Friday, November 30, 2007



Gloire des formes précédé de Le double corps des images by Jean Fremon
(Paris: P.O.L., 2005)

It is a great pleasure to have this compendious selection of Jean Frémon’s writings on art from 1978 to the present. Frémon is a distinguished poet and novelist—I particularly recommend L’Île des morts (1994, translated into English by Cole Swenson as Island of the Dead, 2002)—who also, as a director of the Galerie Lelong, enjoys an intimacy with contemporary art that is rare among his colleagues. Another way to put it, of course, is that he is a doubly dangerous character—not just one of those poet-art critics, a practitioner of that so-called “belletristic” criticism that is so out of favor in academic circles, but even worse, a gallerist-critic, in theory a conflict of interest come to life, a real scandal. (So much for Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.) Need I add, as well, that Frémon is an uncomfortable figure in another way? He is an unreconstructed modernist, one who is unashamed to invoke “glory” and even “form.” He feels no urge to demystify, knowing that “painting is a mysterious activity.”

So much the worse for those who may wrongly deny themselves a great pleasure. These writings are the product of a lucid intelligence and a great deal of knowledge, as well as of a freedom the rest of us art critics can only envy, for while they were mostly written for publication in exhibition catalogues, they were not (as Frémon points out in a foreword) written on commission, but rather by his own choice. And no editor to pass judgment on his choice, either of artists or of how to write about them! His choices are personal, which is perhaps another way to say that any given reader may find some of them questionable. All the essays are informed by something more than simply an acquaintance with the artists; working with them is something else altogether, something more: a way to mutually relate through the artwork in a very concrete manner. There are those who come to art primarily by looking; others approach it by way of its texts, and still others through conversation. Reading these essays one is aware of encountering someone who looks incessantly, reads everything, and has been able to discuss with the artists at length: many ways into art.

Most rewarding, perhaps, for Frémon and certainly for his readers is the opportunity to watch him come at certain of his subjects from different angles as he writes about them again and again over time. He returns regularly to certain key figures—Robert Ryman, Nicola de Maria, Jan Voss, Jannis Kounellis—but above all his great loyalty remains to Antoni Tàpies, here the subject of no less than eight texts ranging in date from 1978 to 2004—or rather nine texts, if one adds an essay whose subject is shared out between Tàpies and Arnulf Rainer, dated 2005. In that essay, the book’s last both by date and position, one finds the following surprising conclusion, a sort of lesson in French usage: “On appelle témoin le morceau de bois que les coureurs de relais se passent de main en main. L’histoire de la peinture est peut-être une course relais dans laquelle le témoin est un secret.” “Témoin is the name of that piece of wood that the runners in a relay race pass from hand to hand. The history of painting is perhaps a relay race in which the témoin is a secret.” Frémon is playing a game with us, of course. The primary meaning of the word is something else altogether—not baton, as that piece of wood is called in English, but witness, evidence. Certainly Frémon stands witness on behalf of Tàpies, able to cite not just sixty years of his artistic production but the artist’s reading and his collecting as well. Painting, the history of painting, has its witnesses, and it does pass them from hand to hand, as one painting leads to another. Not a critic, not a historian—“je suis marchand,” he declares right off the bat, as he prepares to give his evidence—Frémon may feel that he has been until now the secret witness of a lifetime of art, but in publishing this book, he’s tipped his hand: The secret’s been revealed.

A Spanish translation of this review has previously been published in Exit Book 6, 2007.


Barry Schwabsky is an American poet and art critic living in London. He writes regularly for Artforum and The Nation, among others. Opera: Poems 1981-2002 is published by Meritage Press, and his new book of poems will be published by Black Square Editions in 2008.

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