Raymond Hains: Venice
A dozen years after his death, Raymond Hains was again among the stars of the Venice Biennale 2017 with a central display in the main exhibition. Both the display and the glowing reviews proved the central place Hains holds in contemporary art practice, with his open conceptual approach that makes free use of places and materials, optical effects and wordplay, and various documentation strategies. In fact Hains had a long history with the city. He moved to Venice in 1964, remaining in Italy for the rest of the decade. Here he split his artistic personality into the characters Saffa and Seita, two fictional artists that took their names from the Italian and French national companies for tobacco. In the same year he also presented the Biennale déchirée (Torn Biennial) as lacerated posters on canvas, and in 1968 the Biennale éclatée (Shattered Biennial), for which he deformed the catalog covers of each nation through a prism and rendered it in plexiglas relief. Also including several mixed-media installations and a number of macintoshages – a work group started in the late 1990 for which the artist superimposed images on a computer screen – the book investigates Hains’ fruitful relationship with Venice, guided by an essay from art historian and curator Hervé Vanel.
Between 1964 and 1971, Hains was travelling through Italy and spent many months in Venice; he was in the city during the highly controversial decision to award the Grand Prix of the 1964 Venice Biennale to Robert Rauschenberg. The coronation of this young American painter, then 39 years old and primarily associated with Pop Art, proved explosive indeed. Offended by this ‘abject’ choice, critics wondered whether the jury had been corrupted by Leo Castelli, Rauschenberg’s gallerist, and asked, in all seriousness, whether ‘the art of the West would ever recover’ from this ‘official triumph for “pop-art”’. With ‘the art of the West’ they effectively meant ‘the School of Paris’, which had grown accustomed to winning the top prize and found it difficult to swallow the verdict. Hains did not share this aversion to the American art of his time and his reaction was surely closer to that of Pierre Restany, who, more pragmatically, issued a withering condemnation of the backwardness of French cultural policy: ‘The School of Paris was not betrayed by the decision of the international jury but undermined (in good faith, which makes it worse!) by the man [Jacques Lassaigne] who oversaw the official selection and was therefore responsible for its representation. That the guest of honour should have been the old master [Roger] Bissière, a former Cubist converted, late in life, to abstract Post-Impressionism, was, to say the least, a perfect absurdity in Venice in 1964, two years after the ‘triumph’ of his pupil Manessier.’
Without wishing to allege a simple cause-and-effect relationship, the series of torn posters from the Venice Biennale garnered by Raymond Hains in 1964 and exhibited under the title La Biennale déchirée took place against the background of a ‘crisis’ in the art world. Their aesthetic was, after all, midway between the urban, ad-driven style of Pop Art and the mannered expressionism of art informel. The gestuality, colour and composition effects – and even the particular texture of torn posters – meant that ‘affichisme might easily be confused with the productions of art informel’. As Alain Jouffroy argued, one could even read them as a ‘mockery’ of the abstract painting of the period, which notably included the works of the School of Paris. They are, at least in part, Hains’s ironic response to the scandal of the 1964 Grand Prix, created as they were by deforming the Venice Biennale’s own self-image: its poster…
His target was never one Biennale rather than another and it was not part of his project to satirise any given country’s selection or national pride. It was more the very basis of the institution that he symbolically ‘exploded’ every time he attacked the integrity of a national representation. ‘In any biennale,’ he said, ‘the artists become instruments of their country’s cultural propaganda. I don’t want anybody imposing their ways of seeing on me; I am defending my heritage.’ The Biennales éclatées thus continued his hypnagogic vision of the world, which had its origins in the 1940s and in which each step towards illegibility anticipated the advent of a sovereign state of dé-lire (delirium/dis-reading)…