Henri Goetz

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par GĂ©rard Xuriguera
From the Catalogue Raisonné Tome 1

Between Reason and Passion

As a man of conversation, level-headed and convivial, Henri Goetz met some of the most significant artists of his time, throughout his development and particularly during his early formative years. In close touch with his time, both as a protagonist and as an observer, he was, in the view of many, a veritable living memory.

He gradually learnt how to take advantage of this legacy, once it was analysed and clear, in order to settle for himself a now immediately recognisable pictorial idiom. Neither his friendships nor his stylistic similarities with his colleagues could prevent him from living a personal adventure, even if during those years one would have noticed a long-standing complicity with the surrealist movement until the forties, followed by a long-term companionship with abstraction, as well as a figurative start mostly aimed towards portraiture, landscape or still-life painting.

Here were, in short, the three major axles around which the work of Henri Goetz takes place - a work that is now acknowledged both for its surrealist period and for its activism in the abstract movement. It should also be remembered that, during the forties, Goetz' closeness with the non-objective universe was working with remote "nuagistes" reminiscences, or at least vaguely turned towards landscape painting, for Goetz was too close to men and humus to radically turn away from them, and he always kept as a watermark a tender memory of his going through dream lands. Without any predetermined tutelage, these various links echoed in his work with a synthesis, through supple levitating modulations of texture, which led to a dreamy state. He mixed together swarms of molecular units, of solar stars, of thin stems grafted on sorts of trapezoid flying carpets, of petals, of stars, of crescents, of serpentine lines, of torrents of dashes, dots or graphic nets.

This coherent mixture of suspended elements, all of them part of a regulating understructure, implied a mixing of signs and shapes full of equivalencies, and described what Goetz called his "abstract paintings painted from life".

Gradually, in his quest for renunciation, Goetz' vocabulary freed itself from these indirect analogies, but never got as far as his various friends' extremes, like Zao Wou Ki's naturalism, or Hartung and Soulages' Jansenist non-figuration. Obviously, this fluid and changing syntax only belonged to Goetz when it came to techniques such as soft or dry pastels, etching or even oil on canvas. This syntax was the fruit of both an asserted oversensitive tendency and a great poetical freedom.

Henri Goetz was proud of this return to the natural order of things, and he used to say: "Nature is a sumptuous suggestion box. Container and contents should not be mistaken. One can also choose to take suggestions from elsewhere." And he added: "If I choose the non-figurative world, it is because I believe it is larger than the other one. I believe there is more to discover in the unknown than in the world we know. If the borders of the world we know are the unknown, the opposite statement does not sound true to me." This thought showed the ambiguity of a reasoning that, even in acknowledging its complicity with nature, hesitated between abstraction and a more allusive - but yet not descriptive - representation of the visible.

As previously noted, thanks to a disposition in space of suspended signs and adventurous shapes in constant movement and deception of the laws of weightlessness, such an artistic choice revealed its former kinship with surrealism, while upsetting the cogwheels of our thinking. And, going back for a moment to the resolutely surrealist paintings of the beginning, we notice that no psychoanalytical drift could be found in them, no machinery or fetishist intrusion, no weird message; only a combination of flexible, or even transformable masses, of unobtainable objects, of masks with turrets, of fragmented anatomical postures, of haunted castles, of isolated colonnades, of animalcules, of strange battlements scattered with bones, taking us to regions set out of any visual logic, and activating our imagination.

Of course, and especially during his non-figurative period, Goetz' gestures defined the arranging of the surface, but they were directed gestures whose moves were governed by an intuition prompting disorder, while avoiding any restraint of the spontaneity of its own race. In those areas, content and form combined with an identical dynamism, mixing reason and passion together. Everything was delicately hinted at, without impasto or useless chromatic resonance. Oppositions were thin, correspondences were muffled. Harmony, balance, accuracy of the strokes, and reliability of the line prevailed.

There was, in this American Parisian, a modesty that fitted his work. Indeed, there were no excesses of substance or colour to alter the support where a simple and fluid writing prevailed, echoing the weight of a human experience entirely devoted to painting. It was for Goetz a way to live and to feel as essential as breathing. As Vercors wrote: " Few painters drive their work on the canvas as far as he does. Even if it is sometimes a risk of going too far and failing."

Elaborated in this very spirit, Goetz' progression looked like no other. His range of hues - so full of contrasts - the elegance of his arrangements, his economy of means, the effect of the slightest punctuation, of the slightest arabesque, conveyed a real quality of sentiment, and the intimate stamp of the painter was a part of it all. Each written form, each scratch, each representation, all set on the canvas with an equal efficiency and combined at different angles, expressed his entire work, the fruit of a continually renewed imagination, assisted by strong technical experiences.

In short, what Goetz painted was the reality of the world, an unlimited territory exposed to the concerted urges of his inner geography, whose destinies he arranged in non-figurative terms. But what he painted was also the consequence of a life rich with multiple experiences. We are aware of his distinguished place as an engraver, thanks to innovations of the highest importance, like his carborundum method, and thanks to his influence for more than 25 years on young people who followed his teaching, particularly in the academy called after him. We are also aware of his friendships with Hartung, Miro, Vieira da Silva, Szenes and Schneider, and those he kept for many years with André Breton, Nicolas de Staël, Picabia, Duchamp and the Gonzalez.

But, even if, thanks to such friendships, he saw a lot, heard a lot, and remembered a lot, he knew how to forget, just like Braque, who once said: "I forget, I forget all. Fortunately. Forgetting is a godsend." He forgot in order to invent a language with penetrating and harmonious rhythms, based on the pursuit of an extreme simplification.

Born in New York in 1909, deceased in 1989, a holder of the French nationality, Goetz was introduced to art in the American capital, at the Grand Central Art School, after having studied at MIT Boston and in Harvard. But it was only with the contact of the European atmosphere, as soon as he arrived in Paris in 1930, that he developed his skills, frequenting the Julian academy, then the Montparnasse studio, giving a preference to the purist artist Ozenfant. He first painted with a realist inspiration, mostly portraits. Then he discovered the Impressionists, the Fauvists, the Cubists, the Expressionists, the works of Klee and Picasso; and gradually, limiting his influences, he started to simplify and to split up shapes in order to extract them from their shackles, before finally turning, around 1936, to a style made of a strange accumulation of invented objects, immersing anyone in the "colour of dreams". It has to be mentioned that, at the time, he knew nothing about the surrealist movement. So he started to prune and to scour his practice, and to escape from explicit references by raising visceral images whose symbolism seemed accidental to him. If 1936 marked the beginning of his non-figurative attempts, and 1937 his brief linking up with the surrealist groups, 1939 is the year when he met Bonnard in Cannes, and when the latter allowed him, lending him the necessary materials - hard to find in those troubled times - to make lithographs which were to illustrate some of Picabia's poems. After that, he went to explore his inner life's twists and turns more intently, establishing a symbiosis between the "inside and the "outside", a choice that was to determine his non-figurative perception. A soft luminous outpouring irrigated his elliptical constructions, made with subtle connections of hues, where a complete knowledge of pictorial effects was combined with the uncertainties of nevertheless directed coincidences.

Day after day, Goetz laid down a language tending towards an extreme sobriety and struggled to understand the "meaning of the visible and of the invisible", of "the known and the unknown", playing with these deceptively antagonist premises, fixing them on the canvas in order to figure out his inner self. But he never tried to ignore the emotion felt in front of nature or objects; never, even until his very last works - canvases, pastels, drawings or etchings. He only tamed these emotions, and made them bend to the structural requirements of his syntax, with an invigorating freedom of transposition, heightened by his multi-faceted spirituality.

In the maquis of contemporary art, Goetz reached an enviable situation, thanks to the development of a "poetry of the sign", a unique progression in the tangle of abstract tendencies. Fallaciously serene, his means of signalling hid with difficulty the anxiety of a modest and independent nature that always stayed away from fashion. And if Goetz' implication always kept the dancing and twisting character of his surrealist friendships, it also offered him an infinity of possibilities, without any claimed symbolism. This way, sticking to this discreet ambivalence, this implication reached beyond the restrictive context of the non-figurative epic of the fifties, and fully blossomed in its singularity.

In the end, the final sentence should be left to the painter, poet, and faithful friend of Goetz: Francis Picabia. "I like Henri Goetz, an elusive being. He does not belong to the static world, that is to say the world of automatons that I know, those who use their thoughtlessness to talk about Art or transform it into Stock Exchange or supermarket products. In a way, he is the astronomer of the planets of earthly sufferings, who, whenever he can, purifies the bad intentions of thoughtless people."

GĂ©rard Xuriguera