Introduction

This inaugural issue of Selva: A Journal of the History of Art is dedicated to the French artists’ group Supports/Surfaces and, more broadly, to theorizations of painting in the aftermath of the uprisings of May 1968. Now available on our website are two articles by art historians Jenevive Nykolak and Sami Siegelbaum, as well as translations of texts by the artists Daniel Dezeuze and Pierre Buraglio. Over the coming weeks we will post additional research articles by Daniel Marcus, Daniel Spaulding, and Allison Myers, as well as a number of further translations.

Supports/Surfaces only existed as a formal association from 1970 to 1972 (there were already scissions as early as 1971). Its impact on French art was out of proportion to its relatively short lifespan, however: the group lent a common name and, briefly, a common sense of purpose to a circle of about a dozen artists, most of them painters, in effect producing a shared horizon of practice and debate. The Supports/Surfaces trademark was a marriage of rigorously abstract art to both strident left-wing politics as well as an ambitious theoretical vocabulary, the latter drawn from the work of Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Lacan, among others. In particular, Supports/Surfaces cultivated a relationship with the authors and editors of the journal Tel Quel, arguably the preeminent intellectual avant-garde of the post-’68 moment. In 1971, Supports/Surfaces in turn founded its own journal, Peinture, cahiers théoriques, which is notable for having been perhaps the only periodical in history devoted specifically to the theorization of painting. The group’s artist/writers sought to apply the most sophisticated theoretical tools then available to an account of painting as a “specific contradiction” within the ensemble of practices that make up capitalist society. Although traces of this artistic, intellectual, and political world have percolated into art historical consciousness in recent years, there has until now been a notable deficit in attention paid to Supports/Surfaces in comparison to American artistic phenomena of the same period.

The aim of this issue is thus in a certain way quite simple: it is to show that in France of the late 1960s and early 1970s there existed a complex discourse on painting that has yet to receive its due in Anglophone scholarship. We have broken with a widespread tendency to bracket out—not to say repress—textual production in the Supports/Surfaces orbit. In short, we take the group’s various accounts of itself and of painting at large quite seriously, which is not to say uncritically.

The art historians featured in this issue of Selva each aim to describe different aspects of the Supports/Surfaces amalgam. Sami Siegelbaum, for instance, examines the influence of Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser on the Supports/Surface conception of painting as a “theoretical practice.” Jenevive Nykolak in turn reconstructs the project of “painting with desire” that emerged from the ashes of the group’s collapse in 1972. In articles yet to be posted, Daniel Spaulding will consider the odd triangulation of formalist art criticism with Maoist politics, while Daniel Marcus will focus on interpretations of the art of Henri Matisse, the household deity of the Supports/Surfaces milieu; Allison Myers, finally, will compare the group’s work to American abstract painting and (Post-)Minimalism of the 1960s and ’70s. Translations of primary texts by artists and critics of the period will fill out the picture.

Our aim is to illuminate a moment in which the specter of revolution haunted the most unassuming of aesthetic gestures: a stain on a canvas, an empty stretcher, a dishcloth pinned to a wall.

The editors of Selva: A Journal of the History of Art

October 2019