After a venerable ascent, beginning in the mid-1940s, as an abstract painter, teacher and theorist, the French artist Jean Dewasne (1921-1999) largely has been forgotten since his death. Galerie Nathalie Obadia rectified this lacuna in art historical memory with its recent exhibition “Antisculptures,” held in its new space at 18 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, which also served as Dewasne’s studio for nearly two decades. Dating from the 1970s and 1980s, 11 of the 12 artworks on display were made under this same roof. Such a homecoming not only highlighted the remarkable depth of Dewasne’s artistic engagement, but also offered a new generation of art aficionados the chance to familiarize themselves with his astonishing aptitude for color and composition.
Dewasne dabbled in pointillism before taking up abstraction in 1943. Three years later, he was the first recipient of the Kandinsky Prize, named for one of his heroes and intended to honor a young practitioner of nonfigurative art. By this time, Dewasne had exhibited in Paris alongside like-minded senior artists like Jean Deyrolle, Hans Hartung, Jean Arp, Serge Poliakoff and Sonia Delaunay. Skeptical of the rhetoric separating geometric and lyrical abstraction (Léger and Vasarely vs. Hartung and Georges Mathieu), he founded the Atelier d’Art Abstrait in Montparnasse in 1950 at the behest of the American ambassador to France, where numerous GIs flourished under his tutelage. Exploring what he termed the “technology of painting,” based on chemistry, colorimetry, mathematics and the physiology of vision, he also championed the use of industrial materials, including alkyd paint, Isorel (i.e., French Masonite) and sheet metal.
The sculptures and paintings in “Antisculpture” exemplify the diligence and conviction with which Dewasne pursued his aesthetic project. Antisculpture: Male Brains No. 3, 4 and 5 (all 1971) consist of altered auto chassis turned upright with their flat and bowed metal surfaces covered in blocks and strips of vivid alkyd hues. The artist considered these approximately 75-inch-tall freestanding pieces to be three-dimensional paintings, which viewers are obliged to circumambulate in order to understand the intricate relationship between their colorful planes and the spatial voids they define. Horizontal or vertical strips surround large openings, which suggest gaping mouths. While Dewasne may have envisioned these antisculptures as abstract human heads, what they imply about men’s intellect, given their titles, remains mysterious.
Also on view were two 1980 examples of Dewasne’s wall-hung pieces on convex enameled sheet metal, resembling car hoods. Untitled (Antisculpture, in the round, no. 1) and no. 2 are each 67 by 79 inches and are painted with overlapping and often clashing geometric patterns.
At Obadia, Dewasne’s other six paintings composed of alkyd on Masonite (dated between 1970 and ’73, and ranging from 25½ to 51 inches on a side) were equally complex, dynamic and vibrant. The predominance of disks and arcs in Blue Isle, Isle of Hopes and Isle for Roof echoes Léger and the Delaunays. Their cheerful, saturated palettes and formal rigor also recall Auguste Herbin who, like Dewasne, was born in northeastern France, a region known for its bleak industrial and agricultural landscapes.
In all Dewasne’s creations, traces of his hand are conspicuously absent. Their shimmering, hard-edge, viscerally plastic surfaces allow the viewer unadulterated access to numerous arresting visual rhythms, all of which underscore the staying power of abstraction.