“Hains is afraid of being pinned down because he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed; he doesn’t want to be labelled. He is allergic to definition. He manages himself such that, if you grasp one facet of the man, he can swivel round and say, “On the contrary”. Seeking the true Hains, we are, I would say, like so many Cézannes seeking Mt. Sainte-Victoire.’” (1) An elusive and indefinable figure, as fascinating as he is demanding, Raymond Hains (1926–2005) is one of the most important post-war French artists; the sheer freedom of his work is a constant challenge to our perceptions and definitions of art.
Throughout his life, Hains opened up new “construction sites” to which he regularly returned. This methodology, which he combined with a lifestyle and a way of talking (mainly in endless monologues) that left its mark on everyone who crossed his path, was fundamental to the Hainsian world. Among these works-in-progress, we should mention the hypnagogic photographs, abstract photos made through fluted glass in the late 1940s, under a Surrealist influence. Ribbed glass became a means of perceiving and registering the abstraction of the world and was immediately applied to other domains, in particular cinema and letterist poetry. These were the years of his collaboration with fellow artist Jacques Villeglé. There followed one of the founding gestures of Nouveau Réalisme – the décollage (unpeeling) of torn posters: a turning point but also one “site” among many others – which he regularly revisited. Urban dérives (“drifts”) took him ever closer to Situationism and, after the ads and billboards, he next collected and displayed boarding fences from construction sites (palissades). At the same time, he discovered Pop Art and created the fictive artists Saffa et Seita; named after the Italian and French tobacco monopolies of the time, they made gigantic matchstick sculptures. With every new work, Hains’s taste for punning collocations of ideas came more spectacularly to the fore; these ultimately became his principal material. His works began to unfold as a joyful speculation on literary and geographical coincidences and his own immediate environment, taking ever new forms. In addition to its formal qualities, each work proliferated with double entendres and unsuspected connections that could only be decrypted by reference to Hains’s increasingly far-flung reading.
The “master” of this universe is no longer with us but he has ensured the permanence of his construction sites: here a sidewalk sculpture, there a curious place-name, here a sign... Hains’s work continues to unfold in the collective imagination. “Since contemporary art became conceptual, I have dreamed of a time when everyone was infected with puns, when puns became a universal activity. Then even heads of state would give up and go home.” (2)
(1) François Dufrêne, ‘interview with Michel Abadie’, 1976, in Raymond Hains, la Chasse au CNAC, Paris: Centre National d’Art Contemporain, 1976
(2) Raymond Hains, quoted by Roberto Ohrt in Raymond Hains: Accents 1949–1995, Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, 1995
In the 1950s, Hains took up his stances: vis-à-vis art history through the freedom he granted himself (declaring himself an ‘inaction painter’), vis-à-vis the artist (claiming to be the agent of fictive artists who made gigantic matches) and vis-à-vis art criticism (proclaiming himself the ‘Cicisbeo of the Critique’).
He was perfectly clear about what Nouveau Réalisme, the art movement orchestrated by the critic Pierre Restany, could offer him: ‘With the Nouveaux Réalistes, we move from the world of painting to a world of truth. Artists stop making art and become abstract personifications.’
‘I’m not so much the creator, encounters are more my thing. I stop in front of a poster because it’s love at first sight. (...) It was a sort of archaeological kidnap; my contemporaries found themselves swept away and looking at the “yeses”. and 'nos' of a referendum the way we look at inscriptions in Pompeii.’
R. Hains, quoted by Otto Hahn, in Beaux-Arts Magazine, April 1986
THE WAY THE WORLD WORKS
Macintoshages are emblematic works produced with the computer. Hains prepared images, categorised them (the dossiers of images are strangely like the suitcases in which he stored his books), then opened them one on top of another before using ‘screen capture’ when things came right. This composition can be decoded thus: in Portugal, Hains decided that the colour of azulejos (blue tiles) was close to Yves Klein’s blue. In the Prado, when he saw Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda, the figure on the far right of the painting reminded him of his friend Yves, who wore the same hat. Klein was associated with one of Jean Tinguely’s machines because Tinguely had had an exhibition at the same time and Hains considered the members of Nouveau Réalisme as cogs in a machine. The Centre Pompidou is an exemplary machine, one of whose ‘pipes’ is also present in the composition, etc.
Raymond Hains said that he made ‘an art of combinations rather than doing combine painting’. There are many vague connections in the world and Hains set out to reveal them: ‘I’m working at a kind of Web. Life is like a novel, or a piece of Britanny lace.’
Like deconstruction, framing is a recurrent process in Hains’s work. To choose a piece of lacerated posters in the street is already to frame. ‘My works existed before I came along but no one saw them because they were too blindingly obvious.’
PERMANENT CONSTRUCTION SITE
Hains loved the metaphor of the construction site with all its associations; it returns in many of his works. He first exhibited a construction-site barrier (palissade) in 1959 – thus creating a scandal. The object has a symbolic function: it tells us to go and look elsewhere or get over it. This was also the crucial juncture at which Hains discovered the homophonic fertility of language: ‘from palissade [palisade, barrier, fence] to lapalissade [truism or tautology]’. In an unlikely coincidence, Hains further discovered a cake called ‘les entremets de la palissade’ (the sweets of La Palissade), met a descendant of the Seigneur de la Palice, who named the truistic genre, and visited the village of La Palice, whose speciality was, he discovered, a pastry named ‘Les vérités de la Palisse’ or ‘true truisms’. It inspired the observation: ‘Something crazy happens with language, something bizarre and deeply suspicious. Something has happened. There are extremely strange coincidences. That is why I became a moustachist structuralist and a dialectician of palisades. I try to put the whole thing in order.’
One approach returns again and again with Hains: distortion or explosion. He deconstructed things in order to see them differently, to perceive a new reality. Distortion first came through the hypnagogoscope*, a camera/machine with a lens of fluted glass, which Hains developed in 1950 with Villeglé’s help. In 1953, it was the turn of language to be deconstructed; they distorted the letters of Camille Bryen’s phonetic poem, Hépérile, in Hépérile éclaté (‘Shattered Hépérile’). The theme of deconstruction runs through Hains’s entire corpus, from the earliest photos of Breton towns bombed to pieces in 1944 to the tearing of posters by passers-by and so on.
* from the Greek hypnos (sleep), agein (lead) and skopein (observe) – the visual effects felt in the transition to sleep.