Spanning the years 1960 to 1974, the first decade and a half of Martial Raysse’s career, this small survey exhibition presented a selection of the artist’s signature assemblage/paintings along with sculptures and rarely seen experimental films.
Raysse (b. 1936) was one of the originators of Nouveau Réalisme, a short-lived movement during the 1960s in France whose proponents—among them Yves Klein, Raymond Hains, Arman and, later, Niki de Saint Phalle—were united by their impatience with abstraction and desire for an art that more accurately captured modern life. Like the Pop artists of the same era, the Nouveaux Réalistes applied themselves to producing work that reflected a postwar culture of consumption and display. They tended, however, to be more antic, more fractious and more critical of consumer society than their American counterparts, and to place a greater emphasis on happenings, collaboration and the use of real-life objects in their art.
Engaging commodity culture in its most obvious form, Raysse’s early works were arrangements of the mass-produced plastic goods newly available in European department stores. The show included one of his first such sculptures, the totemlike Column (1960), a 5-foot-high stack of cylindrical Plexiglas containers, each holding an assortment of objects such as toys, pill bottles and hairbrushes.
In 1961 Raysse took up painting on canvas, a move that resulted in his immediate expulsion from the Nouveaux Réalistes—this despite the fact that the paintings, photo-silkscreens and bright, acid-colored paint, still incorporated readymade items. On view here was an untitled 1961 found photograph of a beautiful woman that the artist enhanced with a mop of peacock-feather hair and orange-painted lips. It presages larger and more complex assemblages such as Snack (1964), a silk-screened and overpainted image of three swimsuited models to which has been added real paper flowers, plastic birds and the eponymous pink neon sign.
These paintings were part of a new approach to representation Raysse referred to as the “hygiene of vision,” which employed images of anonymous fashion models taken from ads and magazines. Raysse’s emphasis on archetypal goddesses of the commercial realm notwithstanding, works from this period have a perceptible dark side, as in Broken Painting (1964), a photocopied picture of a pretty girl overpainted and collaged until the subject resembles less a delighted consumer of new products than a wartime refugee.
One of the exhibition’s highlights was a selection of Raysse’s movies from the mid- to late ’60s. Strung together images à la Kenneth Anger, these jump from scenes of young people disporting themselves in bathing suits to psychedelic dance sequences and Monty Python-esque skits.
In the early ’70s, Raysse’s work turned inward. The last section of the show featured small boxes sprouting papier-mâché mushrooms, a tall object resembling a shaman’s staff, and a long, friezelike wall sculpture made from an electric cord strung with feathers, sticks and beads and ending in a lit bulb. These pieces have their own trippy charm. But it is Raysse’s work of the 1960s that remains most compelling, brilliantly distilling that decade’s simultaneous embrace of the new and its willful forgetting of the recent past.