Jean Marie Haessle "The Corner of My Eye"
Lyrcical Chromatic Paintings by
Robert C. Morgan is trained both as a sculpture and art historian. Author of many books and essays, he is largely recognized for his art criticism. In 1999, he was given the first Arcale award in Salamanca (Spain) for his work as an international critic. He is a prolific writer, a dedicated teacher, an global lecturer, and continues to produce and exhibit his paintings.
At the outset, here are two issues I find consistently present in the paintings of Jean-Marie Haessle: One, he is an indelible Classicist as much as Poussin or Ingres; and secondly, he carries a certain propensity for concealing his Classical posture in paintings that express often unexpected, yet exuberant varieties of color. In doing so, Haessle persuades some viewers that he is, in fact, the opposite of a Classicist, namely a die-hard Romantic. I have chosen to keep the capital letters in either case simply to suggest that what stands behind these two stylistic tendencies, which I believe vacillate through the paintings of Haessle, is essentially the history of Salon painting from the late eighteenth into the mid-nineteenth century. This was the fertile period of Salon de Paris decades before its decline became evident in the late nineteenth century soon after the suppression of the Commune in 1872. This decline was accompanied by the slanderous accusations of a socially insouciant painter, Gustave Courbet, who insisted that his art did not require the sanction of any institution to prove its worth. Thus, his pronounced individuality revealed the first tremolos of Modernism seeking liberation from an overtly ingested and decadent cultural hierarchy. Through the rejection of the latter, the heraldic and radical lineage of abstract painting came to emerge as the avant-garde of the twentieth century.
While this history has little to do with Hassele’s conscious intentions as an artist, given that he has spent the greater part of his career as a mature painter living and working in the SoHo section of Manhattan, I find it curious that the artist discovered painting as an adolescent in the northeastern region of France where he could not have missed some of the history pertaining to the direction in which his own paintings would finally emerge.
If I were to name a third issue in Hassle’s paintings, I would cite the artist’s seamless equivocation between his use of figuration and abstract subject matter. In saying this, I am implying that his technical gifts in both painting and drawing are considerable. They were acquired not through formal Classical training, but derived from a remarkable, nearly alchemical sense of observation. Haessle’s desire to see and to study a painting constitutes a veritable act of passion, which is the inevitable force behind a searing energy in which he concentrates on form and color. No matter how high or low the degree of abstraction, the artist manages to refine every mark within the structure of his brushwork. The phenomenon sensed within the mind’s eye is clearly revealed in the act of painting. This tendency multiplies through the artist’s ability to infuse chromatic stillness into vast open spaces, thus hermetically transforming pigment into luminescence.
A good example would be the quadrilateral Red, Yellow, and Blue triumvirate included in the current exhibition, perhaps the center pieces of the show. While Haessle does not consider these paintings a triptych, he does understand that the chromatic relationships are integral as a thematic concern. For example, each canvas, despite its predominant emphasis on a single primary, includes gestural marks that represent primaries from the other two. For example, the Red painting will contain an all-over smattering of blue and yellow accents. Similarly, the Blue painting will reveal traces of red and yellow; and finally the Yellow canvas carries the weight of the red and blue without disrupting its essential all-over chromatic dominance. The light within these paintings is inexorable, suggesting that the artist has discovered a method whereby the relationship between value and hue function inextricably as a single unit within each painting. This is further abetted by the quadrilateral equality of the three paintings. A rectilinear surface would push the composition in one direction of another, thus giving a different tension to the relationship of the hues and values. By employing a large square format -- a format also used by the painter Agnes Martin, though toward achieving another effect -- Haessle contains the gestural maneuvers of his brush within the surface of the painting. Just as Mondrian employed the square format to achieve tension and balance, particularly in his neoplastic paintings of the twenties, Haessle creates a tension and balance through color. In doing so, there is an unrepentant concentration that enfolds the surface and keeps his eye on the mark without deviating from the premises.
Essentially these paintings are not merely about chromatic effect, but about the control of light. Often the exterior light source may become a concern during the presentation and installation of a painting. But there is another internal step essential in the completion of the work that interests Haessle, namely, the matter in which the pigmented color on the surface of the painting holds or retains light. This, in turn, impacts the resonance from which light projects from the surface and the manner that it evolves through manipulation from one color to another. Haessle knows the process well. To control light in a painting by making exterior adjustments intended to correct an initial weakness or default is rarely convincing. Therefore, the artist is required to know how color works and how it will function as a medium in order to give the surface its luminosity.
Haessle rides on the crest of an indignant perception, a voracious insight, and a formal and technical acuity, quietly manifested through his ultra-refined persistence to paint light. As previously mentioned, his origins come from the northeast area of Alsace, where he was raised and where he discovered during an adolescent illness a book of paintings by Van Gogh that changed his life. This was followed by a stint with the French military during the Algerian War, before moving to Paris in 1964, and later to Manhattan in 1967, where he has lived and worked as a painter ever since. While contemporary art in Paris occupied him for three years, he was less intrigued by the vestiges of Art Informal than by the gritty l’art brut of Jean Dubuffet and by the paintings of Giacometti. Eventually, Haessle caught wind of the CoBrA group (an acronym for expressionism emanating from Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam). Painters, such as Asger Jorn and Karel Appel, were particularly popular in Paris in the 1960s, as they were eventually aligned with the politics of the Situationists, whose ideas were partially responsible for the uprisings in France in 1968 against the conservative Gaullist regime.
Shortly before these events in Paris, Haessle moved to New York in order to focus on his painting. Here he witnessed something quite different. Instead of l’art brut and CoBrA, he found Color Field painters -- artists, such as Helen Frankenthaler, Ken Noland, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, Paul Jenkins, Ellsworth Kelly, and sculptors, such as Anthony Caro and Michael Steiner. Many (but not all) of these artists were known as the American formalists of the 1960s, as proclaimed by the critic Clement Greenberg. In general, their works were cool and distant in their approach. The painters paid close attention to Greenberg’s “flatness”, a formalist concept somewhat overplayed in the art press at the time, which gave a certain credibility to the notion of color as form. Haessle was less concerned in this formalist theory than in the paintings themselves. Still, he missed the vitality of the gesture that he first encountered in the work of Van Gogh.
It was soon apparent that his defiant, yet exhilarating use of the gesture would define his personal stylistic evolution as a painter. At the same time, one may discover in such paintings as Crisscross (2002) and In the Making (2005) an intricacy with the brushwork, a quality which is also unique in Haessle’s style. The tonalities appear slightly darker, if not more somber in Crisscross, yet both paintings reveal tiny strands of white. In either case, these paintings suggest optically moving threads, simultaneously being woven and unwoven, thereby pointing in the direction of temporality as much as space. The dense color strands are suspended, perhaps in a state of unraveling, as if the artist were in the process of separating and reordering his thoughts in perpetual motion, thus refining the pictorial dimensions of the surface. Another larger, more recent painting, titled Restless (2008), has a similar structure. The brushwork is evenly consistent in its scale. Color is limited to the primaries plus black and white. In Restless, it becomes clear the degree to which Haessle has mastered the application and mix of color through calligraphy. The effect is mesmerizing -- not in the literary or proverbial sense, but in relation to the shear optics of looking at a surface. The evenness of space and the resilience of depth through the layering of gestural loops and striations gives Restless a visual and mental impact that goes beyond the ordinary. Restless is not merely a painting one sees, but studies. It is as if one were deciphering a code within and beneath the surface, in order to find access to its chromatic structure. It has been said that French Impressionism, largely incited by the color optics of the French chemist Henri-Eugene Chevreuil, was less about “impressions” in the vernacular sense than it was about analyzing the objective passage of light. This might also be said of Haessle’s Restless, from the point of view of abstract painting, rather than a field of poppies.
In referring to work in this exhibition as “lyrical chromatic paintings” I mean the following: Jean-Marie Haessle came to New York after Abstract Expressionism had already made its mark. Although Pop art was still in flavor, it did not suit his fancy. Haessle wanted something deeper. It was no accident that two of his favorite artists whose work he saw frequently in Paris were Dubuffet and Giacometti. This suggests a desire to go beneath the surface of reality as a source of transcendence, a concept more French than American. Even so, Haessle understood that it was possible to work in New York with color in a way that did not express the violence and repression often associated with The New York School. In essence, Haessle had another idea, a more lyrical one. The challenge was how to lessen the rancor in gestural painting without submitting to a style. He was drawn to color at the outset. (How could one love the paintings of Van Gogh without a strong desire to feel color?) And so, it would appear, that Haessle rejected the despair of the historical gesture in favor of its potential lyricism and redemption. In doing so, he retained the subtle nuances of optimism through his use of scale and modulation within each layering of color. While at times the work may appear hesitant or irresolute, the paintings of Jean-Marie Haessle represent a powerful antidote to the deeply conflicted socio-psychological transition in which we find ourselves today.