The modernist movements of the early twentieth century taught us that a painting is not a window of mimetic illusion onto the world, but a mental construction that is materialized in a truly concrete object of variable thickness and shape to which pigment is applied.
And from the 1920s onward, Van Doesburg showed that the space of the wall itself also participated in pictorial composition (Composition in Three Parts, 1920).
Following the logic of that approach, André Stempfel first devoted himself to rigorously constructed, geometric abstractions—but their elements were soon drawn into space, bursting into the third dimension and thereby subverting the canonic distinctions between painting, sculpture, and architecture.
Stempfel’s oeuvre developed in all these fields simultaneously. Since the 1960s, alongside his works on stretcher and his work with stretchers, he has invaded public spaces on numerous occasions. Yet despite a training that involved working with volume, it would appear that painting remains the matrix of his overall thrust, whether those paintings are hung on the wall, extend into space, or play upon the plinth of conventional sculpture.
Stempfel has retained the principles of sequence and series—those traditional devices of art concret—but uses them in a warped fashion. Instead of strict permutations, Stempfel’s series are more like playful, narrative sequences, a succession of formal poses that venture off at a tangent. They move away from a canvas that no longer manages to retain them, emancipating themselves as they simultaneously spread across several supports.
Nor is the very structure of the picture overlooked. It is subjected to trials that go far beyond “shaped canvases.” Its very integrity is challenged. Parts of it break off as the canvas splits, twists, curls, crouches, and so on.
If, at first sight, Stempfel’s painting seems to indulge in the game of trompe-l’oeil, it does so only to push that logic to a point of absurdity, attaining a veritable transformation of the canvas, a material concretization of an optical illusion. His sculptor’s prowess, meanwhile, involves making us believe that a piece of wood is flexible.
And since composing is done by working directly on the picture-object, the painter can stick to monochrome and adopt his favorite color once and for all. Which happens to be yellow. Not any old yellow, but a stimulating, dense yet lightweight yellow with the intensity of a beam of light.
Is this perhaps a final vestige of—a point of contact with—the patch of yellow wall in Vermeer’s View of Delft, or an echo of Kandinsky’s Yellow Sound? An artist who explores, who breaks new ground, should never lose sight of his original ties.
Other colors would probably have been heavier, more static, more inert.
Following the old principle of the combustion engine, the more you compress—the more you reduce the parameters—the more efficient the effect.
Here the extreme reduction of means and the energetic nature of the color produce an impeccably painterly and joyful impetus.
The canvas, becoming synonymous with monochrome, soon merges with pigmented substance. It is simultaneously volume and color. Escaping the flat, static condition to which it is allegedly born, painting becomes a living, ductile substance. Aware of its own autonomy, it can then invade and overthrow the realm of sculpture. Donning all three dimensions, painting ensconces itself on a plinth, contemplating one of its own avatars still hanging on the wall. Such painting has surreptitiously replaced sculpture. It briefly adopts a prominent position and assumes a lively, free, sassy shape that unfolds, curls, and slides beneath its pedestal, inverting roles the better to unbalance and bring down that pedestal.
The rationally constructed order in Stempfel’s painting thus seems to have been permanently routed by a monochrome technique that flirts with fire and brimstone, constantly doing what it damn well feels like.
Taking such liberty with dogma calls for absolute precision and rigor of execution. It requires the experience and relentless exploration of an artist who has never forgotten his historic ties yet never remains aloof from the modern world and contemporary developments.
Stempfel’s painterly inventions, born of a methodical approach to drawing, reach out to volume; they thereby invade the architectonic sphere, combining perfect plasticity with joyous escapism.
André Stempfel proves that the most radical abstraction need not be devoid of humor—which is probably the finest way to take painting seriously.
Translated from the French by Deke Dusinberre
“Each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. Efforts to revive the art-principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born.” – Kandinsky