Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Simon Hantaï, 85, Reclusive French Painter, Is Dead
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: October 2, 2008
Simon Hantaï, a highly regarded, famously reclusive French painter whose work explored ideas of absence and silence — and who took those ideas so seriously that he disappeared completely from view for 15 very productive years — died on Sept. 11 at his home in Paris. He was 85.
The death was confirmed by a friend, Paul Rodgers, owner of the Paul Rodgers/9W Gallery in Manhattan. According to a report in Le Figaro in Paris, Mr. Hantaï died in his sleep.
Born in Hungary, Mr. Hantaï was a major figure in European art from the 1950s onward. He was known in particular for abstract, often huge canvases that crackled with bold, saturated color punctuated by unfilled areas of pure white. Their singular appearance resulted from a method of folding and tying the canvas before applying paint, a process known as pliage, which Mr. Hantaï developed in the early 1960s.
He was also known for his long, self-imposed retreat from the public arena in the 1980s and ’90s. In 1999 the magazine Art in America described this absence as stemming from “a streak of ethical obstinacy virtually unparalleled in contemporary art.”
Mr. Hantaï’s work is in the permanent collections of the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris and other major European museums. In 2005 one of his paintings, “Mariale M.A.4 Red,” from 1960, sold at auction in Paris for 560,000 euros — more than $770,000 at today’s exchange rate.
His work is less well known in the United States, though it is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, among others.
In 1982 Mr. Hantaï represented France at the Venice Biennale. Later that year he withdrew from view, in what he described as a reaction against the rampant commercialization of art and the state’s unwelcome involvement in the making of art. Retreating to his home in Paris, he rarely left the house and refused requests to exhibit his paintings. But over the next decade and a half, Mr. Hantaï quietly produced what many critics believe to be his finest work.
Simon Hantaï (pronounced OHN-tye) was born in December 1922 in Bia, near Budapest. At 8, he went temporarily blind as a result of diphtheria. That experience, Mr. Hantaï later said, helped inform his unconventional method of painting by folding, a method that relied far more on chance and far less on sight than conventional painting techniques did.
As an art student in Budapest in the 1940s, Mr. Hantaï was briefly arrested by the Gestapo for a political speech he gave. After the war, he and his wife, Zsuzsa, left Hungary for Italy; in 1948, the Hungarian ministry of culture ordered him to return. Knowing that if he did, he would be shipped off to Moscow for state-sanctioned art training, the couple made their way to Paris. Mr. Hantaï never went back to Hungary.
In Paris he flirted briefly with Surrealism before striking out largely on his own. Deeply influenced by the art of Jackson Pollock, he strove to create a style of painting that, like Pollock’s, entailed neither traditional representation nor traditional ways of applying paint. To create his first major work, “Écriture Rose” (“The Rose-Colored Work of Writing”), Mr. Hantaï spent every day of 1958 copying written texts — poems, philosophical works, treatises on art and much else — onto a canvas of nearly 11 feet by 14 feet. Massed together in tiny script, the words took on an aesthetic life of their own as pure, haunting forms.
In 1960 Mr. Hantaï began to manipulate and crease his canvases before carefully brushing them with bright liquid color. Where most painters saw canvas as merely a surface to hold paint, Mr. Hantaï focused on its essential physical nature: it was a textile that could be folded, scrunched or tied before paint touched it.
The result, when his painted canvases were unfolded, was repeating patterns of jagged whiteness that could suggest ice crystals, geologic rifts or leaf forms. The paintings seemed punctuated by absence — a kind of visual silence — a telling motif for an artist who was an exile. Mr. Hantaï’s important folded paintings include the series “Mariales” (“Cloaks”), “Whites” and “Tabulas.”
In the late 1990s Mr. Hantaï emerged from isolation with a new series. Titled “Laissées” (“Leftovers” or “Remnants”), the paintings were reincarnations of some of his earlier, unmanageably large works, now cut down, collaged and recombined and still quite big. Displayed at a noncommercial exhibition space in Paris, they attracted wide critical praise. After this exhibition and a very few others, Mr. Hantaï resumed seclusion.
Mr. Hantaï’s survivors include his wife and five children: Pierre, an internationally known harpsichordist; Daniel; Marc; Jérôme; and Anna.
In a 1998 interview with Le Monde, Mr. Hantaï explained the reason for his long isolation. The passage is quoted in an obituary by Mr. Rodgers on the Web site of his gallery, paulrodgers9w.com.
“I felt that the art world was going wrong,” Mr. Hantaï said. “I was starting to receive commissions. I was being asked to paint the ceiling of the Paris Opera House. Society seemed to be preparing to paint my work for me. I could have obeyed; many, perhaps most, painters do. The prospect did not coincide with my desire.”
SOURCE: NY TIMES