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Art in America

By Daniel Hantaï

MY PARENTS LEFT Hungary after the war and came to France in 1948, via Italy. My mother, Zsuzsa, spoke fluent English, so they were able to find a one - room flat in a house thanks to her American friends. It was in the northwest of Paris, on a street called Cité des Fleurs, full of homes with gardens. The flat became smaller and smaller because of my father’s paintings accumulating on each side of the room. Ellsworth Kelly worked in a studio on the first floor. When he left France, my father [Simon Hantaï] moved into his space.

Here we are in that studio, in 1956. The painting in this photo is from my father’s gestural period; in France it’s called lyrical abstraction or Art Informel. It was his answer to the allover work of Jackson Pollock, whose paintings were exhibited in Paris a few years before. This was the year Pollock died; I remember my father being very affected by his death.

He often used a metal ring, pulled from a round alarm clock, as a tool to scrape his paintings. I’d go with him to the flea market in the north of Paris, which was walking distance from our house. We had to cross a no-man’s-land to get there, because at that time there was no Périphérique circling the city; the area was completely open fields, like the countryside. We’d buy broken alarm clocks and take only the metal rings back to the studio.

A lot of people came by the house, not only painters but philosophers and musicians, Hungarian and American as well as French visitors.  I remember artists like Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis and Jean-Paul Riopelle. In this photo I was seven and still an only child – my younger brother wasn’t born until I was 10, and after that I had to manage with three brothers and a sister – so I was a bit like an adult, absorbing everything that was said.

When I was a child, I’d either go out with my mother or else stay home and take my father’s hand and we’d paint at the same time – it was the only way.  There’s a painting at the Pompidou that I started and he finished. But I never wanted to be an artist. Maybe the reason is that I didn’t want to be judged by my father. Instead I became a medical doctor and scientist. My brothers are all musicians, and my sister is in charge of our father’s archives.

--- As told to Leigh Anne Miller

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