The French Institute Alliance Française in New York City is pleased to announce, for its inaugural show at its new gallery, the exhibition of a portfolio of 82 photographs by Arman. These photographs, in both color and black and white, were taken in ’60s and ’70s, and are being shown for the first time in the United States.
Arman settled down in New York City at a time when the art world was taking a new turn with the Pop Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art movements. He quickly befriended many of the major artists on the scene: Roy Lichtenstein, George Segal, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol, to only name a few. Marcel Duchamp was his chess game partner. These historic photographs provide a rare glimpse into that world.
“ARMAN: Accumulation of Friends” will be on view at the FI:AF Gallery, 22 East 60th Street (between Madison and Park Avenue) through May 15th, 2007
Click to read articles about the Fiaf Gallery opening
"Arman the Omnivore," an essay by Tom Bishop (Introduction)
Western culture in the second half of the twentieth century was fortunate to count among its plastic artists a number of remarkable men and women who repeatedly revolutionized and renewed artistic expression and aesthetics. Yet not many of these key creative personalities can truly be labeled "bigger-than-life" figures whose genius, originality, wide sphere of interest and activity placed them above even the best of the best, in a class by themselves. Clearly, the prototype of this "bigger-than-life" concept for the entire century was Picasso.
Arman, too, was one of the very few, in the fifty years following World War II, who fit this description. Arman's appetite for art and conceptualization in all forms was unlimited. He was so voracious, so eager to try everything, to go everywhere, artistically speaking, to explore always and never rest on laurels, so prepared to disdain nothing, from the microcosm to the macrocosm, from the lofty to the refuse of garbage cans, that he could be termed an artistic and intellectual omnivore, with an unquenchable thirst for new frontiers, with a creative bulimia.
Arman's work testifies to a permanent restlessness, visible in the variety of forms he explored as well as in practically each individual work, from the early "cachets" to the accumulations and later "coupes" and "colères." In attempting to come to terms with a startling phenomenon of the post-war world, that of consumerism and of mass-produced objects destined for mass consumption, Arman's signature accumulations proved a highly inventive and intuitive reflection of a sea change that had occurred in Western mentalities and values.
The stress on the object, isolated from value judgment, the view of the world as absurd and fragmentary, were fully in tune with exciting tendencies in other art forms in the fifties and sixties; notably in French literature, these tendencies are analogous to the poetry of Francis Ponge, the early novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and some of Roland Barthes's essays, especially Mythologies . For Arman and some fellow painters, like Yves Klein, César, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, and others, the phenomenon led to the theorization of "Nouveau Réalisme." It also helped enrich American Pop Art.
With the later, seemingly destructivist phase of "coupes" and "colères," Arman was, once again, at the heart of the artistic and philosophic avant-garde of his time. Like Jacques Derrida's deconstruction, the most significant philosophic movement of the last quarter of the twentieth century, Arman, too, deconstructed rather than destroyed, or perhaps created through destruction, to seek other, deeper realities that could transcend chaos. He wrote that "in my painting, the object is but a pretext, but it is always present." Those objects, so central in his art, are the springboard to meditation and knowledge.
What is so striking about Arman's artistic project, beyond its obvious and generally acknowledged brilliance and exuberance, is its profound intellectual framework. It may come as a surprise to learn that a painter or a sculptor is also imbued with the philosophic discourse of the times, as if the artist's role were "merely" to paint or to sculpt, and not to think. But it was precisely part of Arman's voraciousness to reject such artificial limitations. He read very widely and his readings took him to thinkers from the entire world, to poets whose intuitions and sensitivity he shared, to a dazzling variety of fields including archaeology and Oriental art. He was not content with collecting antiquities, he studied them meaningfully; he was not merely satisfied to learn judo, he went so far as to become a teacher at a celebrated judo school.
Arman's insatiable appetite for knowledge and for creativity is likely traceable to his French-Algerian father of Spanish ancestry, Antoine Fernandez, the owner of a small antique store in Nice and an amateur artist and photographer. He remained a strong, positive influence on his only son throughout his life. It was Fernandez who gave Arman a love for photography and, at 17, his first camera. The young man took to taking pictures frequently, but it was especially after Arman settled in New York in the 1960s that a camera became his constant companion. With it, he began to gather mementos of an incredibly rich period in the New York art world as well as recording his many French friends, mostly painters and writers. Arman never claimed to be a serious photographer; he took photos, snapshots of reality. His reality consisted of people--the extraordinary people who made those years so exhilarating. In New York, and often at the legendary Hotel Chelsea, then in its heyday, Arman befriended and took photos of the artists who made New York the center of creativity: Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Paul Jenkins, the Christos, Jim Dine, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage; also, from an earlier time, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali".
If Arman took their photos, it was not as an outsider; he was one of them, one of the family, a community of very talented creators who shared evenings at each other's studios or in downtown bars, who participated in heady conversations on art or on other subjects of mutual concern. Arman's photos are a precious testimony of that remarkable period. His lens also caught his many friends in Europe, from Picasso and Man Ray, to his contemporaries like César, Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, Etienne Martin, and Léonor Fini. There was also the occasional American photographed abroad: Richard Avedon on a joint trip to Egypt and James Baldwin when he lived in Saint-Paul de Vence, near Arman's French home.
All these photos should be taken for what Arman intended them to be: documents of a period, a way of "taking notes," of preserving someone and something for himself. He did not think of these as part of his work, his oeuvre, but rather a part of his life. For us, today, now that Arman sadly has left us, it is a great gift that these photos, which Arman had initially not even intended to preserve, are available to us to give us a very private glance at his life through his protracted glance at others.
Many years before he needed to think about an epitaph, Arman decided on one, perhaps whimsically: "Enfin seul" ("Alone at last.") For once, Arman was wrong. The subjects of all his photos are with him in one way or another. And we are with him.
Florence Gould Professor of French Literature
and Director of the Center for French Civilization and Culture,
New York University