French Painter Martial Raysse Returns to the U.S.

Fifty years after leaving the U.S. pop art scene, French painter Martial Raysse is showcasing his “Visages exhibition at the Levy Gorvy Gallery in New York.

“Coming back here is like visiting an old friend.” At the age of 82, figurative painter Martial Raysse is back in the United States. In his role as one of the founding members of the “Nouveau Réalisme” movement, he could have been the French Andy Warhol if his name had not been unfairly dropped from the pages of art history.

Raysse was born in Southern France in 1936 and grew up during World War II, his parents members of the French Resistance. Later, like many artists during the 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic, his creations drew inspiration from the culture of mass consumerism.

America, America Martial Raysse Palazzo Grassi

“America, America” (1964)

The self-taught artist partnered up with Yves Klein and Armand to found the Ecole de Nice movement, whose only rule was the rejection of any academic approach. “I created pop art pieces several years before pop art even existed,” says Raysse. His portraits of women sporting neon sunglasses, and his luminous “America, America” sculpture (1964) could be found alongside works by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. In 1963, he dived into this nascent art scene in New York, before moving onto Los Angeles. The student riots of May 1968 then brought him back to Paris.

From pop art to figurative art

Despite his success in the United States, Martial Raysse abandoned pop art as he found it “too easy.” Upon returning to France, he studied the works of the classical, realist, and romantic masters. American critic and author Jane Livingston believes this choice shows the distinction between the “optimism and energy” of U.S. artists who used the abstraction of mass consumerism, and French artists who preferred figurative art.

“Made in Japan” (1964)

Raysse developed a style that set him apart from the general trends in the art market. Brought to life by his brushstrokes, Ingres’ “La Grande Odalisque” became a lascivious, green, mocking figure in “Made in Japan” (1964). Despite representing France at the 1966 Venice Biennale, his name was slowly forgotten until billionaire François Pinault rediscovered him and acquired several of his paintings. The 2000s were a period of revival, with retrospectives held at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Luxembourg & Diana Gallery in New York.

The “Visages” exhibition at the Levy Gorvy Gallery showcases some 20 recent works. Drawing on his trademark pop art palette, the painter deconstructs light and transforms his blue or pink subjects into timeless figures — a far cry from traditional portraiture. One features an insect on their hair “because every beetle has a specific symbolism.” Another has a flower on their mouth. The dreamlike names of his paintings — “Belle du ciel,” “Ah ! D’accord l’extrême,” and “Songeuse Roxane” — are quite in fitting with this painter who fancies himself as a poet. “It’s a painter’s job to enchant people,” he says.

"Le jour où Gilbert s'est noyé" (2012)

“Le jour où Gilbert s’est noyé” (2012)

From February 28 through April 14
Levy Gorvy Gallery
909 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021