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by Molly Warnock

This posthumous solo show, Simon Hantaï’s first at Mnuchin Gallery, offered a clear indication of the Hungarian-born French painter’s growing status in New York. Cocurated by Alfred Pacquement—the former Musée National d’Art Moderne director who previously helped organize the artist’s 2013 retrospective at the Centre Pompidou—and uniting fourteen large-format paintings, the exhibition tracked Hantaï’s production in the crucial years 1960–71, when he developed his signature practice of pliage: painting variously crumpled or knotted canvases and then subsequently unfolding and stretching them for exhibition. The show therefore had to reckon with one of the signal features of Hantaï’s first mature decade: that it is structured by two related yet importantly distinct breakthroughs.

The ground-floor rooms focused on the first of these turning points: Hantaï’s initial turn to pliage procedures, as manifest in five paintings from the years 1960–65. Any presentation of the inaugural series, the “Mariales,” 1960–62, must now rely substantially on loans, and this installation, remarkably, included three such works from private hands. These emphatically physical, allover canvases represented all but one of four alphabetically denoted subseries, thus providing some sense of the visual diversity inherent in this openly exploratory body of work. We see Hantaï trying out—or folding together, as it were—seminal paradigms and techniques of twentieth-century art, from the monochrome in Mariale m.b. 2, 1960–61, to the collage effects, Pollockian dripping, and post-painterly staining visible in Mariale m.c. 7 and Mariale m.d. 4, both 1962. Yet even as the artist grappled with historical instances of pictorial invention, the organic, burnt-sienna tones of m.d. 4 in particular appear keyed (in ways he would soon reject) to the larger imperative of bringing the canvas “down to earth”—that is, to the newly horizontal axis of the folding process. (In a somewhat different but related mood, the azurite-malachite flashes of the slightly earlier m.c. 7 suggest a kind of geode, a seemingly banal thing whose once-concealed cavities contain unsuspected brilliance.) Complementing this presentation, two additional paintings showed Hantaï attempting to move on from his opening achievements, as they also underscored the question at the heart of later suites: how best to handle the white or blank areas of revealed support that had begun to surface in the later “Mariales.” Peinture, ca. 1964, obliterates the “nonpainted” through repeated acts of refolding and repainting that yield a surface of sustained, again quasi-mineral density, while Catamurons, 1965, relegates white space to an internal frame.

Stunning evidence of Hantaï’s second major turning point greeted visitors at the top of the stairs to the upper-level rooms, in the form of an emerald Meun, 1968. The painting has been shown in New York before—I included it in the exhibition of the artist’s work that I curated for Paul Kasmin Gallery in 2010—but never fails to surprise. The asymmetrically disposed, loosely brushed areas of very liquid oil paint, now riven by nonpainted canvas, press powerfully toward the support’s edges (and the beholder’s peripheral vision); yet these zones maintain a sense of quasi-magnetic attraction among themselves, as if the whole configuration could contract in an instant. That dynamism derives almost entirely from the newly active, indeed fully constitutive, role of the blank support. We are at the crux of Hantaï’s confrontation with Matisse, and at the pivot of pliage as a whole.

The two remaining spaces fleshed out the larger context of this late-decade regrouping. In the north room were two additional “Meuns” in differing blues, from 1967 and 1968, set against a pair of shimmering pastel “Panses,” both 1964. The earlier canvases suffered from the juxtaposition: These sensitively painted and subtly layered works, with their compacted ovoid forms, suggest a certain inwardness—a formal and figurative “depth”—Hantaï seemed to have sensed was about to disappear from painting; their later compatriots, by contrast, coolly stamp themselves out. Disadvantageous as it appeared, however, this grouping helped dramatize the great leap effected by the “Meuns.” The south room, finally, emphasized the newly lateral drift of Hantaï’s art in the wake of his “activation” of nonpainted canvas. Here were four “Études” made between 1968 and 1971; each turns entirely upon the continually fluctuating interplay between variously shaped and sized zones of flatly painted, monochromatic color—yellow, red, green, or blue—and immediately adjacent areas of the unpainted support. And though they recall the “Mariales” by way of their allover structures, they primarily underscore how much has changed. The twisty and unpredictable trajectory is worth pausing over at every turn.

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