Musée d’arts de Nantes, Nantes (FR)   12 February 2021 - 18 July 2021
Musée Fabre, Montpellier (FR)   5 August 2021 - 31 October 2021

United States of Abstraction. Artistes américains en France, 1946-1964

The Musée d’arts de Nantes and the Musée Fabre de Montpellier are organizing an exhibition entitled United States of Abstraction. Artistes américains en France, 1946-1964 (United States of Abstraction. American Artists in France, 1946-1964). It explores the strong presence of American artists in France at the end of the Second World War and the way in which they contributed to redefining abstract art in France at a time when the world art map had been disrupted. 

Curators: Sophie Lévy (Musée d’arts de Nantes, Nantes, France) and Michel Hilaire (Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France)
Curatorial research and expertise: Claire Lebossé, Sophie Lévy (Musée d’arts de Nantes, Nantes, France) and Maud Marron-Wojewodzki (Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France)

Paris’s role as the world capital of Western art since the 19th century is well known and it is also widely accepted that the City of Light lost this status to New York after the Second World War. The history of Abstract Expressionism, of the various New York schools, and heroes Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning among others, became the dominant narrative of art after 1945. However, large numbers of American artists, musicians and writers, men and women, continued to come to France to study and create. Over 400 artists in particular used the GI Bill scholarship, which allowed veterans to finance their studies, by enrolling in Parisian art schools and academies between 1946 and 1953. These Americans came for various reasons: the cultural pull of Paris, its museums and masters, the attraction of Europe, the possibility of creating without real constraints thanks to the scholarship funding, the search for greater freedom and the desire to be elsewhere, to be left to one’s own devices in the French capital. 

The exhibition is organized into three chapters. The first section examines the works brought together by critic Michel Tapié, whether in group exhibitions (like Véhémences confrontées at the Galerie Nina Dausset in 1951, Signifiants de l’informel in 1952 and Un art autre at the Studio Facchetti the same year) or in publications in the first half of the 1950s. These events constitute a fascinating attempt to bring together a series of abstract works outside national considerations, around ideas of expressiveness, and gestural or automatic painting. Several American painters—Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Mark Tobey, Claire Falkenstein and Alfonso Ossorio—are concerned here and put into dialogue with Wols, Jean Dubuffet, Georges Mathieu and Jean-Paul Riopelle.

The second chapter brings together several abstract colourists, including Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, Shirley Jaffe, as well as Kimber Smith, Norman Bluhm and Beauford Delaney, who found a place of freedom and creativity in France, although without establishing strong links with artists of the Lyrical Abstraction group, with the exception of Canadian painter Jean-Paul Riopelle. They advocated for a form of solitude and used the French capital as a stimulating place for creation, although they remained strangely stateless. Their works share floating forms, a large scale and intense colours.

The last section explores how artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Ralph Coburn, John Youngerman and Robert Breer, in relation with some of their elders such as Jean Arp and Alexander Calder and their contemporaries (François Morellet), brought new life to Geometric Abstraction in post-war Paris. 

Comprising some one hundred artworks, paintings and sculptures, coming from American and European public and private collections, this exhibition is accompanied by rich archival resources, where French and American specialists retrace and shed new light on a fascinating chapter in the history of artistic exchanges and provide visitors with a greater understanding of this period.

Works on loan

Sans titre
Vers 1948-1949
Le Guerrier, la Colombe et la Chouette
Tiger [Tigre]