The Art Detective
At the Peak of His Career, Simon Hantaï Stopped Selling His Art. Now, A Powerful Network Wants to Rebuild His Market
The Fondation Louis Vuitton opened a centenary Hantaï exhibition in Paris last week.
The Art Detective is a weekly column by Katya Kazakina for Artnet News Pro that lifts the curtain on what’s really going on in the art market.
Simon Hantaï was at the top of his game in 1982. France’s preeminent artist, he won prestigious prizes and represented the country at the 40th Venice Biennale. His C.V. boasted a retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and solo exhibitions from New York to Tokyo.
Then, inexplicably, Hantaï (1922–2008) committed career suicide. He withdrew from public life, left his longtime dealer, Jean Fournier, and turned down gallery and museum shows. For the next 20 years, the Pompidou tried organizing another exhibition; Hantaï refused.
“He decided to cut ties with everything,” said curator Anne Baldessari, who met the artist in 1984. “It was a Quixotic quest. He wanted to be absolutely free. He wanted to be alone. He refused to sell. He refused to show. And he’s succeeded.”
Now, Baldessari is on a quest of her own: to reverse the fallout from Hantaï’s disappearance and reintroduce a global audience to his spellbinding abstract paintings. Hantaï is famous for his method of brush-free painting, which he achieved by folding, pleating, and rolling canvases. Building on Jackson Pollock’s action painting and Henri Matisse’s cutouts, he developed a visual language all his own.
A former director of the Picasso Museum, Baldessari has powerful allies in her effort. Gagosian gallery has represented the Hantaï estate since 2019. Billionaire Bernard Arnault’s Fondation Louis Vuitton opened a centenary Hantaï exhibition in Paris last week, which Baldessari organized. In the sprawling Frank Gehry building, audiences can see 130 works spanning the artist’s oeuvre, from his early Surrealist experiments of the 1950s to the solitary works of his “last studio” in the early 2000s.
“After all these years of silence, I hope the public will find an occasion to discover Hantaï’s work,” Baldessari said. “The paintings are incredibly strong, incredibly powerful, fresh and intense. I think many things can happen now with this exhibition.”
It’s about time. Despite his erstwhile acclaim, Hantaï is undervalued compared to other major abstract expressionists. His auction sales totaled just $1.9 million in 2021, down from a peak of $10.9 million in 2013, according to Artnet Price Database. The highest price for a Hantaï at auction is $4.7 million from 2016, just a fraction of Pollock’s $61.2 million.
The attempt to revive Hantaï’s legacy carries with it a unique tension. Is it possible to build a market for and elevate the international reputation of an artist who rejected the art world while at the same time staying true to his iconoclastic spirit?
Born in Hungary, Hantaï contracted diphtheria as a child, which left him blind for three months, according to Baldessari. Feeling hopeless, his parents prepared a burial cloth for him, an experience that remained with him for the rest of his life.
“It was the beginning of his desire to become a painter,” Baldessari said. Rather than thought or sight, Hantaï began using repetitive motion to develop his artistic language. Manual tasks from childhood such as ironing and folding defined his process-based practice.
Another clue is found in a traditional Hungarian puff pastry, called rétes. “Simon is fascinated by the protocol of its making, down to the large floured cloth used to roll the preparation,” Baldessari wrote in the exhibition catalogue.
During World War II, Hantaï studied at the Budapest Academy of Fine Arts. In 1944, he was jailed after publicly opposing the pro-Nazi regime. Four years later, as the Iron Curtain began to descend, he escaped to Western Europe, settling in Paris with his wife Zsuzsa Hantaï and eventually becoming part of a circle of American artists living in the French capital.Hantaï was briefly a member of André Breton’s Surrealist group, but turned to abstraction after discovering the paintings of Pollock. Automatism remained an important part of his practice until the end.
The artist’s greatest contribution came in 1960, with the invention of a folding method he would explore (often on a monumental scale) until 2004. “He was changing the way to fold every two-three years,” Baldessari said. The groups of paintings were “always different, always with a specific result.”
The folding paintings began with “Mariales” (1960–62), done in tribute to Giotto’s altarpiece, Ognissanti Madonna, at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. These dense paintings are the most coveted by the market, accounting for his six top auction results, according to the Artnet Price Database.
Also popular with collectors are the “Studies” or “Etudes” (1968–71), done by pleating instead of folding to sharpen the monochrome forms from edge to edge. A 1968 “Etude” from the collection of Matisse’s granddaughter, artist Jacqueline Matisse Monnier, fetched $1.5 million at Christie’s in April, more than doubling the low estimate.
Hantaï considered his “Tabula” series (1972–82), which look like grids of irregular tiles, to be his greatest achievement, according to Baldessari. The priciest “Tabula” at auction fetched $880,701 at Artcurial in 2018.“Each specific series has its own specific market,” said Nick Olney, director of Kasmin gallery in New York, which worked with the Hantaï estate from 2010 to 2019. The gallery cultivated the U.S. market through three solo exhibitions and sold an important “Etude” to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 2012.
Other galleries tried to boost the market too, including Mnuchin in New York and Timothy Taylor in London. But supply has been an ongoing challenge. The family isn’t particularly interested in the mechanics of the market, Baldessari said: “They want to respect Hantaï’s position. He was a philosopher. He wasn’t interested in the money or the career.”
At the same time, selling is necessary to enable the family to further the artist’s legacy. The estate still has more than 1,000 works. During his life, the artist donated dozens to French institutions, including a set of 15 paintings to Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris in 1997 and 18 to the Pompidou in 2003.Baldessari curated two Hantaï exhibitions for Gagosian, one in New York this year and another at Le Bourget outside of Paris in 2019. A selection of Hantaï’s paintings is on view at its Paris gallery through May 28. This week, the gallery is bringing Tabula (1980) to Art Basel Hong Kong, where it’s priced at €320,000 ($342,654).
“For us, the market is quite stable and good,” said Elsa Favreau, Gagosian’s deputy director in Paris. “We’ve sold well in New York and in Le Bourget. The phone rings.”
Prices for the primary market works by Hantaï range from €200,000 to €2 million, Favreau said. Between 70 and 80 percent of the works in the recent shows were for sale; the gallery has sold them to private collectors, many with ties to public institutions. “The placement of the work is important,” Favreau said. “America is important. New audience is important.”
The Hantaï family is also looking to open a foundation designed to serve both researchers and the public, Baldessari said. For now, Gagosian exhibitions and the Fondation Louis Vuitton retrospective are crucial for international exposure.
“This is the first step,” Baldessari said. “The name has to be reborn.”
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