A Posthumous Life for Painter Claude Rutault’s Improvisations

PARIS — In the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou an installation was often seen taking up a complete wall in the galleries. Any number of rectangular canvases of various sizes were leaning against it or hung conventionally, some small and another three or four or five feet high, plus one or two tondos. Everything, including the wall, was painted the same color. One or two canvases were always placed so the reverse side, with the bare canvas or linen and the stretcher bars, would be visible.

This past summer, three of Paris’s most important art historical institutions — the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou, and the Musée d’Orsay — joined in paying tribute to Claude Rutault, who died last May at the age of 80, in a series titled according to the masters (the artist always wrote in lower case). 

Rutault was best known for an extensive series of works of this kind, wherein canvases were installed and painted the same color as the wall on which they hung. He produced written procedures called “definitions/methods” defining the limits of actual painting situations that were executed by others: by curators, collectors, or gallerists who would choose the colors for the walls and the sizes and types of canvases. Improvisation then — one of the key innovations of modernist painting — was assigned to what the artist called his “charge-takers.” The works could be repainted and changed continually within his specific limits.

Installation view of After the Masters: A Tribute to Claude Rutault (1941–2022) at the Centre Pompidou (photo Joe Fyfe/Hyperallergic)

Still, he always called himself a painter. Rutault’s texts always accompanied his projects and were reflections on painting. Many French painters of the postwar generation into the present approached their craft with an intellectual engagement they or others considered an interrogation: How does one compose its constituent elements? How does one extend what it does? How do you think about what it does. What is it? 

The Pompidou installation was clearly part of that tradition of questioning, but I didn’t know any more about the artist — even his name — until I came across his surprisingly extensive New York Times obituary. It stated that shortly after Rutault’s “foundational protocol” was established, a son was born who was in need of continuous care because of a congenital illness. 

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Fayoum portrait in After the Masters: A Tribute to Claude Rutault (1941–2022) at the Louvre (© Quentin Lefranc)
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Claude Rutault (© Claude Rutault / ADAGP Paris, 2023; image courtesy the artist’s estate and Perrotin)

He could not speak or walk. Rutault became his primary caretaker, preventing him from participating in the larger world of openings and other art world events, as is expected of an artist. “But he never regarded this as a problem,” the obituary stated, quoting his daughter, Ninon, “he always said it helped him to work and think and question the world … He did everything he could to make his [son’s] life happy, despite a life that could have been sad.” 

As a painter myself, this was profound. It spoke to a philosophy and a moral principle that oddly but wonderfully situated one’s circumstances as an integral element to painting. Rutault did not declare himself a conceptual artist but chose to use his painting as a site of inquiry. He put it to the test, allowing others to construct from the text-based vision he composed that depended on painting’s history — all that’s been done with it and to it. He often created his protocols with reference to canonical masters: Poussin, Watteau, Malevich. Rutault seemed to demand that painting both reflect upon its past and take responsibility for itself in the present. He returned painting to its origins, in various ways, often within the context art museums, in order that it interface with its canonical history, as he simultaneously opened it to collaboration, including with institutional “charge-takers.” 

At the Louvre, continuing through September 25, is a work in which a Fayoum portrait (an encaustic mummy image from Roman Egypt) is encased in a red wall, a color that is shared with some other walls in the entrance to the Egypt wing. Rutault owned this work, motivated to acquire it by the genre’s status as the first paintings in history.

At the Musée d’Orsay through September 3, realized from Rutault’s notes, was the impish and ghostlike freestanding “la porte de la peinture” (the gates of painting), based on his admiration for Rodin’s “Porte de l’Enfer” (The Gates of Hell), derived from the original plaster model in the museum’s collection. It’s a late work, encompassing diagrams and notes (which is slightly unusual as most of his protocols were strictly textual), and was finished, like the others, by others. 

The work, installed on the ground floor on a large plinth, is constructed from various shapes and sizes of store-bought, primed canvases, all white, like the plaster model, some ovals and tondos, but predominantly rectangles. Many large squares of the same size are stacked around its base, as if ready to continue the realization of the project. According to Rutault, his paintings/protocols are never finished. Like the Rodin, it has a backside, made up of the backs of the canvases.

The Pompidou reprised the aforementioned installation, on a different wall and in blue. I remember it in chalky yellow. On the edges of some of the canvases, the various repaintings can be detected. Nearby is another work by Rutault from its permanent collection, “ready to be made” (1994), in which a suspended “Porte-bouteilles” (1914/1964) by Marcel Duchamp throws a precise shadow over a stack of eight unprimed canvases that are the same proportions as Malevich’s “Black Square” (of which an unusual version, painted on white marble, is in the collection). A small white canvas on the white wall near the suspended readymade functions like a blank caption square. Both Malevich and Duchamp presented decisive historical challenges to painting. 

Though Rutault’s project can be easily understood on one level as ironic and playful, which it is, it also came across to me as so serious it bordered on the sacral. I was reminded of a term that the artist Christian Bonnefoi has used for painting: a “renovated icon.” An icon, as I understand it, was thought to be not the representation of the deity but the deity itself. Similarly, experiencing Rutault’s works are like being confronted with one’s beliefs, one’s own faith in painting, or lack of it.

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Installation view of After the Masters: A Tribute to Claude Rutault (1941–2022) at the Centre Pompidou (photo Joe Fyfe/Hyperallergic)
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Installation view of After the Masters: A Tribute to Claude Rutault (1941–2022) at the Louvre (photo Joe Fyfe/Hyperallergic)
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Installation view of After the Masters: A Tribute to Claude Rutault (1941–2022) at Musée d’Orsay, 2023 (© Claude Rutault / ADAGP Paris, 2023; photo by Sophie Crépy, courtesy Etablissement public des musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, the artist’s estate, and Perrotin)

After the Masters: A Tribute to Claude Rutault (1941–2022) continues in its Louvre (Pyramide du Louvre, Paris, France) presentation through September 25. The exhibition was organized by the museum and artist’s written procedures. The complete exhibition is accompanied by a French-language catalogue.

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