Thursday, September 25, 2008

First Major French Retrospective of the Work of Jacques Villeglé at Centre Pompidou

First Major French Retrospective of the Work of Jacques Villeglé at Centre Pompidou

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Jacques Villeglé, Rues Desprez et Vercingétorix – La Femme, 12 March 1966. Torn posters mounted on canvas 251 x 224 cm. Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany © Adagp, Paris 2008.

PARIS.- The Centre Pompidou presents the first major French retrospective of the work of Jacques Villeglé, an artist who since 1949 has succeeded – using one single material, the torn poster – in producing a very substantial body of work of astonishing formal richness.

Bringing together some hundred works dating from the 1940s to the present, the exhibition adopts a thematic approach to the artist’s work, from the typographical explosions and colored abstract compositions of the beginnings to the recent rhythmical juxtapositions derived from concert posters.

Villeglé is not a creator of readymades, even if he does nothing (except lend the occasional “helping hand”) to the posters he finds in the streets and then mounts on canvas. He sees himself rather as a flâneur, and his work is to reveal among the urban chaos the beauties hidden in the layered paper torn and sometimes written on or otherwise marked by anonymous hands.

Villeglé’s work offers a seismographic record of our shared reality as it finds expression in the urban space whose history it returns to us in the distinctive history of its walls. It reveals how much our way of seeing is conditioned by this everyday visual environment, reactivating our memory to critical yet at the same time playful ends.

Combining elements of the practice of such now “historic” movements as the New Realists, the Lettrists and the Situationist International, Villeglé’s work, rooted in the contemporary, is held in high regard by many of the younger artists of today.

Another important thread in the artist’s work is his “socio-political alphabet,” used in a whole series of works (on posters, canvases, school writing slates, etc.) and derived from the modified lettering often found in graffiti (e.g. the encircled A of the anarchists). These works are shown in a parallel display.

The exhibition also includes Villeglé’s work in experimental film, which incidentally offers parallels in sound to his own work, the soundtrack to Étude aux allures (1950-54) being a work of concrete music by Pierre Schaeffer, that to Un Mythe dans la ville (1974-2002) a piece by the poet Bernard Heidsieck. This interest in music can be seen too in a recent series of posters on the theme of amplified music, produced in collaboration with the Atelier d’Aquitaine (an informal workshop set up in 1997 to promote the gathering of posters in different regions of France), and again in the juxtaposition of Villeglé’s work with music by composers such as Pierre Henry, with whom he has collaborated on three occasions, and who, for this exhibition, offers a first performance of a new work.

Organization of the Exhibition

1. Introduction
It was in February 1949, in Paris, where he would move a few months later, that Jacques Villeglé, together with Raymond Hains – with whom he had become friends in 1945 – peeled from walls the materials for their Ach Alma Manetro – his first torn-poster work. The gesture inaugurated a practice of appropriation to which Villeglé would remain attached throughout his career: the recuperation of posters from the urban environment. Composed of debris from the ‘Atlantic Wall,’ recovered in 1947 from the port of Saint Malo, his sculpture Fils d'acier – Chaussée des Corsaires (Saint-Malo), a ‘drawing in space,’ as he called it, can be seen as foreshadowing this approach. During the 1950s, Villeglé and Hains would experiment with film, obtaining the images for Pénélope by filming colored motifs through reeded glass. The sound version of the film, produced in collaboration with the artists by composer Pierre Schaeffer in 1960, takes its name from the latter’s composition, Études aux allures. The fragmentation and distortion of the motif is applied also to letters, recalling the Cubist and Futurist explorations of lettering and the programmatic claims of the Lettrists whom Villeglé and Hains were close in the early 1950s. Hitherto unpublished studies for the book Hepérile éclaté, a reworking of a poem by Camille Bryen, attest to the thoroughness of the two friends’ artistic researches as they developed their new vision. Their artistic collaboration ended in July 1954.

2. The Lacerated Letter
Consisting mainly of posters for musical performances and neighborhood cinemas, this series deploys the letter and the fragmented word in a new visual register. “The type swarms in such profusion,” says Villeglé, “that its interactions, by inducing its vibratory quasi-disappearance, take us into the domain of the happily illegible, of the Mallarméan ineffable.” From the great frieze of Nymphéas to the Tapis Maillot (which gets it name from its being displayed on the floor at Villeglé’s exhibition “Lacéré anonyme” at François Dufrêne in 1959) and the ABC shown at the first Biennale des Jeunes in Paris that same year, the letter and the word, amputated and distorted, create a “a lexical assemblage ‘contradictory and almost perverse,’ comparable to the assemblages of Picasso, the collages of Max Ernst, the hubbub of Dada, the objectively fortuitous encounters of automatic writing, the disjointed successions of Apollinaire’s Fenêtres (a revelation to James Joyce), the broken sentences of Céline…”.

3. Images
Reacting to critics of the time who saw in his work of the 1950s only an abstraction in the tradition of Cubist collage, Villeglé produced a series deploying figurative images culled from the advertising posters that began to spread everywhere in the 1960s. It is no doubt this series of cheerful and often large-scale works that leads to Villeglé’s being sometimes seen as a precursor of Pop Art. Yet his approach, outlined in his foundational text, Des réalités collectives (1958), written in the wake of his first, misunderstood, exhibition at Galerie Colette Allendy in 1957, is distinguished by the critical distance introduced by the tearing of the posters by anonymous hands, which brings something new to the gesture of appropriation.

4. Torn Color
Bringing together a number of the artist’s characteristic themes, among them “No Letters, No Figures” and “Transparency”, this section presents one of the most immediately attractive phases of Villeglé’s work. He focuses here on the wide band of color that until the mid-1960s was often used as a border for advertising posters. The surface may be fragmented into a kaleidoscope of colors, divided into large areas of monochrome, or it may reveal an unexpected motif. In other works, Villeglé exploits the effects of the rain, which can result in a thin layer of paste being left on the poster beneath when the poster above is peeled off, toning down the colour and giving a somewhat vaporous aspect to the whole.

5. The Socio-political Alphabet
It was in 1969 that Villeglé produced his first graphic work using an alphabet drawn from the modified lettering often used in graffiti, an alphabet in which “A is anarchistically encircled, a star and crescent C faces a rounded-out D with a horizontal bar, the cross and circle of the Celticising [nationalists] (...) E becomes Chakhotin’s three arrows, counterattacking the swastika of the F, the creative whirlwind catastrophically hijacked by the Nazis, likewise N and Z, G is a hammer and a sickle with its star, within the H are inscribed I and S, I is stripy, J remains untouched, K, P and R become chrysm for the propagation of the faith.” After a period of further gestation lasting to the late 1970s, this vocabulary then returns in different forms to occupy – in accordance with the same logic of appropriation that governs the posters – all kinds of supports (synthetic canvas, paper, school writing-slates etc.). Today it represents the bulk of the artist’s production, now that he has stopped collecting torn posters.

6. Politics
“This brings together,” says Villeglé, “posters evoking international tensions, government policy, and village council elections – manoeuvres great and small, as the playwright Arthur Adamov might have put it.” This jarring display, culled from a graphic corpus both familiar and disturbing, offers a political history of France across the decades. Here the angry and destructive gesture of the passer-by takes on a particular resonance, while the obliterations and bucklings of the images effect a troubling critique.

7. Un Mythe Dans La Ville
In 1974, Villeglé was commissioned to produce an art film. In this he planned to combine views of Paris – more particularly of the “trou des Halles” and of the Centre Pompidou then under construction – with shots of an ‘unpublishable’ book created especially for the film by Denise Aubertin and shots of photographs and collages, together with various animations (some using the ‘socio-political alphabet’), a sequence on self-tearing posters, and finally a series of works based a poster for a Dubuffet exhibition. With the bankruptcy of the production company, these materials were set aside, finally to be assembled together, thanks to the assistance of the Film Department of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, only in 1998-2002. Villeglé offers a critical look at the Paris of the 1970s that is seconded by poet Bernard Heidsieck’s soundtrack, planned to accompany the piece from the very beginning, which intercuts one of his own texts with snatches of sound from the events May ’68 and extracts from debates in the French National Assembly.


8. Villeglé and the Hourlope
Hourloupe is the overall title of a series of works not by Villeglé but by Jean Dubuffet, composed jigsaw-fashion of flat, often hatched, cells in white, blue and red. Dubuffet ended the series with a group of paintings that he showed at the Centre National d’Art Contemporain in 1975. Villeglé was captivated first of all by the invitation-card, and then by the posters for the exhibition, which he started collecting from the walls. This led to the production of forty works, most of which would be used in the film Un mythe dans la ville. The Dubuffet figure which appears on the poster reminded Villeglé of a character from a novel by Jarry, a writer whom he had always admired for his audacity in reworking an existing text to produce his masterpiece Ubu roi. In the film, Dubuffet’s little man also embodies the figure of the walker, open to a wide range of critical interpretations. This series inspired by Dubuffet was exhibited for the first time in 1985.

9. Decentralization & The Atelier d'Aquitaine
The regulation of poster-advertising changed the face of Paris and by the early 1990s had made it impossible for Villeglé to find his materials there, forcing him to turn to other French cities: “In the 1980s, because fly-posting threatened the legitimate poster business, the professionals joined with local councillors to ensure that the law was enforced in the capital. So in 1991 I began to systematically decentralise my activities.” 1997 saw the establishment of the Atelier d’Aquitaine, a small, informal group that assisted Villeglé in collecting posters – mostly on the theme of rock music – in different regions of France, but also in Barcelona and Buenos Aires. The Atelier’s expedition to South America marked the end of Villeglé’s poster-collecting, and he now devotes himself almost exclusively to work with the socio-political alphabet.

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