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Academic & writer

Toronto Star

How France lost art to America Writer traces the rise of New York as the world’s art capital

Judy Stoffman, May 28, 2002

Slim, chic and with a mind that gives of  sparks, Annie Cohen-Solal is one of those glamorous intellectuals only the French know how to produce. Her most recent book, Painting American (Alfred A. Knopf), illustrates her ability to connect disparate events and frame broad arguments.

This is the same woman who was the inspiration for the character of the flamboyant journalist Solange Merci-Gâteau in the erotic novel Pinocchio’s Nose by U.S. novelist Jerome Charyn. She is such an appealing personality that former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, having seen her on German television speaking German (one of five languages she can converse in), persuaded French president François Mitterrand to invite her to a state dinner so they could meet.

Her country’s cultural representative in New York in the early ’90s, a friend of artists and rock stars, she was in town recently for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Toronto. Cohen-Solal, 53, held her audience spellbound describing how leadership in the visual arts passed from Paris to New York in the 20th century — the subject of Painting American. She is now working with the Metropolitan Museum in New York on an exhibition on the same theme, while teaching at the prestigious École des Hautes Études en Science Sociale in Paris.

“For me, art is the best key to understanding a culture,” she tells me after her lecture, crossing her long legs. “When you talk about art, you talk about everything — religion, culture, money, the institutions of society. I am not an art historian but a cultural historian, using a set of  interdisciplinary tools from the social sciences. I am interested in the conditions of artistic production, the painters not the paintings.”

The Algerian-born Cohen-Solal shot to prominence in 1985 with her warts-and-all biography of Jean-Paul Sartre, translated into 16 languages. She even identified and located Sartre’s hidden lover, the American actress Dolores Vanetti, now 90, who nearly ended his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. Vanetti appears briefly in Painting American.

That book began to germinate during her years in New York, where she came to appreciate the dynamism of American art and to understand how art flourishes within an ecosystem of dealers, collectors, curators, patrons, museums, critics and art schools. Painting American is not flattering to France, laying out in detail how the arrogance of the French Academy, the conservatism of the Salon system of exhibitions and the resistance to change of French art museums droveaway the country’s leading artists — straight into the arms of wealthyAmerican collectors and American museums that were more receptive to modernism.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, artists had to go to Paris to learn from the artists who came before — not only Americans like James McNeilWhistler and Mary Cassatt, but Canadians like Paul Peel, James Wilson Maurice, A.Y. Jackson, Emily Carr and Jean-Paul Riopelle. But by mid-century the masterworks of modern art had passed to the New World. “Jackson Pollock was the first important American painter who didn’t have to go to Paris because Paris had come to him,” she says.

Particularly vivid is the story she tells of Picasso’s breakthrough into Cubism, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which was bought from the artist by Jacques Doucet, a wealthy couturier. Doucet bequeathed the painting to the Louvre, but after his death, the Louvre rejected it and the painting became the centrepiece of the Museum of Modern Art in New York when it opened in 1929. “The loss of the Demoiselles was a disaster for French culture,” she says flatly.

When her book was published in France two years ago, it received a prize from the Académie des Beaux Arts and led to a series of radio programs on the rise of American artists. “It opened a debate in the press,” she says. “My specific analyses on the lack of `dynamic actors’ in France, versus their diversification in the U.S., on the archaism of French institutions, versus their reinvention in the U.S., have been widely accepted.” When asked if she finds French museums conservative in their acquisitions even now, she answers: “Definitely.”

Today New York’s dominance, too, is fading. Artists don’t have to get their work shown there to matter. A system of huge art fairs and biennials has sprung up in Sâo Paolo in Brazil, Basel in Switzerland, Maastricht in the Netherlands, Kassel in Germany, Lyon in France and other places in Asia and Latin America. Art scouts comb the world to bring artists from previously excluded cultures like Cuba or China to these exhibitions. For Canadian art, globalization is good news, says Cohen-Solal

“I can see the work of (Toronto artist) Vera Frenkel on the Web from Paris,” she says. She knows a suprising amount about Canadian art and bemoans the bad Renoir reproduction in her hotel room. “The next time Icome (she plans to return to U of T in the fall), I hope to find an Inuit sculpture or something by Ronald Bloore or some other Canadian artist.”

At the end of the book, she recounts her visit to Saskatchewan-born Agnes Martin, painter of precise grids echoing American Indian blankets, who now lives in a retirement community in Taos, N.M.

“Globalization is a paradox,” Cohen-Solal concludes. “It creates the possibility for artists from peripheral cutures to emerge, but it gets rid of the specificity of art relating to those cultures. That’s why transnational art deals with gender issues, the body — things that are general. Artists have to try to keep the local specificity. Agnes Martin manages to remain a Canadian artist to anchor herself.”