Thumbs up for César: The late French artist’s work gets its first US showing in half a century
The legacy of the revered French artist César Baldaccini has taken centre stage in New York with the opening of a seminal survey of his sculptural works. Spread over three floors in the Upper East Side townhouse that is the Luxembourg & Dayan gallery, the exhibition brings together pieces from the artist’s estate, major museums and private collections in an intimate setting.
A key figure among the Nouveaux Réalistes in the 1960s, a group that included Yves Klein, Christo and Jean Tinguely, César’s influence on modern sculpture is immense. The show charts his progression from early figurative works like Torso (1954), a welded iron depiction of the female form, which stands at the entrance of the gallery and is on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, to his colourful, polyurethane Expansion series, and various iterations of his Compressions works, which gave rise to his highly recognisable pressed sculptures.
The exhibition is the culmination of several years’ work between Luxembourg & Dayan and Foundation César, which is run by the artist’s former companion, Stéphanie Busuttil-Janssen. Remarkably, it is the first American exhibition of César in 50 years; César’s last showing was back in 1961 at the now defunct Saidenberg Gallery, which was located just one block away.
’César did a first trip to America with Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely at the end of the 1950s because he knew that New York would be the new heart for the art world,’ Busuttil-Janssen recounted. ’They came to New York to visit Marcel Duchamp.’ Foundation César has mounted exhibitions across the world but never in New York. ’Luxembourg & Dayan is the right place to show very special and historical works. We have the chance to show a lot of pieces from the estate; pieces that César kept all life long.’
The artist’s dexterity with materials and appropriation of mechanical methods are the strongest takeaways from the show. His creative manipulations of found auto components and textural steel-pressed creations of jute sacks, wool blankets and corduroy are beautiful juxtapositions to the smooth, amorphous pourings of polyurethane that convey a more subtle take on kineticism.
Also not to be missed are the artist’s fantastical ’Pouce’ pieces - depictions of César’s thumb that range in size and span 1970 to 1993. It’s the eight-foot tall bronze version flanking the gallery’s townhouse door that we like the most.