[March 12 2018]
Somewhere between the guardrails of Pop Art and the Romantics, French painter Martial Raysse has quietly championed portraiture for some five decades now.
“The spirit of a painting is like a cloud,” he says, “it has no edge.”
Poetry aside, Raysse is an important witness to 20th century history: a friend to Marcel Duchamp, a survivor of the Nazi occupation and an artistic force during the cultural upheaval of May 1968. With his new exhibition, VISAGES, at Lévy Gorvy in New York, we wonder whether he still believes that painting can save the world.
BILL POWERS — You would be happy not to sell any new paintings and instead keep them at your house in France?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — They give me strength, yes. I live a very simple life in the country. I don’t spend money, but I present this show in New York because I need to defend painting.
BILL POWERS — Defend painting from what?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — From stupidity.
BILL POWERS — In America? You might have picked the wrong country.
MARTIAL RAYSSE — Art can’t change the world, but it can prevent it from becoming any worse. Each morning at 3:30am all around the world a few people – Buddhists, monks, independent persons – wake up to meditate and to sing. Perhaps the balance of the universe only exists because of these people and their singing. Painting can be that, too.
BILL POWERS — I know you meditate every day. Do you subscribe to many Buddhist beliefs?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — Do you know the school of Chan Buddhism? They only teach concentration. That is my meditation: to concentrate deep inside until I find myself.
BILL POWERS — The writer Roberta Smith defines art as an intensity or concentration. I wonder if that resonates with you?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — A painting is intelligence. You can plug it in, especially with history painting. You plug yourself into history. You learn.
BILL POWERS — Another writer DAVE HICKEY says that history happens because people save the things they love.
MARTIAL RAYSSE — Of course, it’s beautiful. At the same time a great painting will give you a sense of its quality. Do you know the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? In part, it’s about the quest for excellence. Why did I move away from the style of Pop Art? Because I didn’t think in inhabited the same excellency.
BILL POWERS — In your new show there is a painting called NOW, which contains multiple self-portraits at various ages hovering over a seated woman. Behind them we see the violence and turbulence of society. It also reminded me of Munch’s Dance of Life. Do you feel that connection?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — All artists are human beings and so throughout the ages the commonality is emotion. I don’t see my painting NOW as being all that different from the situation in 16th century Europe. Throughout time, we have these potholes in history. Look to the background, there is always chaos.
BILL POWERS — So the breakdown of society is never far off?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — I was six years old and the Gestapo took me out of bed. By night, the resistance brought my family through the Alps where I spent my younger years. I saw people dead, hanging. The desperation of the world is an image that lives in my heart.
BILL POWERS — Do you think that early trauma gives you a greater appreciation for life?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — The two painters who can really understand this experience are Gerhard Richter and me, because we were both born during the war. All the early figurative paintings he made are very important.
BILL POWERS — I believe Gerhard Richter once said, “Art is the highest form of hope.”
MARTIAL RAYSSE — I agree.
BILL POWERS — Do you think there was perhaps a punitive aspect to you not making sad or serious art in post-war Europe, meaning people didn’t judge your paintings with the same value?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — The avant-garde to give importance to their stupid opinions meant you had to be without emotion. If you smile, you are out of place. But you can trace problems like this back to the Reformation. They were afraid of the flesh – that’s all it is. Same as the avant-garde. It’s fanaticism.
BILL POWERS — Not the history you find in most textbooks.
MARTIAL RAYSSE — The history of art they teach in school is not the real history of art. It is the history of the art dealer. To me, the real history of art is the history of figurative painting. All the history of art is politics. Look at something like social realism in Russia.
BILL POWERS — I think it’s funny when people say that Braque and Picasso “invented” collage when, of course, it existed before that. But I guess it’s easier to say “invented” than “popularized”.
MARTIAL RAYSSE — A lot of modern art is fake news. Modern art, and what follows, functions as a formalist rhetoric. Each artist allows themselves to create based upon what came before them. However if the premise of a rhetorical discourse is false, then sooner or later everything falls apart. Thus for these reasons, I do not consider Cézanne as a great painter. I like to look to older masters; Morandi is one of my teachers today. I am a midget next to Morandi.
BILL POWERS — As an artist making experimental films in the 1960s, I wanted to ask you the difference between cinema and painting. They say that a painting can capture the spirit of a person but only film can show you their behavior.
MARTIAL RAYSSE — What is interesting about movies? It’s the action. The beauty of painting is that it doesn’t move. To think in life, you must stop. You must stop to think. The miracle of the painting is that it doesn’t move.
BILL POWERS — Very early on, you were a pioneer projecting movies onto paintings. Were you somehow pointing to the fallacy of the empty screen?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — You need to ask that question to the young man I was.
BILL POWERS — Do you believe that peculiarity is a pre-requisite for beauty?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — All we do in life is to make us forget our own death. We can’t face it. When you know that, everything will appear strange.
BILL POWERS — I was thinking of your Made in Japan painting where you painted the figure green. Do you associate certain colors with specific people?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — The real colorists are born colorists. Andy Warhol’s family was from Slovakia and his colors are gypsy, you know, acidic colors.
BILL POWERS — Would you ever make a new painting with neon on it like your famous early work?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — No, too commercial. It’s like Pavlov for collectors. Now, I only use neon alone in my wall paintings.
BILL POWERS — As a friend of Marcel Duchamp, can you explain his genius to us?
MARTIAL RAYSSE — There is a story of Nicolas Poussin telling his patron Chantelou how to frame one of his paintings in a particular way. I thought of course he made this request to enhance the painting, but Poussin said, “No, it’s a way to isolate the painting from the rest.” Duchamp understand the power held by institutions to control the viewer and that the gallery had now become the frame.
“VISAGES” is on view until April 14th, 2018 at Lévy Gorvy, 909 Madison Avenue, New York.
Interview and photo by Bill Powers