Hervé Télémaque was only 20 years old when he left Haiti. It was 1957 and François “Papa Doc” Duvalier had just come to power. Télémaque’s first stop in a life of exile that continues to this day was New York City, where he enrolled at the Art Students League and absorbed the influence of Abstract Expressionism. In 1961, dismayed by U.S. politics (especially toward Cuba), the country’s racism, a fear of losing his Francophone identity and the calcification of Abstract Expressionism into an academic style, he moved to France, where he has lived ever since.
There, Télémaque soon forged a style that retained the improvisational energy of Ab Ex while engaging explicitly with the society around him. With the Roland Barthes-inspired 1964 group show “Mythologies Quotidiennes,” he emerged as a leading figure of the “Narrative Figuration” movement. If the work of New York Pop painters appeared to totally reject gestural abstraction, in Paris in the early 1960s there emerged an arresting hybrid version of Pop art and gestural abstraction in the studios of Télémaque, French painter Bernard Rancillac and American expatriate Peter Saul. Although Rancillac soon turned to a more stable iconography, both Saul and Télémaque, while purging their canvases of gesture, retained an improvisational plasticity that linked them to Gorky, Pollock and de Kooning. Both also, in their very different ways, remained caustic social commentators. Télémaque’s painting My Darling Clementine (1963) now in the collection of the Pompidou Center, embodies the freewheeling kineticism of his early work, while also satirizing the deep racism of Kennedy-era America.
In the late 1960s, Télémaque emptied out his compositions so that isolated, neatly painted objects could float against white or colored grounds. His imagery came from comic books, commercial package design, newspaper layouts and daily street life. The paintings are often boldly horizontal, encouraging, or even insisting on, a lateral reading rather than being graspable in a single glance—as in a colorful 1965 jibe at U.S. imperialism titled One of the 36,000 Marines or a series of enigmatic paintings featuring camping tents. Sometimes (as with My Darling Clementine) the paintings feature sculptural attachments.
As he has pursued his particular painterly obsessions, Télémaque has remained alert to the world around him. In the mid 1980s, when the Haitian people overthrew the Duvalier regime, he for a time reduced his palette to red and blue, the national colors of Haiti. In the 1990s, following extensive travels in Africa, he created a series of paintings titled “Trottoirs d’Afrique” (Sidewalks of Africa).
In his most recent work, Télémaque has reintroduced gesture, especially in a series of paintings inspired by the concept of the forest canopy, a place one can’t see from within the forest itself and is always in the state of becoming. More abstract than anything the artist has previously done, these arrays of patterned and solid-color patches suggest that separate paintings have been shattered and recombined into mosaic-like arrays. They also give surprising proof to Télémaque’s assertion that Georges Braque was his “premier maitre.”