César Baldaccini : An Anthology by Jean Nouvel
César Baldaccini
An Anthology by Jean Nouvel
Linda Chenit, May 19, 2008
The Fondation Cartier will present a major exhibition of the work of French sculptor César on the tenth anniversary of his death. Jean Nouvel - the Fondation Cartier’s architect and a close friend of the artist - has been invited to select the works as well as design their presentation, thus offering a fresh perspective on the work of an artist who passionately explored the formal and expressive possibilities of industrial materials. Through this exhibition, the Fondation Cartier will celebrate an artist who played a major role in its history, from its inception in 1984 until his death in 1998. It will include nearly one hundred of the most significant works from four major groups: the Fers, the Compressions, the Empreintes humaines, and the Expansions. Influenced by the examples of great artists of the past, yet imbued with a sense of the radical and innovative, César’s work defies conventional ways of thinking about sculpture and has profoundly impacted the art of today.

César Baldaccini
César Baldaccini


César + the Fondation Cartier

Cesar’s own history is closely linked to that of the Fondation Cartier. In the early 1980s, he played an integral role in the creation of the Fondation by urging Alain Dominique Perrin, President of Cartier International at the time, to create an alternative exhibition space that would allow artists to develop their projects freely. This led to the creation of the Fondation Cartier, which was inaugurated in 1984 in Jouy en Josas with Les Fers de César, marking the beginning of a string of exhibitions in which the artist’s work was showcased. The same year, César also began work on the Hommage à Eiffel, a monumental sculpture made with the steel girders that had been dismantled from the Eiffel Tower in an effort to lighten its structure. In 1986, the Fondation provided him with the opportunity to realize a new series of works to be presented in the exhibition Les Championnes de César. In 1991, his creations were promoted internationally in the Fondation’s exhibition Too French in Hong Kong and Tokyo. The following year, Cartier commissioned and donated a monumental sculpture, The Flying Frenchman, to the city of Hong Kong.


Portrait de César, Herb Ritts, Cahors 1993, © Herb Ritts Fondation.
Portrait de César, Herb Ritts, Cahors 1993, © Herb Ritts Fondation.


César Baldaccini_Naxos 594, 1998_Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain_Stéphanie Buzutil_Aurelio Amendola
César Baldaccini_Naxos 594, 1998_Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain_Stéphanie Buzutil_Aurelio Amendola


Jean Nouvel meet César

César employed the hydraulic press, expanded polyurethane foam and castings of the human body to realize works he called Compressions, Empreintes humaines and Expansions. These techniques led the artist to reduce the intervention of his own hand in the creation of his works, allowing him to seize upon reality in a direct manner. César’s formal training led him to question the significance of this new approach, which became the subject of many discussions with his friend Jean Nouvel concerning the nature of a work of art: “Can a work of art that does not show evidence of craftsmanship still be considered art?” César was faced with an inner conflict clearly described by Catherine Millet: “César, as classical as his spirit may be [...], as attached as he is to the importance of craft, has found himself caught in a dilemma; he has discovered that sculpture is not just an art of accurate proportions and beautiful materials to be touched, it may also be an idea.” Known for an approach to architecture that favors the immaterial and the minimal, Jean Nouvel has appropriately chosen to place particular emphasis on the conceptual aspects of César’s work. In a rigorous exhibition design, he has chosen to focus upon what he considers the most innovative bodies of the artist’s oeuvre, not according to chronology, but to genre.


César Baldaccini_Compression Elattine
César Baldaccini_Compression Elattine


In the late 1940s, César began welding metal and using wire to make sculptures representing animals and hybrid creatures. At the beginning of the 1950s, he discovered the technique of electric welding which enabled him to assemble pieces of scrap metal - bolts, plates, rods, sheets - in an intuitive manner, depending on the possibilities offered to him by the types of materials he was able to recycle. A selection of seven of these animal sculptures made of iron will surprise the visitor at the entrance of the exhibition. Whether fragile and delicate or angular and aggressive, these works reveal César’s virtuosity as a sculptor and his attachment to craftsmanship.


César Baldaccini_The Centaure, 1985
César Baldaccini_The Centaure, 1985


In 1965, César’s Parisian art dealer, Claude Bernard, invited him to participate in a collective exhibition entitled La main, de Rodin à Picasso. César first considered casting the hand of a live model, but felt he “needed to add something […] in order to move beyond the boundaries that divide mechanical production from artistic activity.” The discovery of a pantograph, an instrument that transfers the contours of a small model to a larger scale, provided him with the opportunity to develop this idea. He decided to realize a cast of his own thumb on a larger scale, breaking with traditional notions of scale. Close to sixteen inches in height, this giant thumb, made of translucent pink plastic, was the first of a variety of casts made from hands, fists or breasts. Presented together in the exhibition on the ground floor level and ranging in height from one and a half inches to nineteen feet, the Empreintes humaines are realized in both unusual and traditional materials, from polyester and cast-iron, to marble and bronze.

César Baldaccini_Finger
César Baldaccini_Finger


In order to create casts of monumental size, César began searching for light materials that would allow him to enlarge his sculptures while limiting their weight. He discovered the advantages of polyurethane foam which, when mixed with freon gas and exposed to the air, expands considerably and crystallizes into a solid form. Using a powerful mixer, he began to explore the possibilities of this material on a large scale, leading to his first Expansions of 1967. Organizing a series of happenings, he mixed and poured the polyurethane in public, creating ephemeral works with organic forms, the result of a completed chemical reaction. To make these sculptures permanent, César developed a technique that enabled him to provide them with a sleek and hard surface. Jean Nouvel will present fifteen of these Expansions that appear to pour out from the walls of the exhibition space on the ground floor of the Fondation Cartier.

César Baldaccini, La Défense, Paris_Étienne Cazin
César Baldaccini, La Défense, Paris_Étienne Cazin


The discovery of a hydraulic press in 1959 at a scrap metal factory near Paris led César to the idea of creating his Compressions. When a large American press capable of crushing an entire car became available in France, César decided to use this tool to create a complete sculpture. With this technique, the artist no longer uses his own hands to realize the sculpture, he creates a work of art with the assistance of the machine. Presented on the lower level of the Fondation, the dense and compact historical Compressions from the 1960s contrast with the light and linear works of the 1998 Suite Milanaise, the final series of Compressions realized by César using new Fiat car bodies. Less abstract, César’s “flat” Compressions, conceived for the 1995 Venice Biennale, remain recognizable as complete cars. Also presented on the lower level, Les Championnes (1985-86) are the first of a series of “sheet” Compressions where car bodies are reduced to a thickness of twelve inches and cut into rectangles.

César Baldaccini_Pink Sculpture
César Baldaccini_Pink Sculpture


Placed throughout the garden, several sculptures echo the presentation within the building. The Sein and monumental nineteen-foot Pouce are presented outside near the exhibition space devoted to the Empreintes humaines. A series of cast-iron Expansions are displayed on the opposite side of the garden. Behind the Fondation Cartier, Jean Nouvel will revisit Un mois de Lecture des Bâlois, a work made of several tons of compressed papers, originally presented at Art Basel in 1996.

From July 8 to October 26, 2008

fondation.cartier.com