In a solo exhibition dedicated to the late French painter Georges Mathieu (1921–2012) at Perrotin Hong Kong, nine works from his final years actively painting demonstrate the matured skills of an artist who divided critics and influenced a generation at the height of his career.
TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: © Georges Mathieu / ADAGP, Paris, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin
“Georges Mathieu, the transatlantic painter I admire most.” Clement Greenberg, 1959
A groundbreaking artist and theoretician, Georges Mathieu (1921–2012) thrived in post-war France and found appreciation through parts of Europe, in Japan and in America where he can be found in the collections of New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, among others. Mathieu was among the generation of post-war painters pioneering Lyrical Abstraction, which sought to be more intuitive and organic in expression than its predecessors of abstract art. But in a time when America was actively seeking to establish it’s firm position in the canon of Modern Art, helmed by prominent—and powerful—art critics including Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg, European abstractionists became engaged in intense cross-Atlantic rivalry. Greenberg’s famously quoted praise of Mathieu as “the strongest of all new European painters” should therefore be viewed as a genuine testament to Mathieu’s artistic achievements.
In recent years, Mathieu is going through a revival of sorts. The art market in Asia has seen a consistent offering of paintings by the late artist. From galleries to auction houses bringing out pieces every season, we are seeing a growing interest, perhaps in light of the demand for Post-War Abstract Art, which made Gutai and Dansaekhwa household names. As highly exceptional Gutai paintings being offered on the auction block are slowing to a trickle, eager collectors need to cast their net further. Not an undiscovered artist by any means, Mathieu is already well collected in many private collections as well as public institutions. A long time steady favourite in France and Italy, Asia was just slow to pick up on the modern master—or perhaps the desire to keep treasures private kept it from public light.
But there is something to be said about viewing a dedicated show versus a single painting—or two. It’s a pleasure we have not yet had in Hong Kong until now. At Perrotin, an exhibition co-presented with Nahmad Contemporary, both of whom are co-representing the estate of the artist, explores Mathieu’s last active period of painting through nine paintings dating from 1980 through 1990. While Mathieu continued making works on paper, the last known painting on canvas was made in 1991. The paintings in this current exhibition at Perrotin may not be monumental works, but when viewed together, they trace the decades of Mathieu’s experience exposing the mature sensibilities of his later years and the reintroduction of various techniques he had put aside through the late 1940s and 50s. Unlike the urgency of his most pivotal works of the 1950s, for which he became most known, these later paintings show more restraint. Compositionally, these paintings are more densely packed, layered and contained within the frame of a smaller canvas than works from the height of his career, where canvases spanned the length of single walls.
The 1950s were some of Mathieu’s most important years. Typical to paintings of this period is the energetic and rapid-pace of paint strokes, sharp, spontaneous and calligraphic in style. He achieved this largely through a painting method he developed by painting directly with the paint tube in hand, eliminating the intermediary role of a paintbrush. When Mathieu began painting in front of live audiences—years before Yves Klein was to create his “living brushes”—Mathieu spawned another layer of unparalleled depth to his practice. Speed and efficiency was of the essence to the artist. “For Mathieu, it was about intuition,” said Edouard Lombard, Director of the Georges Mathieu Committee during a recent conversation. “The first shot has to be the right one, there would be no turning back, no erasing a mistake.”
In 1956, he painted one of his largest canvases, a sizeable 12×4 meters, at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre in Paris. Completed in just 20 minutes, the painting, and his method, divided critics. A year later, in 1957, he travelled to Japan on the invitation of Gutai co-founder Jiro Yoshihara, and famously created 21 paintings in the short space of three days. Mathieu’s popularity and influence in Japan began even before his trip. In the Gutai Manifesto of 1956, the artists explicitly state their respect for both Jackson Pollock and Mathieu, “Because their work seems to embody cries uttered out of matter, pigment and enamel.”
The essence of this decade—the distinctive aesthetic signature of Mathieu—remains present in the nine paintings at Perrotin, which date from 1987 to 1990. Although the lyricism in the calligraphy-like strokes is less apparent, the sharpness and decisiveness of his mark making is still prominent. Energy continues to emanate from these later works, but it’s an energy that appears less pressing and more composed.
By the 1960s and 70s, Mathieu began to focus again on compositional and geometric elements, integrating them into backgrounds. The combination of these elements, along with the urgency of his 50s style, can be seen across all nine paintings. A reintroduction of a dripping technique is also present in his later paintings, made very obvious in Ferveurs savants (1990) and Offrandes éperdues (1990).
If the purpose of the exhibition is to introduce Mathieu to a new audience, it perhaps lacks the strength of his most pivotal works, but nonetheless it provides a chance to contemplate the various periods of his practice. We often only remember an artist for what they produced at the height of their career, in a similar vein to how many celebrities and film stars are remembered. These nine paintings selected to precede another dedicated show, at Perrotin Shanghai next year, reinforces the position of Mathieu’s later years and demonstrates the maturity of his craft. Mathieu’s paintings have a sense of magnetism and these late-year paintings do not lack in this respect. Now I can only hope next year’s show in Shanghai will be a more expansive one for a survey of the late artist is long overdue in this region of the world.
21 November – 21 December, 2019
Perrotin, Hong Kong
Denise Tsui is currently the Managing Editor for CoBo Social. A Hong Kong-born Aussie with an addiction to coffee, her research interests are primarily in the study of exhibition models and curatorial practices and art from the Southeast Asia Region. Previously she was an editor for ArtAsiaPacific and curator for a private collection of Australian and New Zealand art. A condensed version of her postgraduate curatorial thesis on contemporary Indonesian art was published in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies in 2015.