Noël Dolla: Tulle/Dye, 1969-2023
Noël Dolla is a French artist, and if he is known at all in the United States it is for his participation in Supports/Surfaces, a collective of like-minded artists who in the late 1960s to 70s shared common ideas about the identity and symbolic function of art. Their project emerged as the political and philosophic debates arose from the student and worker protests of May 1968. These debates, which had their foundation in Marxist and post-structuralist thought, emphasized the questioning of all established norms and led to a re-evaluation of how we perceive, represent, and understand the complexities of the self in the world, ushering in the critique of modernism that came to be known as postmodernism.
To this day, Dolla continues to employ techniques like sewing, knotting, staining, and imprinting along with the use of unconventional materials like plastic, string, and gauze. In doing this, he is less concerned with being transgressive or novel and more focused on questioning the adequacy of art’s traditional formats to capture the complexities of modern life. At this point, I’m tempted to chastise my readers for not being more aware of Dolla or Supports/ Surfaces. But this ignorance is not your fault; unlike BMPT (Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni) they have never received significant critical attention in the States. This after all is Dolla’s first one-person exhibition in the US, and there have only been a scattering of exhibitions in the States since the 1990s that have included works by members of Supports/Surfaces, but nothing comprehensive. The reasons for this disregard are many, but a good place to start is by acknowledging that European and American modernisms are built upon differing discourses.
The history of modernism written in the United States after the 1950s represents itself as being a New Testament—it begins with Abstract Expressionism’s break with its European roots and builds on its triumph over the School of Paris. In this accounting, the European history of modernism is the Old Testament, and only the first three books, beginning with neoclassicism and ending with Surrealism, are of any relevance. Beginning with the post-WWII era, its canon consists primarily of art “Made in USA.” Here and there European artists such as Francis Bacon, Yves Klein, or Alberto Giacometti are included because they are singularly used to represent Post-War era European art, while others like Gerhard Richter are used to prove that American art is the dominant discourse. As such, this history of modernism serves as a filter.
Why European modernism and the one that emerged in the US differ is because European modernism emerged in the nineteenth century following Romanticism, which was influenced specifically by the industrial revolution, the rise of bourgeois nationalism, and the declining power of the aristocracy and church. World War I then had a profound impact on European modernism, instilling it with a profound sense of disillusionment, which manifested itself as an existential desire to break with the past. In the States there was no such history or philosophic tradition to drive its modernism. Using European developments as a model, the idea of modernism did not take root in the US until the twentieth century. This was because of “melting-pot” and regionalist culture, which left the country without a comprehensive national identity until the post-World War II era. Modernism in the States had no grand traditions to challenge; instead, it was pragmatic—a collection of borrowed concepts and styles.
Despite how they might now appear to us, Dolla’s works do not fit neatly into the standard account we in the US might be tempted to fit them into. For instance, though his work shares several formal and aesthetic characteristics with post-Minimalism that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it is safe to say Minimalism plays little or no role in Dolla’s work. More likely, in the 1970s he was responding to Nouveau Réalisme, the Letterists, Zero, and the work of Jackson Pollock, which had a significant influence on French painters such as Simon Hantai, who until recently was also unknown in the US. Yet, ironically—as with these post-war European movements and artists, post-Minimalism has also been marginalized; perhaps its aesthetic was too European to fit the American narrative of Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual art, and postmodernism.
Since 1969, Dolla has made a wide variety of works in various formats and media alongside the works that make up this exhibition, Tulle/Dye. Dolla’s repeated use of the same material and differing motifs is not a question of his being committed to repetition and variation. Instead he uses these to respond to their potentiality and variability. Therefore, as you move through the exhibition from piece to piece, and while Dolla’s aesthetic and sense of precision remain constant, his structural and cognitive concerns shift, requiring new formats and strategies. Frequently he creates site-specific installations, responding to the unique characteristics of a space, such as Tableau d’ecole (2023) in this exhibition, which is installed in the corridor connecting the gallery’s two rooms. This piece consists of motifs in red and black painted directly onto the walls. These are accompanied by configurations made from a narrow band of gauze, one edge of which has been tinted red, which has been and adhered directly to the walls.
Starting with the simplest works such as Tarlatane 1976 (P1976-19) (1976) that is little more than a roll of gauze in which each end has been stained by a color or Tarlatane (1970) on which a pattern of dots has been pinned to the highest point possible and allowed to roll down the wall, to the most elaborate recent large-scale installation, Tarlatane (2023) Dolla remains particularly concerned with the viewer’s cognitive engagement with the artwork. His concern is with the order of things and what may be extrapolated from this. The large works in this exhibit Tarlatane (2022) and Tarlatane (2023) consist of multiple layers of gauze folded together. Each layer has been worked differently; some support colorfield-like stains and other patterns. Because of the gauze’s transparency, the viewer is left to puzzle out an effects’ actual physical location versus its visual one, prompting viewers to reconsider their understanding of the work’s process and materiality. The smaller Plis et replis (fold and folded) works from 2015, made from a length of narrow gauze, are simpler and read more linearly, and given that they are unstained, they tend to be more graphic since the folds are angular and more mechanical.
By repeatedly deconstructing painting’s identity, Dolla touches on a range of issues extending from a phenomenological understanding of the work of art as an event, to those of expectations and determination. By analogy, Dolla’s practices deconstruct the notion that the self and the other have fixed forms. From this, we might conclude that Dolla has never been a formalist or a modernist, but instead has always been a post-modernist committed to skepticism, playfulness, relativism, variability, and the dismantling of hierarchies, even those of his own making.
14 September 2023 - 21 October 2023