by Pei-Ru Keh
Artists generally tend to be a little elusive, but it requires an especially strong sense of character to walk away from the art world and stop exhibiting altogether at the height of one's career. This is the tale of Simon Hantaï, the Hungarian-born Parisian painter, who withdrew into reclusion for 15 years (1983-98), shortly after representing France at the 1982 Venice Biennale.
While the creative period after Hantaï's hiatus has been considered as that of his finest work, the Mnuchin Gallery in New York is shining a spotlight on work created during his first mature period, from 1960-70. Co-curated by Alfred Pacquement, the former director of the Centre Pompidou (which staged a groundbreaking retrospective of Hantaï works in 2013), the exhibition primarily tracks Hantaï's early use of his 'pliage' method - an intricate technique of folding and knotting an unstretched canvas before Hantaï painted the configuration, unfolded and then stretched it, so that colourful geometric shards and unpainted negative space were revealed.
As the Mnuchin Gallery shows, this method, which Hantaï created whilst largely emulating the physicality of Jackson Pollock's paintings, develops rapidly over this ten-year period. Presented against the gallery's intimate townhouse setting, the large paintings reveal Hantaï's systematic experimentations with how the folds are placed, the consistency of how paint is applied, the use of different layers of colour and ultimately the creation of a formal composition. Each is a highly calculated marvel of creativity.
'[Hantaï] is an artist who worked for five decades, and that's just talking about the mature work. There are pre-1960 works that are more surrealist. We're talking about a big career,' explains the Mnuchin Gallery's partner Sukanya Rajaratnam. '1960 is really Hantaï's defining moment. He makes five distinct series in ten years, so I decided to just focus in on those ten years.'
With specimens from Hantaï's painterly 'Mariale' series (1960-62) to the almost Matisse-like 'Meuns' (1967-8) and the frenetic 'Études' (1968-1971), where the negative space forms take on a wing-like nature, the Mnuchin Gallery succinctly paints a portrait of Hantaï's dramatic evolution in a short span of time. And given that Hantaï's estate and most of his works are strictly controlled by his family, in accordance with his wishes not to be shown, the opportunity to view such an in-depth cross-section of the artist's career is truly a rare one.