He 'zigged' when the art world 'zagged'

Jean Hélion's swim against the currents of 20th-century art brought him a measure of hard-won recognition.

In the 1930s, as both practicing artist and theoretician, French painter Jean Hélion was an influential promoter of abstract painting. Friend to luminaries such as Mondrian, Arp, Duchamp, and Calder, Hélion stood at the center of, as he once put it, "practically all the world's abstract artists."

But the history of modernism is a chronicle of innovators, not acolytes, and Hélion's rigorous, geometric abstractions rarely spoke in a voice entirely his own. He might have faded permanently into the background of 20th-century artists had he given himself completely to avant-garde ideas. As it turned out, Hélion is most remembered, not for his devotion to abstraction, but his rejection of it.

A retrospective of Hélion's work now at the National Academy Museum in New York (through Oct. 9) plots the changes of direction in the career of a painter now little known in America. The 36 canvases on exhibition at the Manhattan mansion-turned-conservatory cover a period of more than a half century, from 1930 to 1983, and a span of artistic sensibility that swings from austere Constructivism to a private Expressionism both exuberant and lush.

The National Academy is the only US venue for the exhibit, which was organized by the Pompidou Center in Paris in 2004 to commemorate the centenary of the artist's birth. The show also traveled to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona before opening here. The New York exhibition is considerably reduced in size from its European incarnation, which presented more than 70 paintings and numerous drawings and studies.

Hélion was the son of a provincial taxi driver in northeast France, far from the country's centers of sophistication. He described himself as having "the ingenuity and endurance of a manual laborer," but also recognized that, "working people do not recognize me as one of their own." He went to Paris in 1920, where he was soon absorbed in the life of what was then the avant-garde capital of the world.

By 1930, Hélion was advocating an art of pure form, based on utopian ideals of mathematical order embodied in the industrial age. His "Circular Tensions No. 1," and other paintings from 1931 and '32, are devoid of direct references to the visible world, and echo the austere fields of lines, arcs, and flat colors favored by Piet Mondrian.

Later in the decade, Hélion switched to a style of broad planar shapes that reduced Cubism to its simplest forms and balanced them within the frame according to complex rules of composition.

A "hankering for the real," as he described it, finally led Hélion away from abstraction in 1939. Nearly two years in a Nazi prison camp, in 1940 and '41, also influenced his shift to figurative painting, done initially in a style that borrowed from the curved planes of his modernist work.

Soon, however, he was expressing urban life in a style of Social Realism at once direct and sophisticated. His 1950 painting "The Big Daily Read," which depicts five men reading newspapers on a park bench, combines the populist narratives of the American Ashcan School with the stylized economy of Henri Matisse.

Hélion spent the last 3-1/2 decades of his life zigging while the art world zagged. As Abstract Expressionism dominated critical discourse in midcentury, Hélion pushed deeper into realms of controlled representation. This phase of his career, dominated by gritty, carefully rendered still lifes and nudes, is all but absent from the National Academy exhibit. The artist's movement to naturalism is represented by a single canvas - of the inside of his Paris studio.

From the early 1950s, the exhibition fast-forwards to the '70s and '80s, and a collection of large, loud works which seem at first not to have come from the same artist.

Rapidly losing his eyesight, Hélion in old age transformed himself once again with a bright Expressionist language of surreal street scenes and off-kilter interiors. The tumbling chairs, green flames, and purple nudes of the later work possess an infectious freedom that sums up their creator's essential nature.

Through the course of his life, Hélion abandoned, in turn, his working-class roots, avant-garde status, and the consolations of traditional realism.

Yet he never surrendered the artistic autonomy that defined his long career.

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