An Icon of Unconventional Abstraction

The Russian-born painter Serge Poliakoff (1900-1969) is a fascinating figure whose work deserves to be better known in the United States. When the Russian Revolution broke out, he was able to make his way to Bulgaria. In the early 1920s, he survived as a balalaika player touring Europe, eventually settling in Paris in 1924, where he performed in the city’s Russian cabarets for the next 30 years in order to paint. Starting in 1929, he studied painting at the Académie de la grande chaumière, Académie Colarossi, and Académie Frochot. One of his teachers was Othon Friesz, who had been a member of the Fauves before turning against Fauvism. While some critics have suggested that Friesz may have inspired Poliakoff’s interested in saturated color, it is worth remembering that they met after Friesz had started using a somber palette, following his experience fighting in World War I.

It is more likely that Poliakoff’s attraction to luminous color began in his childhood with his enchantment with Russian icons, as his mother was devoutly religious and took her son (the 13th of 14 children) to church nearly every day.

In 1937, he returned to Paris from London, where he had briefly lived, and the next year he began attending the weekly salons of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, as well as met Otto Freundlich and Wassily Kandinsky. It is in this milieu that Poliakoff’s interest in color took off. In 1942 he made his first abstract paintings and three years later he exhibited them for the first time.

Serge Poliakoff, “Composition Abstraite” (1961), gouache on paper, 24 x 18 1/2 inches (©2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photography: Alex Yudzon / Cheim & Read, New York)

Poliakoff is often linked with Jean Fautrier, Nicolas de Staël, Pierre Soulages, Hans Hartung, and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, a group of French artists who lived in Paris in the late 1940s and worked abstractly at the same time as the Abstract Expressionists were beginning to gain attention in the United States. As none of these painters, with the exception of Soulages, made a post-easel painting, the chauvinistic attitude of the American art world at the time relegated them to a secondary status, at best. 

Of this group, Poliakoff is the most interesting and adventuresome colorist, who, in his adherence to the picture plane (or what Robert Ryman called the “paint plane”), seems closest to postwar American artists and their concerns. 

In 2016, Joe Fyfe organized a revelatory exhibition of paintings, Serge Poliakoff, at Cheim & Read (March 31–April 30, 2016). In the accompanying catalogue, Fyfe smartly got comments from Brice Marden, Patricia Treib, and Jonathan Lasker, each of whom pointed out what attracted him or her to Poliakoff’s work. The fact that their observations did not overlap suggests the complexity of  Poliakoff’s singular achievement. 

I think of Serge Poliakoff: Gouaches 1938-1969, at Cheim & Read (May 20–September 25, 2021) as furthering the case for Poliakoff’s importance and continuing relevance to abstract painting, particularly for artists working outside any movement or stylistic tendency. 

The dates of the work span Poliakoff’s return to Paris to the year of his death, three decades during which he never settled down or became repetitive. Something that struck me in the 2016 painting exhibition and was reaffirmed in this show of gouaches is Poliakoff’s interest in the possibility of shape, which many American abstract artists did not pursue, with the exception of Thomas Nozkowski, who began exploring and inventing shapes in the mid-1970s. Along with shape, what caught my attention in the gouaches was the attention Poliakoff paid to the figure-ground relationship. 

Serge Poliakoff, “Composition Abstraite” (1957), gouache on paper, 18 3/4 x 24 1/4 inches (©2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photography: Alex Yudzon / Cheim & Read, New York)

The earliest work in the exhibition, “Étude de Cercles” (1938), was done when Poliakoff was hanging out with the Delaunays. Co-founder of Orphism, Robert Delaunay was interested in color, light, tone, and depth. This early work shares something with Delaunay’s paintings from around 1912–13, such as “Le Premier Disque” (1912–13), made after he broke with the Cubists. It is worth remembering that Delaunay split off from Cubism early and took an independent path that did not rely on broken planes of color. 

In the three gouaches dated 1938, ’39, and ’40, Poliakoff painted between three and six unidentifiable, monochromatic abstract shapes against a solidly colored ground, with the contour of each shape guiding the next shape’s outline. One result is that the spaces between the shapes are equally distinct, and take up about as much space, contributing to the piece’s visual tension. These works anticipate the paintings of both Nozkowski and Treib. 

In “Composition Jaune” (c. 1955), Poliakoff centers a shape that is two thirds red and one third black and resembles a bowtie, surrounded by yellow. It is in the yellow that we can see what Poliakoff does that is unique. The yellow varies in hue to create distinct areas, including an arrow-like shape rising from the middle of the bottom edge and seemingly holding the bowtie aloft. Again, Poliakoff attains a visual tension between the figure and the ground, but in a different way than in the gouaches from 1938–40. With “Composition Jaune” our focus shifts back and forth, zeroing in on the seams between the red and black shape and the clearly divided yellow ground. 

Serge Poliakoff, “Composition Abstraite” (1959), gouache on paper, 24 x 18 inches (©2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris. Photography: Alex Yudzon / Cheim & Read, New York)

In “Composition Abstraite” (1959), Poliakoff invites the viewer to read the work as a wine-red helmet-like shape sitting on a saturated red table against a dirty bubble-gum-pink wall. The helmet-like shape was painted over a different-colored shape that peeks through, suggesting that Poliakoff’s decisions were the result of color relationships. Further, as the angular edge of the helmet’s back rim coincides with the red plane’s diagonal right edge, just above the bottom right of the painting, the tension between flatness and dimensionality is never resolved. We are given the option of reading the helmet-like shape as a rounded form sitting on a table or as three flat, interlocking shapes. 

Sometimes the surface of a shape is solid, other times it is patchy and seemingly textured. We are always invited to look carefully and see if the ground is divided into different tonal areas, or to recognize what changes when a patchy area is adjacent to a solid one. It seems to me that the gouaches are not subsidiary to the paintings. Rather, they form a separate, self-contained body of work within Poliakoff’s oeuvre. Seeing these exhibitions has made me want to experience more of this artist’s work. 

Serge Poliakoff: Gouaches 1938–1969 continues at Cheim & Read (547 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through September 25.

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