Claude Viallat cracks the code of colors

1 9 7 7 / 0 4 2 , 1 9 7 7 – Acrylique sur parasol – Acrylic on patio umbrella
140 x 183 cm – 55.1 x 72 in – courtesy Ceysson & Bénétière

Claude Viallat,

the very essence of painting, or the infinity of colors

After Marcel Duchamp declared that “painting was dead”, who would have thought that in the same decade, one of the greatest painters of this century, Claude Viallat, would discover a new path in painting, the infinity of colors. Today, international curators and art critics see Claude Viallat mainly as co-founder of Supports/Surfaces. Of course, they are right, it’s essential, and it’s even the foundation of his painting, but that’s not all, he went far beyond.



If Supports/Surfaces was initially created by Daniel Dezeuze, Claude Viallat and Patrick Saytour, in 1969(1) in order to break the rules of showing art. The very first event that initiated the creation of Supports/Surfaces was an exhibition called “Painting in question” in the city of Le Havre –June 1969(2). In the catalogue of the exhibition it is said “« The object of painting is painting itself, and the paintings on display relate only to themselves. They do not appeal to an “elsewhere” (the personality of the artist, his biography, the history of art, for example). They offer no escape, because the surface, by the ruptures of shapes and colors that are operated there, prohibits the mental projections or the dreamlike ravings of the spectator. Painting is a fact in itself and it is on its ground that one must raise the problem. It is not a question of a return to the sources, nor of the search for an original purity, but of the simple laying bare of the pictorial elements which constitute the pictorial fact. Hence the neutrality of the works presented, their absence of lyricism and expressive depth

Everything was said there. It would lay the very foundations of Viallat’s debuts in painting.

About the “Support” Viallat says in a series of interviews with his gallerist Bernard Ceysson (3) “Creating the “support” at first is a way of creating already within the fabric, encounters, constraints, and a wide range of material and color relationships. It is forcing or shorting tissue surfaces that can be contradictory, and managing to fix all that with color. It’s the color that will take over and bind a little altogether” and later “The fabric is there ready to offer me its traps. (……… ..) I am quite opportunistic. That is to say that each time I take a canvas it would offer me opportunities and I would work these opportunities by accepting what the hazards of work give me to take advantage of this situation”

Time passing shows that Supports/Surfaces has been both the foundations and stepping stone for Viallat to exploring endlessly a new path of using paint. He is lucky enough to live a long life to show the world how right he was to choose that new path 49 years ago.

1 9 8 9 / 0 8 9 , 1 9 8 9 – Acrylique sur bâche- Acrylic on tarpaulin
150 x 442 cm – 59.1 x 174 in – courtesy Ceysson & Bénétière



In the Arts, we know that New doesn’t come from anywhere. If we distance ourselves, we can draw the context of Viallat’s debuts:

First, remember that even if at his debuts Viallat was living in Limoges, he was born in the South of France as were Cezanne and Matisse. It is was a heavy weight for a painter to bear, and Viallat had no choice other than thinking differently to show a different path.

Art History shows that topics have been the spine of paintings since the beginnings. Painters have been very creative with new treatments of their topics which have produced different important movements like Mannerism, Rococo, Romantic, Naturalist, Fauvism, Cubist, Symbolism to name a few.

Then the “no topics” currents came with Abstract expressionism, and with the Russian Constructivism. With Expressionism, if the topic, in the sense of showing something recognizable like a landscape or an apple, was erased, Expressionism itself became the main topic. Concerning Constructivism Russian theorists like Taraboukine theorized about Painting by introducing a difference between “the paint from the interior (as opposed to) the paint from the exterior”(4)

1 9 7 8 / 0 0 5 , 1 9 7 8 – Acrylique sur fragments de tissus- Acrylic on fabric fragment – 113 x 180 cm – 44.5 x 70.9 in
Courtesy Ceysson & Bénétière

The New comes in reaction to an existing current or in the continuity of an existing one. For Viallat, we could say it came from both: at the time Viallat started, painters were haunted by Marcel Duchamp’s declaration that “painting is dead” meaning that everything was told, and, in Europe, the Constructivism theory was still an important source of interest.

Declaring that “Painting was dead” was a way to offer a blank canvas: “nothing was possible so everything was possible”. The Theory of Painting that emanated from Constructivism certainly nurtured the thoughts of the movement Supports/Surfaces and more specifically Viallat, who worked the “paint from the interior” as theorized the Construcivists.

We also know that Viallat was teased by American painters like Jackson Pollock (5) who tried “new”. He says in an interview (…) I was influenced by everything that was shown in American painting, Abstract painting, Pop art and so on, until that day when attending the exhibition at gallery Maeght “20 years of contemporary art”, I realized that my work was scattered in everyone’s work. It was from there that I started to do the opposite of what I saw. I started working with raw canvas and putting the minimum of layers of colors which does not prevent to have several colors. I learned progressively to understand how the raw not primed fabric I was using absorbed the colors, which forced me each time to reinvent a technique”.

Viallat had no choice other than to try something new also, and he did it the European/French way by creating that intellectual/political movement “Supports/Surfaces” in 1969.



Elaborating new theories and gathering them all in a movement such as Supports/Surfaces was in a way an obligation for its members and Viallat to have to make it work and make it right. Viallat was then and forever unleashed from the constraints of the past. He was then and forever unfettered, released from the weight of the history of European painting, ready to explore the inside of paint like Voyager 1 in the unknown of space.

From then Viallat would experiment different ways to show art. He would put nets on the floor, paint things on fabrics with no frames, he would try anything to avoid the traditional way of painting and showing paintings. He worked on those loose, soft or raw found fabrics, like tarpaulins -his favorite-, he worked with ropes and nets of any kind. Any support but the traditional wood framed canvas.



At the same time this is when Viallat decided to use a shape he has been using for 49 years which is now his signature shape. He says he likes it because it doesn’t mean anything, it is not conformed to any idea of beauty, nothing, just neutral.

The decision he made to use a certain pattern for the rest of his career was, in fact, the best way to avoid the “topic”. Exactly like the Impressionists had declared, “why don’t we put feelings to our paint” he would become the first painter to impose on himself a neutrality to better explore the infinite possibility of paint. To explore the paint from the interior.

Let’s take an example in literature to better understand what Claude Viallat has been doing for years. For instance, you are a novelist and take the decision to use only 600 words to write, always the same ones all along your entire career. Could you make it work? Another obvious analogy is with the composers who create so many symphonies with just a couple of notes.


The result of the constraint Viallat has created is an unbelievable exploration into the colors. Claude Viallat has cracked the code of colors by opening a new Pandora’s Box.

On every single new tarpaulin, fabric, rope, or net, touched by the magic of Viallat, the colors respond differently to each other. Every single time the paint interacts differently depending on the fabrics. The paint  sometimes looks loose, thin, or thick. Every single time, depending on the color chosen for the shapes, the red looks different, lighter, or deeper, but never the same. The vibrancy of the same orange is different depending on the support chosen and the color on its sides.

The simpler the painting is, the more vibrant the colors are. It’s like they are dancing or speaking to each other. The color becomes the topic, the tool and the result.

Sometimes on some paintings we see an ecstatic joy to paint with a visible gesture from the painter. It has nothing to do with Expressionism. With the Viallat’s approach, the gesture serves the colorsand it’s limited to the shape or the space in between, when with expressionism, the gesture must have no limit and uses the color as a tool to serve the expression.



Other painters have pushed the boundaries of painting very far. We could cite names like (no specific order) Jackson Pollock, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Alix le Méléder, Michael Kindred Knight, Barnett Newman, Margie Livingston, Bernard Pifaretti, Josef Albers, Pierre Soulages and others I certainly forgot. They all have avoided the subject, they all have put constraints to their process to better focus on one essential question, the paint. They go far into questioning paint from the interior, but no one has cracked the colors much like Viallat did, with such freedom of means.

Beatrice Chassepot – Los Angeles, November 20th, 2017 –

2016 2016/093 – Courtesy Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles



(1) with André-Pierre Arnal, Pierre Buraglio, Louis Cane, Marc Devade, Daniel Dezeuze, Noël Dolla, Toni Grand, Christian Jaccard, Jean-Michel Meurice, Bernard Pagès, Jean-Pierre Pincemin, Patrick Saytour, Claude Viallat

(2) with Louis Cane, Claude Viallat, Patrick Saytour and Daniel Dezeuze

(3) Interview of  Claude Viallat by Bernard Ceysson – July, 17 2008 – Part 2 and Part 1

(4) Le Constructivisme russe: Le constructivisme dans les arts …, Volume 1 By Gérard Conio

(5) « SUPPORTS/SURFACES » by cedricheumel published in May, 2011

1 9 9 2 / 0 7 5 , 1 9 9 2 Acrylique sur bâche – Acrylic on tarpaulin 220 x 256 cm – 86.6 x 100.8 in courtesy Ceysson & Bénétière