American Artists in France

Paris is a city for lovers … and artists. American artists are particularly drawn to the history and romance of Paris as an artistic mecca. Since the late 19th century American artists such as Mary Cassatt and, much later, Man Ray have succeeded in establishing their place in the French art world. This autumn the Mona Bismarck Foundation is highlighting a wide range of works produced over the last 50 years by contemporary American artists who have lived and worked in France.

This dynamic show features works in various media by three generations of expatriate American artists. Some 46 painters, sculptors, photographers and printmakers share their talents with a large Parisian public in the foundation’s prestigious exhibition space. Several major themes emerge, including the continual lure of Paris to successive generations of stateside artists, the highly international character of made-in-France American art, and an almost nostalgic sense of space that is uniquely American – not to mention the joyful, and sometimes wry, sense of humor of many of the works presented.

The show opens with large abstract works by such well-known painters of the postwar period as Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis, Shirley Jaffe, Norman Bluhm, David Budd and Joe Downing. Several of these artists first came to Paris as art students in 1947 on the G.I. Bill. Chosing to live far from the explosive New York art scene, they crossed the Atlantic in search of the Paris so well described in Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”

A second generation of American artists arrived in France during the 1960s and early ’70s. Many came on scholarships and worked in studio spaces at the Cité Internationale des Arts or the American Pavillion at the Cité Universitaire. The postwar euphoria and a sense of expansion were still in the air. Galleries such as Jean Fournier’s and Rodolphe Stadler’s had launched a number of American artists. Through the efforts of Darthea Speyer, the American Cultural Center in the rue du Dragon organized many shows to promote the work of American artists living in France.

The painter Irving Petlin vividly described this period in a recent interview:

“The early ’60s was a time when many young American artists, poets and dancers were just traveling. It was very different, for Paris was not as large or as commercial and money was not so important then. People almost universally had none and lived by their wits, their generosity and by sharing. It was as if you knew everybody; and everyone knew what time to meet at La Coupole. There was a special camaraderie between artists and the people who wrote about art and the people who bought art. There was an atmosphere that does not exist today and I don’t think that it can be recreated. My gallery at the time was Galerie du Dragon in the rue du Dragon. That was a hot little center. Simone de Beauvoir lived right across from the gallery, and we could witness Sartre arriving for his afternoons with Simone. The café across the street was the meeting place for the writers and artists of Paris. It was a wonderful little capsulated world of the French intellectual and political life. I, myself an American, was completely emersed in it. There were friendships and connections that still exist today. Unfortunately, in recent years artists have moved further and further out of Paris, and no longer participate in the life of a city.” Petlin’s finely drawn portraits of French and American poets are shown in the exhibition, along with Ruth Francken’s powerful tribute to American composer John Cage and expressionistic portraits by Kathy Burke.

The abstract painter Judith Wolfe settled in Paris during those years. In a recent discussion she called Paris “a city which really gets under your skin” and reminisced about arriving in 1966:

“I immediately felt comfortable in Paris; it was a deep affinity with the spirit. I felt accepted. But when you stay here too long it becomes very hard to leave. People say, “C’est un artiste.” I have always felt this respect and understanding for artists since I first arrived here as a student. Basically I have never really left. At one point I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll go back to the States.’ That was about 1975. I did a cross-country trip and of course discovered all the incredible landscapes of the west and the space, which I guess has always been in my work. There is a feeling of space and a relationship to space in even the way I work physically on the paintings. … And today, as we approach the 21st century? I feel Paris is changing very rapidly. There are more artists here than ever before. Many young artists. The whole nature of what they are doing is moving away from painting into installation work and other forms of multimedia. I stayed in Paris because I felt that this was the right environment for me – and I don’t regret it.”

US artists of successive generations have continued to draw on Paris’ cultural treasures as a major source of inspiration for their art. And these French influences mingled with American roots have resulted in an amazingly diverse range of imagery, styles and expressions that promise a visual feast for art lovers. Sculptor Joe Neill’s spectacular architectural forms are inspired by French Gothic cathedrals. Abstract painter Adrienne Farb came essentially to be near certain paintings in Paris’ museum collections. Landscape artists Daniel Clark and Valerie Boyce continually refer to works by the great 19th century French artists Corot, Monet and Cezanne.

Charles Semser’s amusing ceramic figures enact witty takes on modern life that owe much to the influence of Daumier’s satirical engravings. Semser first arrived in Paris in 1949 after studying at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. “Dr. Barnes was a marvelous educator. It was he who gave me the desire to come to France and to understand French culture,” he recalled. “I was also a student at the Academy of Fine Arts and won a scholarship there to travel in Europe. I came with my wife, who had a career as a singer of contemporary music. We were both so delighted to be here that we have simply stayed on and are still very happy to be here 48 years later.”

Ironically, being so far from the United States has resulted in a fresh look at American subjects for the photographer Bob Bishop and the painter Zuka. Bishop’s work on American cultural icons began during a drive along the famous Route 66. Recording the remains of 1950s American popular culture along the famous highway was just the beginning of his creative journey.

From her adopted home in Paris, Zuka became fascinated with early American history and started doing portraits of such historical figures as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. A collage series concerning the Indians of Southern California soon followed.

Then, during the 1980s, Zuka’s historical interest resulted in her most ambitious project to date: “The French Revolution Through American Eyes,” an impressive series of painted collage works that were shown both in France and the United States as part of the bicentennial celebration of the French Revolution in 1989. Today, following in the steps of French painter Rosa Bonheur, Zuka paints the cows she has come to love in Normandy with a zany Fauve palette of orange, red and mauve.

Printmaker Jean Lodge has written of her experience working in Stanley W. Hayter’s famous printmaking workshop, Atelier 17, in the late 1960s. Since its founding by Hayter in 1927, artists from around the world, including such modern masters as Picasso, Miró, Ernst and Chagall have worked together to share techniques and discoveries in this unique environment. It is no coincidence that many of the American artists featured in the exhibit, including George Ball, Kate Van Houten, Laurie Karp and Kathy Burke, at one time worked at Atelier 17 under Hayter’s guidance. For several, their experiences at Atelier 17 changed their perceptions on art and influenced their decision to remain in Paris. Lodge wrote the following passage in 1981 for the Oxford Gallery publication “For Stanley Wm. Hayter on his 80th Birthday”:

“I worked with Hayter in Atelier 17 from 1966 to 1969; the experience influenced my whole conception of art. The intensity and excitement in the Atelier came from Hayter’s insistence on using controlled ‘experiments’ to create unforeseen images. ‘If you already know what it is going to look like, there is no point in doing it.’ For Hayter making pictures is a profound, sometimes amusing and always daringly imaginative ‘game.’ It is played on the edge of the visual unknown and may lead to startling results. ‘If it looks out of balance, unbalance it even more.’ He provoked me to look for movement, surprise, the unexpected … to take pictorial risks and to avoid predictable stability and harmony. Bill’s own paintings and prints are constantly evolving, changing. In this sense he is younger in spirit than most of the artists working around him. Once he reaches a solution he always moves on to new research; art is adventure, forward-looking, driving into the unknown.”

Lodge has incorporated much of Hayter’s philosophy in her own approach to printmaking. Several fine portraits from a series that are on view in the show were enhanced by the textured imprint of a wood block. The wooden grains bring a surprisingly organic quality of movement to the pensive pose of her subjects.

This fine show celebrates 50 years of creation and accomplishments by American artists in France. The artists themselves, their experiences and discoveries are an important element of this lively exhibition. One of the show’s youngest artists, Johnathon Shimony who was awarded a Fulbright grant to paint and study printmaking in Paris, viewed the privilege of being an American artist in Paris as “being outside of one’s own system; yet not really within the French system. It’s extremely liberating for an artist.”

“American Artists in France (1947-1997),” Oct 16 to Nov 29,  1997 Mona Bismarck Foundation, 34, av de New York, 16e, 10:30am to 6:30pm, closed Sun, Mon and holidays, (conference visits Tue 2 pm), tel:, free.