César, La retrospective and a market inconsistency

Stefano Pirovano

The Centre Pompidou celebrates César with a granitic show bringing together 130 pieces by the French master. Will auctions keep on underestimating him?

The retrospective exhibition that the Centre Pompidou dedicates to César (Baldaccini) is very important not only for being the largest show ever dedicated to the French sculptor, and the first one of this kind after the artist death, 20 years ago. Its importance is also due to the fact that the museum which organized the show is at the moment one of the few art public institutions preserving those reputation and independence needed for properly placing an artist in the history of art. Which is the private art institution or collector’s foundation that could do better? Thanks Centre Pompidou for being here, despite Koons and Hockney.

César is France’s greatest sculptor of the XXI Century and likely one of the top five in Europe. We would place him next to contemporary masters such as Joseph Beuys, Henry Moore, Pietro Consagra, Christo, Joan Miró. He was born after the Great War, in 1921, the same year as Beuys. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts both in Marseille and in Paris, but had to wait until 1960 to cross the threshold that led him to the future of modernity. That year he discovered the hydraulic press of the Société Francaise des Ferrailles in Gennevilliers, a suburb 15-kilometres north of Paris. There and with that press he started doing what he called ‘Compressions’: found objects and materials turned by the powerful press into vertical self standing parallelepiped.

‘My sculptures developed in line with the possibilities offered by the materials and instruments – César claimed in 1959. One of these possibilities matters to me above all: being able to destroy. This is just as important as being able to construct’.

In 1961, thanks to this radical artistic gesture, César was invited by proto-curator Pierre Restany and artist Yves Klein to join the Nouveau Réalistes. The group was founded at Galleria Apollinaire in Milan the year before, and already included Arman, Francois Dufrêne, Raymond Hains, Martial Raysse, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, Jacques de la Villeglé. The group was active until 1970. During this prolific period of time César also discovered the pantograph and created a body of magnified sculptures representing realistic human thumbs, breasts, fists, or hands. In 1967 he launched the Expansions, hence sculptures created by pouring polyurethane foam on a flat surface. In 1970 he went back to metal sculptures and experienced welded bronze and iron, forging monumental pieces such as the Centaure, Hommage to Picasso (1985) or the Flying Frenchman, which was installed outside the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, in Kowloon (1992).

In 1998, in collaboration with entrepreneur and art collector Alberto Rossini, César conceived la Suite Milanaise, that is a series of 15 squashed FIAT Marea car shells repainted in the manufactures colours. Stephanie Busuttil Janssen, César partner in life at that time and now Director of the César Foundation, assisted the artist, while he was working at his last main sculpture. He passed away a few months later.

However, despite such a successful career and outstanding production, César still has to win the attention of the market. The artist’ record at auction is ‘only’ € 327.000, buyer premium included (Centaure, Sotheby’s, 2015). The current price of the Compressions from La Suite Milanaise is around € 300.000, and a seminal piece such as the Compression ‘Zim’, executed between 1960 and 1961 by the artist for Marie-Laure de Noailles, failed at auction (Sotheby’s, 2015). The French Vicomtesse asked César to compress her own Zim car, a Soviet version of the American Cadillac, and the piece was installed in the lobby of the Noailles private mansion in Paris. Conservatively estimated to sell between € 600.000 and 800.000, the sculpture couldn’t find any buyer. A unique piece such as the L’homme de Villetaneuse was sold for € 301,500 at Sotheby’s in 2013. In comparison to certain living artists such as Dahn Vo, Ndjema Akunili Crosby, or Adrian Ghenie these are peanuts. Now the question is, who is wrong? The Centre Pompidou, that would still never give its top floor galleries to a market darling teenager, or the auction houses market, which is apparently prone to forget the fundamentals of an artist career? Only time will say.

December 19, 2017