Molly Warnock on the art of Pierre Buraglio

SOMETIME IN 1975, Pierre Buraglio began gathering discarded windows from demolition sites in Paris. Pickings were plentiful. The fourteenth arrondissement, where he had a studio, was undergoing extensive redevelopment, part of a broader wave of modernization exemplified by the recently built skyscraper Tour Montparnasse. The artist had opposed this trend, heatedly decrying the likely consequences for the quarter’s working-class inhabitants.1 He was nonetheless drawn to the cast-off fixtures, which he conveyed to a friend’s carpentry workshop. There he transformed them into wall-mounted artworks called “Fenêtres” (Windows).

Continued into the early 1980s and intermittently resumed over the ensuing decades, the “Fenêtres” changed over time. In some cases, as in a 1977 example with a sea-green frame, Buraglio used the entirety of the wooden casings. The results inescapably recall Marcel Duchamp’s Fresh Widow, 1920. Like Duchamp, an artist honored that same year in the Centre Pompidou’s inaugural exhibition,2 Buraglio appeared to be using a readymade—moreover, one that obviously alluded to that predecessor. As the series progressed, however, the element of bricolage came increasingly to the fore. The painter chopped up and disassembled the frames, zeroing in on parts that caught his eye: a corner, one or two sections of a round-arched transom. He generally retained the original hardware, displaying the selected fragments with their assorted hinges, handles, and other fittings, and largely refrained from touching up or covering extant paint. He did, however, add new glass, alternating among and at times combining clear, green, and blue panes of varied translucency to create vibrant surfaces he has linked to his awareness of American Color Field painting.3

The “Fenêtres” mark an important turning point within Buraglio’s practice. Yet they also engage directly, if uniquely, with preoccupations at the heart of French painting in the 1960s and ’70s, centrally including questions of materiality and politics, subjectivity and experience. Precisely for this reason, Buraglio’s work appears ripe for reconsideration today.


Pierre Buraglio, Fenêtre (Window), 1977, wood window frame, glass, 70 3⁄8 × 25 5⁄8 × 1 3⁄8".  © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

BURAGLIO WAS BORN in Charenton-le-Pont, France, in 1939. He has exhibited steadily over the past four decades and has had several major shows within the past year alone, including monographic presentations at the Maison de Balzac and Galerie Catherine Putman in Paris; Ceysson & Bénétière in Lyon; and the Institut Français, Madrid. He nonetheless remains little known outside his native country, perhaps because his work is singularly difficult to pin down. Key early exhibitions such as “Pour une exposition en forme de triptyque” (For an Exhibition in the Form of a Triptych) at Paris’s Galerie Jean Fournier and “Impact I” at the Musée d’Art Moderne Céret, both in 1966, highlighted affinities between the abstractions he was then producing and contemporaneous work by Vincent Bioulès, Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier, and Claude Viallat, among other painters soon to be associated with the collectives BMPT and Supports/Surfaces. Buraglio is often cast as a fellow traveler in the latter group, and his major series of the 1960s—such as the “Agrafages” (Staplings), 1966–68, which he produced by stapling together triangular fragments of cut-up canvases—reveal a kindred rejection of representation in favor of a greater emphasis on painting’s physical presence.


Pierre Buraglio, Agrafage (Stapling), 1966, acrylic on canvas, 86 5⁄8 × 70 7⁄8". From the series “Agrafages,” 1966–68.  © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

For Buraglio, the question was how painting might articulate a different, more egalitarian model of objectivity.

The artist has nonetheless underscored his early refusal to join Supports/Surfaces and has stressed his embedment in another milieu—that of the politically engaged Salon de la Jeune Peinture (Salon of Young Painting), on whose organizing committee he served from 1965 to 1969. His tenure at the Jeune Peinture was a period of growing militancy for Buraglio, marked by his embrace of Maoist and Althusserian views. During this time, he also forged close friendships with like-minded artists from the Narrative Figuration movement, most importantly Gilles Aillaud and Eduardo Arroyo. The three men worked closely on the 1969 Salle Rouge pour le Viêt-Nam (Red Room for Vietnam), among other collective endeavors. From 1969 to 1973, Buraglio abandoned painting, taking a full-time job as a rotary-press operator in a printing factory. His abstractions, on whose overt refusal to “communicate” with bourgeois society he had previously insisted, now seemed to him irreconcilable with his political commitments.4


View of “Pierre Buraglio/Bas voltage, 1960–2019,” 2019, Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Saint-Étienne Métropole, Saint-Priest-en-Jarez, France. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

BURAGLIO’S RETURN to his art practice took place in the context of renewed collaboration with Aillaud and Arroyo, with whom he founded the journal Rebelote in February 1973. Presented as an attempt to resume debates about art’s political efficacy initiated at the Jeune Peinture, the publication made no secret of the differences of opinion among its contributors.5 Aillaud, for his part, programmatically took le parti pris des choses (the side of things), to borrow the title of a 1942 work by his literary hero Francis Ponge.6 “It is things themselves that interest us, and not images,” Aillaud declares on one occasion,7 later pursuing and sharpening the point: “Tableaux are images that interest us only in the relationship they maintain with the totality of the historical reality in which they appear. . . . They are not themselves things, set alongside other things, but things that show something.”8

Which brings us back to the Duchampian readymade. For it is not just formalist modernism that is at issue in Rebelote; it is also the “demiurgic” relation to things notoriously pilloried by Aillaud, Arroyo, and Antonio Recalcati as early as 1965 in their mordant collaborative painting cycle Vivre et laisser mourir, ou la fin tragique de Marcel Duchamp (Live and Let Die, or the Tragic End of Marcel Duchamp).9 In the manifesto that accompanied that work on its first showing at the Galerie Raymond Creuze, also in 1965, Aillaud portrays the readymade as the creation of a figure “whose power over things is such that he doesn’t even touch them” but operates, rather, “by the pure decree of his choice.”10 Wholly compatible with bourgeois individualism, Duchamp’s gesture offers merely an illusion of liberty in an unfree society (a fantasy we today would link as well to the epistemological and even ontological privileges of whiteness and maleness). For Buraglio, who agreed with the critique but despaired of Vivre et laisser mourir’s clumsy formal means—a certain crudeness and banality of handling that, he notes, was close to agitprop11—the question was how painting might articulate a different, more egalitarian model of objectivity, one that avoided the trap of unfettered subjectivism identified with the Duchampian readymade even as it reserved room for the density and the contingency of le vécu (lived experience).


Gérard Schlosser, Tu as envoyé les papiers à la sécurité sociale? (Did You Send the Papers to Social Security?), 1972, oil on canvas, 63 3⁄4 × 51 1⁄8". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Particularly suggestive in this respect is the criticism Buraglio himself published in Rebelote under the name Michel Buraglio—a half-pseudonym intended, he explains, to distance him from his prior abstractions.12 Consider, for example, an April 1973 essay on Gérard Schlosser, a painter whose compositions of that time, based on photographic montages, combine tightly cropped depictions of human figures (focusing on torsos and limbs and nearly always excluding heads) with equally significant portrayals of inanimate objects. The titles evoke snippets of dialogue: for example, “Tu as envoyé les papiers à la securité sociale?” (Did You Send the Papers to Social Security?) Buraglio lingers over the absolute ordinariness of the scenarios, suggesting that the painter’s achievement is to render such moments wholly concrete and therefore “credible.” Of particular importance for Buraglio is Schlosser’s inclusion of carefully individuated things, replete with “social and ideological indications”13—e.g., a laminated handbag that, depicted upright beside a supine woman with a hiked-up skirt, exactly conjures a broadly relatable instant at the end of a fatiguing workday: “It’s a little hot, she’s come home from work on the metro. . . said ouf, and set down her sack.”14 Precisely by depicting the details that render each of these objects a distinctive thing unto itself, a specific coordinate of reality rather than a generic representative of a larger category, Schlosser demonstrates that he knows “how to relate the components of his paintings, men/women and their objects,” writes Buraglio.15 “He has managed to give us the direct perception of a moment—a precise moment—of lived experience; managed to establish and make evident the profound relationship of the characters and their objects to the time in which they live. Very objectively.”16

It is telling that Buraglio’s inventories of Schlosser’s things include both human and nonhuman elements—for example, “feet, a hairy torso, part of a pair of shorts or a printed dress”—as if to suggest a peculiar parity between the human actors and the material objects that constitute their daily existence.17 Situating the former as “real individuals” of a particular class and social stratum, these items make clear that the relations of people to things are also, and essentially, relations to other people.18 “Schlosser,” Buraglio concludes, “defetishizes.”19


Pierre Buraglio, Cadre (Frame), 1974, metal frame, glass, water drops, pencil, 26 × 20 1⁄8". From the series “Cadres,” 1974–76. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

BURAGLIO’S ART after 1974 retrieves something of the literalness of his earlier canvases, even as it reveals a heightened focus on the material elements of his own daily life and circumstances. With the “Fenêtres” and other series of this key period, commencing with the “Châssis” (Stretchers), 1974–75, and “Cadres” (Frames), 1974–76, he effectively deploys things as paintings. Yet insofar as these things are paintings, they are also, crucially, paintings of things, bound simultaneously to his lived experience and to the broader social and historical context in which that experience unfolds and to which it provides access.

The “Châssis” and “Cadres” series both derive explicitly from painting. In fact, “Châssis” began from his own prior abstractions: certain “Agrafages” he had stretched but later decided to show unstretched. One day, considering the leftover structures, he noticed the diverse paint deposits on their surfaces, traces of their prior deployment. They were, in some sense, already paintings. In both series, he limited himself to a few minimal interventions, such as introducing new drawing in the form of nylon strings stretched taut across negative space. In some works, he did cobble together multiple stretchers and frames, thereby anticipating the more involved carpentry of the “Fenêtres.”


Pierre Buraglio, Châssis (Stretcher), 1974–75, wood, paint, nylon thread, 57 7⁄8 × 45 1⁄8". From the series “Châssis” (Stretchers), 1974–75. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

The obvious comparison here is to Daniel Dezeuze, whose own “Châssis,” executed in 1967 and exhibited from 1968, reveal stretched sheets of transparent plastic atop wood structures prepared with a simple walnut stain. And yet there is a crucial difference. For Dezeuze, such objects condense an entire history and ideology of painting, founded on the traditional opposition between—and, as he would have it, the hierarchized and ultimately idealist coupling of—“surface” and “support.” The result is a kind of metapainting, no less conceptual a gesture in its own way than the Duchampian readymade. (And Dezeuze freely acknowledges that his “Châssisare readymades.20) By contrast, Buraglio’s “Châssis” are better characterized as réemplois, “reused things,” to take up his preferred term. One might equally describe them as things with prior lives. Divested of the abstract generality that arguably adheres to Dezeuze’s interventions, each of the “Châssis” registers as a specific, individuated, and therefore finite instance—too particular, as it were, to stand in for painting “as such,” even as the series clearly intersects that history at every turn. Bringing to mind now certain edge paintings by Sam Francis, now Mondrian’s asymmetrical grids, these works show that particular past models have made it possible for Buraglio to see these things as paintings in the first place. They are no less indices of the painter’s démarche through time.


Pierre Buraglio, Châssis (Stretcher), 1974, wood, paint, nylon threads, 70 7⁄8 × 78 3⁄4". From the series “Châssis,” 1974–75. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Impulses to reuse and reiterate run through Buraglio’s work: the “Fenêtres,” with their flaking paint and weathered hardware; the “Masquages” (Maskings), 1978–82, made with maculated lengths of tape used previously by other painters or by detailers in body shops; the “Envéloppes administratives” (Administrative Envelopes), 1978–81, featuring creased, torn, and faded mailers; the “Assemblages de paquets de Gauloises” (Assemblages of Gauloises Packets), 1978–82, generated by joining together dozens or sometimes hundreds of flattened packs of the cigarettes (and, in the case of a few examples from the later ’80s, discarded bits of canvas given to the artist by Simon Hantaï), to cite but a few key series. For all the diversity of the réemplois in question, the similarities among the various groups are no less apparent. Some of these throughlines are formal; e.g., the steady recurrence of the grid and of the X forms that appear in both the “Châssis” and the “Masquages” (in nylon thread and tape, respectively). Others are an affair of conceptual contiguity, even a kind of punning (automobiles, too, are constructed on chassis). One could multiply examples indefinitely.21 This continuity of practice is part of what it means for Buraglio’s work to be historical, part of how that work maps quotidian temporality onto the socially constructed and contested narratives and chronotopes we call history. The oeuvre, we might say, has something of both the discontinuity and the continuity of a life.


Pierre Buraglio, Masquage vide (Empty Masking), 1979, masking tape and staples on tracing paper, 20 1⁄2 × 15". From the series “Masquages” (Maskings), 1978–82.  © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

FROM JULY through August 1977, a major exhibition took place at the Centre Pompidou under the title “Guillotine et peinture. Topino-Lebrun et ses amis” (Guillotine and Painting: Topino-Lebrun and His Friends). Organized by the art critic Alain Jouffroy and centered on the only known painting by the largely forgotten artist François Topino-Lebrun, his 1798 La mort de Caïus Gracchus, the show also featured new work by seven contemporary figurative painters, most with past ties to the Jeune Peinture: Jean-Paul Chambas, Bernard Dufour, Erró, Gérard Fromanger, Jacques Monory, Recalcati (of Vivre et laisser mourir fame), and Vladimir Veličković. This improbable project attempted in part to rehabilitate Topino-Lebrun, a student of Jacques-Louis David and a committed Jacobin who was executed under Napoleon on charges the curator believed to have been false. But the show also had two closely interrelated and decidedly contemporary sets of stakes. It sought, first, to better understand the role of individuals in revolutions, an investigation that (as Jouffroy argued in the catalogue) had become newly urgent in the wake of the disappointments of May 1968. It further attempted to pose the work of the featured artists as a new form of history painting in the present.


Pierre Buraglio, Masquage vide (Empty Masking), 1980–82, masking tape and staples on tracing paper, 21 1⁄4 × 15 3⁄4". From the series “Masquages,” 1978–82. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

The oeuvre has something of both the discontinuity and the continuity of a life.

A particularly striking aspect of the catalogue texts, from Jouffroy’s framing essays to the statements on the part of the featured painters, is their emphasis on lived experience and, in particular, on the lived reality of the individual painter—an accent that comes through in Jouffroy’s claim that, for example, “history painting can no longer present itself as a painting of heroes and victims. . . . It can only be articulated in terms of lived truth, of the body, of the respiration of each individual: of his daily experience.”22 Or again: “For the first time, painters no longer separate their personal history from history in general, for the first time the Raft of the Medusa and Courbet’s Studio are but one.”23 Jouffroy turned, in particular, to Recalcati, whose six featured canvases from the series “31 janvier 1801 (Hommage à Topino-Lebrun),” 1974–77, included explicit guillotine imagery (the titular date is that of Topino-Lebrun’s execution). The artist, Jouffroy suggests, “reveals what is hidden everywhere else: the haunting presence of history even in the individual’s most silent meditation on himself.”24


Antonio Recalcati, 08 Ghigliottina e pittura (08 Guillotine and Painting), 1975, oil on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 118 1⁄8". From the series “31 janvier 1801 (Hommage à Topino-Lebrun),” 1974–77. © NPL - DeA Picture Library/Bridgeman Images

What would it mean to see this show as part of the broader context for Buraglio’s contemporaneously produced “Fenêtres”? Or, more to the point, what would it mean to take one of the “Fenêtres”—perhaps a smaller, near-square example, now at Paris’s Musée National d’Art Moderne (MNAM), fitted with a horizontal fragment of blue glass—as his contribution to, or intervention in, this reflection on the possibilities and limits of history painting? Certainly, it would draw attention to a decidedly underplayed, indeed seemingly unacknowledged, aspect of these works: their distinctly menacing quality. Many of the glass elements have sharp, bladelike edges, and more than a few works are openly guillotine-like, a reading recently affirmed by the painter.25 Even the type of glass preferred by the artist, viewed in this light, constitutes a kind of visual calembour: Designated “Saint-Just,” it derives from a commune in northwest France well known for its tradition of blown glass—yet it equally bears the name of a revolutionary Jacobin leader guillotined alongside Robespierre in 1794 for his role in the Terror.26


Pierre Buraglio, Fenêtre (Window), 1981, wood frame, glass, 12 1⁄4 × 13 5⁄8 × 1 1⁄4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

But “Guillotine et Peinture” also recalls Buraglio’s own emphasis on the vécu. In the “Fenêtres,” too, historical action and lived experience appear inextricably entangled. And yet these works remain importantly distinct from the tendencies highlighted in the Pompidou show, in ways that become starkly evident when they’re contrasted with the Recalcati cycle. One key difference, clearly, is Buraglio’s continued refusal of illustrative painting, his staunch commitment to material remainders—in this case, the literal wreckage of capital. Another concerns the works’ modesty of means, a rhetorical difference manifest both in their scale (the MNAM example measures a little over twelve inches high by just under fourteen inches wide, as contrasted with Recalcati’s larger-than-life-size canvases) and in their intractable ordinariness. Not for Buraglio the self-aggrandizing identification of easel and guillotine. On the contrary, the “Fenêtres” have been hiding quietly in plain view. But time has not dulled their surprising sharpness. If anything, decades of lived experience under neoliberalism may have left audiences all the more sensitive to the significance of those knifelike edges.

Molly Warnock is the author of Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting (Penn State University Press, 2020).

NOTES

1. Conversation with the author, Paris, July 9, 2022.

2. “L’Œuvre de Marcel Duchamp,” Centre Pompidou, Paris, February 2–May 2, 1977.

3. Jean Daive, “Entretien avec Pierre Buraglio,” in Alfred Pacquement et al., Pierre Buraglio (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1982), 91. Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

4. Buraglio writes that his surfaces—here, it is a question of his “Camouflages,” also 1966–68—“do not communicate” in “Préalablement . . . il faut admettre” (1968), reprinted in Écrits entre 1962 et 2007 (Paris: Beaux-Arts de Paris, 2007), 36. For an English version, see “First of all, it must be admitted . . . ,” trans. Daniel Spaulding, selvajournal.org/article/first-of-all-it-must-be-admitted-1968/. Buraglio’s position at this point is especially close in certain respects to that of Michel Parmentier, a key interlocutor since their shared time in Roger Chastel’s studio at the École National des Beaux-Arts in the years 1963–65. For more on Parmentier, see my “Painting for Nothing: Michel Parmentier,” Journal of Contemporary Painting 2, no. 2 (November 2016): 237–60.

5. Gilles Aillaud, “Avertissement,” Rebelote, February 1973, n.p. The other “directors” (réalisateurs) listed on the masthead for the first issue include the critic John Berger, the painter Lucio Fanti, the set designer Nicky Rieti, and the stage directors Jean Jourdheuil and Jean-Pierre Vincent, whose recently founded company the Théâtre de l’Espérance constitutes a major reference point for the journal.

6. For more on Aillaud’s admiration for Ponge, see François Boissonnet et al., “L’atelier de Gilles Aillaud: Voir et se taire,” Rue Descartes, April 1991, 264. A fuller exploration of Aillaud’s concept of the thing would also have to consider his lifelong interest in phenomenology, especially his early Heideggerian training under Jean Beaufret, in addition to diverse readings of Marx.

7. Gilles Aillaud, “Présentation,” Rebelote, April 1973, n.p.

8. Aillaud, “Bataille rangé,” Rebelote, October 1973, n.p (my ellipsis). This oft-cited essay is a critical reading of Georges Bataille’s Manet (Paris: Skira, 1955) and, by extension, a repudiation of the authority accorded Bataille in the pages of Tel Quel, a review—closely associated in these years with Supports/Surfaces—against which Rebelote mounted a sustained offensive.

9. For a fuller analysis of this work, see Jill Carrick, “The Assassination of Marcel Duchamp: Collectivism and Contestation in 1960s France,” Oxford Art Journal 31, no. 1 (2008): 1–25. As Carrick notes, the painters Francis Biras, Fabio Rieti, and Gérard Fromanger were also involved in its execution, though they did not sign it (ibid., 6n12).

10. Aillaud, “La fin tragique de Marcel Duchamp” (1965), n.p.

11. Conversation with the author , Paris, July 9, 2022. As Carrick notes, Vivre et laisser mourir was broadly decried as socialist-realist in effect in the uproar following its initial exhibition. See “Assassination of Marcel Duchamp,” 12.

12. Conversation with the author, Paris, April 30, 2022.

13. Buraglio, “Le peintre du dimanche. Notes sur la peinture de Gérard Schlosser” (1973), reprinted in Ecrits, 57.

14. Ibid., 55–56.

15. Ibid., 56.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., 60.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid., 61.

20. See, for example, Dezeuze, Dictionnaire de Supports/Surfaces (1967–72) (Paris: Ceysson, 2011), 15.

21. One might further refer in this connection to Pierre Wat, Pierre Buraglio (Paris: Flammarion, 2001), which is organized not by chronology but in accordance with what Wat sees as the consistent recurrence of certain operational tropes.

22. Alain Jouffroy and Philippe Bordes, eds., Guillotine et peinture. Topino-Lebrun et ses amis (Paris: Chêne, 1977), 58.

23. Ibid., 52.

24. Ibid., 56. There would be much more to say about the Recalcati paintings relative to Supports/Surfaces, given the role assumed in these works by large, prominently featured chassis. See on this point Jean-Christophe Bailly, “Antonio Recalcati: La lumière grise de l’histoire,” XXe siècle, no. 46 (1976), 156.

25. Conversation with the author, Paris, July 9, 2022.

26. This Saint-Just is a recurrent reference in Buraglio’s writings, as when he describes Michel Parmentier as “our André Breton with just a hint of Saint-Just” (“Body and Soul,” trans. John Tittensor, in Molly Warnock, ed., Transatlantique—James Bishop [Rennes: ER Publishing, 2021], 17).

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