Some artworks are so superficially of their time that they never transcend it. Others are so profoundly of theirs that it may take 20 years or more for the world to catch up with them. The downside of being ahead of your time is that your work may remain be invisible for years (or centuries, if you happen to be Vermeer or Caravaggio).
After their first showings, the “Charges-Objets” that French artist Jean-Michel Sanejouand made between 1963 and 1967 more or less sank into oblivion for two decades. Their obscurity was so deep that when they were finally shown again in Paris in 1991, a well-known French critic suspected that some young artist was mounting a hoax by falsely backdating the work. The sculptures were so much in the style of the current moment, it seemed inconceivable to this critic that they could have been produced a quarter of a century before.
The first of the “Charges-Objets” was an arrangement of pebbles on a mirror but Sanejouand quickly turned to more contemporary materials: the sleek furniture in his own apartment and items purchased in department stores. He combined objects, always brand-new looking, into provisional assemblages that predate the 1980s works of Jeff Koons, John Armleder, Haim Steinbach and Martin Kippenberger, as well as more recent work by the likes of Michael Krebber. Bloc-Cuisine (1963) involves a pair of stylish kitchen cabinets with some square cushions pinioned between them. Zoë (1963) consists of nothing more than a kitchen chair with a mildly phallic Pop floor lamp set on top of it. Nautik-Art (1964) is a spotless 2-seat jet ski placed in the middle of the gallery.
Sanejouand also created a 1964 series of two-dimensional painting surrogates in which store-bought printed fabric, linoleum flooring, plastic sheeting and stray items like ping-pong nets are attached to stretchers recycled from the abstract paintings that he no longer wished to make. There are also a set of shaped paintings that are nothing more than ironing boards covered with patterned fabric or shiny plastic. Sanejouand anticipated, albeit by only a couple of years, the work of Blinky Palermo, Sigmar Polke, Daniel Buren and the Supports Surfaces group, as well as looking ahead to an entire mode of readymade abstraction that has become a standard mode of contemporary art.
The amazement one feels in looking at vintage photographs of Sanejouand’s 1963-1967 work is double: first, that an artist was working in these modes so early; second, that this work disappeared from history for the next several decades (and in the U.S. it is still nearly unknown). Sanejouand’s subsequent career is marked by several abrupt shifts: in the late 1960s he focused on large-scale, usually unrealized land-art projects; in the 1970s on scabrous figurative paintings; since 1989, on stripped down abstract paintings and sculptures. No doubt these changes affected the public perception of his work, which has also been hampered by the challenge of being a French artist in a period when French art was often dismissed abroad.