International Contemporary Art


Free admission

Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion - Level S2



Freed from the need to represent visible reality in a literal way, abstraction revolutionized art in the early 20th century. In a movement that was nonfigurative by definition, questions of representation still remained at the heart of the artists' concerns. Each painter was free to create his or her own language, made up of "signs" as a way of translating emotions or sensations. Californian Sam Francis was particularly influenced by Monet's enormous Water Lily paintings on permanent display at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris. From the later French Impressionist paintings he borrowed his sense of scale, purity of colour and sensitivity to the fluidity of light, which he never ceased to explore in his large-format paintings. German painter Gerhard Richter demonstrates a critical fascination with ways of constructing an image, resulting in his exploration of both abstraction and representation. Consequently, he occupies a unique position in the history of 20th-century painting. The French painter Pierre Soulages coined the term "L'Outrenoir" in 1979. For the most part he freed himself from the use of brushes, favouring palette knives and spatulas to spread the black on the canvas: "What you see in my paintings is light transformed, transmuted by the black. This is a light that comes from the wall towards the viewer."



In the early 1980s, some New York artists, tired of the rigours of abstract and conceptual art, re-introduced the human subject into the heart of their work. Mark Tansey advocated a return to representational painting. By entitling his canvas Action Painting II, Tansey mocks the term that American critic Harold Rosenberg coined to describe the physical involvement in their painting of gestural abstraction artists like Jackson Pollock. George Segal, an admirer of Rembrandt, highlights his figures by applying the chiaroscuro principle to his sculptures. Jean-Michel Basquiat, by spending time on the street and beginning as a graffiti artist, forged his own personal style. Basquiat, of Haitian and Puerto Rican origin, died of an overdose at the age 27. In the early 1980s, he signed his early works with the pseudonym of "SAMO" (Same Old Shit). Dense surfaces, written words, collages and skeletal characters were his trademark. Soon, Basquiat had established himself in the avant-garde culture of the time, becoming friends with Andy Warhol and the stars of the underground.



Now more than ever, reality in all its forms supplants illusion and the conventions of representation. This is sociological art, in which hyper-realism of the kind found in Tony Matelli's work is used more as a metaphor than as mere imitation. The American artist depicts two starving monkeys mercilessly attacking an obese chimpanzee, to illustrate the bestial nature of our social behaviour: the poor elements of society taking revenge on their over-fed neighbours. Other contemporary artists respond to this hyped-up realism by appropriating images from everyday life, then recycling them into political messages. Los Carpinteros, a group working in Havana, used the shape of a grenade – symbol of the armed Cuban struggle and its revolution – in creating a chest of drawers for storing its memories, a failed relic of a now obsolete culture. The artists take a shock approach that they explain in this way: "We've discovered that behind the functionality of objects made by humans, there are cracks that reveal thoughts and behaviours." Robert Longo's work, which exhibits a much more tragic dimension, is governed by darkness. The blackness has an almost morbid power of attraction, heightened by the monumental size of his charcoal drawings on paper.