As far as I know there has never been a solo exhibition in the United States devoted to Gérard Gasiorowski (1930-1986). In fact, his work may not even have been in a single group exhibition. (If any Silo readers have information to the contrary, please tell me.) Given the fact that Gasiorowski was a French artist, his absence from the U.S. scene is hardly surprising—with few exceptions, contemporary art from France has been subjected to an embargo that has gone on about as long as the ban on trade with Cuba. I have to admit that I’ve seen very little of his work myself, but from what I have seen, and from what I’ve been able to gather from two recent monographs –Gérard Gasiorowski: Starting the Painting Again (Hatje Cantz, 2010) and Gasiorowski XXe Peintre (Fondation Maeght, 2012)—Gasiorowski strikes me as someone who brought a unique intensity and inventiveness to the medium of painting. He could be as irreverent as Kippenberger and as conceptual as Art & Language, and jumped from photorealism to painterly figuration to barely-there abstractions. Keenly aware that many people at the time believed painting to be an exhausted and irrelevant medium, Gasiorowski set out on an exhaustive survey of its possibilities and its impossibilities. Despite the brevity of his career, which lasted a mere 20 years, he is an important missing chapter in the history of painting post-Warhol.
More so than many other artists, Gasiorowski’s oeuvre separates naturally into distinct bodies of work, each one of which is like a guerilla raid on the fortress of Painting. Yet it took quite a while for this campaign to get underway. After studies at the Ecole des Art Appliques, Gasiorowski started to paint at the age of 21, only to abandon it the following year as he disappeared into the worlds of advertising and publishing for a decade. It was only 1964, at the age of 34, that he began to paint again, inspired by American Pop art and the Hyperrealist art he saw at Illeana Sonnabend’s Paris gallery. Gasiorowski’s mid-60s paintings are too granular and theatrical to be called photorealist, even though they were based on photographs.
The voyeuristic Callipyge La Venus (Callypian Venus, 1965), for instance, derives from a William Klein photo of a woman sitting in what looks like a subway car, and may be a response to Georges Brassens’ 1964 song of the same name that praises erotic Classical art over the “abstract art that’s all the rage.” Some of Gasiorowki’s paintings suggest black-and-white film stills lit by Caravaggio.
Despite rather quickly gaining recognition for his photo-based paintings, Gasiorowski made the first of what would be many stylistic breaks in his work. In 1970 he began a series called Les Croûtes, garishly colored and very painterly depictions of touristic subjects such as the Arc de Triomphe or picturesque French villages. Gasiorowski described them as being “like the sort of bad art you can see in street markets or seascapes by daubers on vacation. They were also very clichéd and hackneyed subjects with the paint slapped on with a palette knife.” (All quotes from the artist are taken from “A Conversation between Gérard Gasiorowski and Thomas West,” edited by Frédéric Bonnet in Gérard Gasiorowski: Starting the Painting Again.)
Then, almost as fast as he had reinvented himself as a master of bad painting, he went back to photographic-based work, but this time with barely visible images painted in the middle of small white canvases. The Proustian title of the series, “Albertine Disparue,” describes what happened next in the “Impuissances” series where finely drawn vignettes of antique objects float amid white grounds. In the artist’s words: “I then started to work on an even smaller scale. . . . Eventually the paintings had become tiny [and for a 1972 exhibition in Cologne] I was able to bring all the works in a garbage bag.” The series ends with several canvases where Gasiorowski has completely obliterated the central image with a slather of dark gray paint.
After dialing back his imagery and paint-handling to the point of near disappearance, Gasiorowski, who loved nothing better than to frustrate expectations, turned in the opposite direction, embracing impasto, bold imagery and vast scale. In 1973, he launched a series of acrylic on paper paintings depicting flower pots viewed from the side. Oddly, the pots and flowers are painted on individual sheets, which are combined in groups of four to represent pairs of potted plants.
The series continued until 1982, by which time there were some 500 examples. Gasiorowski said that painting the flower pots was akin to a musician practicing scales, and that it was while making his “Pots de Fleurs” that he “began to use color seriously.” In 1974, he met and befriended Malcolm Morley, who in the 1970s was making a similar move from photorealism to a more painterly style.
Don’t get the idea that Gasiorowski did nothing but paint potted plants during the 1970s. The “Pots de Fleurs” were like something buzzing in the background while he embarked on other equally audacious projects. Many of Gasiorwski’s 1970s works seem like the kind of thing a novelist might invent for a crazy contemporary artist character. He might have stepped out of the pages of a book by Georges Perec.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Gasiorowski was himself an inventor of fictions: in 1975 he created a fictional art school called l’Académie Worosis Kiga (an anagram of his last name) in which students are given only one assignment: to paint repeated versions of the same fedora hat during their four year course of study. Gasiorowski himself painted countless versions of the hats supposedly done by the students, as well as still lifes, landscapes and abstraction that are stamped “refusé” (rejected), presumably because they didn’t adhere to the “hats only” policy of the Académie. With a maniacal attention to detail, Gasiorowski gave his art school a dictatorial director whose regime can be traced through the “Archives de l’A.W.K.,” which includes ring binders with voluminous records of the students’ activities.
During the second half of the 1970s, Gasiorowski practically disappeared into this imaginary world as nearly all his art production was connected to it, including Les Jus (1979), a series of small pictographic images painted with what look like gouache but turns out to be made with watery paint derived from the artist’s own feces. From Manzoni on, plenty of artists have used shit as a material but I don’t think anyone has handled it with such loving care as Gasiorowski.
From 1978 to 1982, as Frédéric Bonnet explains, Gasiorowski also ”spent time partially painting the covers of the books in his library, the sleeves of the records in his collection, and large numbers of postcards—landscapes, châteaux and monuments, works of art, etc.—which he then sent to friends.” (See Bonnet’s essay “Conceal to Reveal” in Gérard Gasiorowski: Starting the Painting Again.) As with “Les Jus,” in these works Gasiorowski took a fairly common artistic strategy (overpainting) and made it his own.
When he at last emerged back into the world of full-scale, “nonfictional” painting it was with Les Symptômes (1983), large canvases with simple shapes casually sketched with acrylic paint. “I began to paint in a very indecisive manner,” Gasiorowski recalled a few years later. If the contemporaneous reference points for this work might include Martin Barré and Kimber Smith, there are actually more affinities with the recent work of Michael Krebber — I’m sorry that I didn’t know about Les Symptômes when I was writing “Provisional Painting.” I suspect that Gasiorowski’s radical variousness has contributed to his obscurity outside of France (within France he has been honored, during his life and posthumously, with retrospectives at major museums). Nor has his reputation abroad been helped by the enormous scale of the paintings he was making in the final years of his life. These panoramic works begin with Hommage à Manet (1983), whose 30-foot length was soon dwarfed by Fertilté (1986), which measured 72 feet long, Stances (6 feet high and over 130 feet long), and Chemin de Peinture (1986) which clocks in at a mind-boggling 164 feet.
Impossible to take in a glance no matter how far back you are, these are paintings, I imagine, that one experiences as visual narratives, sequences unfolding in time as well as space. It’s no accident that a recurring motif in Stances is one of Giacometti’s walking figures. In 1985, the year before he died, Gasiorowski visited the caves of Lascaux and, according to his friend Michel Enrici, “all of his ensuing output would then be an attempt to translate that emotion and that experience.” (See “Gasiorowski: He who has a name is no artist, he who is an artist has no name: interview with Michel Enrici” in Gasiorowski XXe Peintre.) As far as one can tell from reproductions, the results of this “translation” were phenomenal. Each of these stretched-out paintings (which are made on separate abutting canvases or, in the case of Chemin de Peinture, a long roll of paper) recapitulates nearly the whole of 20th century painting from Constructivism to Abstract Expressionism, Neo-Dada, Minimalism and Neo-Expressionism, but because of the extreme horizontal format, artist and viewer are constantly treading into unknown territory. While always ready to mock himself, his medium and the apparatus of contemporary art, Gasiorowski was also an artist driven by a passionate love of art, and, clearly, a belief in its power to communicate.