to the point of sometimes obliterating it.
The peculiar character of Hartung's solitude reveals the essential trait of his art. He does not express a world vision- he expresses rather a fierce will to be, to stop the lightning in its tracks, to survive. The skater skimming over virgin ice leaves the same sort of record something that proclaims “I have been” to the face of eternity.
This is Hartung's response to the spiritual conditions of our age. Other conditions, yet to be created, may deliver us from the necessity of such tense defiance.
And this, I suspect, is what Hartung implied, when I asked him what lay behind the black cloud and he answered:
“I don't know, but above it shines the sun.”
Michael Gibson is the art critic of the Herald Tribune in Paris and the
Corresponding Editor from Paris for "Art in America."
The Very Late Style of Hans Hartung - Extract from Hartung 10 perspectives, 5 continents, Milan, 2006
by Jennifer Mundy
Hans Hartung (1904–1989) suffered a major stroke in 1986 and was wheelchair-bound for his remaining years. Yet in this period he produced an astonishing number of large and energetically painted canvases. Some people speculated that the paintings must have been produced by his team of studio assistants. This paper examines the relationship of Hartung and his assistants in his last years in order to explore the role played by the artist as author of his late works.
Issues surrounding the very late style of artists remain relatively unexplored …
Gary Garrels on de Kooning, 1995
The title sequence of the film commences: ‘HARTUNG 1989. That year he turned eighty-five. He painted 360 paintings. He died 7 December.’ These brief sentences – all there is by way of commentary in the film – can perhaps be said to encapsulate the problem of the very late style of Hans Hartung. Towards the end of December 1986 Hartung had suffered a severe stroke and subsequently required nursing to help him dress and bathe. In his last years he was no longer able to stand, and relied on a wheelchair and the help of others to move. He had lost much of his fine motor control and signing documents became something that might only be attempted on ‘good’ days, which became fewer and fewer over the period 1987–9. In his last year his short-term memory became patchy, to the point where he might forget the names of his assistants, and conversations were limited in scope. More distressing for those around him, Hartung’s character seems to have changed. From being a man who was ever in control, precise and decisive, he became quiescent, accepting, and either unwilling to impose his will on the running of his studio or incapable of doing so. This change in disposition made the task of looking after Hartung the invalid much easier. But it poses fundamental questions about the authorship role of Hartung the artist, who as the film’s title sequence stated, achieved in his very late years what for most other painters would have been a phenomenal rate of production. Following his recovery from the stroke in March of that year, he completed eighty-five canvases in 1987, 202 in 1988, and, as the film noted triumphantly, 360 canvases in 1989.
The film, shot by assistants over a period of several months in 1989 and edited into a montage of sequences in 1996 for an exhibition of Hartung’s late works, attempted to deal with two of the most obvious questions posed by these very works. First, did Hartung – a man too physically incapacitated to stand and at times too confused to converse fluently – actually paint these canvases which were often spectacular in scale and dominated by imagery that spoke of explosive energy? Secondly, was Hartung in full control of the technical means used in the production of his late canvases?
The film would appear to deal with the first question, and, as we shall see, the second has tended to be answered in the affirmative by a number of writers. But it is perhaps helpful to return to these fundamental questions in order to arrive at a reasoned assessment of the significance of these late works and their place in Hartung’s oeuvre as a whole. After all, depending on one’s response to these questions, the late canvases can be seen as either a triumphant culmination of essential aspects of Hartung’s approach to his craft or a mere postscript to a career which deserves to be remembered for other works.
Hartung 1989 comprises sequences of the artist at work. Throughout the film Hartung is shown in his wheelchair before a succession of changing canvases. These are brought and taken away by two assistants, who step gingerly over the paint-spattered studio floor. (Hartung’s use of ‘pulverisateurs’, or sprayers, to shoot paint of various degrees of liquidity at a canvas left a slippery mess on the ground.) The film was shot on different occasions in the spring and summer of that year. Some sequences show a video-recorder date, others do not; but they are not presented in the edited film in chronological order.
This is perhaps a clue to the fact that the film, however informative, was not quite a neutral record of the making of the works. In the mind of the film’s editor there was clearly a need to use the film to focus on the creativity of the artist rather than on what may have been perceived as the less interesting aspect of the process of producing the paintings. In the beginning of the film, for example, Hartung is shown from the left; the work of getting the various canisters of paint ready for use, which took place on the right and behind the artist, is not shown until halfway through. Also, in the first half of the film, editing has eliminated pauses in the process. With the use of cuts and lap-dissolve, tools change in the artist’s hand; similar tools produce different thicknesses of paint with no apparent change to the sprayer’s nozzle; and assistants, when they are shown, are at times reduced to ghostly traces. Significantly, the film is silent and does not record the admittedly minimal conversation that took place between Hartung and the assistants in these sessions.
This lack of conversation, however, is itself revelatory. Hartung tended to work with assistants over a long period of time, and so they came to know intimately the artist’s requirements and preferences. When Hartung was wheelchair-bound and infirm, some of the assistants became more involved in the physical tasks of looking after him; in some ways, they felt as close to him as to a family member. Requiring attention day and night, Hartung might have lived the end of his life in a nursing home, were it not for the practical and moral support provided by his wife, the artist Anna-Eva Bergman, before her death in July 1987, by his long-term personal assistant, Marie Aanderaa, and by the team of studio assistants. Key figures in this team in Hartung’s later years were Hervé Coste de Champeron, who joined in March 1988, Bernard Derderian, who, after having worked in the studio between 1980 and 1982, returned to work for Hartung in April 1987, Pascal Simonet, who worked in the studio from March 1985, Jean-Luc Uro, who started in October 1988, and Alkis Voliotis, who worked at the studio from 1974 to March 1988. Generally working in pairs, the principal assistants in these years lived and worked at the studio complex on the basis of two weeks on and two weeks off.
Hartung had long employed assistants to help him prepare canvases and paints, as well as photograph and catalogue his works. The first joined him in the mid 1950s, at a time when he was becoming famous in France and abroad as a gestural artist. Hartung’s reputation, however, was based on a partial misunderstanding, one which he did little to correct. As was only fully established in the 1990s, his famous paintings of the 1950s were in fact carefully transcribed enlargements of drawings. In the early 1950s Hartung would have done this work himself. Once he began to use assistants, however, it seems highly likely that assistants would not only have prepared the canvas and painted the ground but also, in some cases at least, drawn the outline shapes that Hartung would then have carefully filled in, creating the illusion of sweeping, gestural strokes. This way of working continued until the early 1960s when Hartung began to use compressed-air spray-guns to create his images, thereby becoming truly a gestural painter.
Videoed interviews with assistants, who worked with Hartung in the 1960s and later, reveal that Hartung would ask an assistant early in the morning to prepare a different number of canvases, of certain sizes, and mix a number of specified colours for a painting session that evening (he generally painted at night). During the day the assistant would bring samples of the colours requested, showing how the paints had dried or responded to fixing for Hartung to approve. Volker Schultheis, an assistant from 1964 to 1967, recalled, ‘after a while I knew what he wanted pretty well’; but he added that Hartung was difficult to please when it came to mixing up sombre colours, always wanting them ‘plus noir’ or blacker.
Assistants who stayed with Hartung for a long period naturally came to understand and anticipate Hartung’s wishes. In 1985 Hartung was quoted in an interview as saying that he did not need to instruct his team of assistants much. ‘The sort of telepathy you establish after working together for a while,’ Hartung claimed, ‘makes everything run smoothly when you need it.’ The interviewer, however, went on to note that Hartung, although more or less in a trance-like state while painting, partly induced by wine and an insulating barrier of Baroque music played extremely loudly, was careful to remain in contact with reality ‘to make sure his assistants, who prepare this colour or fetch that brush, are on their toes’.
Following his illness in late 1986, and subsequent bouts of worsening health, it seems that Hartung was no longer concerned to impose his will in quite the same way as before. The size of canvases on which Hartung worked was determined on a day-to-day basis by the assistants. They also chose the colours of the grounds of the canvases, which they painted, and prepared the range of colours that were to be used in any one day, without much, if any, consultation with the artist. While Hartung painted, the assistants stood ready with the next sprayer to hand to him, following an agreed understanding of what tool was necessary and when. One type of sprayer would produce a fine mist of paint or, with an adjustment to the nozzle, more defined areas of colour with more or less random patches of opacity, while another made the great arcs and nervously wandering lines that were the hallmarks of Hartung’s late works. (The film shows the assistants explaining to the artist what effect a particular nozzle setting would achieve, and Hartung testing the effects by spraying onto the ground beside him.) Different degrees of liquidity were also used to create effects ranging from mist-like droplets to quite messy splashes of paint.
Hartung could have rejected the assistants’ choice of canvases and coloured grounds; he could also have declined to use the particular colours they mixed up for each day’s work. However, for the most part, he accepted what was done for him. Infirmity seemed to have made him either unwilling to seek to control such matters or simply accepting of the situation. For Derderian, it was as if Hartung was willing to accept and play with the cards dealt him as in a game, the rules of which he himself had established before his stroke. It could be said that, rather than being in control of the studio system, Hartung was now sustained by it. But it was, nonetheless, the system he had put in place.
As demonstrated in the film, Hartung was fully capable of producing the late canvases whose energy and ambition astounded so many contemporary commentators. Hartung painted all the marks on the surface of the canvases and, crucially, decided when a painting was finished and was to be taken away. At one point in the film, the assistant Bernard Derderian appears to lean over to ask Hartung whether a work is finished; Hartung nods and says a few words; Derderian gives a thumbs-up sign and jokingly shakes Hartung’s hand in congratulations; and the painting is removed. Amazingly, the process of painting most canvases, even the largest, did not take more than a few minutes. The only limit to the numbers that would be produced in a day was the floor space needed to lay the canvases flat to dry without paint runs spoiling the effect – an effect of which, the film makes clear, Hartung was in control.
However, Hartung’s physical incapacity, the growing number of lapses in his attentiveness and short-term memory, and, above all, the introduction of the new expansive imagery in the late years, lent credence to rumours that the assistants painted some or all of these late works. The video of Hartung at work in 1989 was made expressly to refute these rumours, which nonetheless still surface from time to time today. Technically simple, the late works might seem easy to imitate, but it is worth remarking that, had assistants wanted, for whatever reason, to fake Hartung’s work, they surely would have chosen to stay within the compass of his previously established style, using colours, formats and techniques that were recognised as typical. Instead of this, the very late works surprised all those who knew Hartung. The director of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Werner Schmalenbach, for example, was astonished by what he described as the youthfulness of the works he saw during a visit to Hartung’s studio in 1988: ‘These are not at all the paintings of an old man. They exude the amazing youth Hartung has managed to preserve despite old age, illnesses, and the death of his wife, Anna-Eva.’
A new phase
Writing about the late works of the abstract painter, Willem de Kooning, Robert Storr addressed not only the specific issues arising from the American artist’s creeping Alzheimer’s over the course of the 1980s but also the more general question of the constraints and opportunities brought to a painter by old age. He wrote:
Age and sickness debilitate, but they are also catalysts. Those stricken (and eventually no one is spared) might seem less themselves in gross terms, but, in subtler ways they may be simply ‘other’, or different than they were, in order to maintain a more essential continuity of being. Whether a person succeeds in adapting positively to extreme conditions is a consequence of self-knowledge, discipline, support, and unforeseeable good luck in the unfolding of natural misfortune. It is not so much that miracles happen as that the infirmities that inevitably betray us are not always so simple or complete as their onset and symptoms portend. Thus, while the forfeiture of strengths is implicit in the human condition, so too is their constant metamorphosis.
As Storr notes, it is a mistake to generalise about the weaknesses imposed by age and infirmity: the debilities are rarely constant, and while some faculties may be lost, others may continue and even, in stripped-down form, flourish. There were clearly ‘good’ days and ‘bad’ days for Hartung. An analysis of his production by month, for example, shows an enormous variation in his ability and desire to paint (see Appendix A). In 1987 he produced twenty-nine canvases in March, the first month he returned to painting after his stroke, but more or less nothing again until the autumn. In 1988 he produced twenty-six canvases in January and twenty-four in February, but this was followed by a period of five months when he again produced almost nothing until August. However, this pattern was entirely similar to that of the early 1980s, when travels and ill health contributed to sometimes extensive periods of inactivity. In 1981, for example, he produced only nine works in January and nothing again until August. In 1984 he worked only in February, March and April. In other words, Hartung’s ability and desire to paint may have waxed and waned but it may perhaps be assumed that he only painted when he both wanted to do so and felt that he could.
Against this background of an uneven working pattern, how do the late works relate to what had preceded them, and when did significant shifts in style and technique occur? From 1979–80 to late 1986 Hartung used branches, taken from the olive trees that surrounded the studio, with which to paint. Typically, he would thrash the paint-dipped branches against the canvas. Such was the force used by Hartung – a man who had strong upper arms from having walked with the aid of crutches since 1944 – that the canvases had to be laid on wooden supports, or ‘isorels’, to prevent damage (these were then removed and the finished canvases were placed on conventional stretchers). Alternatively, two assistants would stand with a wooden support behind a canvas while Hartung thrashed the branches onto it.9 In works such as T1982-E15 (fig.5), mechanically sprayed vertical borders of blue and acid yellow frame a central red area over which brushes and branches dipped in black paint have been swept up and across the canvas. Such works spoke of a controlled contrast between order and unleashed energy.
Ever open to change, Hartung had introduced into his already extensive armoury of implements the ‘tirolienne’ in July 1985. This is a hand-held tool with which house painters spatter pebble dashing onto the walls of houses. In the first works in which the device was used (fig.6) Hartung created amorphous areas of black spatterings, relatively dense in the centre and airy towards the edges, on grounds painted pale blue or blue with yellow. The effects of this tool were relatively crude, and, because it was quite heavy to carry when filled with paint, it was not a solution to the problem of Hartung’s declining physical strength. In a video interview, the assistant Alkis Voliotis recalled that in 1986 Anna-Eva had telephoned him to ask if he might be able to find a new tool with which to help Hartung continue to paint. His solution was a sprayer, or ‘sulfateuse’, normally used by gardeners to spray herbicide or water in gardens and by viticulturists to spray copper sulphate solutions on vines. It consisted of a metal canister with a flexible hose leading to the handle which had a trigger and a long spraying rod. The canister needed to be pumped ten or so times to create enough pressure to force liquid through the nozzle when the trigger was depressed. Hartung had used compressed air to spray paint since the 1960s but this had involved lifting relatively heavy canisters of paint and wearing a protective mask in order not to inhale the spray. It was difficult, too, to achieve anything other than an even – and clearly mechanical – application of paint. With a ‘sulfateuse’, however, the canister could be left on the ground and all that had to be held was the light wand of the spraying rod. Above all, with its adjustable nozzle, the sprayer could be used to create both fine and thicker lines of spattered droplets, as well as areas of solid colour. The spray might last only for a minute or so but this drawback could be overcome by having several canisters available. Light and small, it allowed Hartung to project great sweeping lines of paint with a simple flick of a wrist. The artist may have had difficulty controlling a pen in his last years but, as the film shows, he was able to twist his forearm and when necessary lift his right arm to shoulder height – and these small movements were sufficient to paint canvases that were several metres wide and high.
Hartung immediately took to the sprayer. The records show that on the first day he used the ‘sulfateuse’ – 6 August 1986 – he experimented with black acrylic on canvas and ink on board, creating sometimes simple, sometimes more complex, images of wandering lines (fig.7). Clearly entranced with the new tool, Hartung produced no fewer than 106 canvases and works on paper that month.
When Hartung returned to the studio after his stroke, in March 1987, his options for painting were, of course, limited. As had already been clear in 1986, he no longer had the strength and manual control to aint vigorously, an enormous blow for an artist whose whole career had been predicated on and sustained by a decisive, almost violent, gesturalism. But rather than return to painting in a tentative or timid way, he specifically asked to work on large-format paintings. On 10 March, his first day back in the studio, he worked on two canvases each measuring 250 x 154 cm and a diptych measuring in all 180 x 360 cm (figs.9, 10). With the use of the ‘sulfateuse’ and a palette of pale blue, a darker blue, a lemon yellow and black, Hartung was able to create images that were gestural and painterly, combining interlacing lines with sometimes textured patches of colour of various degrees of density. This choice to work on large-format canvases – something that became the norm in this later period – spoke of confidence in himself and in the tools at his disposal. This confidence was to be increased by his use of a second type of spray, known as ‘l’airless’, from the beginning of 1989). Used normally by house painters to paint large areas, or car mechanics to paint the bodywork of cars, this spray could be used to create relatively even mists of background colour or random patches of greater density. In 1988 Hartung briefly used the five-brush tool, similar in form to a rake that he had used in the 1970s, but the resulting few paintings offered no way ahead and the experiment was not extended (fig.12). Fine mists, thicker ‘clouds’, paint runs and freely doodled lines were to be the formal language of Hartung’s last years. None of this would have been possible without the simple, if unorthodox, technology discovered by the studio assistants. This was, in Storr’s phrase, the piece of ‘unforeseeable good luck in the unfolding of natural misfortune’ that made it possible for Hartung to continue to work as an artist.
From this point on – albeit somewhat spasmodically – Hartung went on to paint some of the freest, most ambitious, largest and most colourful works of his entire career. Enormous scale held no terrors, and he painted several grand canvases of five metres width. Some of his paintings presented radically off-centred images of freely doodled lines that went off the edges of the canvas. Combined with areas of colour and texture, some of the wilder images showed a knowing disregard for traditional composition, and even tested the stylistic conventions that had characterised much of Hartung’s work to date. Some canvases, for example, relied not on line but on colour applied in layers of wet paint that were allowed to run together, creating a highly textured patterning. With their splashes and seemingly random lines, other images could be read as both manifestations of energised paint and images of inchoate matter within the natural world. Spontaneous and experimental by nature, not all the late works can be judged successes, but the best of them spoke of a grand ambition and a complex interplay of moods and emotions.
Were these freer compositions expressions of a ‘late style’ or an ‘Alterstil’? Should the distinct changes in Hartung’s style in these last years be compared to the fresh ambition and shift away from naturalism shown in the late Water-lily paintings by Monet? Or the radical simplification of forms and joyousness of Matisse’s late paper cutouts? Or the schematic quality and focus on mortality found in Picasso’s late works? Whatever answers are given to these questions, it is easy to believe that advancing age and physical decline gave Hartung an incentive to focus on exploring those aspects of his artistic identity that he could still access. Where he had once been forceful, explosive even, and in control, he was now more open to expressing through gesture chance, disorder and emotions that embraced awe, delight and foreboding.
Both these aspects had always been present in his work, even if the former had generally dominated. The free cursive gestures, the courting of chance and the use of sweeter colours in the late years had antecedents in earlier works. Although on a quite different scale, various drawings that Hartung made in the 1920s and 1930s seem to anticipate the graphism of the later works (see figs.13, 14). The atypical colours found in the late works, however, marked a distinct shift. Hartung had often said that he preferred sombre colours and actively disliked sweet colours, particularly pinks and reds, though in the 1970s he did for a period begin to use warmer colours. This is an area where the assistants seem to have played a particular role, choosing colours that were not typical of Hartung’s tastes but which nonetheless had been used by the artist at some point in the past (fig.15). A comment made by Hartung in an interview of August 1988 to the newspaper Libération may indicate that he did not feel strongly about the choice of colours in his paintings of this period: ‘I abuse them. Usually, they’re the ones who decide.’ This should perhaps be read as code for the simple fact that the colours, and the sequence of their use in particular paintings, were generally decided by the assistants. For good or ill, the assistants broadened Hartung’s typical palette, but did so in the knowledge that he himself had experimented from time to time with a range of colours. Hartung’s acceptance – and perhaps even welcoming of the intervention of others – in this area can be seen as an expression of his weakened faculties. It may also be seen, however, as another aspect of the complex interplay of control and chance involved in the late works.
The new developments in Hartung’s art were not viewed uniformly positively by those around him. One assistant, who, it should be noted, was trained as a restorer and had had enormous respect for Hartung’s mastery of technical matters, found it difficult to accept these very late works, which seemed to him to be lacking in authorial control and to be a product of infirmity. For a period in 1987 the atmosphere in the studio was poor, and this affected Hartung’s ability and willingness to paint. The arrival of Bernard Derderian in April 1987 and the recruitment of other, younger assistants changed the situation. As Derderian noted in an interview given in 1996, the newer assistants tended to be much more aware of the conceptual underpinning of the development of modem art, and had no difficulty in accepting the technical simplicity of Hartung’s late paintings as being as valid as more complex ways of working. He added that throughout Hartung’s career there had been teams of assistants whose particular skills and interests corresponded to the needs and direction of Hartung’s painting at the time. ‘Those who admired the gesture of the 1950s or the virtuosity of the 1960s started to leave when they thought Hartung’s paintings had become too random,’ he said. ‘Those of us who were just arriving belonged to a new generation that was not really that interested in technique. And, anyway, stretching canvases and using vinyl paint had become very easy.’
Hartung’s recent works were included in a number of exhibitions in the years 1987–9, and engendered a uniformly positive response from press critics. Writers typically marvelled at Hartung’s inventiveness at an age when other artists had long since ceased to paint at all, and were struck by both the scale and what they saw as the sheer beauty of some of the late works. One reviewer of an exhibition of Hartung’s recent works, for example, commented in Art Press in January 1988:
From 1986 on, Hartung slowly started replacing the big brushes he had been using – and which left such large and colourful evidence of their passage on the canvas – with paint sprayers. He had alighted upon the means of projecting, by means of different systems, the liquid colours of his palette onto a vertical frame … The energy of the spontaneous act he had achieved by the concentration of the gesture is still there, in the way the paint atomises the moment it hits the canvas. With the resulting graphic and coloured lines (black being much more present in his recent paintings) Hartung opens up a new world of immense beauty for abstraction, in which the dozen or so paintings on display at the Daniel Gervis Gallery are so many planets.’
In the preface to the catalogue of a showing of Hartung’s recent work held in autumn 1988 in Paris, the artist’s age was contrasted with the youthfulness of the work, and a parallel with late Picasso was drawn: ‘In a creative outpouring reminiscent of Picasso’s last efforts, Hartung, who’s already past eighty, is still making the most unexpected and the “youngest” paintings you could imagine, and in astonishing numbers.’ In the same catalogue the writer Daniel Abadie noted that the simple ‘sulfateuse’ allowed Hartung such freedom to create that each canvas had its own individuality and tonality. He went on to suggest that the expansive imagery created by the droplets of paint was, in effect, a metaphor for Hartung’s vision of nature:
In many of the paintings from this series, Hartung juxtaposes canvases with an elongated format … By thus recreating a unity with disparate elements, he shows that the painting is just a fragment from a much vaster body, much as the lines that cut across them are, to the attentive viewer, no more than myriad points in succession. It is the same discontinuity that governs the universe: an atomic structure that his paintings, in their fragmentation, try to echo.
Hartung himself appears to have believed that his new works expressed profound aspects of his vision of painting’s relationship with material reality and energy. In the interview given to Libération and published in August 1988, he said: ‘The age, the view of the world, now aggressive, now sweet, positive or negative depending on the moment, and this wish to live, to be part of life, are the things I try to express in my paintings’. He also spoke of his continued fascination with energy and speed. ‘They allow me to evoke atmospheric and cosmic tensions, the energies and forces that govern the universe. These are the vital, natural, and physical forces that I have always expressed in the gesture. That’s only normal: if you’re furious, you smack someone in the face. Well, the same goes for painting: the vigorous sign you make is always the expression of something. It must be as accurate as possible … I like the gesture to be definitive; I don’t want to have to come back to it, unless of course it didn’t come out quite right. From this improvisation on the canvas, this spontaneity comes the rhythm and the intensity.’ In this interview Hartung seemed very much aware of his personal situation. He had been unable to paint recently because of a back problem, commenting ruefully: ‘I’m not painting at all right now. I worked very hard at the beginning of the year, on large paintings especially, and maybe it was because of the effort they demanded that I’ve had to take a break from working following a compression of the spinal column’. The records of the Fondation Hartung Bergman indicate that Hartung had produced practically nothing in the previous four months, but that from August, recovered from his back problem, he returned to a more regular rate of production, completing 206 canvases and ten works on paper that year.
The steady and prolific rate of production of the last year of Hartung’s life is one of the most telling points in the story of the late works. If 1987 saw a slow recovery from the stroke and a trying resolution of difficulties within the studio, and if 1988 saw a steadier production but one nonetheless dogged by the pain of his collapsed vertebrae, 1989 saw Hartung averaging nearly thirty-three paintings a month for the eleven months he worked, or, alternatively expressed, between five and six canvases a day for the sixty-two days he worked in the studio that year. Each work was unique in its colours and composition, and each had its own distinctive mood and emotional quality. The variety and quantity of his production can be seen as an expression of Hartung’s profound sense of the eternal flux that lay at the core of the material world and our apprehension of it, something which had underlain his work from the earliest days of his recording lightning flashes while still a boy. No longer bothered to suppress accidental figurative allusions within his works, Hartung allowed some images to suggest crucifixions, a motif of his early figurative work and thus, perhaps, made a knowing allusion to his early preoccupations.
In 1988 Hartung commented, ‘Our position to life changes because life itself is constantly changing. So that there is always something else to express, you’re always trying to go one step further. You enjoy painting as you enjoy life. You can’t stop’. Those who knew him and worked alongside him believe that in these last years Hartung focused on what he could do, and did not bother himself with the negative aspects of his condition. Marie Aanderaa, his long-term personal assistant, said of him, ‘Hartung in his latest years, being freer than ever, only lived for his painting. Not having much time left over, he knew or chose (or does one really know or choose?) what was essential to him and left aside everything else.’ The late paintings would not have existed were it not for the somewhat fortuitous discovery of the sprayers, Hartung’s openness to working with new tools and his need to do so. But clearly there is something more at play in these works than these material circumstances, fundamental though they were. Paradoxically, it would seem that the proximity of death allowed Hartung a freedom to go beyond what was familiar, while the reduction in his physical strength and his mental faculties permitted a renewed enjoyment of the sensuous aspects of painting. Astonishingly, old age and a stroke had not denied Hartung the ability to remain in contact with the forces within himself that had always driven his work forward. Instead, Hartung was able to continue to find pleasure in painting, and maintain the link between expression and energy that lay at the core of his work.
An Apotheosis - Extract from Hans Hartung, Cheim & Reid, New York, 2010, Exh. Cat.
by Joe Fyfe
The painter’s assistant unloosens his grip on 85-year-old Hans Hartung. The painter submerges into the salt water of the swimming pool. It surface is scattered with precisely twenty-nine balloons of various sizes and colors. Hartung thought twenty-nine was a good number. It was the year of his marriage, it was a good year in his life and he admired its shape. He reemerges from underwater staring into the sky and is helped across the depths to the other side, grabbing onto the grooved edge, he rests his leg on the submerged curb that surrounds the perimeter of the pool.
Ripples of water cast silvery wavelets on the walls. The balloons reflect and mix their color with the pool’s blue tile under a panorama of statuesque clouds or stars or moonlight or storms and black fuzzy masses that clash with the white of the buildings. In the winter the pool is heated and the courtyard is wrapped in fog. Early morning and evening the slanting sun sends blurry and sharp shadows through the trees.
Hartung took his daily swim in all weathers. In his artistic maturity he situated himself on the Côte d’Azur enclosed within a carefully designed extension of his artistic vision, “a world in which life had to be reenacted under his direction.” The Antibes compound was both a cosmic observatory and a machine à peindre.
In the final years of his life, the intersections of meteorology, vegetation and architecture he observed when weightless and amphibian or being wheeled around the grounds seemed to collaborate fully in the commanding paintings that flowed from his failing body.
Now, it’s the Fondation Hartung Bergman. Three elongated and buttressed snow-white structures stretch horizontally as they step down laterally across a wide hillside amidst 300-year-old olive trees and umbrella pines. The former living quarters surround the large saline swimming pool. Below are the studios constructed for him and his wife, the Norwegian painter Anna-Eva Bergman. At the bottom of the bluff is a caretaker’s residence and guest quarters.
Hartung consulted with ten architects over five years before completing its construction, from 1968-73. The modernist-looking building’s influences are actually quite diverse. The slanted corners are inspired by archaic fortified structures of coastal Spain. The idea of situating a large pool in the central court came from the design of ancient Roman atriums. Much time was spent determining the optimum angle for the louvers. When occupied by Hartung and Bergman, the white interior walls were left unadorned in order to receive the bright sea-light broken by the dark verticals of the tree trunks.
In a crucial decision, the dimensions of Hartung and Bergman’s paintings determined the window’s sizes. They were based on calculations involving the system of harmonic proportions derived from the Golden Section, a remnant of Hartung and Bergman’s early years as artists.
“I wanted to feel part of the forces that ran through nature,” he said. The system was central in Hartung’s search for what he called “ideal rectangles to make paintings” revealing the need for classical rationalist clarity in order to structure his investigation of the expressionist gesture.
Hartung’s history is singular in its longevity and in its very long and nearly total dedication to abstraction. Standing outside of the orderly progression established for the modernist canon, his investigations were at odds with stylistic timelines. In addition, Hartung was ensnared in the enormous political and societal cataclysms that took place in Europe in the first half of the last century. His career path was that of a maverick. But in its forward momentum, its positioning and character, it appears, retrospectively, determinedly complete.
As an art student from Leipzig, Hartung had advanced ideas about modernist abstraction but rather than go to the Bauhaus, he chose an art academy in Dresden where he could learn traditional painting techniques. Making his mark as an artist in Paris between the wars he wasn’t part of any movements and “I didn’t sign any manifestoes…I had reintroduced to painting what the constructivists had banned…lyricism, emotion, everything that was not rectilinear or geometric…I was a black sheep.”
Considered the “father” of Art Informel or Tachist painting movement of post-WWII Paris, there was nothing informal about his paintings, that were painstakingly scaled up and copied from an inventory of improvisational drawings, many from decades previous.
A “prodigy” of abstract painting at the age of 17, in 1922 he produced a series of exquisite non-objective watercolors. They owed a stylistic debt to Emil Nolde but were a brilliant departure. Certain that he had invented the totally abstract picture upon Kandinsky a few years later he found he had been nine years late. But he had cracked a pictorial code. In his telling, he identified the inked line in a Rembrandt drawing of a lion as containing the power of the image: the sign made by the artist hand was self-evident plastic expression.
Hartung’s childhood drawing experiences portray line as talisman: he quelled his fear of lightning storms by drawing their jagged lines quickly, before thunder struck. His boyhood notebooks were filled with lightning drawings. Subsequently, replications of massing atmospheres and instantaneous and quicksilver shifts of light are reiterated in the work throughout his career.
After leaving Germany, Hartung the burgeoning artist worked and traveled throughout Western Europe often spending months in its extremities, where nature revealed itself more rawly. Hartung and Bergman lived for a while on a fishing island off the coast of Norway. On a rocky headland in Minorca they built a white minimalist block of a studio dwelling overlooking the sea, far from any potable water or electric light. They lived there until Franco, who was commander of the Balearic Islands at that time, had them removed under accusations of spying.
Returning continually to Paris, drawn by French Modernism epitomized by Picasso and Matisse his artistic reputation began there. Though always a loner, he bonded artistically with the equally non-doctrinaire abstract painter Jean Hélion. Important European critics noticed Hartung’s first European exhibitions. He entered the A.E. Gallatin collection in New York and appeared in an international exhibition at the Jeu de Palme museum organized by Christian Zervos in 1937.
On a return to Germany to secure his inheritance (unsuccessfully) he was subjected to Gestapo interrogation as a suspicious “degenerate” abstract artist. Hartung subsequently lived as an illegal alien in Paris after revocation of his passport by the German embassy. Then came war and internment camp, enlistment in the French Foreign Legion, fighting the Nazis, furlough, concentration camp, reenlistment and the loss of his right leg on the Alsatian front – which was its own kind of luck. By the end of the war his own company only had thirty of the original four hundred left alive.
There is a photograph of Hartung as a boy peering through a self-built telescope made from an old camera and a cardboard tube. The picture bundles together major themes: the framing of a fragment of infinitude; the use of a buffer or medium as an extension of vision; the individual before the cosmos; varieties of focus.
After the first forays into total abstraction he retrenched for a time and painted figurative expressionist works inspired by Lovis Corinth and Oskar Kokoschka. He also continued to make studies of a number of old masters including Goya, Hals and Rembrandt – in depth. Looking at the studies in various media, including ink on paper, charcoal and crayon, one notices that the image always seems to appear in tandem with the mark and that it is always foregrounded. The role of the mark within pictorial structure has been isolated in order to examine it as an independent entity.
In a series of ink drawings based on the Altar of the Royal Church of Dresden also done in 1922, Hartung decided to use the back end of the pen. Scratched and scraped inky shards depict a Gothic interior. Like many of the studies done in this period the image prioritizes the expressive possibilities of an unwieldy, relatively artless rendering tool. The painting process as conceived here is a desirably random zone between the direct intervention of the artist’s hand and the resultant image. This would become central later.
It also explains the continual interest in photography. Hartung produced about 35,000 photographic images never considering them categorically works of art, but more as aides-mémoires. Though they weren’t direct sources of pictorial composition they have an indexical linkage: a photograph molds the lights and darks of reality and imprints them on a negative.
Hartung was attached to the indexical aspect of the marking tool in painting. Among the inventory of photographic images are portraits of friends or of objects and various natural and manmade phenomena but the subject matter is predominated by Hartung’s recordings of pattern and of light and dark in interaction.
Continuing investigations of his ideas about abstraction in relation to Parisian modernism led him to conclude that what he called the “clarity of cubism” was not for him. He appears more drawn to Miro’s less programmatic conception of the picture, which has an ambiguous, infinite space: a contrapuntal territory where various characteristics of the mark, of texture, the flow of line and contrasting color intertwine.
It was Hélion who advised coping his improvised drawings onto canvas. This method was born of necessity. Hartung in Paris in the 1930s did not have the money to risk losing canvases to unsuccessful spontaneous compositions.
Perhaps this is the clearest point where he began to establish a zone of criticality between the spontaneous gesture as a point of origin and the resolved painting and his understanding of painting as an act of mimesis. The paintings of the forties and fifties developed as he invented oil painting techniques that replicated effects in the drawings such as dry brushing oil pigment across the canvas, imitating pastel over textured drawing paper.
In 1954 he told an interviewer his copying method allowed him to “convey the impression of unprepared improvisation while seeking to achieve convincing perfection.”
The work that was identified as Tachist conducts a layering and sequencing of artistic intention, execution and process and denies values of immediacy and authenticity. Here Hartung appears prescient, anticipating the systematic production-based praxis of such artists as Warhol and Richter, where artistic intention is integrated within a continuum. Like these later artists Hartung extended and codified pictorial expressionism through exploring technical problems.
After the six years of World War II, Hartung returned to painting in 1945. He rose to prominence as the chief progenitor of Art Informel and had the first of many museum exhibitions. Critical writing of the period made much of the painter’s gesture bearing witness to his history as a survivor of the war, of emotional struggle, of the roots of existentialism, etc. and Hartung did little to dispel these readings. But it is also worth noting that the work has always had a subtly meditative emotional register. The work Donald Kuspit uses for this characteristic in Hartung’s work is “uncanny.”
A film made by the French filmmaker Alain Resnais in 1947 is revealing in its documentation of Hartung’s working process. Shot in the Paris atelier, the painter reaches his hands over his head and makes decisive powerful downward strokes onto a painting support. Hartung had been using crutches to ambulate due to his war injuries. With the increasing muscularity of his arms he seems to have “abstracted” an aspect of his bodily energy into his work.
The film was made before the filmed and photographed documents of Jackson Pollock’s seemingly balletic painting process. Hartung, by contrast, appears more hesitant and mannered. There is more containment than release, more an eccentrically mechanical gesture than a “going with the flow.”
By the mid-1950s additional bodies entered the studio. Now financially comfortable, Hartung bought a building to work and live in Paris and took on assistants to prepare canvases, mix colors and make preliminary transfers and enlargements of drawings to paintings. Other works included an archivist to carefully monitor the growing production of artworks including numerous print editions of lithographs engravings and etchings.
There were also exhibitions in the United States including several gallery solos and a group exhibition at Betty Parsons, where his work was hung alongside Pollock, and a traveling museum exhibition entitled “Advancing French Art.” A handful of American museums purchased works for their permanent collections at this time and nothing since. It is during Hartung’s predominance of the Second School of Paris that his work is known here, if at all. But one can only seriously evaluate his overall contribution after becoming familiar with the work done since his winning the International Prize at the Venice Biennale of 1960. This event is only the midpoint of his working life and coincides with when he began to improvise directly on the canvas.
Selected by the curator of contemporary art, Henry Geldzahler, who wrote that he chose them because they were unfamiliar to an American audience and because they were “more audacious and more refined both grander and simpler than any of his generation in the school of Paris” it was a critical failure, largely owing to the jingoistic drubbing by Hilton Kramer, a chief art critic of the New York Times. Geldzahler later defended it in a letter to Hartung, commenting that 85,000 people attended it during its run, and that it was viewed positively by a number of contemporary artists, including Frank Stella, James Rosenquist and Alex Katz. This was the last Hartung exhibition in the United States until the present one, a span of thirty-five years.
Viewing some of Hartung’s paintings that appeared in the exhibition one senses how they might have seemed unusual to an American viewer unfamiliar with Hartung’s visual equivalent of pianoforte, but also how his combination of mechanistic paint application and highly dramatic contrasting textures, such as lithography-rolled black paint over screamingly bright sprayed color might seem gratuitous. But one also detects glimmerings of influence. Geldzahler’s friend, Andy Warhol’s, extensive and Hartungesque “Shadows” series of silk-screened black gestures over a widely varying selection of artificial colors appeared a few years later, for instance.
The following years are characterized by unabated rewards, exhibitions and decorations, then between 1986-1989 he had a stroke and un 1987 Bergman died. Hartung followed her in December 1989. The present exhibition is concerned with the results of a period of astounding renewal and fecundity that took place in his final years.
In 1989 he produced 360 mostly large-scale paintings owing to the utilization of a new painting tool. His assistant, Alkis Voliotis, has several years previously purchased some garden sprayers used for fertilizing and spreading insecticide. More variable in application, and with a lightweight canister, the sulfateuse had a long hose attached to a wand, with a nozzle that could be adjusted at intervals between fine spray and loose spurt. No masks were necessary. Enough tanks and attachments were made available that many colors could be readied in advance.
Hartung had been confined to a wheelchair for several years. With the new sprayers he could now make movements across large formats by simply moving his arm of his wrist. The various properties of the sulfateuse repeatedly engaged him. He continually innovated. For the first time in anyone’s memory he wanted to paint in daylight. He often produced canvasses at such a rate that the floor would be covered with drying stretched canvasses and they would have to stop.
An almost visionary space seems barely contained within these last pictures, shifting scale and the viewer’s footing in relation to it. One often feels surrounded by its space and behind or at two perspectives simultaneously. The sliding wet paint that grips the frontal plane adds an odd focus, like a landscape seen from underwater. Hartung would direct his assistants how long to keep the canvas vertical so that the paint ran before laying it flat to dry. This occupied him as much as the calibrated paint jets. His rate of production rose and fell during his good and bad days. A film made of him working testifies to his enthusiasm. This would mean nothing were it not that the resultant work, like any successful paintings of the highest caliber, rewards sustained scrutiny. They seem to totter towards arbitrariness, then ultimately hold together pictorially.
The last paintings further many of the themes that occupied him for his entire career but are also a very new and surprising departure. Light in Hartung’s paintings akways seemed internalized and intellectualized before realization and could never really be identified as Mediterranean despite his attachment to his locale.
The most common instruction Hartung gave to his assistants when mixing paint was “more mysterious, more black.” For the first time there was abundant painterly light, acknowledging the allover-ness that characterizes the influence of the Cote d’Azur on artists such as Matisse and Bonnard, artists Hartung greatly admired.
There are the first paintings in many years that are completely executed by the artist: the new spray method allows him to lay down varied gradated backgrounds in a few seconds. Hartung reiterates that for him, painting is an imprint. In the last works one finds painting as unruly line by way of a variation on the mechanics of an inkjet printer: there is also a kind of writing in the air, then dark heavy drips land that pull out the texture of the weave. How well Hartung describes space while also maintaining close attention to the ground as continuous surface. He buries the sign in the sprayed grounds and in delicate traces of past muscular gestures.
Like Gerhard Richter’s abstractions, Hartung utilizes his technical virtuosity to speculate upon and exhilarate in his mastery simultaneously. The late paintings seem to communicate that we interface with the world through visual and haptic mechanisms. The problem of the “temporal and/or material distance between the gesture of the painter and the result on the pictorial surface” is Hartung’s legacy to the present, anticipating concerns of some of the most notable contemporary painters, including Julie Mehretu, Juan Uslè, Christopher Wool, Rudolph Stingel and Albert Oehlen.
One hopes that this exhibition will provide an opening toward a rediscovery of one of the last century’s great painters, one who is newly and crucially relevant to this moment in art. For now, Hartung’s last paintings afford a true apotheosis of twentieth century abstraction.