In 1979, the French painter Claude Rutault planned his first solo show in New York, at P.S.1—but the exhibition never happened. In the more than 30 years since, his quixotic work—the detailed instructions for which must be carried out by institutions, collectors, or gallerists—has been exhibited widely in Europe, but never in New York. That changed last Thursday, when his solo show opened uptown at Emmanuel Perrotin.
Since the ’70s, Rutault has conceived his paintings as collaborative enterprises and whimsical exercises. His 2011 self-portrait, for example, consists of a small, painted oval canvas accompanied by a larger unpainted one, the size of the artist himself, which must be turned toward the wall once Rutault, who is 73, dies. The joint owners of from stack to stack forty-fifth theme: stack for stack, a work from 1989-90, must exchange their stacks of canvases in perpetuity; the owner of 2014’s charity begins with others are required to donate three of the five circular canvases to charity.
Before the exhibition opening, Perrotin employees and handlers streamed in and out of the gallery, carrying out the artist’s directives. In many cases, whoever decided the color of the walls effectively also decided the colors of the canvases that lean or hang from it; according to Rutault’s instructions, the two must match. (Not that he is shy in offering a dissenting opinion. Of a bright blue wall in the main gallery, he declared, via a translator: “I might have preferred green!”)
One new work, Suicide painting 11, stipulates that its owner personally paint it the same color as the wall on which it is hung. What’s more the work cannot survive its owner. So what if the collector donates it to a museum instead? Rutault has a solution: “He could be buried in the museum!”
And what if the museum won’t allow it? “He could donate his ashes and incinerate the painting, and show the work that way,” he said, laughing.
What if they don’t? “It’s optimistic,” Rutault conceded. “There have been a lot of developments in art since the ’70s, but the main element of my work has remained the same—the painting is never finished.”
“Claude Rutault” is on view through January 3, 2015 at New York’s Galerie Perrotin, 909 Madison Ave.