Exhibition view, Inachevée conception, 2019, courtesy Rabouan Moussion, ©Romain Darnaud
Hugo Vitrani: Your exhibition presents a huge painting, which kidnaps our eyes and our imagination. Can you give us the meaning of its mysterious title, Al l’en Guinée?
Hervé Télémaque: This ten-meter-long painting is still unfinished, it’s a painting on death. “Al l’en Guinée”, to go to Guinea, means dying, but it also means paradise in Haitian Creole. The painting is in the country, I’ll probably finish it tomorrow. It’s almost complete, there’s a part on the right that I have to finish, a part on barrels of oil, on gasoline. I’m very interested in oil, it’s the nerve of war. Bush’s America destroyed Iraq for oil.
Your titles are often in French, sometimes in English, but almost never in Creole. Why?
This is the first time I’ve dared to use Creole for a title. Creole is a language of poetic synthesis, so it’s very practical and easily dangerous. Al l’en Guinée says two very contradictory things: death and paradise, this is typical of Creole. Guinea represents the emblematic return to Africa. The return is the great idea of slavery. You find it in all the populations where slavery has struck. In Haitian Creole we were the first to open this breach: we talk all the time about this return to Africa. It’s weird, but at the same time it’s a happy return. I did a painting called Hector Hyppolite’s Journey to Africa, this Haitian myth’s permanent, it’s found all the time in the brains of Haitians. Despite the misery that reached impressive extremes for twenty years with the policy of Papa Doc, Haitians are a happy people. We’re people who love to laugh. We don’t see death as a tragic thing, we have a bit of a Mexican side, we make light of the idea of death in language, but not in folklore. Among Mexicans, the representation of death is a farce, with us the farce is in the language. Creole is a very dynamic vehicle of fun!
How does one finish a painting? Is it still necessary and possible to finish a painting today?
That’s quite a question, because the problem arises in this particular case. Remember my first paintings, look what I was painting when I was twenty, it was the world of precision and imprecision. The whole Pop program rejected sensitivity and the unfinished, while today the unfinished is an idea that fascinates me. At the beginning of Pop, it was the opposite, it was about working precisely, like a craftsman. There was a very humble side, not trying to compete with great painting, impressionism and abstract expressionism. We abandoned the fantasy of technical authenticity of painting which is above all the expression of self, the unconscious, Freud. We also abandoned, gestuality, which is the organic expression of the individual. With Pop, we camouflaged ourselves behind the technicality of the craftsmen of art, comics, photography ... we took refuge behind this anonymity. I’m of an intermediate generation, between two waters, between the habit of trying to finish a painting and the unfinished. The unfinished is finally an interesting status. I’ve thought a lot about Picasso, who’s the inventor of the modern non-finite: Picasso never finished a painting. The historian John Berger said that Picasso’s greatness is in the period of analytical cubism where he completed his paintings beautifully. I’ve looked in detail at this period and it seems to me that Picasso never finished a painting, he wasn’t interested in that. He immediately understood that finishing a painting wasn’t interesting, that it was better for the painting to be left waiting for finiteness. It can be said that this painting I’m currently working on is almost finished. It’s painted with one hand and not with two hands as before, it dribbles a little, but it tends towards precision. Basically, I replaced pictorial beauty with that of expression: when the expression seems to me sufficient, I consider that it’s finished. And don’t forget that I went through a period that I called “The Canopy”, blocking my right hand. I used to paint with both hands, and I had to become left-handed again some ten years ago. So in my painting everything looked like a forest canopy, that’s to say, everything we don’t see, so the unfinished.
Even when your paint dribbles and in multiple coats, it’s never thick ...
I’ve always hated the fictitious impasto of painting. When Braque handles it beautifully at the end of his life, I have nothing against it. I’m for the delicacy of the coat. A painting doesn’t begin to exist until after the third, thin coat. In my case, my painting’s completed when it attains three coats finely applied. We gain transparency with the thinness of coats, the undercoat is a formal richness of the color that gains in suggestion, because what’s below speaks. But you’ll see that in this recent painting, there’s a lot of hesitation. What’s hesitant is a production of time. To return to analytical cubism, there are extraordinary periods of Braque and Picasso. An English curator remarked that analytic cubism was a sort of almost alchemical inflammation to reach the yellow of alchemy, and that when one sees these pictures from a distance, they’re all golden. It doesn’t seem to me to be a quality, but they did indeed pay close attention to the material. Braque introduced the subject quite quickly in his work, but I’m very allergic to Impressionist or Expressionist impasto, even though there’s this painting of Munch, After the Fall, with two boxers fighting in a corner, a painting that amuses me a lot, it’s so funny.
Paint isn’t an innocent medium. With you, it’s engaged, sometimes provocative, poetic and political. It often becomes funny, which isn’t surprising when familiar with your humor and your attraction to cartoonists, notably Pancho.
That painting by Munch is the only painting that’s made me laugh. Munch laughs at physical violence and the framing of the painting. I had a fall myself, in my shed in the country, then I painted the picking up of my head on its way to a trash can, a way of saying that painters haven’t used humor enough. Poets have, poetry’s interested in the fun of life. Painting should also make people burst out laughing sometimes. It’s too contaminated with seriousness, and we should learn to use the lightness of the brain, which passes from one thing to another: painting is able to lend itself to this same movement.
Your painting No Title (The Ugly American), painted between 1962 and 1964, has just entered the MoMA’s permanent collection in New York, a city where you lived for several years before leaving for France, disappointed by the ambient racism and how abstract expressionism was running out of steam there.
I lived in New York between 1957 and 1961. Recently, I wondered – and this idea isn’t ugly – why jazz had become a sophisticated technique, whereas it started from a simple thing, the blues, lamentation, the relationship to the song of slavery, the work of the slave. As time went on, musical language became more sophisticated, especially with Coltrane and Mingus. Why? A similar phenomenon has occured in the painting of American blacks. They’re no longer underdeveloped artists, they’re very sophisticated artists. Basically, that’s natural – they live in the most sophisticated industrial society on the planet, so their work becomes more complex in the same way that modern jazz evolved. In spite of the century of Mr. Trump, this country has the strongest industry in the world, this country has the stupidest petty bourgeoisie of the world, but has the biggest universities, where you find the greatest scientists on the planet. So jazz, just like contemporary painting, is the product of this American sophistication. I have to admit that I first exhibited in places like Yale. I’m aware that black American painting is becoming more sophisticated, as has jazz. No one is surprised by the sophistication of Coltrane musically; we find it natural, but it’s very strange! It can only be explained by the general atmosphere. Nobody thinks of writing about the sophistication of jazz, how it’s a rise not in power but in refinement.
In the painting No Title (The Ugly American), we find the Hottentot Venus, portraits of resistants Toussaint L’Ouverture and Fidel Castro, the words of Alfred Jarry and his Ubu Roi, and your famous mouth like a threatening, biting chasm echoing Goya. What have you retained from your experience in New York, you who are currently painting a portrait where your layers of wash seem to liquidate the figure of Donald Trump ... whose face and fat body already seemed strangely present in this 1960s painting?
I’d known Europe first. My father had sent me to a chic school to make me a diplomat. I went to the United States with a great need to express myself, to paint. It seemed natural in my family. I had a pianist aunt, a brilliant poet uncle… so there was painting left for me and I jumped on it. I discovered abstract expressionism, very important at the time, a funny idea coming from the surrealists: to use painting to express your unconscious, your moods, forgetting all representation, all the classic idiosyncrasies of painting as representation. Levi-Strauss says that painting is a lost craft. It suited me perfectly because I was looking for myself. Expressionism impressed me to the point where narrative stops and I returned to the figure, in the broadest sense of the term, to constitute a narrative discourse that would then be called narrative figuration in France, which, of course, isn’t much.
You prefer to talk about narrative fiction ...
Fiction is richer in consequence, whereas narration is fixed. With narration, we go from point A to point B, whereas fiction is an opening. It’s thanks to my escape into fiction that I developed a more personal language, which made me go from the object to the drawing, to the coffee grounds, and which allowed me to have a technical fluidity unlike my friends of narrative figuration (Rancillac and politics, Monory and blue ...). On the other hand, I find myself in solidarity with Falström and in a certain way with Erro, while being a bit wary of enumeration. There were times when I cut short enumeration, preferring reduction. This is one of the concerns of my work, not to make symbolism, which would send me back to the 19th century. I’m not a symbolist, that’s clear, but I still try to escape by reduction, but in a form of flexible reduction, open, which would be closer to the lightness of poetry.
You compose your paintings by listing objects and sometimes repeating them ...
One of the worst commonplaces used by painters of our century is enumeration and repetition. Warhol, who’s my favorite punchbag, is the most absolute precept of stupid repetition. Unlike many people, I think Warhol is a passive inventor, he didn’t advance pictorial technique, technique in the broad sense: the pictorial intellect. He simply picked up what was easiest: repetition. It hasn’t been said enough, but all bad painters use repetition. That’s therefore the danger of my technique and my approach to painting, which sometimes consists in enumerating and repeating subjects. We enumerate things by believing that at the end of the day we’re going to produce meaning; it’s an easy option. And as I’m a natural poet, I always have a title that sums up the painting pretty well and the game seems to be won, but it’s a system that can quickly become a custard pie!
Contrary to reduction?
The reduction of the object comes to me from Brancusi and the surrealists. Reduction opens up new territories, contrary to repetition. That’s why Arte Povera really interested me, it seemed to me rich with poetic consequence. Beuys discovered new wealths of sculptural materials. When he took fat or a blanket to make sculptures, a new step was taken. It’s now so natural that we look at objects and materials in another way, right up to Anselmo with his lettuce on a block of marble. Strangely, conceptual art hasn’t evolved as much, hence this funny idea of Szeeman’s with his exhibition When Attitudes Become Form. The unpretentious assembly is the great idea of this era and of your generation: to show things and not to pretend to make a status quo, to remain light, uncertain. Uncertainty interests me, like poetry and fiction, it leaves an open door. That’s what interests me in this generation, especially among these marginal artists whom you defend. These artists are trying to save their skins, they aren’t comedians. There’s a lot of seriousness in their efforts, they’re obsessives who have a deep knowledge of art.
The Amerindian artist Fernando Palma Rodriguez, who reigns over Mexico City, explains that in Nahual objects are thought of as friends. Who, for you, are the objects you paint?
It’s poetic efficiency that interests me, the open character of these objects and not their aspect that’s reassuring for my ego. I’ve never considered my artistic practice as a refuge, it’s rather a precise use of the visual, that this visual be significant, a vector of novelty and inner liberation. I don’t seek the comfortable or psychoanalytical support of these objects. I had the advantage of having been trained in New York by Maya Deren, the great specialist in Haitian voodoo. She helped me a lot, I only knew her drinking vodka and not working much: her films are almost all unfinished. She taught me the meaning of research, you have to search, but not necessarily achieve. She always left plans behind. She finished very few films. I also featured in some! Basically, today I’d say that I find in incompletion a new way of continuing my work. I like this, oddly I’m returning to the beginning of my career.
Interview by Hugo Vitrani