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First U.S. exhibition in half a century for César goes on view in New York City
Shock Red 165, 1998. Sheet metal, Fiat Marea / Tôle, Fiat Marea 57 x 95 ¼ x 6 ¾ in. (145 x 242 x 17 cm) Photo: Adam Reich Courtesy Luxembourg & Dayan

NEW YORK, NY.- Luxembourg & Dayan presents César, an historical survey devoted to César Baldaccini (1921 – 1998), the celebrated French artist and founding member in 1960 of the Nouveaux Réalistes group that paralleled the emergence of American Pop Art and included Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Christo, Martial Raysse, and Arman, among others. The exhibition comprises two-dozen works spanning the career of the artist known everywhere simply as ‘César,’ and suggests his fundamental contribution to the evolution of modern sculpture through a radical rethinking of classicism and bold experiments with new materials. Featuring rare objects from the artist’s estate, major museums, and important private collections, César coincides with the 60th anniversary of the artist’s first one-man exhibition, which took place at the Galerie Lucien Durand in Paris.

Filling all of Luxembourg & Dayan’s townhouse at 64 East 77th Street, César also is the first U.S. solo exhibition devoted to the artist in half a century. In a fitting coincidence, the show takes place on the very same street where César’s breakthrough American exhibition Sculpture: 1953-1961 was presented at the Saidenberg Gallery in 1961. In tribute to this history, the artist’s 8 foot tall bronze sculpture Pouce (1993) stands in front of the gallery’s building, a literal and figurative fingerprint on the streetscape of New York City.

César will remain on view through January 18, 2014.

Performative, Poetic, Powerful
Examining the various aesthetic and conceptual turns that typify César’s practice, the show at Luxembourg & Dayan presents historically significant examples from his Compression, Human Imprint, and Expansion series, as well as such early figurative works as the Venus-like welded iron sculpture Torso (1954), on loan from the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition focuses in particular upon César’s radical work of the 1960s and 70s. In these decades the artist avidly explored the aesthetic and intellectual territory between classical and conceptual sculpture. Works on view reveal how César challenged traditional notions of form and space, and proposed a fresh and highly personal sculptural language via his pioneering experiments with postwar industrial materials.

Moving through the different levels of Luxembourg & Dayan’s building, visitors will take in the evolution of a career punctuated by seemingly sudden and contradictory departures in style and materials. Pink and white iridescent polyurethene Expansion murales give way to Compression murales – dense wall pieces made up of jute sacks, wool blankets, and scraps of corduroy and velour – and extraordinary wall-mounted sculptures made from parts of automobiles and motorcycles. Through these disparate bodies of work, however, César ultimately reveals an unmistakable consistency of vision and traces a central preoccupation across decades: César ceaselessly explored the ways in which an artist’s hand can guide, craft, and indelibly imprint the world’s many common industrial materials without hampering their inherent propensities. From glass fiber to polyester resin, from found car parts inviting compaction to molten bronze begging to be cast, the materials of César’s sculptures are masterfully guided into performative, poetic, powerful objects that seem just completed moments ago. In his pursuit of a new language, the artist helped to move sculptural practice from the ‘modern’ to the ‘contemporary.’

Born in 1921 to Italian immigrants in the Belle de Mai quarter of Marseille, César began his art education in the early 1940s at the city’s École des Beaux-Arts. The curriculum was constructed around drawing and classical sculpture, and César was inundated with course work that stressed the importance of craft and material mastery, an ethic that would act as an underlying philosophy within his practice for the entirety of his career. By the time César completed his course work at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris in 1948, World War II had drastically altered the technologies available within the practice of metal work. The progression of welding technologies became particularly noticeable within post war sculpture, and César pushed these technologies to their limits in his search for a mode of art production that confronted post-war modernity in ways that were both vibrant and industrial. He began experimenting with welding, shaping refuse materials into humanoid figures -- a critical first step for the artist and the first expression of his interest in the collision between progressive technologies and life.

In 1960, a scrap metal factory located just outside of Paris installed a new American steel press that was large enough to compress full automobiles. César was fascinated by the metamorphic qualities of the process, and he immediately came to believe that compression would yield the ultimate monuments of the mechanical age. The artist began using the press in his sculptures, carefully selecting full or partial cars and directing the ways in which the materials were crushed. The resultant works were initially viewed as a deliberate and wholly anti-aesthetic insult to traditional metal sculpture, but César’s Compressions (as the works would come to be known) are not simply the end result of a mechanical operation; they are representations of the possibilities that present themselves at the intersection between material, physics, authorship, and context.

César includes examples from the full complement of the artist’s Compressions. These range from the directed works in which César selected various pieces of scrap and compacted them into one object, to full Compressions forged from whole automobiles or motorcycles. Also on view are wall Compressions, pressed metal and plexiglass wall hangings that offer themselves in direct antagonism to traditional painting.

Also on view are examples from the artist’s iconic Pouce series -- sculptural depictions of the artist’s thumb executed in a range of mediums and in sizes from tiny to monumental. César’s first Pouce in 1965 resulted in a small pink statue made with a pantogram (a device typically used to translate the dimensions of small plaster models into monumental statuary) and cast in newly available plastic resin, a material that would come to drastically alter the artist’s practice. The use of plastic in this first Pouce facilitated César’s experiments with scale, specifically with works that represented small objects rendered in gigantic proportions. Among a group of monumental works by César that are being exhibited in a private home across the street from Luxembourg & Dayan and on view by appointment, is an example from the Sein series -- large depictions of human breasts that come to us as both familiar and alien, abstract and figurative.

The availability of new materials and modes of production in the 1960s led César deeper into an examination of how scientific materials behave within real space in both mediated and unmediated contexts. This concept is perhaps most apparent in the artist’s Expansion works, which are similarly concerned with ideas of technology, space, and material. The Expansions were first produced in the late 60s. Semi-organized sculptural spills – in the exhibition, examples include Expansion moteur (1971) and Expansion N 35/15 (1972) – were realized via new liquid polyurethane foam, a mixture that was tinted to the color of the artist’s choice and then expanded and set, resulting in soft forms several times larger than their original liquid volumes. Noting that instead of conforming to the matrix of a mold, the material spread and expanded, César was moved by his material’s freedom and energy. The artist was eager to share his experience with the material, and many of the original Expansions were created as part of happenings in which an audience could observe the transformation from liquid to solid. The resulting objects were then cut up, signed, and distributed to the spectators like “slices of cake” in a process by which César, ever transfixed by the moment of creation, would place that moment into the hands of the public.

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