Cesar’s 1997 Retrospective

César’s Compressions, Expansions and giant thumbs have shocked and delighted art fans for years. He’s one of France’s most celebrated living sculptors and is having a king-size retrospective this summer at the Jeu de Paume.

César’s long and inventive career has been compared to those of such greats as Rodin and Picasso. This exuberant sculptor, creator of the trophy for the annual César awards (France’s equivalent of an Oscar), has a keen sense of public relations and is a well-known personality here.

This major exhibition includes nearly 150 works that trace in chronological order the development of César’s sculpture and his use of materials.

The show opens with a collection of enchanting metal beasts from the 1950s. These works, which mark the beginning of César’s artistic explorations, were made with pieces of iron from the scrap heap. In a recent interview with The Paris Free Voice, César discussed this lesser-known period of his work and reminisced about his early years in Paris:

“After I completed my studies at Ecole des Beaux-Arts, necessity was truly the ‘mother of invention.’ In those days, scrap metal was the only material that I could afford. Others, such as Picasso or Gonzalès, had worked with metal before me, but they bought it from a supplier. I went straight to the garbage can!”

César Baldaccini’s extraordinary life and career began in Marseille, where he and his twin sister, Armandine, were born on January 1, 1921. Their parents, originally from Italy, were wine merchants. At age 13 young César left school to work with his father in the wine business. According to family legend, everyone recognized in César the same artistic temperament as that of  an uncle who was a photographer’s assistant.

“Within the family, my Uncle César was ‘the artist.’ A genius who wore a velvet suit with a floppy bowtie and a big hat. Whenever I drew pictures everyone said, ‘Ah! He is gifted like his uncle!'”

César was encouraged to enroll in night classes at the local art school, where he rapidly distinguished himself by first prize awards in drawing, engraving and architecture. He soon found himself at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

“Paris was Montparnasse and St-Germain-des-Prés. During this period, for many years, I lived above Giacometti’s studio in the rue Hippolyte-Maindron. I’d leave for school in the morning, and when I’d return in the evening I’d see Picasso, Cocteau, Boris Vian or Sartre through the glass skylight. Giacometti would leave his door open at night, and I’d see his sculptures in the studio.”

In 1955 César’s work was shown for the first time in the Salon de Mai.  The following October, art critic Michel Tapie presented 15 of his soldered beasts and figures with paintings by Cobra artist Karel Appel at the Galerie Rive Droite. All his sculptures were sold to collectors, museums and the City of Paris.  Articles appeared in Vogue and the French art review L’Oeil, and he was invited to show at the prestigious Biennale in Venice.  César’s career was launched, just like in the movies.

When César met Picasso the following year, he could say, “Picasso knew my work.” In fact, the modern master was determined to buy one of César’s soldered iron pieces and exclaimed to all present, “He’s a great sculptor, too!”

In a 1957 interview with Pierre Volboudt for XXe Siècle magazine, César spoke of the creative process behind his work: “I start with an idea. That is the beginning of the adventure. I continue in that direction until I encounter a separate reality that is detached from me and exists in the material and its surrounding space. …  It’s as though something else was asking to exist, to be whatever it wants to be. For example, a fish would become a different character if it suddenly grew legs. A work can always become something else.”

Indeed, several years later, Parisians discovered that three solid blocks of compressed cars could become works of art. César’s Compression sculptures captured the public’s attention at the 1960 Salon de Mai, scandalizing visitors and art critics alike. The Compressions were a new departure for César that would bring him international fame. In an interview with Daniel Abadie, director of the Jeu de Paume, César recounted the story behind his Compressions:

“As I was always working with discarded metal, it became a habit for me to stop by different scrap iron merchants. I discovered that they have special presses to compress metal like bricks. One day I picked up some compact compressions of … aluminum and copper. I took them as Picasso would take an object like the handlebar or seat from a bicycle.”

One day César went to the projection of a documentary film about America. One segment showed a surrealistic dumpyard with mountains of cars. A giant crane with magnets transported and fed wrecked cars into a press. Once compressed, the cars were stacked. César was entranced by the extraordinary palette of colorful metal blocks. He saw immediately that the cars were being transformed into sculpture. “Although I had received a classical academic training, my vision changed through my work with scrap iron. I entered the factory world and learned to approach recuperated materials in their own language.”

César’s work with a giant press in a French factory rapidly established his reputation in the international art world. He was soon off to New York to prepare a one-man show at the Saidenberg Gallery. Simultaneous exhibits for several New Realist artists had been organized in New York galleries that year. Pop Art was the major American trend and many saw a more intellectual French equivalent in works produced by the 13 artists associated with Pierre Restany’s New Realist Manifesto. Restany claimed that “New Realism artists simply registered sociological reality without any controversial intention.” However, the dramatic effects of César’s Compressions, Arman’s Accumulations, Yves Klein’s blue monochromes and Tinguely’s nonsensical machines were attention-getting, to say the least. Works by New Realist artists quickly became cultural icons, subject to comparison with art by their English and American counterparts.

César found himself in the “Big Apple” for shows with Klein and Jean Tinguely, and the three of them paid a visit to Marcel Duchamp. That first trip was the beginning of a lifelong attachment to New York. Even today César is wistful. “I would love to live in New York,” he says.  “Whenever I have 3 or 4 days I fly over for a short vacation. New York was the dream of all French artists of my generation. With the coming of WWII we saw the art center shift from Paris to New York. During the war years there were many French artists living in New York. They had an important role in the art scene. After the war, things changed. Today, contemporary French artists are not really known in the United States.”

César himself appears to be an exception to this rule. His works are in public and private collections around the world. His extensive research with the flowing, lava-like qualities of new plastic substances are easily recognizable in Expansions that were once described as a “giant squirt of toothpaste sitting on the gallery foor.” Monumental imprints of his thumb are another popular image associated with César’s work in different countries.

This major retrospective highlights the progressive evolution of César’s work over nearly a half century. It is a rare opportunity to enter the spirit of this unique artist’s explorations, discovering what César once termed “the language of the material.”