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Art Paris 2024: A fragile utopian experience

Nathalie du Pasquier's 'Sans Titre' (2022) (Courtesy of the Art Paris 2024)

I regret to admit it but I only felt so, so about Art Paris 2024

The day before I visited Art Paris 2024, just before its official opening, held at the temporary venue of the Grand Palais Éphémère, I found myself still enveloped in my typical blend of anticipation and curiosity. It was the highlight of my April week, that I eagerly looked forward to.

I had little notion of what to expect based on the brief description I had received beforehand, other than that it revolved around a two-themed concept curated by Éric de Chassey, director of the National Institute of Art History (NHA), and art critic and curator Nicolas Trembley—’Fragile Utopias: A Focus on the French Scene’ and ‘Art & Craft’ respectively. However, my excitement was momentarily tempered by a scheduling conflict arising from my part-time job. I was asked to come in an hour earlier, which would have given me only one hour to see the art fair instead of the two. I ultimately didn’t need to comply with the change. Nevertheless, the unexpected communication and the distress I experienced in asserting my boundaries, compounded by the dismal weather—days and weeks of rain following years living under bright California sunshine—might have unsettled me.

And so, I found myself rushing through the event, finding it to be a rather chilly affair, from the unfriendly queries of some gallery owners—”Why are you taking photos?”—to the absence of familiar faces, former colleagues and gallery owners, and even servers circulating with refreshments for media personnel, offering glasses of water or juice, small gestures of kindness towards those diligently working. But please take that with a grain of salt, it’s just my perspective. I’m comparing this to my Los Angeles experience, where we received that during media previews.

Art Paris 2024, struck me as a place akin to the real world, where political leaders disregard human life, welfare, and environmental concerns, where lives and habitats are needlessly sacrificed for ideologies, rigid systems, and economic gain. Perhaps I arrived at this art fair with the wrong expectation that it would make up for the deficiencies of the outside world, but instead, it only amplified them.

Despite arriving promptly at Art Paris 2024 at 11 a.m., the earliest entry time allotted for freelance journalists of my caliber, I found the halls already teeming with crowds at times. Thus, I gravitated towards the booths with fewer people, hoping to capture some good shots while navigating past the VIPs, collectors, and other art professionals already present. However, some galleries experienced lighting issues, and the dark main halls of the Grand Palais Éphémère building were not conducive to capturing quality images. You may wonder, why go through this ordeal if there are press photos. Well, I prefer taking my own. I enjoy documenting the world we inhabit. Sometimes, I encounter art pieces I value but aren’t listed in the press kits. I also like to – and that’s something that I picked up from painter and Holocaust survivor Kalman Aron, with whom I had many personal conversations from the time our paths crossed in front of the gallery at Los Angeles’ Jewish American University to G. Ray Hawkins gallery to his Beverly Hills studio – like to capture people’s engagement with the art and their poses. I find it interesting to see what they look at, how they move through space, how much room they take in a public space, and how they appear in front of the artworks. Sometimes people’s colors of their clothes match with the art. I notice things like that, but what does that have to do with art reviewing? You’re right! Sometimes I don’t know what my place in the art world is. Am I a journalist? Am I an artist? Am I a writer?

My next impression was that the event lacked a sense of aesthetics. At least, that’s how it occurred to me on Wednesday. When I look at my photos today, when the sun is out and I don’t have to rush to my part-time job it doesn’t appear that way. On Wednesday, however, the fair seemed chaotic, with too many styles, materials, and genres in one space. And so, I couldn’t digest one booth before heading to the next one, and maybe that’s also just the nature of art fairs. Perhaps this will be different next year when Art Paris is held in its usual place at the Grand Palais, where there will be more space. Yet, I couldn’t help but walk through the aisles without experiencing one WOW moment or encountering something that would truly blow me away. Perhaps I had attended too many outstanding exhibitions in the past few months in unique buildings with more history, such as ‘Le Monde comme il va / The World as it Goes’ at the Bourse de Commerce Pinault Collection. Maybe my eyes were blinded now, but as I walked through it, I hoped to find something more humane, soulful, and profound.

And then there were only glimpses of wonder. For example, when I passed Julie C. Forier’s giant necklace sculpture or briefly gazed at the black thread bust ‘Celle Qui Mesure’ (2024) by Jeanne Vicerial, Kehinde Wiley’s ‘Youth Morning’ (2022), and Hans Op de Beek’s ‘Timo’ (2018), or Barbara Levittoux-Swiederska’s sisal-based installation ‘Pozar’, and Magdalena Abakanowicz’s ‘Relief Sombre de Stefa’ from 1975, a work made of sisal, wool, and horsehair in red, brown, and black. In it, I saw the shapes of earthworms, a species that plays a crucial role in soil health and the ecosystem but has a bit of an unsettling appearance.

I was delighted to come across a painting by Jonathan Lasker, which brought back a happy memory of being invited to a luncheon at the LA Louver Gallery, where I had the pleasure of sitting with him at one table. This incident was even captured in an art project titled ‘Digital Wagner’ (2010) by American artist and art critic Clayton Campbell. However, I must clarify that I am not a Wagner fan, so please do not make this connection. Truly! My musical preferences lie with Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, and Gershwin, and in my youth, I played and listened to Debussy. Additionally, I used to play Mendelssohn’s “Lieder ohne Worte”‘.

And then I did feel intrigued by Tadeusz Kantor’s sculpture ‘L’enfant de la Classe morte,’ from 1975, and was happy to see two sculptures by Niki de Saint-Phalle and two works by Gérard Garouste. However, having seen the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 2022, I didn’t think this was his best work. I was also glad to see the works of Zanele Muholi again, yet I felt her sculptures had a bigger impact in the Tuileries, where she was shown last year.

The artworks that gave me the most utopian feeling, were the works by Nathalie du Pasquier, presented by Galerie Yvon Lambert, who emerged from the influential Memphis Group and won the 30,000 Euros BNP PARIBAS Private Bank Prize, a newly established prize given to an artist, chosen from among the artists selected by Éric de Chassey for ’Fragile Utopias. A Focus on the French Scene’.

Her work appeared bold, orderly, balanced, and rational, but also I’d like to say quite masculine. So, to me, that certainly embodied the idea of utopia and perhaps dystopia through its asymmetry at times. So, congratulations!

But, was it fragile?

And yes, the digital and algorithmic composed works of Vera Molnár, a Hungarian-born artist who came to France right after World War II certainly echoed the essence of our more and more robotic world that we’re heading to and find ourselves to be in. But her geometric shapes, patterns, and mathematical concepts generated through computer algorithms didn’t make my heart sing. Sorry!

This made me rather think of how political leaders make people lose their lives for ideologies and use them as cannon fodder. It also made me think of English philosopher and writer Thomas More, who said in his work Utopia, “There is nothing more inglorious than that glory that is gained by war.”

Reflecting on the theme of ‘Fragile Utopias’ at the art fair, I found Daniel Schlier’s oeuvre more resonant. While acknowledging Nathalie du Pasquier and Vera Molnár’s undeniable superb artistic skills, Schlier’s works, with their surreal and somewhat nightmarish quality, evoked in me a more nuanced portrayal of a world of fragile utopia. The combination of elements from nature, human and animal figures, and industrial artifacts created a narrative that straddles the realms of utopia and dystopia, offering a compelling exploration of fragility within the context of an imagined ideal. One reason, I consider leaving the art world is my limited understanding and appreciation of geometric forms and cutting edged-based work. I never particularly enjoyed math, and I don’t feel drawn to technology. I’m more of a person who appreciates nature, and Schlier’s visual language is easier for me to understand.

The curator’s acknowledgment of subjectivity in choosing French artists, influenced by factors such as remembrance, as exemplified by the selection of Vera Molnár, who passed away in December 2023 just before her 100th birthday, and personal connections with other artists, may have contributed to my perception that the artists chosen did not fully embody the concept of ‘fragile utopias’.

However, what I truly appreciate about Éric de Chassey is that he publicly acknowledged his subjectivity. It serves as a reminder that in this vast arena, where some emerge as winners while others struggle, there are no absolutes, and success sometimes hinges on subjective judgments. These decisions can often deny equal opportunities to deserving artists. This realization may have contributed to my initial sense of disconnect, further fueling the disillusionment of utopia.

But then, there were moments that I found to be quite interesting, which kept me going, such as when I discovered the works of Carlo Zinelli, (July 2, 1916 – January 27, 1974) presented by Ritsch-Fisch gallery, who was an Italian outsider artist who volunteered for the Spanish Civil War, where he displayed early symptoms of schizophrenia. It is said that two years after he was exonerated from military service during World War II, he was admitted to the psychiatric hospital in Verona where he spent ten years in almost total isolation until he partook in a painting workshop established by sculptors Michele Nobile and Pino Castagna, along with psychiatrist Mario Marini. Besides, I was quite fond of the two-sided patchwork called GE BA, made of fabric and rice glue by anonymous Chinese textile workers, presented by Galerie Françoise Livinec.

Then, Nicolas Chardon’s “Cibles,” which were also geometric, had a bigger appeal to me. Perhaps it was the aesthetics of the black-and-white, resembling piano keys, or the optical illusion that allowed one to delve into depth. His work also served as a great background for photo shoots.

The works that resonated with me the most came from unexpected sources: a visitor walking around with what appeared to be a poncho adorned with a peace sign turned out to be street artist and painter Konny Steding. Additionally, there was an earth-colored installation by the Mexican artist duo Celeste, who belonged to the sector for young galleries and emerging talents, and a colorful bicycle that caught my eye at the Cermak-Eisenkraft gallery. During an encounter with Karla Zeezna, the widow of Mr. Eisenkraft, I learned that the bicycle belonged to the late Czech actor Karel Štědrý. Although I had never heard of him before, I found it to be a perfect symbol for celebrating the upcoming Tour de France and the Olympic Games 2024. Furthermore, bicycles are always a good idea, whether presented in artwork, transformed into artworks, or part of an art fair because they remind us how to move through life in an environmentally friendly and healthy way. My appreciation for bicycles even led me to interview San Diego-based American kinetic artist Amos Robinson for my blog, ARETE, in 2019. Robinson creates kinetic bicycle sculptures. And just so you know, to those who didn’t grant me a permanent residence in the United States after I spent nearly 25 years in the country: I was the first female German art critic to write for American media, arriving on a bicycle to art fairs, galleries, and museum exhibitions. All this in a town like Los Angeles, the city of cars and movie stars. You can’t take that away from me. Pardon me for injecting a bit of humor here; it’s my way of coping with the painful consequences of this decision.

And maybe I’ve done great injustice to this art fair, by calling it a bit of a chilly and lukewarm affair, because after all it did try to bridge the gap between fine art and craft and show the value of handmade work, and maybe there was something I just didn’t get, but as Jerry Saltz said,

You are always learning. At the end of each day, you know something you didn’t know at the beginning. We’re all learning on the job. This is true even when the thing you’ve learned is that you know less than you thought.”

― Jerry Saltz, How to Be an Artist

Nathalie Du Pasquier (Ilvio Gallo)
The Eiffel Tower from the view of the art fair inside of the Grand Palais Éphémère. (ARETE/ Simone Kussatz)
A painting by Jonathan Lasker at Art Paris 2024. (ARETE/ Simone Kussatz)
A sculpture by Niki de Saint-Phalle. Photo credit: ARETE/ Simone Kussatz
Street Performer and painter Konny Steding in front of Gregory Forstner’s painting “King of Hearts” (2023) presented at Eva Gauthier Gallery. (ARETE / Simone Kussatz)
Karla Zeezna from Cermak Eisenkraft Gallery in front of Karel Štědrý’s bicycle. (ARETE / Simone Kussatz)
About the Author
Simone Suzanne Kussatz was born in Germany, lived in the US for 25 years, spent a year in China, and currently resides in France. Educated at Santa Monica College, UCLA, and the Free University of Berlin, she interned at the American Academy in Berlin. Holding a Master's in American Studies, journalism, and psychology, she worked as a freelance art critic in Los Angeles. World War II history fascinates her, influenced by her displaced grandparents and her father's childhood in Berlin during the war, and his escape from East Berlin in 1955. Her brother's intellectual disabilities and epilepsy added a unique perspective to her life.
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