A founding member of the Nouveaux Réalistes, César (1921-1998) was renowned in Europe for his outlandish sculptures using unorthodox materials (ranging from industrial rubbish to high-tech resins), innovative forms and novel processes. Unlike many artists in the group, however, César is under-known in the U.S. Before this recent survey, he had not had a solo exhibition here in 50 years.
Born César Baldaccini to Italian immigrants in Marseille, the artist is popularly known in France for several iconic works, including a number of monumental public sculptures in Paris. The 40-foot-tall Le Pouce (Thumb), 1965, permanently installed at La Défense, is a bronze blowup of the artist’s thumb. Over the years he produced versions of this work in a wide variety of materials and sizes, several examples of which appeared in the show.
César is also known in France as the designer of the César film award, the country’s equivalent to the Oscar. The design corresponds to his career-spanning “Compression” series, of which there were eight examples in this exhibition featuring 20 major works made between 1954 and 1998. These pieces consist of everyday materials, sometimes car parts, other times clothing and blankets or plastic sheets, compressed with an industrial hydraulic compactor into dense, blocky objects. Divorcing the items from their original shapes or purposes, César transforms them into minimalist abstract compositions. He presented these as wall-hung reliefs or freestanding sculptures with little or no manipulation following the mechanical process.
Plexiglas Compression Pink and White (1972), for instance, at approximately 4 by 3 feet and 7 inches thick, is displayed on the wall; it is a tangled network of elegantly bunched and folded strips of pink and white plastic. The piece looks fresh and lively as it mimics the glossy surface of a richly textured abstract painting.
Works in the show like Zim Compression (1961), a five-foot-tall, dark blue block made of a crushed car, and Moped Compression (1970), a colorful rectangular mass of compressed motorcycle parts about two feet high, sparked considerable controversy when they debuted, since they are largely created by the compacting machine. For César, they both celebrated and critiqued industrial production while provocatively questioning the role of the artist.
Other highlights on view included examples of César’s 1970s “Expansion” series of poured polyester floor sculptures and wall reliefs. In Mural Expansion N 1 (1977), a shapeless blob of white polyurethane about two feet wide and 10 inches thick rests on a white-painted wooden shelf like a frothy pile of whipped cream. In the vibrant pink, sensuously blobby Expansion N 35/15 (1972), César simply poured liquid polyester on the floor and allowed it to harden into a layered puddle. His concerns centered on the phenomenology of the plastic material itself. For César, the act of pouring the material in its liquid state was the locus of creativity, and in the early ’70s, he sometimes made “Expansion” works in public as part of performances.
César’s experiments might have struck a chord with Americans during the postwar period of obsessive industrialization. But the subtlety of his intentions were perhaps misunderstood, as some critics related the work to contemporaneous efforts by American artists: the automobile “Compressions” were compared to John Chamberlain’s sculptures made of crushed car parts; the “Expansion” series to Lynda Benglis’s poured resin floor sculptures; and the “Thumb” series to Pop artworks by Claes Oldenburg and others. However, as this thoughtful show proved, these similarities are merely superficial. César’s conceptual approach to art-making is distinctive and unique.