Magazine article Art Monthly

Le Nouveau Realisme

Magazine article Art Monthly

Le Nouveau Realisme

Article excerpt

Le Nouveau Realisme Grand Palais Paris March 28 to July 2

Nineteen hundred and sixty was a very good year. In March, Yves Klein staged a public performance of his notorious Anthropometries: to the strains of a string ensemble, pretty young women rolled their totally naked bodies in Klein-blue paint and then pressed themselves against an upright canvas, yielding monochrome imprints of breasts, thighs and arms. Even in Paris, the public nudity of the bodies was almost as shocking as Klein's bald passivity in producing his 'artworks'. In that same month, Jean Tinguely erected a huge, shambolic machine in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When its motors were turned on, the device flailed itself to death, ending in a blaze of self-destructive flames to the applause of delighted onlookers. In May, Cesar exhibited his 'compressed' automobiles at the 16th Salon de Mai in Paris, passing off three wrecked cars--reduced to cubes by a scrapyard compacting machine--as authentic sculpture.

And on Thursday October 27, 1960, in Klein's apartment, an ambitious art critic named Pierre Restany gathered together eight of the ten artists associated with the movement, and had them sign his Nouveau Realisme manifesto. A new movement was thus poised to conquer the world. It had everything going for it: youth, good looks, early notoriety, intellectual backing. But by 1963 the group had disintegrated (although individual artists continued to be very active); worse, by the middle of the decade the very concept of French 'New Realism' had been eclipsed by American Pop Art; and finally, by the end of the decade it had almost been forgotten. What happened?

The retrospective now at the Grand Palais does not ask that question. It simply presents seminal works of the 60s by 13 nouveaux realistes, who notably included, in addition to the above-mentioned trio, internationally successful careerists Arman, Christo and Niki de Saint Phalle as well as Gerard Deschamps, Francois Dufrene, Raymond Hains, Martial Raysse, Mimmo Rotella, Daniel Spoerri and Jacques Villegle. As such, the exhibition successfully evokes the atmosphere generated by a fairly disparate group of artists. Uncharacteristically for the Grand Palais, the show is not overwhelmingly vast; it focuses on a limited number of works by each artist and on a select set of visual and written documents (video clips, letters, etc) which provide additional context. Included is Restany's brilliantly succinct manifesto: 'New Realism = new perceptual approaches to reality.' Although this statement appears to tolerate anything and everything, affinities between very different artworks do emerge from the show. The shredded posters by Rotella, Hains and Villegle were a transformation of street detritus, one that subordinated the hand of the artist to the hand of chance (first in tearing down the poster, then in tearing strips from the surface to reveal underlying layers). Similarly, Cesar created sculpture by crushing everyday objects, which Arman tended to deform or multiply (Accumulations) while Raysse recomposed them into new objects. Tinguely's machines, whether infernal or witty, destructive or constructive (by producing machine-made drawings) always flirted with chaos. Nouveau realiste happenings, dubbed actions-spectacles, usually yielded some kind of marketable by-product that incorporated unpredictable elements: Klein's body prints, Christo's photographic documentation and notably de Saint Phalle's Firing Range paintings in which bullets--sometimes fired by the artist, sometimes by a spectator--exploded pouches of pigment on her plaster reliefs, thereby giving them their final, messy form. …

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