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Martial Arts at Centre Pompidou

(Paris.) Let’s start with our apologies: If you’ve clicked the title in hope to read about the free performances given at Centre Pompidou when tourists learn that their expensive Paris Museum Pass is not valid for temporary exhibitions, or scenes from the waiting lines when the next blockbuster show is on, we’re awfully sorry to disappoint you. The recent search for a new managing director of France’s leading contemporary art museum has also come to an end with nothing more than the usual quota of intrigue (and it’s an excellent choice, btw).

No, this will be about Martial Raysse and his retrospective show. The French artist, most famous in the 1960s and 70s, is still alive and working, though his style (his “kata”?) has changed considerably – but we’ll come to this later.

Entering the show on Centre Pompidou’s top floor, we are welcomed with a sweet Hubba Bubba smell and the neon lights sculpture America America from 1964.

‘Murrica: A blue hand grabbing two red stars - or just one, torn apart? If the hand closed, it would resemble a raised fist. It was the year of the Tonkin Incident, and the world preparing for martial law (...) in a country called Vietnam. Most of Martial Raysse’s works are less obvious, less literal. They don’t tell history but aesthetics – notwithstanding their critical ambition. From a today’s point of view, one might read ecological zeal into the Hygiene of Vision series from 1960/61 – sculptures made from empty detergent bottles - but this soap opera is more about the visual language of consumer goods.

Art from the Nouveaux Realistes, of which group Martial Raysse was a founding partner, looks much like Pop Art, seeking to capture contemporary culture in collages with everyday objects and commercial aesthetics. Raysse's collages also prove the ties of Nouveau Realisme to Dada, giving trash a sweet appearance. Paintings with a sun umbrella or even a film showing in the corner of a canvas. From his fellow Noveau Realiste Yves Klein, he occasionally borrowed the copyrighted IKB (Klein Blue, e.g. in 4 steps in the Cloud, 1966).

Martial Raysse’s works from the 1960s and 1970s summon the spirit of their time. Or better: one of the spirits. This is not the impotent intellectualistic academism of leftist splinter groups (which also inspired great artworks, just think of Hans Haacke). This is the fun, no: the “groovy”, version of those years with long hair, lava lamps, music, drugs, still longer hair, psychedelic colours, plush sofas, and did we mention the haircuts? The stereotype is so much encrusted in our minds, we constantly need to remind ourselves: this is ironic; Trojan horses to criticize the zeitgeist. As in the best satire, the comment is hidden in the copy, reality appears hardly changed at all. Martial Raysse chose to create a condensed form of his world, an approach that demands trust in the public who’s free to draw the conclusions themselves. He captured the way these years wanted to look, the makeup, the role they tried to play. In a way this is more documenting than creating.

References to art history are highly important for every artist’s reputation, and Martial Raysse copied Vermeer and Ingrès in neon, using for his model Japanese postcards of master paintings (Made in Japan series), thus creating “modern” versions adapted to taste and fashion, but also pointing to globalised culture and markets as early as 1963.

And life’s a beach: Raysse Beach takes us to a Californian paradise in an installation with sand, swim toys, pin ups and a Wurlitzer music box (playing Beach Boys songs, obviously). An actual mirror held by one of the girls helps to feel a part of the scene, or to confront the gap between dream and reality. Even the Hippie trip to India finds its equivalent with an installation: A tent (it’s not exactly huge, but thank you, Pompidou, for the emergence exit sign pointing to the only entrance) in which mysterious symbols and letters are projected onto the ceiling. The sit-in takes place around an artificial palm tree, listening to the artist’s voice performing a parody of oriental yodelling. Escapism into a prison, to explore the inner worlds. His biography reveals, he really lived it.

Martial Raysse’s experimental films are a special experience too, probably best to enjoy under the influence (in other words: hard to endure when sober).

Later, the artist settled down. Neon colours and collages disappear in a turn to conventional painting. They are replaced by willingly mysterious, (pseudo-)mythological scenes in inoffensive colours. In 1971, Martial Raysse still wrote “Salauds” (English: “Bastards”) across a painted flower field. A decade later, the writing has vanished. Maybe it was aimed not at painting, but at the self proclaimed avant-garde and at his own past. Now it’s all serious, and très beau. Not revolutionary, no great visions, no new inspirations, nothing’s unseen. Decorative establishment, which on the one hand could mean, Martial Raysse always kept on going with the time. But on the other hand, a figurative painter is an outsider in France, habitually ignored by critics and institutions alike. Which doesn’t keep the country’s most famous art collector (yes: him!) to be a loyal customer, as proves the provenance of many a work shown at Centre Pompidou.

Martial Raysse, Retrospective, 14 May-22 September 2014, Centre Pompidou, Paris



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