Immortality in crushed cars

CESAR 1921-1998
Click to follow
It has been unkindly said by some within the contemporary art world that the last years of Cesar's life (d. 6 December 1998) were marked by the great illusions which come with fame, as the French State heaped its honours upon him. It might even be argued that Cesar himself was in some way complicit in this assessment, with his numerous and sometimes overblown public projets, like the 12-metre-high gilded bronze of his thumb, installed at La Defense, Paris, in 1993. And even more so, perhaps, in the typical measuring of himself against the great masters who have gone before, such as his Nessus-like sculptural homage to Picasso.

However, to take up this mean-spirited position fails to accord to old men their characteristic foibles, and has to be set against the many and varied accomplishments over some 50 years of this extraordinarily gifted sculptor's life.

Born on New Year's Day in Marseilles, 1921, Cesar Baldaccini was a man of the South, like Klein and Arman who, with him, were to forge the movement of Nouveau Realism (New Realism, sometimes called French Pop), in 1960. Like these two he adopted a singular name: Cesar. However, to engage immediately with the 1960s is to ignore the earlier, and some might say greatest, accomplishments of Cesar. The son of a cooper, he studied at the Fine Art School of Marseilles. The war intervened, then he entered the Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1943, living in the same house where Alberto Giacometti had his studio.

During his on-off commitment to sculpture (1945-47), Cesar first found his expressive vocabulary, which was initially closer to Germaine Richier than to the emaciated reductionism of Giacometti. In works like The Cock, with its obvious French symbolism, he began to perfect his welding, soldering and assemblage techniques. Over the next 10 years, Cesar fused assemblage with bricolage, turning found detritus and roughly-cut steel plates into fantastic animals and limb-like extensions.

In his work of the 1950s there always remained a feeling of a sensuous French classicism, and in the work of the New Realists of the 1960s, a sort of columnar classicism is always present. Through this classicisation, his machine-made crushed cars called Compressions differ from Cesar's US contemporary, John Chamberlain, whose crushed car works contain all the fluorescence (as opposed to compression) and celebratory character inherent to American Pop.

With typical French rationalism, what followed the Compressions was the polyurethane Expansions which he began in 1967. These were the gestural and poured shapes sculptures achieved when the polyurethane made contact with the air, for it expanded like foam before eventually setting in rounded and pseudo-tactile forms. It was during Klein-like public performances which accompanied the making of the Expansions that the Expansions were cut up and handed out as souvenirs to somewhat bemused onlookers.

The assemblage-bricolage work of the 1950s, and the 1960s Compressions and Expansions, were to dominate his work throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s. Beyond this lay the late 1980s and 1990s which largely saw assimilation and recapitulation on an all-too-often vast scale: in 1995 an enormous pile of crushed cars appeared in the French Pavilion at the Venice Biennale - they had to take the roof off to install it. Similarly, the use of "high-art" bronze emerged, replacing his earlier materials.

To the French, the death of Cesar is the passing of an "institution" which directly affects the nation's cultural life. To us, perhaps, it reflects something else, the loss of someone who delighted in the material presence of things in the world.