Henri Goetz

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by Vercors
Text from the Catalogue Raisonné of Henri Goetz's work.
First publication in "le Musée de Poche", Paris


Could there be a word with more double meaning - more triple, quadruple, or quintuple meaning - a word meaning more or less or at least meaning as much as the word "painting"? Well, I wonder.

"But I am a painter too!" At first sight, it seems that this exclamation, this challenge, only clearly states what it means. But taking a closer look, it means nothing. Let's simply try to figure Paul Klee uttering this in front of a painting by David - more than this, let's try to figure, it case it were possible, the reverse: Rubens exclaiming this in front of a painting by Mondrian. The contrast is laughable, and then suddenly, the laughing stops. Because we feel it is paradoxical but not unthin kable. Possibly outrageous but not insane. Yes, in a certain way, this could happen. This is only showing that the word painting has a great need for a definition.

More precisely, it shows that a purely technical or absolute definition isn't sufficient anymore. It is not sufficient now to say that painting is the skill of organising a surface. If one had to reconcile in his inner world such different treasures as the ones offered by David or klee, Rubens or Mondrian, then simply judging their art, "thinking" their art as belonging without distinction to a unique category, and such a vague one, would not be satisfying enough. Actually, people were never satisfied with this; only the matter was less urgent in the past. Painting was no less mysterious or varied in the times when everybody painted like Raphael - you will know what I mean - than nowadays, when everyone is painting like CĂ©zanne or Kandinsky - there again, you will know what I mean. There were, between painters of remote times, as well as between our contemporary painters, great contradictions; and they are not, as they seemed to be before, and still seem to be today, irrecon cilable. There may be as much distance between the worlds of Bosch and Poussin as between Poussin and Miro, but Bosch and Poussin had something in common: a way of expressing themselves - in the Cartesian meaning of the word - that seemed to be able to take in the whole notion of painting. For more than half a century, this hasn't be possible anymore. Contradictions seem so obvious, so essential, that the notion of painting itself is questioned.

I have to apologise for that was all commonplace. But it was needed for what I am going to say now. For a place stops being common when, in order to see clearly, one leaves it. At this moment, the common place becomes a labyrinth, a wonderful imbroglio.

This is not, I have to say, specific to painting. Except architecture - a purposeful art, thus having a raison d'être - all arts, be they music, sculpture, literature (including philosophy), are in the same situation nowadays. I don't know if many people feel as concerned as I am about the mental confusion which has been ruling over in all the fields and matters related to art and expression for the last twenty or thirty years. But, as the years go by, I must admit I remain a witness of all this, and more and more astounded everyday. Once or twice, I attempted to intervene. But I was sent back to my feeding dish. I thus remain a witness in spite of myself, and keep on being astound ed. This I am saying without the least irony. The amount of cleverness, of brilliant or subtle ideas gathering around these matters had, I believe, never been reached before. I also say this with humility and sincerity: I never came close to this accomplishment myself, and I enjoy these wonders without reservation. I am only astonished like I was one evening at a New Year's Eve party at a friend's. The man, a grain dealer, spent half of the year in France and the other in Argentina. His guests did the same, either going to Brazil or Canada. They ignored nothing of the tiniest market fluctuation in wheat, rye, barley, rice, sorghum or maize; nothing of the climatological, meteorological, ethnological, economic, or political reasons for such fluctuations. Their well-informed conversations were really far beyond my understanding. Then, toward the end of the dinner, was a charming surprise; our hostess presented each of us with a little gift: a tie or a lighter for the men, and a brooch or a bott le of perfume for the ladies. Each little parcel was symbolically adorned with a small bunch of cereals, a lovely pappus from the fields, a sheaf of ripe and swollen ears, bald or bearded. I asked in all innocence which ones were wheat, or rye, or barley. There was an embarrassed silence, then smiles, and finally a general laughing: none of those men could answer…

This did not prevent them from all being very clever, very enlightened, very capable and very wealthy specialists in grain. But hey had never chosen the "field" of research, which, according to me, should have been the first one to explore, that is to say how to tell an ear of barley from one of wheat. The thing is that their "speculations" were not standing on the same level. Their interest in grain started when it was already a freightage - on a boat or on a truck. Wheat or barley were regarded as a mythical material one could never see, resting in a silo or in a port, or in a warehouse, only to be moved from a place to another thanks to a telegram or a phone call, in a fascinating game of calculations, risks, and discernment. When in the state of a swath or an ear, they were not of the least interest to them.

I often think of those men whenever I read or hear the subtle opinions, the brilliant inventions, or the scintillating conversations of our spirit sellers. They are often far beyond my under-standing and I get out of breath trying to follow them. But I always feel like asking them: Please, gentlemen, what is art, what is painting, really? Or music? Or literature?

I like Henri Goetz very much because he's asked himself the question - because he keeps on asking it, all the time, with no rest. Because he isn't satisfied with the easy answer - meaningless as soon as looked into closely: painting is the ability to organise a surface. For one has to wonder first, why organise a surface? Of course, neither Goetz nor I claim to be able to find an answer to this "why". But if many art historians can tell why it was organised in such a way rather than in another in the times of the Greeks or the Pharaohs, or Confucius, or Renaissance, none of them has yet clearly demonstrated why it was organised at all - where the strange impulse comes from - the impulse these animals called men and these men called painters get in front of a surface to cover it with lines or colours. Sexuality or the sacred are not answers: they are only secondary causes. The primary cause has yet to be discovered. And it seems to be for painters the first of the things to know. The first of all their expectations, before they start doing anything. But it isn't. This expectation, among them, is extremely rare. And it is even badly considered. When Goetz makes it his business to question aloud, the same as happened to me usually happens to him: he is sent back to his feeding dish. Only that in his feeding dish, he knows how to tell barley from oats, a thing most of his fellow painters cannot do and do not want to do. It would be, in their point of view, unworthy of their brushes.

But this gives him superiority over a great number of them. This superiority may not show in his work with the daz- zling clarity that would indisputably put it in the first place, but its light presence one feels in front of his paintings is obvious enough not to ignore, not to miss something which is absolutely unique, absolutely different from the rest of the so-called "abstract" school. (I know he doesn't like the word). As this "something" is quite hard to explain, I'll go back to my subject: why would one go through such trouble in order to organise a surface? Art, painting, what are they really? The rest will come into light later.

I will start with common knowledge, with something objective, with a scientifically proved observation: the birth of what we call Man - the "Homo Sapiens" - was immediately followed by the birth of art. The use of tools may have come before art, but the symmetry of the harpoon teeth, of any sharpened flint, were already showing a wish for harmony beyond any practical use. The reason of this wish is at once obvious: it is the need to assert oneself in front of an indifferent or even hostile nature, alien to this harmony. Man felt the immediate need to prove his own existence to himself, separated from the cosmos, and facing himself. Some may say, nonsense, these were only simple magic signs to favour hunting or fishing. This doesn't go against the point, for the meaning is exactly the same: magic "asserts" that Man, since he stands against these hostile forces - the way he can - exists. Than, unlike the animals, he is no longer enduring his condition as a fragment of nature, passively melted into it. That he has to be considered. In short, this means, as if challenging the universe: "There are the two of us."

Thus, in, order to see the world clearly, everything has to be seen in relation with this "Declaration of Independence," since it is both the first charter of "human events" and the very first foundation of artistic events. Consequently, a human action will only be genuinely recognised as a human event if the independence is strengthened, increased - which is exactly the founding principle of every code of ethics, considering anything that brings back Man to a primitive subjection as a retro-human regression. All the same, a human action will only be an artistic event if it is also a part of this "era to era" progression toward independence.

Art also has a direction, and it is dangerous - retro-human - to try to reverse it; all experiences are not allowed. There are useful one but also harmful ones. For instance, it is probably a human event - and thus an artistic event - at a child- ish or primitive state, to drop some ink on a piece of paper and fold it to spread the ink into unexpected images. But, being a well-informed painter, after five thousand years of art history, turning back to such methods or to similar ones is regression, since the artist renounces the independence he won slowly and with difficulty, and admits the primacy of Things and fate. This is not the case with surrealism or with so-called abstract painting which, on the opposite, use elements torn away from human substance, from what is most human in it, in order to increase the separation from Nature as well as Man's authority over things.

Henri Goetz understood this and struggles, in his teaching as well as in his work, to determine, in the art of pure shapes, what is favourable from what is harmful for the painter but also for painting; for painting but also for human history which, grain after grain, builds itself. He doesn't forbid his students to make "abstract" paintings, but encourages them even less, because he himself knows too well the quick destructive dangers of taking the wrong direction. As for him, he has been making the effort of drawing from nature every morning, and this for a number of years. Doing this prevents him from letting go any part of the knowledge he took from… nature, precisely; he even tore away from it. He knows it to be vital, and that the artist has to give himself the evidence of the independence he's winning, permanently and without weakness. Without the evidence, the painter will expose himself to a thousand risks of regression threatening anyone researching without the explicit judgement.

This is probably why Henri Goetz only dismisses one word with his students: "Tachisme". For he has well understood that if Leonardo da Vinci recommended to use the random method of blots, it was only as a makeshift, as an exercise for the imagination, never as a way of expression; since, used as a method, it would be a regression, a retro-human return to a subjection to things, not a domination of things.

If I once again go back to my own subject, it is to show that this idea of independence, of rebellion, of conquest, is legitimate in any kind of painting. Thanks to it, barley, wheat and rye can be recognised. I have already demonstrated in other occasions - but as everyone put their hands over their ears, I can repeat it with confidence - that from the most remote prehistory, from the Cro-Magnon man, from the Lascaux and Lespugue caves, painting has not been one but two. That it has always been, since its most remote origins, torn between two major trends, opposite to each other, but at the same time complementary, and of which every form of painting throughout the centuries have been made of, without exception.

Two trends or orientations that are not, for that matter, art's privilege or exclusive territory, but those in which all activities of the human spirit partake and get involved - these activities being themselves the expression of our rebellion, of our independence continually conquered and claimed. One of these major trends is refusal: the refusal to accept the ignorance in which Cosmos maintains an exiled part of itself - the cerebral function - from itself. This refusal has got a name: Science. And a goal: stealing from Cosmos its secrets closely kept. The second of these trends is the creative will to build, thanks to the con quered secrets, a new universe, an independent universe, for our own use and for our only use: music, poetry…or the Sputnik. This double approach, this double rebellion, are both working for painting - for all paintings - as well as for anything else. What is rudely called imitation painting struggles to penetrate the tiniest secrets, the tiniest nuances of this coloured universe that is nature standing in front of our eyes - remember those meticulous still-lifes by the German school, where the slightest dewdrop resting on a rose petal equalled - regarding the pictorial complexity or the nuances - a whole painting by Le Lorrain or il Tintoretto. The second approach is, on the contrary, to organise the conquests in order to express a world exterior to them: the imaginative phantasmagorias of Jérôme Bosch, the lyrical splendours of Rubens or Delacroix. For several centuries, the two trends have been dialectically combining, forming combinations of various proportioning, with a predominance of the first one in the North, and of the second one in Italy - they sometimes even combined without merging (for instance, in an abundance of fruits and food meticulously rendered illustrating a vaguely painted allegory by a different painter). This dialectical combination went on until the middle of the nineteenth century when one of the trends got stiffened and ossified; this trend being the first one, the one aiming at conquest. They forgot to keep it alive, the recipe replaced the research as the discoveries as well as the conquerors were resting on their laurels, tramp- ling on beaten track instead of going on exploring, again and again. Rubens got stuck into Gérôme's works. The sudden awakening was impressionism. Impressionist painters got conscious of the ossification, of the abandonment. Like someone stripping off to rescue a drowning man, they got rid of anything that could have weighed them down and prevented them from giving assistance to this essential part of painting that was drowning, throwing it overboard, out of their preoccupations. And they rescued it. But there it stood, naked, this time deprived of the other - and so essential - part of conquered independence: pure creation, the field of humanity, of nothing but humanity. Cézanne felt this, knew this. Cubist painters who came after him knew it too. Then the surrealists. And finally - this is not, of course, a chronology in time but in movement - what we now call the "abstract" painters.

With them, we are standing on the other extremity of the oscillation. For a hundred years, painting has been like a pendulum having received a great blow: it swings too far in one way, then too far in the other. This is probably necessary to get back to a position of dialectical balance. It seems to me that Henri Goetz is standing on this extreme point where the pendulum fixes itself for an instant in a kind of warning wait, which is the beginning of its race back to the other extremity. Nothing is more "abstract", it is true, than Henri Goetz's art, nothing seems more detached from reality, and yet…

What we could say first, of course, is that what he paints is his "inner reality". Which, in other words, means that Henri Goetz's art is in the forefront of the battle, in the millenial struggle of arts to create a human universe intended for Man, and Man only, which is thus only a way of repeating what I have been saying some lines above this. What could also be put forward is that his paintings show a perfectly existing reality, for if before them this reality did not exist, it well does now, since it is in front of us. Which is again only another way to express what I have been stating before, this new "reality" being the product of Man's long effort in the creation of an exclusively human reality…

All this consequently amounts to the same, so I'm now turning to something else I'd wish to precise. For what principally interests me in Goetz's work is what is concrete in it, not in its representation but in its own substance, and how it announces a moving off of the pendulum - dare I say a casting off - toward the opposite trend: a new start in the conquest and possession of the visible - or invisible - Nature.

Let's start by getting rid of the misunderstanding. I haven't got the slightest idea if Henri Goetz will agree with all I'm writing here about him, I don't want to care about it - as I'm sure he doesn't - but it isn't necessary that superfluous mis-understandings come and darken these possible divergences with false oppositions. About what precedes, we will find his approval in the brief curriculum vitae following this preface and introducing the reproductions of his paintings: "1934-36: short period of cubist, fauvist and especially expressionist investigation. A non-figurative since 1936, but aiming to invent (as a grandson and son of inventors) and attracted by the wish to create a world and its shapes." In those times, the pendulum was still rising. The non-figurative painters along with Goetz were ending the long movement of reaction against impression ism and its voluntary nakedness, against its renunciation to "the invention of a world". But some lines after this, Goetz claims the opinion he has now finally come to: "In the figurative art, ones loses as much in the absence of figuration as he gains in freedom." He hasn't yet gone beyond this - in his sayings, for in his paintings, as we will see, it is different. "This choice, he adds, only depends on the needs of each artist."

About this, I have a different opinion. The artist is not as much a master, not as much conscious of his own "needs" as it seems at first sight. But it is true that being "inside", he can't grasp a whole view of the real needs of the current art, nor of his own needs - which would anyway be much more dangerous than helpful for him. He must act "as if" his choice only depend- ed on himself. This way, everything is fine.

But if I take a look at Goetz's painting from the out-side, I can already notice many premonitory signs. And one of them, not the least, concerns one of the great problems of art, rarely spoken of, even more rarely understood, and that I will call the amount of experience.

What I mean by those words is the amount of visible work, and only of visible work, on the covered canvas. An artist may have made a thousand sketches, a thousand preliminary studies, and finally offer a very filtered painting. The latter will nonetheless be, because of its sobriety, a work containing a small amount of experience in its visible texture, in the eyes of whoever is watching. On the contrary, if the painter, even in a single session, even in a single artistic flight, has been multiplying the strokes, the transformations, the details, and the substances, the final result will nonetheless offer a great amount of experience. I hope I made myself clear. An example of the first case is the famous bull by Picasso, whose multiple states we all know, some of them being of an extreme complexity of details, but all amounting, in the end to a naked work made in a single line. This last state seems to show, for the inexperienced witness, a very small amount of experience. An example of the second case could be any haystack by Claude Monet, brushed in less than an hour during a sunset, but its whole surface shining with uncountable riches: great amount of experience. It is clear that the value of a work does not depend on its amount of experience, but that the latter, in both examples, even in an opposite way, holds an essential place in the value of the work.

This would be enough to show that there is a connection, or in an even more precise way, a proportion, in the mathematical sense of the word.

This proportion is actually present in the old phrase: "to always express a maximum of things with a minimum of means". Painters always claim to agree to this, they are claiming it more and more, but for the last fifty years, the phrase has been short- ening without anyone noticing, and now ends up being only: "a minimum of means." A necessary and fair enough saying, but anyway amputated from its compensation: "with the used means, one should express as many things as possible."

Here, we notice that the object of the advice is not the same at all in both cases. The phrase " a minimum of means" is a phrase of cautiousness, of safety, of honesty as well, of strength why not. Listening to it, the painter prevents himself from excess and redundancy, while guaranteeing conciseness, a solid clarity, as well as the inner value of his work. The phrase "to express a maximum of things" is on the contrary a phrase of generosity, boldness, and thus courage: the risk being to break one's neck. But it is also the only one that enables a painter to show his worth.

And indeed, how many of those studies, of those sketches by second-rate painters - and the nineteenth century didn't lack of them - have delighted us, charmed us, astonished us by their elegance, by their accuracy of the stroke? And we wonder in front of those brilliant arabesques, how can one draw so well and paint so poorly? What happened in the meantime? The answer is that the small amount of experience present in those quick sketches is equal to what those lit-tle masters had to say: it is very little, but fair. And thus, these sketches, these studies, were representative of what these men were "made of." If they had "laid it on thick", it would have been too much: one would have felt at once the emptiness, the faking. Skill and experience replaced the genuine feeling. The amount of experience was only useful to fill up holes. The painting became worthless. These men had given their best in their sketches…

But how can one show what he is "made of" if he re-fuses to take the risk to "lay it on thick"? We know that Rembrandt could allow himself the tragic simplicity of his "three crosses," violently carved hammering the burin, because he proved to himself that he was able to meticulously examine and cross-examine the thousands of details of his portrait of Jean Sixe with fine-tooth comb, without ever finding any empti-ness behind the amount of experience. For what Rembrandt was "made of" had the same richness and stood on the same level as the material means he accumulated. It was the same for Picasso: the purity, the beauty of his linear bull move us all the more because we know that in other lithographs, other etchings - such as "Le chevalier sans armure" or other orgiastic celebrations - he had to face an enormous profusion of means, and triumphed over them. A painter like Matisse, on the contrary, will always leave us in a state of uncertainty: he has never risked the battle and we don't know if he would have won it. These were his limits, and they were not of a minor importance in the continuity of his work.

It is not either of a minor importance in the case of painters following his steps, and claiming to belong to this school of convenient simplicity and who, thanks to Matisse's great testimonial, do it with a clear conscience. This is far from being the case with Henri Goetz. 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. But he took the risk, and in order to win, he obviously had to elevate himself higher than his world. So whenever he doesn't reach the level he has fixed himself in a particular piece, he "wins" all the same, because the "prize," for his entity as an artist, is positive. Which painter has never heard friends telling him in front of a painting, for God's sake, stop it! Your painting is perfect as it is! If you don't stop working on it, you're going to spoil the whole thing! And these friends may be right. The painter may have reached, at the state where he has driven his work, the right balance between what he is "made of" and the amount of experience he used to express what he wanted. But considering whether he will accept this wise advice or he will go on in spite of the risks, we can conclude that he will accept himself at his own level - no more, no less - or that his ambition will go further and higher than this, with the risk of stumbling down. Henri Goetz belongs to the second category. And thus, his failures become new victories. There is a story by Balzac, Le chef d'Ĺ“uvre inconnu ("The Unknown Masterpiece") whose meaning seems to be clear, but is anyway ambiguous. Maybe it wasn't for Balzac but this isn't the point. One remembers this painter who, working again and again on the most beautiful nude of the world, ends up wiping off the whole thing in a sublime imprecision. His friends can no longer distinguish anything on the canvas. But has he become "mad with perfection" or is he on the contrary so much ahead of his time that he is the only one left to see what no one else is able to distinguish? Balzac doesn't tell it but one can think whatever he wants. As for me, I think that this short story is the most exemplary ever written on the subject. And I am convinced that if the cautiousness of the "minimum of means" is able to make the best paint- ings, it cannot make the great painters.

Not without reason, Henri Goetz is often considered to be the painter who, among those of his generation, knows more about "technique" - in other words about means - of pictorial expression. But if this is usually admitted, it is sometimes to reproach it to him. Because there is a current idea in painting- and not a totally wrong one - that it's a small step from "technique" to "cooking." And indeed, it is a danger as well as a trap. But Henri Goetz doesn't fall into it.

What would be a danger for others isn't one for him. As for the others, they are those who consider the fact of wondering "why" they organise a surface, or what is the fundamental meaning of art, as unworthy of them and unnecessary. How would they perceive the border separating "technique", from "cooking", lost in ignorance as they are? How could they be sure whether they are crossing it or not?

For what distinguishes between technique and cooking is the very meaning of painting, and of its part in the human epic. For all these means that are necessary to this epic, to Man's conquests over nature, cannot be "cooking"; whereas the means not serving this conquest, nor this creation, but the gratuitous effects - even if prestigious - of a painting that ignores its foundations and its goals, are indeed nothing but "cooking," even if they have the simplicity of the sketch or the nudity of the working drawing.

These gratuitous "effects," whatever their apparent prestige may be, Henri Goetz won't use them. If he keeps going back to his work and improving, revisiting it again and again, it is first for the reasons I have already mentioned, and for which he keeps elevating his inner level, thanks to his work and amount of experience; but it is also - in a conscious way or not, I could not be sure - for completely different reasons: those I suggested before, when telling that one can notice in his work many signs of a change of orientation.

And I immediately add: a change of orientation in contemporary painting in general, not in Henri Goetz's "way", in the noble sense of the word. What I mean to say exactly is that "abstract" painting might soon take a turn thanks to Henri Goetz's painting.

And I again precise that I am talking of Goetz's technique research, what can seem meaningless to him, because I am suppose that there is no difference in his mind between the technicality of his research and the pictorial matter, that is to say expression itself. Fair enough. And this is also what I mean to say. Talking of a "change in orientation", maybe I am not using the right words. The thing is less about transforming a trend, left behind during the rising period of the pendulum, than about finding it again; thus, if I may say so, about dialectically adding it to the other. "Abstract" painting has to become "concrete" again, at the same time, and without betraying itself. I already used the word "concrete" about Goetz's painting; specifying that it's tending toward concrete, not in its figurative representation, but in its substance itself, thanks to technique. And what I'd like to come to is that this research could well be a new kind of realism, a realism concerning us, belonging to our time. And I have to precise again - as in this field, one has to constantly define words - that by realism I obviously mean the representation of reality. So that it could seem contradictory for me to say that on the one hand, it is not a figurative representation, and that on the other hand, it is a representation of reality. This is only an apparent contradiction, since it can become clear considering that, maybe, a certain kind of current reality is not figurative, and is beyond any representation. This can be argued about, and even I would be the first one to do so; I only want to say that a painter has the right to take this premise as a basis for his research. He has the absolute right of doing so, because of the very foundations of art, and of its two opposite orientations, dialectically working together: that is to say, because of art's double function of conquest over nature and creation of our own universe. The abandoned orientation that seems to emerge again in Goetz's work is a new step in the conquest of nature, starting over again. A conquest with new means, that have no more to do with the dewdrop microcosm of the German school - anyway, could anyone have gone beyond this? Our time is the time of a prodigious and almost apocalyptic explosion of ideas and knowledge. Man has a right to wonder if the first chapter of the Quaternary period, this long, nocturnal, endless first chapter, has not, with Sputnik, reached an ending. The spread of human knowledge has become breath-taking in biology, chemistry, physics, psychophysics, and physical chemistry. It is a centrifugal and centripetal spread, since it is bringing science to the borders - until now forbidden - of the mysteries of Things, while at the same time gathering these mysteries into an indissoluble interweaving in the middle of which the mystery of the human spirit and of its victorious rebellion is reigning. An extraordinary reality whose face is hardly distinguishable. But how could art and painting stay behind? How could they ignore the thrilling victory, how could they be brought to heel? How could they content themselves with painting the familiar aspects of the bygone era - including "abstract" art - when we have just left it behind? When we are, at last, reaching light? This is the climacteric hour. What will offer itself to the painter's brush or to the writer's pen is an un-known reality, having nothing in common with the previous one. So many faltering attempts, so much terror to come, before catching it! But the newborn era, the luminous era, might already be looking for its primitive artists. It might already be wait-ing for its new Lascaux painters. I wouldn't be surprised to find Henri Goetz some day, trembling, sketching its first lines on the walls of its caves.