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Claude Viallat. Radical Abstraction

[29 May 2018]

For over 50 years Claude VIALLAT has pursued a very specific and singular artistic practice, that of printing a systematically repeated shape onto a wide variety of materials such as sheets (cotton, canvas, hessian, silk, velvet) and fabrics (sometimes glittered) as well as curtains, blankets, umbrellas and various other materials. These frameless paintings are made flat on the ground à la Jackson Pollock and are created from a single stencil in the form of a somewhat distorted rectangle, both sinuous and minimalist, repeated like a pattern over the entire surface. This unique shape is Viallat’s signature, just as stripes measuring 8.7 cm became Daniel BUREN’s or as Imprints of a No. 50 Paintbrush Repeated at Regular Intervals of 30 cm became Niele TORONI’s in the 1960s.

Using this simple technique, Viallat plays with the intensity and lavishness of colour. He applies paint using his sponge-shaped stencil onto materials that are often already rich in colour or already carrying motifs. “… what matters is the how the motif colour interacts with the underlying colours… how, either intuitively or accidentally, I manage to organise the density and intensity of a surface”. (C.Viallat).

For Viallat this method of creation is limitless. Constantly creating new surfaces – at the rhythm of approximately one a day or 300 per year – some 13,500 works have been duly photographed and inventoried so far. In terms of volume, this immense œuvre may be compared to that of some of the world’s most famous artists. In terms of colour, a comparison with Matisse, who Viallat greatly admires, seems particularly appropriate. Several exhibitions have highlighted the movement of shapes and colours in the work of both artists. Next to Matisse, the radicality and humility of Viallat’s creation system reveals him above all as a extraordinary colourist. Today, his frameless paintings, often floating in exhibition spaces or simply pinned to the walls, are attracting new collectors.

A brief history of his œuvre

Claude Viallat’s works have been exhibited in most of the primary exhibition spaces dedicated to Modern and Contemporary art in Europe, America and Asia, and have been acquired by most of the major public and private collections. The artist’s CV lists prizes, honorary titles (including that of Knight of the Legion of Honor in 2011) and exhibitions around the world. In 1982, the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris put on its second largest exhibition ever organized for a living artist (Salvador Dali was the largest). Six years later, he represented France at the Venice Biennale. In short… Claude Viallat has been considered one of the most important artists on the French scene since the 70s and 80s.

In addition, Viallat’s ‘prints’ have been exhibited several times in New York (the real barometer of an artist’s international recognition) where they were supported by the most prestigious names in the market: at the Guggenheim in 1972… at the Pierre Matisse gallery in 1976… at Leo Castelli in 1982 and at the MoMA in 1984 (an International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture). This recognition appears to have waned in the 1990s but it is currently returning. Viallat’s is now supported in New York by the French gallery Ceysson and Bénétière which opened a space on the Upper East Side last year with a debut exhibition entirely devoted to Viallat’s work (Oeuvres Majeures 6 May – 15 July 2017). Indeed, considering that Viallat’s work has not yet been picked up by the auction majors in New York, the artist’s market potential on the other side of the Atlantic could not be better. Although Viallat has had very little exposure in London galleries (a group exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in 1979), his work has a distinct secondary market recognition in the UK capital (probably because it’s closer to France).

Positive signals

In the autumn of last year Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London both fetched good prices for works by the artist, with results easily doubling their high estimates. The best result of $34,000 (including fees) rewarded a work nearly three metres high for which Christie’s was expecting between $9,000 and $14,000. However the new London record simply brought Viallat back in line with price levels already reached in the early 1990s.

The renewed interest is also clearly visible in France. In the late 1980s and in 1990 (just before the market crashed in 1991), several major works by Viallat fetched over $30,000 at public sales, an excellent price level for a French artist. His market subsequently experienced a sharp contraction and it was not until 2007 when Viallat was shown at the Fabre Museum in Montpellier (La couleur toujours recommencée – Hommage à Jean Fournier) that his secondary market began to recover its late-80s standing. Viallat’s recent best result of $73,500 was hammered at Piasa in Paris in October 2015 for a work measuring 220 x 208 cm entitled Colorant sur toile blanche 005 (1974). That was two years before Viallat began collaborating with the New York gallery, Ceysson and Bénètière. The re-ignition of his New York career marks a new start for the international recognition and the prices of this artist and while the new momentum has not yet generated a new record, it has substantially animated his auction market with a best-ever annual turnover in 2017 of nearly $269,000 (from 51 works sold). In short, all the market indicators are now positive for the valuation of works by Claude Viallat. His price index already shows an increase of +113% since 2000.

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