In 1970, when the contemporary art scene was obsessed with the “death of painting”, a dozen of young artists declared their love for the venerable medium and formed the group Supports/Surfaces. Stripped from the non-essential, painting was to be rejuvenated, not sentenced to death.
Claude Viallat (b. 1936), Untitled, 1976, Acrylic on tarpaulin.
Image courtesy of MNHA, Luxembourg © Adagp, Paris, 2021
The Origins of the Group
Supports-Surfaces was a French art movement rooted in friendship clusters, which preceded the actual foundation of the group in 1970. Most of the artists had met in various art schools: André-Pierre Arnal (b. 1939), Vincent Bioulès (b. 1938), Pierre Buraglio (b. 1939), and Claude Viallat (b. 1936) knew each other from the School of Fine Arts in Montpellier. Then Buraglio and Viallat met Daniel Dezeuze (b. 1942) at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Another Supports/Surfaces cluster was the School of Decorative Arts in Nice where Viallat started teaching in 1966, connecting with Noël Dolla (b. 1945) and André Valensi (1947-1999). At the time, other founding members of the group—Patrick Saytour (b. 1935), Louis Cane (b. 1943), Bernard Pagès (b. 1940) and Toni Grand (1935-2005)—were living and working in the region of Nice. All of the Supports/Surfaces folks, besides Jean-Pierre Pincemin (1944-2005), were professional artists, trained in prestigious French art schools.
According to Claude Viallat the name was invented by Bioulès in August 1970, in preparation for a group exhibition featuring some of these artists at the A.R.C (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris). The show, which took place in the early Fall, was not meant to launch a new movement. On this occasion, like in the years to come, the distinctive voices of the creators forcefully resonated. For the A.R.C show, Louis Cane, Marc Devade (1943-1983) and Daniel Dezeuze, designed and distributed a flyer negating the existence of a homogeneous group. In itself, the indeterminacy of the group’s name announced what some critics have called the consubstantial imprecision of Supports/Surfaces: the poster for the A.R.C. exhibit referred to “Supports/Surfaces” in plural whereas the catalog introduced “Support/Surface” in singular.
The hot internal debates were inherent to Supports/Surfaces: for some, the essence was in the stretcher, for others in the free canvas; the “Parisians “confronted the “Provincials”; there were diverging opinions on the articulation of ideology and practice, the relation between interior perception and public effectiveness, the degree of collaboration with Marxists and Maoists; there were the outspoken or silent makings and unmaking of friendships as well. The secession came quickly, nine months later, visible in the spatial organization of the exhibition at the Théâtre de Nice in June 1971. A few other group exhibits took place afterward until 1973 when the last member quit.
Painting as a Process
Despite the oppositions, Supports/Surfaces was remarkably united around the idea that artists alone should oversee the theoretical discourse. As a result, neither critics nor art historians accompanied this purely artistic adventure. The artists initiated and developed original ways to practice painting, defending the medium as a valid form of contemporary art. For most of them, the key word was simplicity—painting needed to be stripped from its non-essential traditional attributes in order to become more effective, more clear, more understandable. Thus, eventually, art would be a factor for social change without capitulating to ideology or becoming a kind of propaganda.
The desire for simplicity and social change shaped the movement’s notorious concern for the process. The making was essential, and for Supports/Surfaces making equaled pleasure; keeping the process visible meant communicating the artist’s pleasure to the spectator who, as a result, experienced it too. To achieve this fluency, artists had to break with the heavy constraints imposed on painting in the past, such as the framing, the stretching and the hanging of the canvas, all of which predetermined and narrowed the relationship between the work and its public.
For that reason, Supports/Surfaces artists were often hostile to the frame, which cuts the work from its surrounding space, transforms it into a precious object separated from the everyday experience and, consequently, from life. Dominated by the frame, the canvas loses its inherent qualities—softness or rigidness, potential to form draperies or to “clothe” other objects. Many works illustrate these preoccupations. Probably the best known are Viallat’s dyed and imprinted pieces such as this Untitled imprinted canvas from 1976. He became known for this kind of works, where the fabric is left loose on the walls falling in different ways according to the inherent qualities of the material, the size, the type of dye, the stitch, the presence of absence of hems. (This work sold at the Artcurial Contemporary Art Sale in July 2020 for $55,812). A similar work from the “historical” Supports/Surfaces era, entitled 088 from 1971, sold $129,424 at a Piasa sale of modern and contemporary art in September 2019. Viallat is for now the most available and best-selling artist of the movement).
Made of upholstery, Parick Saytour’s Pliages (Foldings) also hang freely on the wall, subordinated only to their own structure and weight, to chance and gravity, as illustrated in this Pliage from 1974. An act of ultimate deconstructive analysis of the stretched canvas, André Valensi’s series Objets d’analyse (Objects for Analysis, 1969-1970, Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain de Saint-Étienne Métropole–MAMC), singles out and valorizes the thread, the elementary component of any woven fabric, emphasizing its primal flexibility and softness, the simple act of looping, knotting, or winding the material. Support/Surfaces artists considered the painter’s canvas at the same level as any other type of fabric (tarp, upholstery, thread, rags), excluding the hierarchy between artists and the craftsmen.
The banishment of the brush is another key point for Supports/Surfaces, like it is for other groups in France invested in the renewal of painting (the B.M.P.T. group, for instance, whose most famous member is Daniel Buren, born in 1938). Within Supports/Surfaces, throwing away the brush meant breaking with the still dominant expressionist vision of painting, too focused on the subjectivity of the creator. By no means, the artist should be more important than the painting: the work stands for itself, it is not the recipient of the psychological state of the artist. A radical act in this sense is the series of Echelles (Ladders), where are treated as independent artworks, their supposed rigidity and principal function subverted. They stand pristine without any image suggestive of the creator’s subjective intervention. It invites to reflect on the inherent structure and the physical support of the artwork, which is usually obscured by the image. With Supports/Surfaces, simple, not distinctively painterly acts and processes—folding, stamping, knotting, tying, printing (like in the already mentioned examples by Saytour, Valensi and Viallat)—enrich and rejuvenate the medium as well as they replace the brushwork.
The use of inks and dyes is another way to insist on the material, and to circumscribe the brush. Louis Cane folds and cuts out canvases pulverized with paint. The process of folding and cutting replaces the traditional line and drawing, restoring color’s full power. An example of this process is Toile découpée (Cut Out Canvas, 1972), constituted of colored canvases cut in different geometric shapes and hung unstretched. Like a puzzle, they can be combined in different ways, creating new effects, stressing the complexity of the work in itself.
A Last Avant-Garde?
Supports-Surfaces is usually considered as one of the last avant-gardes. The visibility of the process, the definition of the artwork as a joyful federative social experience, the outspoken ideological debates, the political engagement, are indeed avant-gardist. The recent auction dedicated exclusively to the movement, at Piasa in October 2015, entitled significantly Supports/Surfaces: the Ultimate Avant-Garde, stressed this aspect. Even though most of the Supports/Surfaces artists are quite well known in France, and have taught in important art schools, they were somehow put aside in the contemporary art world. The focus on the American art scene since 1945 has contributed to the relative alienation of their work from a global perspective.
Thus, the Supports/Surfaces exhibitions in the US can still be counted on fingers. The most important and comprehensive show, “Unfurled: Supports/Surfaces”, took place in 2019 at the MOCAD in Detroit, supported by official French institutions (Ministry of culture, l’Institut Français, the French Embassy in the US). Curated by the painter, gallerist and curator Wallace Whitney, who also edited the richly illustrated catalog, it was organized in collaboration with the Parisian gallery Ceysson & Bénétière. Representing many of the Supports/Surfaces artists, the gallery has since its foundation in 2006 dedicated many efforts to popularize and reevaluate the movement across the world: through their branch in New York City, projects with major museums (Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC) and collaboration with scholars. They also contributed to the first exhibition of Supports/Surfaces in China at the Tsinghua University Art Museum in Beijing (2019).
The internal quarrels and disavowals did not make the posterity of the movement easier. As shown at the recent exhibition at the Carré d’Art de Nîmes ("Supports/Surfaces. Les origines, 1966-1970"), and following the long-standing work on the movement at the Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain de Saint-Étienne Métropole–MAMC initiated by the institution’s former director Bernard Ceysson, art historians, gallerists and curators are working to better understand Supports/Surfaces in context and give to these artists the place they deserve on the world art scene. In the meantime, for the collectors willing to invest in works whose meaningful contribution to the 20th century makes no doubt, prices remain affordable.