A fascinating exhibition called “Deadline” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris a decade ago presented works by 13 artists made in the run-up to their deaths, mostly when they were ill or disabled. One of the most interesting was Hans Hartung (1904-89), and now the same museum, all spiffed up after its renovation, is giving him his first retrospective in France in 50 years.
Hartung was German by birth but French by choice. His work was considered degenerate by the Nazis, and he wisely moved to France for good in 1938 and fought for the French Foreign Legion during World War II, taking part in the Allied landings in Provence in 1944.
He lost a leg following an injury incurred near the end of the war, but always found ways to compensate for his disability, at first by working on small-format pieces.
In his youth, Hartung, an admirer of Rembrandt and Goya, had dabbled in Expressionism and Cubism . A series of non-figurative watercolor and ink sketches from the early 1920s, which he kept for the rest of his life, show him experimenting with color and line at a very early age before turning definitively to abstraction
In the 1950s, he made hundreds of small ink drawings as a “laboratory of forms,” which he later transferred to the larger canvases of his “palm-leaf paintings,” with their spiky, calligraphic black lines on solid-color backgrounds.
During the 1960s, he left oils behind and began using vinyl paints, like those used on automobiles, often spraying them directly onto the canvas rather than transferring small-format drawings onto larger canvases as he had done before. This new way of working allowed him to attack the canvas with sweeping movements. Grattage (scraping or scratching) with various sharp instruments, including rakes, added new textures and effects.
By this time, Hartung, living in a modernist house/workplace in Paris’s 14th arrondissement, was an art-world luminary, receiving journalists, dealers and other visitors in a show studio (the secretive artist’s real workspace was on another floor).
Toward the end of his life, when he was living in Antibes, the always experimenting Hartung found an ingenious new way to paint that allowed him to free up his gestures even further and to make monumental paintings. He would fill a vine-spraying machine with paint and use its nozzle to squirt brilliant, often acidic acrylic colors onto giant canvases from his wheelchair. There was nothing haphazard about this procedure. A film in the exhibition shows what great control he exercised over the process and over the precise shades of the colors his assistants mixed for him.
His palette and techniques may have changed over the years, but Hartung, a lyrical abstractionist before his time and a brilliant colorist with a preference for pure colors (and also a master of black and white), remained true to abstraction to the very end.