César — César & César & César...



César & César & César...

Past: June 12 → July 31, 2021

What does César’s work say to us today?

A master of technique and form, the leading sculptor of the Nouveau Réalisme movement of the 1960s developed a true dialectic of gesture and material that revitalized sculpture in the 20th century: the first assemblages with soldered iron, compressions of automobile scrap metal and all kinds of collected materials, polyurethane expansions, plaster and resin impressions and molds, sculpted bread dough, bronze sculptures, and more. The performative and
participatory dimension of his public expansions and his participation in the action-spectacles of the Nouveaux Réalistes, a possible prologue for a relational aesthetics, have inevitably faded with time. His monumental œuvre and his many public commissions — gleaming expansions, vibrant painted compressions — could place him with the joyful or ironic celebration of society of the Trente Glorieuses and industrial modernity — a radiant César. His bronzes and his late self-portraits dialogue with the sculptural tradition and its masters, especially Picasso, and suggest melancholy, or even a certain morbidity that resonates with his first practice of collecting and recycling used industrial materials and garbage — a gloomier, melancholy César. His formal and playful appropriation of modern urban reality was related to the theories of Pierre Restany, on the one hand, and to the recycled, petrified object that the critic Alain Jouffroy called a “mental Pompeii” on the other.

Regarding his cardboard compressions, César considered his sculpture a poetic act: “From industrial waste, I moved to urban waste. (…) These compressions are kind of everyday poetry. The little things of life.…” This turn towards a humanism of the city led him to revisit his old effigies of welded iron, which were made of a myriad of collected materials — nails, screws, nuts and bolts — with bronze castings sometimes involving welding. With his female figures, including the emblematic Victoire de Villetaneuse (1965), this creature from a factory in the northern suburbs of Paris joined the age-old Venus figurines of the Upper Paleolithic. His late self-portraits appear as examples of Vanitas, commentaries on the art of sculpture, from his bread faces, a shamanic invitation to be eaten and a distant reminder of his participation in Spoerri’s Eat Art Gallery in Düsseldorf, to arrangements of masks — evoking Picasso’s African masks and baroque memento mori.

César constructed an homage to Picasso, who was also a genius inventor of modern sculpture. Just as the painter and sculptor passionately pursued his dream of a Monument à Apollinaire, César created Le Centaure (1986), one of his most complex and self-reflexive sculptures. The hybrid, mythological beast has the head of the artist with a mask with Picasso’s features above it — the dual identity of modern sculpture that looks toward the past, while aiming toward the future, like Benjamin’s angel.

As for his gigantic works such as 520 Tonnes, the mountain of compressions shown at the Venice Biennale in 1995, don’t they have a new resonance now, in the 21st century, when we’re fully aware of belonging to the Anthropocene epoch?

Cécile Debray
03 Le Marais Zoom in 03 Le Marais Zoom out

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