Throughout his life, French artist Raymond Hains (1926–2005) proved a constant innovator, who in his art always found new means of expression and new ways of finding and presenting images. Immediately after the Second World War he experimented with photograms and optical distortion through camera lenses, in what he termed hypnagogic photography. In the 1950s, he took torn posters from the billboards of the city and offered them as paintings, suggesting an affichiste alternative closer to life than spiritually suffused abstract expressionism. In 1960 he was among the original founders of Nouveau Realisme and carried the grim reality of construction hoardings into the gallery space. He then discovered the possibilities inherent in word play and framed the resulting juxtapositions and narratives in photographs, or collected them in suitcases full of curious findings. He discovered street sculptures at the margins of the cityscape and photographed them, too. Around the new millennium, he began a series of macintoshages, collages of pop-up windows grabbed from a computer screen, while he also developed neon sculptures after the Borromean knots of psychiatrist Jacques Lacan.
Befitting the inventiveness and complexity of this work, Galerie Max Hetzler staged a thematically organized retrospective in all its three venues in Berlin and Paris. This book, the first comprehensive monograph created in collaboration with the artist’s estate, further deepens the story. It follows the works’ countless references which in their sum afford us the rare opportunity to experience this fascinating oeuvre in all its many-layered riches. Curator Jean-Marie Gallais delivers an in-depth essay on the artist’s work and life, while fellow artist Tacita Dean contributes a personal hommage. Hans Ulrich Obrist, in both his own reflection on the work as well as a long conversation with the artist, renders Raymond Hains’ inexhaustible chains of association that now can be gathered from his own words.
THE RAVISHING OF TORN POSTERS AND THE REVERBERATIONS THEREOF
In 1949, while filming shorts in the street, Hains’s eye strayed to a wall covered with posters. The inscription generally found on stretches of windowless wall in France thus gave his film its title: Loi du 29 juillet 1881 ou Défense d’afficher (Law of 29 July 1881 or Billposting forbidden). Hains photographed parts of this strangely stratified wall of paper, then decided to detach a fragment and take it home. The critic Alain Jouffroy gives a contextualised version of this hypothetical ‘first’: ‘The decision to consider torn posters as works of art dates back…to 1949, and coincided with a walk that Raymond Hains was taking in Saint-Germain-des-Prés…spotting a torn poster on the bottom of the rue de Rennes on a construction fence…he experienced what Zen Buddhists call satori: the torn eye of a woman made it possible to see the letters of the poster beneath. He unpeeled the poster and told Villeglé about it. Villeglé was then in Nantes…and immediately adopted the same procedure in the same derisive spirit, making fun of the abstract or semi-figurative painting then being done, which afforded, it must be said, singularly little interest compared to the discoveries of the pre-war painters.’
This foundational gesture, which brought together Hains, Villeglé, François Dufrêne (who exhibited the backs of posters), Mimmo Rotella and Wolf Vostell, marked a turning point in the history of art. Showing torn posters gathered in the streets had at least one thing in common with Marcel Duchamp’s readymades: pre-existence. But, whereas the readymade awarded a central place to its inventor (the person who chose the industrial object), the torn posters were the work of a multitude of anonymous passers-by. They did away with the notion of a creator and were the product of the city itself, realising the utopian idea of a collective work created ‘by everybody and not by Hains’ (or ‘by one’: in French, Hains is pronounced like un = one). The ‘collective unconscious’ was the Holy Grail of the Surrealists, which they located in the work of outsider artists. Now the affichistes had come up with a new definition of the collective unconscious, one that involved direct contact with city life and history. In another significant displacement, torn posters were the reverse of collage or assemblage, two emblematic procedures of modernity: décollage, in the most literal sense a rip-off – but also a take-off. Nevertheless, the first examples of posters harvested by Hains and Villeglé are clearly compositions made with deliberately torn and partly re-glued poster scraps. For Ach Alma Manetro (1949), Villeglé says that they shared the work of re-composition: the left-hand side was by Villeglé and the right-hand by Hains. In subsequent years, it was not unusual for the two artists to very lightly retouch their trouvailles...
In Paris in the late 1950s, everyone was talking about the posters. But Raymond Hains took evasive action and over the next few years developed new approaches. Starting in 1957, he became interested in the metal supports to which the posters were stuck. The slender sheets of galvanised steel that he was soon purloining allowed him to escape the predominance of graphics or text characteristic of posters and to highlight abstraction. ‘When I began to be known, I took an interest in posters on galvanised steel [tôle]. Because I like this metal – its rust, the evocative power of its drawings, the dark stains (a little like foreign landscapes seen from a satellite). But most of all because a style had been found for me, in which, for the sake of irony, I let myself be confined.’ Galvanised steel allowed him to free himself of the notion of décollage. But the most important step in freeing Hains from his affiliation with torn posters was taken in 1959, ten years after his first experiments with poster-ripping. During the Paris Biennale at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris, in the so-called informels (informal artists) room, whose ceiling François Dufrêne had covered with a gigantic torn and reversed poster, Hains exhibited an imposing wooden palisade barrier that he had nicked from a construction site.
The Palissade des emplacements réservés (Barrier reserved for billposting) goes still further than the tôles; formal aspects now took second place. By exhibiting a construction barrier, Hains was adopting a conceptual no less than a visual stance: the primary function of these wooden planks was, in that context, symbolic and metaphorical. From the outside, the palisade prevents one from seeing, hides an activity, and requires a deviation. Hains is telling us that we must look between the planks to see what (construction) works are hiding behind them. By making a show of a barrier, the artist reveals that art is elsewhere. The palisade, undeniably ‘the star of this Biennale’ for the press and critics, was takenby many to be a joke if not indeed a provocation. Other artists took the trouble to compose a manifesto asking that the museum should not become ‘a palisade-dump’ – a situation that Hains revelled in, passing the manifesto through his Hypnagogoscope to render it illegible. In 1968, Pierre Restany contextualised Hains’s gesture in his text on ‘The Invention of the Palisade’: ‘Invention is a mode of cognition, a style of perceiving and understanding things, and as such unlimited (or rather, its limits coincide with those of the world). The myth of the invention of the palisade symbolises this cosmic vision in Raymond Hains. The entire world is a picture and the palisade (of spaces reserved for bill posting) is not a painting but all painting at one’s fingertips.’
This invention was a turning point in Hains’s oeuvre, not least because it paved the way for a different system of thought and creation, the key to which was language. During the Biennale, he discovered in a shop window a recipe for Les entremets de la palissade (Palisade sweets) – he served this dessert during several dinners and action-spectacles from 1960 on – and subsequently met Madame de Chabannes La Palice, a descendant of Seigneur de La Palisse (La Palisse is a village in the département of Allier); to the Seigneur we owe the comical truisms known in French as lapalissades, which Hains decided to take very seriously indeed. And thus, in the Salon Comparaisons of 1960, he exhibited not a construction barrier but a reproduction of the Entremets de la palissade on a display case. This transition anticipated the more conceptual approach taken in his work from the 1960s onward...