FORGING THE REAL:
Gérard Titus-Carmel and the Art of Renewal
Andrew D. Weiner and Sonja Hansard-Weiner
(Madison, Wisconsin: March 1992)
I. The "Made" Object: Learning How To See
Titus-Carmel’s work is simultaneously utterly fascinating and just a bit disturbing: to be forced to see these ‘made-up objects‘ with such intensity and so convincingly present is to forget Magritte's injunction (‘Ceci n'est pas un pipe’; it was, of course, not a pipe, but a painting of a pipe, a representation, or, if you will, a re-presentation of a pipe, a common object as seen by the artist and shown by him to us)these are "Tlingit Coffins," "Narwa objects," etc, but, then again, what are they, these imaginary objects shown with utter fidelity to the ‘real‘ models Titus-Carmel often makes before he begins his drawings and etchings? What indeed are they, these objects Titus-Carmel sees?
In a 1971 issue of the French art magazine, Cimaise, Gilbert Lascault describes one of Titus-Carmel's shows: "When sixty bananas are shown at the A.R.C., 59 are artificial. After a few days of exhibition, only the sixtieth blackens and rots. It is thus distinguishable from the others. Corruption here becomes the mark of the living. It brings us to a reflection upon one of the problems which Titus-Carmel judges essential for art: that of the relationship between model and copy, reality and representation. . . . In the works of Titus-Carmel, a montage is established which requires the viewer to think at the same time of the two sequences: model / copy, natural / artificial. The consumer of the work has the task of establishing (if he wishes to) differences and resemblances between the two sequences.
The works of the middle seventies feature many drawings and prints of sticks and other pieces of wood wrapped in bandages and/or tied with elaborate knots. Sometimes we see only the sticks; other times only the knots. Sticks and knots. What are we to make of these? What do they mean? In a series of drawings entitled Italian Suite (and whose images are echoed in the Sarx etchings and in the set of variations upon them), Titus-Carmel begins with a sketch. From this very loosely-drawn original he makes a three-dimensional model. This, in its turn, becomes the subject of a very carefully-rendered drawing in pencil and in full detail. The three-dimensional model is then destroyed. The first drawing, now covered with tracing paper to make it even less clearly defined, is combined on another sheet of paper with the second drawing. Looking from the first drawing to its descendant at two removes, we see only two sticks; what we do not see is the missing parent of the second drawing, the only part of the ensemble that ever existed off the paper, sharing our world of space for a while before its demise. Are we missing something?
In a 1976 booklet, Titus-Carmel describes the origins of one of his most successful series, The Pocket Size Tlingit Coffin (or: Of lassitude considered as a surgical instrument: "Assembled under the title of The Pocket Size Tlingit Coffin are a large number of drawings (127, to be exact), all outlining [from the very first words, insidiously, matters are clear: outlining in the sense of having the force of the stroke. Tracing, drawing, a line (an arrow) on the model] the same model: a mahogany box of modest dimensions (10 x 6.2 x 2.4 cms). . . . On page 20 of Jean Genet's Pompes Funèbres, we find: 'In my pocket, the box of matches, the minute coffin, imposed its presence more and more and obsessed me.' Further on: 'It was not necessary that the coffin, of reduced dimensions, be real. On this small object the coffin for solemn funerals had imposed its power.' Rolling of the drums." The Pompidou center bought the entire series, made a movie based upon the creation of the series, asked Jacques Derrida to write an introduction to the catalogue of the exhibition (later to become chapter 3 in Derrida's book, Truth in Painting.)
Missing models of unreal objects, of sticks born in the marriage of memory and chalk, of a Tlingit coffin made of reed ovals wrapped on two sides with gray synthetic fur: what does their absent presence say to us? Models which exist only long enough for the artist to draw them, to trace their outlines on a sheet of paper, to force us, perhaps furtively, to look on their likenesses, their reproductions in pen, pencil, chalk, drypoint, etching, aquatintwhy do we find them so fascinating, so obsessing?
Titus-Carmel wondered about the same thing as he worked on the series: "We can also note the reactions of almost everyone confronted with the box (while, newly made and shining newbut somehow inexplicably weathered and wornit was abandonned on some strand of the apartment): the visitor picks up the wreck with curiosity, manipulates it a moment, uncertain, and then, suddenly disturbed, almost embarrassed, quickly puts it back in its place in the shade. Nothing will be said about the box discovered and replaced so quickly, about that very abruptness, or the nature of the silence that follows."
There are some things that disturb us in the flesh (sarx, in Greek) but attract us as abstractions, as re-presentations of presences from which we wish to be absent, as re-productions of products we do not wish to sample. We find in the drawn quintessence of the thing from whose essence we would flee a new power (the power to transport ourselves with Hamlet's "wings as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love"?) and indeed a freedom (the freedom to see without being seen, the freedom to watch something that cannot watch us watching it, the freedom to exercise our inner eye as the artist has exercised his?). Gérard Durozoi notes, "only the drawings merit being seen (to the detriment of the everyday) because they contain within them the fullfillment of an expectation we did not even suspect existed within us before being confronted with the drawings," and adds, "These drawings do not seem very aggressive, yet they are endowed with a strange force which diverts the look toward the unseen, suggesting that there is still something left to discover, to see, beyond the visible, or in the hollows and recesses of the visiblein its faults (its lapses)." For Titus-Carmel, drawing is thinking, representation is presentation, art is gift. There is an authenticity to his work that we find missing in much contemporary art, which seems afraid that if it strives for "beauty" it will be dismissed as "decorative." Titus-Carmel seems to have the courage to persist in showing the beauty and elegance that lie in even the most unlikely of objects seen in the most unidentifiable of places.
II. The "Found" Object: Remembering What to See
Late in the 1970s, a new motif begins to appear in Titus-Carmel’s work: instead of made-up objects, found objects become the focus of his attention. The Caparacons take their origin in a none-too-ornate covering for a horse's back, but their inner reality is less concerned with horses or their trappings than with the surfaces of everyday things and the depths to which the imagination can plummet as we plumb those surfaces. Using ink as his tool, Titus-Carmel opens for us the opportunity to follow Blake's dictum and learn how to see the world, if not in a grain of sand, then in the simplest and commonest elements of our worldin the flotsam and jetsam of civilization, the things washed up by the tides of history and deposited on the margins between past and present, present and future. As we look on these images, we discover a richness and an intensity in the patterns created by the marks that represent them to us, we see them, not again, but anew, as they never were, as we never saw them or dreamt they might be, and seeing them wonder what else we might be missing. Following the Caparacons, the Eclatsreflections of his studio in a chrome lampmight seem to represent still another new direction, yet we think they return to the concerns of the Caparacons in a fairly direct way. Like the Caparacons, they too are concerned with seeing beyond the surfaces at the same time that they insist upon the presence of those surfaces. Dealing with the fugitive, distorted reflections of the objects visible in his two-dimensional presentations of the curved, three-dimensional lamp and its offspring, Titus-Carmel makes us see that nothing can be taken for granted, that everything has a hidden presence to reveal to eyes that are willing to look. We can see this notion underlying the Nikko Helmet series as well. In a magnificent set of watercolors, drawings, and intaglios, Titus-Carmel transforms a child's ceremonial Samurai helmet into a succession of glimpses into a lost world, a world that cared enough for craftsmanship to embellish a series of decorative lion reliefs onto the surface of the helmet yet which was ordered by a warrior class who required the functionality of a helmet to prevent their brains from being laid bare to the stroke of an enemy, as one of the prints in the series suggests by providing a backdrop strongly suggesting the surface of the brain as we are used to seeing it in science texts. As the eye of the artist leads the eye of the viewer in his examination, the child-sized helmet grows in size, changing from a decorative if ceremonial toy to a monument to a lost culture, dwarfing by far the largest head that might ever have worn it, a remembrance of things past produced by a culture that, like our own, strove to make war an art.
With his return to painting in 1984, Titus-Carmel's first three series seem overtly more abstract, more concerned with form and balance and color than with any discernible subject matter, and yet, the more we know about them, the more they reveal otherwise to us. The first, IX Ombres pour STC, took its origin in a bit of nautical wreckage found while Titus-Carmel was reading Samuel Taylor Coleridges' Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem whose structure (VII sections plus an introduction and a conclusion) GTC echoes in his paintings. Focusing upon the central "O"zero, circle, infinity, holethe representation of the bit of bight that once went through the rusted retaining ring that alone remained to tell the tale of the wreck of lives lost with the ship, Titus-Carmel invites us to pass through his black hole if we can, to remember what has been lost and to wonder at what can be found. In the Nights, we move through the shadows into the blackness, with no ladder but light to take us through and beyond the darkness. In the twenty-four paintings of the series, we see an adumbration of an eternal night, a night never to be relieved by the day, and yet a night so shot through with gleams of light as to suggest more a primordial innocence void of evil than a perpetual imprisonment in a darkness so congealed that we can imagine nothing but Milton's "darkness visible" for light. In the works of this seriespaintings and prints alikethere is an assertion of hope: when "the real" is reduced to only the void in which all things began, we can move beyond the reality of what passes in everyday life for reality to other more basic realitiesbeginnings and endings, darkness and light. Such realities we are led to more directly in the works of the Suite Chancay, whose paintings and collages are built more upon the colors of lifeearth, blood, sunrise, skythan those of the shadowy night confronted and transcended in the two preceding series. Presented with a series of permutations based upon two motifs from a lost Peruvian civilization, we find not a bit of statue, a fragment of ax, but an invitation to pass beyond. Like Alice's looking glass or Cocteau's watery mirror in his film Orpheus, these paintings invite us to pass through their surface (color, texture, balance, tension), to enter into a world of fears, dreams, and hopes, and to begin the process chronicled in Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli," whose review of history reminds us that
All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.
III. Self-fulfilling Images
And some sing their songs in light and color, celebrating, as do the Intérieurs, the making place, the studio, and the making itself, the lines and shapes, the colors and materials, the very easels, canvases and cloths of the maker. Painted, drawn, printed during 1987 and 1988, these more-than-sixty Intérieurs, unified by the continual transformation of the cone of a lampshade in his studio, are wholly abstract, gestural, deliberate, evocations of the essence of materiality both within and outside the bounds of materiality. Begun as paintings in oil, these initial Intérieurs maintain a tension, as Ann Hindry has remarked, "in the vitally ambiguous relations of matters, of round and rigid lines, a tension which seems to be oozing from the artist’s very being to permeate his art, just as the thick oil paint permeates the mostly unprimed canvases. . . . In each painting there is the discreet tremor of a possible alteration, a subtly vibrant expectancy that invites the viewer to ponder" what Jacques Leenhardt, echoing Milton’s observation on the fate of our first parents, chose to call the felix culpa of seeing ("felix culpa de voir").
No less do the lithographs or the silkscreens or the etchings or the drawings partake of exhilaration. From the luminescent blacks of the Petits Interieurs to the rush of vibrant color of the Grands Interieurs, each image explores itself as a lover explores the beloved, knowingly surprised by each nuance. When the full burst of colors emerges with Titus-Carmel’s discovery of the fast-drying, never-dry quality and appearance of acrylics, the viewer, like the lover, participates with the artist in its moment and its memory, as his aspiration becomes ours. "This loss through proliferation," according to Daniel Abadie, "is one of the most profound and original mechanisms of Gerard Titus-Carmel’s work" (Titus-Carmel Beyond the Image). Abadie continues: "We find in Gerard Titus-Carmel's work, as it develops, the aspiration which from Marcel Duchamp to Jasper Johns earmarks 20th century art: the elaboration of a work which progressively generates its own system of references, where each new development takes into account the elements anterior to its creation, thus justifying, according to an a posteriori logic, their original gratuitousness. Thus the lamp in Titus-Carmel's current Intérieurs sheds light on the Romanesque tension of the Suite Chancay which itself echoed the first chrome light of the Eclats. With this apparently familiar subject . . . Titus-Carmel resumes in fact the great dialectic of chiaroscuro, shadow and light. Before the lamps were the Ombres (shadows) and the Nuits (nights).
Yet just as we ourselves would think ourselves more than the gratuitous objects of the universe, so too his works move beyond the sense of the gratuitous.
IV. Essence of Shadow / Form of Light
Outside the study window of his home in Oulchy-le-Château stands a small grove of trees. Like Titus-Carmel's work, the shadow and light from this grove generates its own self-referential system with each new day, each new night, season after season. Sitting in his study, surrounded by his books, writing his poetry, Titus-Carmel entered into this play of light and shadow. At the end of a year, he had produced 56 paintings on paper, drawings, and mixed media works and 8 prints in various media: silkscreen, lithography, woodcut, and drypoint and aquatint. The results, rich in color, exciting in their formal inventiveness, are not representations of the scene beyond the window, are not in any easily discernible sense "seasonal landscapes"; rather they are "Extracts" or "Fragments" of seasons. Like Miró’s series of etchings on the properties of stones, collected under the title Lapidari, Titus-Carmel's Extraits & fragments des saisons make no effort to bear resemblance to the scene, but create the essence and the form of the view that provoked them.
Gérard Titus-Carmel's "illusionless images," as Abadie calls them, present us not with a subject but with an opportunity. Like Beckett's tramps in Waiting for Godot (though for different reasons perhaps), we can't go on: we go on. In a critical world which assumes as fact the total exhaustion of art, Titus-Carmel fills the spaces of his works with possibilities. Motifs du Fleuve, Chanfreins, Dédicaces, Palmes: as long as color, as line, as life endures, there will be possibilities. From his by-now inescapable habit of working in series, we learn the joy of trying again and again, not from some futile search for a lost unitary perfection, but for the pleasure of the repetition and the recollection of the satisfaction in the doing and the looking. Nervous, energetic, austere, yet lush, fulfilling, rich, the works invite us to contemplate the paradoxical contradictions of our nature, our expectations, our needs, and our desires.
V. Remembering How to Forget / Forgetting How to Remember
Gérard Titus-Carmel is an artist of our generation. Born in 1942, he, like the others of our time, grew up in an international world, a world where national boundaries exist as memories of a world we can no longer afford, a world of national interests, rivalries, wars. Born during the second world war, we know it only through the nightmares of our parents, the memories of our elders. We are the children of the bomb, survivors of grade school civil-defense exercises in case of nuclear attack, the adolescents of the nervous and electric rhythms of hard-bop, voyagers with musicians like Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, explorers of the musical unknown. We have listened to the same music, read the same books, visited many of the same places, looked at much of the same art. Living in the same world, and trying to come to terms with the things that shaped it, we came of age during the Cuban Missile crisis with its threat of a holocaust greater than any that haunts the dreams of our parents' generation. We have lived almost our entire lives in a world held in uneasy peace only by the threat of "Mutual Assured Destruction." Yet we have also walked in the ruins of Monte Alban and stood in the ball court of the Olmecs; we have listened to ancient mariners as the surf laps the shores bordering the oceans of our dreams. For our generation, the problem has been one not so much of finding reality, but of finding a reality that will permit us to live not just within our world but within ourselves as well. For that effort, we need more than the "superrealism" or the theatrical "neoexpressionism" of the '80s, more than an art that commercially derides "the system" for being too commercial; we need an art that can take us beyond the surfaces, that remembers its past and our past, that can teach us what to remember and how to forget what we do not need to remember to go on with life.
Jacques Henric's essay in presentation of the Suite Chancay (Repères, 1985) suggests that Titus' wrapped sticks reminded him of the expression, "You might as well bandage a wooden leg," and concludes that such may well be the job of the artist today, "a sort of Mister First Aid in white, kit in hand, running from one end of the planet to the other (at times without leaving his studio) to repair all the damage, but the damage he has the feeling he himself caused." Far more than bandaging the broken objects of our lives, Titus-Carmel’s art bandages our broken lives themselves. His images have a dramatic quality that denies their factual existence as two-dimensional objects. His work is for us a necessary restorative. Like Shakespeare's King Lear in search of remedy, we need artists like Titus-Carmel to "sweeten" our imagination so that we may continue to discern and to live out the miracle of our lives.
Titus-Carmel is one of the most written-about contemporary French artists, having been the subject of studies by Jacques Derrida, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Gilbert Lascault, Werner Spies, Jean Pierre Faye, Denis Roche, Jean Louis Schefer, and many others. He is also one of the most widely shown artists of his generation (b. 1942), having received over 400 group ahows and over150 oneperson shows at museums and galleries
Titus-Carmel is one of the most written-about contemporary French artists, having been the subject of studies by Jacques Derrida, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Gilbert Lascault, Werner Spies, Jean Pierre Faye, Denis Roche, Jean Louis Schefer, and many others. He is also one of the most widely shown artists of his generation (b. 1942), having received over 400 group ahows and over150 oneperson shows at museums and galleries including The Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris (1971), the 1972 and 1984 Venice Biennales, the Royal College of Art in London (1972), the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1973), the Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels (1975), the Centre Georges Pompidou / Musée National d'Art Moderne (1978), the Museums of Dusseldorf (1979), Bielefeld (1980), Kassel (1980), Nuremberg (1981), Oslo (1981), Lubceck (1981), Les Sables d'Olonne (1981), Luxemburg, Calais, (1984), Nice, Carcassonne, and Lille (1985), Quebec (1986), Budapest, and Châteauroux (1987), Caen (1989), Montaubon and Avignon (1990), and Tokyo (1991). In addition, the French Cultural Ministry also organized touring exhibits at the Instituts Français of Stuttgart, Hamburg, Munich, and Bonn (1985), Damascus, Aleppo, Alexandria, Cairo (1990-1991), and Palermo, Naples, and Rome (1991). His works are in the permanent collections of over 100 public institutions including the Guggenheim Museum (New York), the Museum of Modern Art (N.Y. and Paris), the Chicago Art Institute, the Bibliotheque National and the Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris), the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), and many others. He has also participated as the official delegate for France in numerous international exhibitions, such as the Biennial of Paris (Paris, 1969), Expo ’70 (Osaka, 1970), the Biennial of Alexandria (Alexandria, 1971), “Amsterdam-Paris-Düsseldorf ” (Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1972), Dokumenta VI (Kassel, 1977), “European Dialogue” (the Sidney Biennial, 1979), “Statements/Leading Contemporary Artists from France”(New York, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, 1982), Biennale Internazionale Arte (Venice, 1972 and 1984), “Gerard Titus-Carmel: Forging the Real” (Spaightwood Galleries, 1988), Art in France: a Century of inventions (Moskva , Leningrad, 1989), “Contemporary Art in France” (French Pavillion, Universal exposition, Sevilla, 1992), Fonds regional d’art contemporain de Picardie (1993), the Instituts Français of Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier, and Tetuan (1995), Musée de l’Hospice Saint-Roch, Issoudun (1997), Soissons (1998), Titus-Carmel: Une decennie (a large-format hardcover published by Editions Palantines, 2000 to accompany a touring show that went to 5 French museums documented many of the series of the preceding 10 years), another large-format work, Gérard Titus-Carmel: La parte du livre (Reims: Bernard Dumerchez éditeur, 1995) documented Titus’ involvement with books (whether as writer, illustrator, or subject), François-Marie Deyrolle, ed. La Geste & la Mémoire: Regardes sur la peinture de Gérard Titus-Carmel (Ain: L’Act Mem, 2007) contained 28 brief essays collected from prefaces to various exhibition catalogs between 1973 and 2006) by a wide range of poets, novelists, and art critics among others. In 2007, Michael Bishop’s The Endless Theory of Days: The Art and Poetry of Gérard Titus-Carmel (NY: Rodopi, 2007), the first full-length study of Titus as artist and poet in English. Last, but hardly least, in 1987, the University of Chicago Press published Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian MacLeod, chapter 3 of which contains an English translation of Cartouches, the essay that Derrida wrote in 1978 to introduce the installation of Titus’ exhibition of The Pocket Size Tlingit Coffin, a collection of 127 mixed-media drawings on an imaginary object that Titus invented, manufactured, and drew over the course of a year and which the Musée national d’art moderne at the Centre Pompidou purchased in its entirety.
He is also world renowned as an engraver. He has participated in the most famous international exhibitions, such as the print biennials of Ljubjlana, Krakow, Tokyo, Wien, Grenchen, Biella, Bradford, Jyväkylä, Baden-Baden, Taipei and Praha where he won many awards. Museums have twice organized complete retrospectives of his prints (in 1979 and 1991), each time publishing catalogues raisonnés. He has also written over thirty books on art and poetry and iluustrated several other books on poetry. He has been the subject of seven films, including one produced by the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou and RTL Télévision, Luxembourg, and innumerable books, essays, exhibition catalogues, and reviews. Among his awards are first prize at the 2nd International Exposition of Original Drawings at Rijeka (1970), the Grand Prize at the 6th International Print Biennial at Krakow (1976), and the Jurors’ Special Award of Honor at the 1977 World Print Competition in San Francisco. Titus-Carmel is deservedly one of the best-regarded painters, draftsmen, and printmakers in the world today. In addition to his art, he is also a lover of poetry: he has illustrated many books of today’s finest poetry and has also authored over thirty books on art essays and poetry