L’art pour l’art: Simon Hantaï, the planar graph and me.

Simon Hantai

*Agglomération © Musée Fabre / Montpellier.

Take a cotton shirt left in the dryer too long. Spread it out on the ironing board. Examine the wrinkles in detail: the little areas of un-crinkled smoothness, its map-like districts. The mathematicians call this surface a planar graph. That is a long and self-centered eulogy for the artist Simon Hantaï, who died on September 11th of this year. I am deeply indebted to Carter Ratcliff's essay Hantaï in America and to Margalit Fox of the New York Times for many of the details of Hantaï’s life and work in her obituary. Margalit Fox writes:

Simon Hantaï (pronounced OHN-tye) was born in December 1922 in Bia, near Budapest. At 8, he went temporarily blind as a result of diphtheria. That experience, Mr. Hantaï later said, helped inform his unconventional method of painting by folding, a method that relied far more on chance and far less on sight than conventional painting techniques did. As an art student in Budapest in the 1940s, Mr. Hantaï was briefly arrested by the Gestapo for a political speech he gave. After the war, he and his wife, Zsuzsa, left Hungary for Italy; in 1948, the Hungarian Ministry of Culture ordered him to return. Knowing that if he did he would be shipped off to Moscow for state-sanctioned art training, the couple made their way to Paris. Mr. Hantaï never went back to Hungary.

I first saw Hantaï’s work in the Georges Pompidou Museum in Paris: compelling, academic images, solid districts of saturated color painted onto enormous canvases, punctuated with negative white space. Much of what passes for modern art repels me: awkward and unsatisfying. Flocks of paint-eating pigeons defecating on perfectly good canvas could produce better art. There is the equally hideous school of Naïve Calligraphers who ape their Asian betters, squalid untutored brushstrokes signifying nothing, terminating in hairy manes of muddy pigment. Yet everyone must love something, I suppose, and I came to love Hantaï in my own obscure way.

The Planar Graph

The Planar Graph

Unit Circle, edge.

Butterfly Wing

* Butterfly Wing.


[/url] * Butterfly Wing: inset. * Simon Hantai, abstract detail. Musée d’Angers * Simon Hantai, Meun. Centre Pompidou * Simon Hantai, ... dell'Orto. Mariale Centre Pompidou [/float]

I first met up with the planar graph while studying computer-assisted proofs: the Four Color Theorem was the first such proof found by a computer. It turns out all the districts on a map can be colored in using only four colors without two districts of the same color touching each other. There is a certain beauty to graphing. I played with my Spirograph long after the other kids had given up in boredom. Thus began an interest in mathematics which has lasted all my life. The math and its vocabulary were only a means to an end. I would in time learn of the family of cycloids, the epi- and hypocycloids and -trochoids, but they were only labels, functions. Truth is, I had to look up the names on Wolfram.com. It was their beauty which drew me in and held me and hold me still. From the first days of the graphing spreadsheet, I have played with the unit circle. My first effort to draw a circle produced a gorgeous error. Let a matrix be composed of three columns: A, B and C. Let Column A contain the integer sequence 1,2,3 … 360. Let Column B1 be sine(A1), etc. Let C contain cosine(A). Create an X-Y series graph of B and C, and the result is a unit circle. The default composition of the Lotus spreadsheet, indeed all modern spreadsheets, is to use the radian value and not the degree value. The result is a strange, elegant form for which I cannot find a name in mathematics. I suppose some tiresome mathematician has dug into his Greek lexicon to coin some appropriate name. I could care less. It is enough for me to see the results and contemplate them. I doodle endlessly upon this family of functions. The first and most obvious doodle is as follows: let the above matrix be extended by a Column D. Let series D be populated with ( sine(A) * cosine(A) ). Graph the B and D columns. The result is a torus. Extend the matrix with Column E. Let E be the sum of B, C and D. Graph against B and E. A butterfly wing emerges. Graph against D and E, a catenary appears. There is no thought put into these things, this is how I doodle. If you find in them some deep insight, you are badly mistaken. I am a child playing with his Spirograph, exercising the arithmetic logic unit in a microprocessor, a silly old woman painting blue peonies on tole ware. Yet I find them beautiful, and perhaps you see something in them I could never see: my own restless mind. Do not ask for explanations. I am what I do, it is art for art’s sake. Hantaï and his Art Carter Ratcliff describes his technique in his essay Hantaï in America.

Basic to the idea of painting is the flat, blank, or neutral surface of the canvas. For centuries, this neutrality was unquestionable. Hantaï not only questioned it, he banished it with a new way of making a painting called pliage, from plier, to fold. Before he begins to paint, Hantaï folds his canvas in a complex pattern that hides some of its surface and leaves the rest available to his brush. Having applied paint to the exposed areas, he opens up the canvas, and sees, for the first time, exactly what he has done.

Hantaï figured large in European art in the 1950s. He was a strange, uncompromising man. Ratcliff writes of him:

In 1998, Hantaï refused to allow his work to be included in an exhibition of French painting organized by the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The context, he felt, was unsuitable. At first glance, this objection is hard to understand. Born in Hungary in 1922, Hantaï has lived in France since 1949. Not long after his arrival, he was recruited to the Surrealist movement by Andre Breton. By the mid-1950s, he had broken with Surrealism, and in 1960 he invented the folding method. Since then, he has been recognized as one of the leading figures to have emerged on the stage of French art in the half-century after the Second World War. Why, then, would he refuse to be included in an exhibition intended to celebrate painters from his time and place? His refusal was all the more puzzling because one sees echoes of Matisse’s forms in certain of his paintings. In others, there are recollections of Cézanne’s light. Forced to categorize him, one would have to call him a French painter. His contribution to the art of his adopted country permits no other label. Still, for all its accuracy, it obscures a full view of Hantaï’s achievement. That, I suspect, is why Hantaï declined to be included in an exhibition of French painting. ... What follows could be seen as a proposal for an exhibition that would place Hantaï in another context, quite different from the ones in which he has nearly always found himself. In this virtual setting, some of Hantaï’s neighbors would be Italian, for there is a rapport between his art and the arte povera that emerged in Genoa, Milan and elsewhere during the late 1960s. Some would be from other regions of Europe. However, most of the artists in this imaginary exhibition would be American. I have referred to Pollock, as Hantaï himself does. Tracing the development of the folding method and mapping its affinities, I will return to the Minimalists, who used industrial fabrication to replicate the readymade forms of Euclidean geometry. There will be occasion to mention the process and performance art that developed from Minimalism; the detached impersonality of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen technique, and earthworks, especially those of Robert Smithson, who pushed to extremes the idea that art is material—that is to say, not spiritual, conceptual, expressive, or in any other way immaterial. .... Gesture was somehow the point, and yet, as Hantaï understood, it could not be gesture of a painterly kind. It could not be expressive nor could it be representational, not even in the most attenuated manner. No gesture of the hand, no dance in the presence of the canvas, would do. In 1960, Hantaï arrived at the solution that has sustained his art since then. He would displace gesture to the canvas itself. As it happened, Hantaï did not reinvent painting until he had brought his gestural interlude to a grand culmination. In 1958, he set out to cover a very large canvas with texts gathered from a variety of sources: Biblical, theological, metaphysical, poetic, psychoanalytic. After a year of copying these passages in a minute hand, Hantaï’s inscriptions acquired a thoroughly pictorial texture. His texts were now illegible, and yet he had filled the canvas—now called the Écriture Rose—with an aura of significance, a dense cloud of implication. The work later entered the permanent collection of the Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, where it occupies a crucial place in the museum’s account of twentieth-century art We can be certain only that the Écriture rose has to do with language. Scanning its surface, one thinks of a medieval scribe devoted to an endless task. Nonetheless, Hantaï’s inscriptions did come to an end. We might see the Écriture rose as the grand residue of a long, almost ceremonial meditation on the part that language has played in the development of Western painting. The theorization of the pictorial was launched in ancient Greece. Since then, painting has been caught up in a conceptual apparatus of extreme intricacy. Perhaps Hantaï felt that, by writing his way to the end of language, so to speak, he could extricate painting from theory’s mechanisms. At any rate, when the Écriture rose was finished, he said, “Avaler les mots.” == “Dispense with words.” Having set language aside, Hantaï placed his canvas on the floor and subjected it to a series of actions: “folding, knotting, trampling underfoot,” to quote from a list made by Anne Baldassari, curator at the Musée Picasso. This behavior is implied by the word pliage, already noted, and yet Baldassari’s account of Hantaï’s procedure is helpful because she stresses its repetitiousness. The labor required by pliage is onerous and silent, or nearly so. Remarking on the “rustling” of the canvas as it submits to folding and trampling, Baldassari leaves it to us to imagine the matter-of-fact violence Hantaï inflicts on the canvas as he flattens it in preparation for the application of paint to those portions that his folding leaves in view.

1980s and 90s. Margalit Fox writes:

“I felt that the art world was going wrong,” Mr. Hantaï said. “I was starting to receive commissions. I was being asked to paint the ceiling of the Paris Opera House. Society seemed to be preparing to paint my work for me. I could have obeyed; many, perhaps most, painters do. The prospect did not coincide with my desire.”

When my wife and I first met, I drew portraits and tight renderings in pencils, pen and ink. She did large abstracts in pastels. I came home from work one day to find her cutting images out of my notebooks. I grew angry and made her cry. Then I saw what she was doing: carefully pasting my own drawings onto her own artwork. I held her hand and consoled her, the results were spectacular. It was a time in our lives when we had very little money: we had just met and I was still working for little more than room and board. I drew many more images for her: she would cut them out with her embroidery scissors and mount them on her own abstracts. We invested some money in mounting and framing them professionally, had a little exhibition and sold everything. Beauty emerges from surprising corners of the landscape. Beauty cannot be derived, mere depiction is insufficient. Good art merely is. Ratcliff writes:

Relinquishing the visionary privileges to which he and every other Western artist is heir, Hantaï talks of “painting without seeing . . . looking elsewhere.” “With pliage,” he says, “I put out my eyes . . . blind calculation . . . a bet on one’s blindness.”

Margalit Fox perceives ideas of absence and silence within Hantaï: I do not. I see a sort of conversation, the taut back and forth of a glass blower and his assistant as they shape the blazing blob on the end of the pipe: a process of twirling, pulling and pinching, culminating in the finished shape, cut loose from the pipe and put on the metal shelf to cool. The physicists tell us glass is always plastic, it still moves slowly, shaped by gravity over time. Simon Hantaï is passed away, but his work remains. Other artists of the period were more famous, and certainly wealthier. One has only to consider the sordid decadence of Warhol or Picasso’s lithograph presses chugging away like some hyperinflationary country printing money. The trouble began when artists began signing their names to their work. The artist, not the art became the exhibit thereafter. Hantaï rejected the self-referential pretense and the gossip of the art world as Frank Zappa rejected the incestuous celebrity of the Music Biz. There’s no la-dee-da Purity in such an opinion: it’s demeaning and stupid to probe too far into the life of a famous man. Examine his works: these he offers to us. There is no explanation forthcoming, no Cliff’s Notes to a man like Simon Hantaï. Hantaï’s work speaks from its two-dimensional blindness of three-dimensional complexities. Hantaï is a cautionary tale to all who would make art: the art, not the artist, is what matters. --


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Enjoyed this


never heard of Hantai. Thanks.



I liked your personal experience w. planar graphs + insight that provided into art for art's sake.


Agglomeration is pleasing to me -- for something so sparse it's awfully dynamic.


His contribution to the art of his adopted country permits no other label. Still, for all its accuracy, it obscures a full view of Hantaï’s achievement. That, I suspect, is why Hantaï declined to be included in an exhibition of French painting.

Perhaps I'm being slow, but what's so hard about understanding why someone who move to France until his late 20s didn't want to be thought of as a French painter?

I hope you have observed the images link to larger images


on my own website, or to the source images. Thank you for your kind words. It's a treat to write for this crowd.



I'd never heard of him. Thanks.

Abstract art is not self-referential? n/t

mmghosh's picture

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

That's a semantic problem. What's a reference?


Everyone ought to know this Surrealist Magritte image: The Treachery of Images.

"This is not a pipe"

True, it isn't a pipe. It's a painting of a pipe. But no, it's a jpg of the painting of the pipe. No, it's an answer to Manish's question about the self-referentiality of abstract art. But no, it doesn't answer the question at all. Whatever it isn't, it isn't a pipe.

In one sense, all representational art is Abstract. It is only "Abstract" art which can avoid the problem of abstraction and reference. In Gujarat and Kashmir, they fire lovely blue pottery with intricate decoration. Does this pottery refer to the domes of ancient Persia far to the west? Perhaps. It's anyone's guess, and yours might be better than mine.

Simon Hantaï turned away from the Surrealists. They were not really interested in making art, but making a Statement.

Well, AFAIK, we would call it a craft, not art.

mmghosh's picture

I'm talking about craftsmen firing pottery with abstract designs.

You could make a similar point about the designs on a Persian carpet. Islamic culture has a long association with abstract designs, as representation is officially forbidden (sort of).

But I'm talking more about there being a conception about something inside an *artist's* head when he is making up an abstraction. Forget the draughtsmanship, for the moment. And we need to know that reference before we can fully understand what the art is referring to when we see it. Or otherwise we project our own references. Which I know is supposed to be the point of the exercise in some (or many) cases/ I don't get it thats all.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

The artist is consumed by his craft. He creates because he must


Robert Fripp, ever given to gnomic statements about Craft and Art once said something I always liked: Honor Necessity.

A potter contends with other potters to sell his wares. If his work sells, the other potters emulate him. Pottery has become a useful technique for dating in archaeology, and gives us some insight into the problem of original versus derivative art. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, forgery is its financial equivalent.

Does an artist have some concept "inside his head" ? Yes, I suppose he does. But endless repetition of the same piece of art is deadening. Fripp also said If you are playing repertoire material, you're stuck. There's not huge amounts you can do. It's a problem more germane to music and dance than to the visual arts, but here's my thought on "inside the head". It is, in fact, something I once learned from Mrs. LeMaire, my old art teacher.

If a rifleman sets out to shoot a target and hits it, we can say he is a good shot. If his target is as large as the side of a barn, how good is his shooting? That depends, of course, on his distance from the barn, but the artist knows his work is valid when he senses a congruence between his intent and the finished product.

I could never strip myself bare enough to produce Simon Hantaï's pliage. It's his technique: it is enough for me to admire the work, to let it fire the neurons in my retina and stir up indescribable reactions to the work. This is all Simon Hantaï has asked of me, is all he asked of anyone. Time and tide have given me some talent with a pencil, the computer has given me the tools to produce graphs, a bit of music and some fairly good photography. But these are merely means to an end. The only thing going on "inside my head" is a need to create, and the hope such creations will be as pleasing to others as they are to me. I cannot make you enjoy the image. Once created, the Artifact must stand alone: like a grown child, it must stand on its own two legs to defend itself. These essays, too, are just such an effort: I would rather you see them, not me.

That's it - right there


"They were not really interested in making art, but making a Statement."

That's my objection to a significant fraction of current art. When I go to a gallery and see a written statement from the artist that starts "My art is about . . ." more often than not I throw my hands up in frustration.

I think that may be a fundamental reason that there is so much crap art out there.

For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right but found to be otherwise - B. Franklin

Islamic art has always known this to be so.


This Statement business is always a bit stupid and ultimately hubristic. It is as if the author of a book slyly watches over your shoulder as you read, providing a running commentary. If the book is any good, the author is given voice already. Painting, music, any of the arts ultimately resolves to what we call in the modern software business an Artifact. Look, here it is, cries the artist. I love it, don't you?

Doubtless, we have all known self-centered people, to whom we mere mortals are mere receptacles for their emanated wonderfulness. Thus it is with many artists, and it is not always their fault.

The artist is already in a uniquely vulnerable position: the critics (generally a vile species of parasitic ink-pissers who could not create valid art if their lives depended upon it) descend like vultures in their multitudes upon the humble opening night to drink the chardonnay, nibble up the hors d'oeuvres and savage the exhibition the next day in print. Like cooks in the kitchen, galvanized into action by the breathless rumor of a Zagat foodie at Table 14, the artist must bow and scrape and kiss the jeans-clad buttocks of the critics, without being too obsequious.

It must all be done in good taste. Wear the black t-shirt and Ralph Lauren slacks. Affect a bit of stubble on your visage. Nod graciously to the museum people and art dealers. Gently stave off the name-dropping ladies with the decade-old degrees from the Art Institute, fresh from Eliot's Prufrock who simply must know your Influences.

And I have known the eyes already, known them all— The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase, And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, Then how should I begin To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? And how should I presume?

A few of those hellish evenings, lubricated with good, but not too good California white wine and you will know, o you will know why Simon Hantaï closed his door and made more art and less conversation.