Haitian-born French artist Hervé Télémaque, known for his colorful and figurative work, died yesterday at the age of 85. He had acquired international fame at the end of his career, following a major investigation at the Center Pompidou in 2015.
As he worked in painting, drawing, assemblage and collage, curators sometimes found Télémaque’s very unique style difficult to categorize. In the 1960s, he became associated with Narrative Figuration, a movement somewhat similar to American Pop Art but with strong socialist principles. Eventually, he broke away from this group, producing complex and poetic work more evocative of surrealist influences.
Radical politics, anti-consumerism and the history of colonialism are recurring themes in Télémaque’s thought-provoking work.
Born in Port-au-Prince on November 5, 1937, his first interest was sports but he was unable to compete due to his health. In 1957, Télémaque escaped the dictatorship of François Duvalier by settling in New York. There he joined the Art Student’s League and was exposed to cutting edge new movements like Abstract Expressionism, showing particular interest in Arshile Gorky. He also married his wife Maël Pilié, a seamstress.
Affected by segregation in the United States and uninterested in producing abstract art, Télémaque moved to Paris in 1961, where he began working with a group of emerging artists, including Bernard Rancillac and Jacques Monory, who would become known for creating a new style – Narrative Figuration.
“I was a bourgeois boy, but I couldn’t find a studio,” Télémaque told Artnet News in 2019 of the racism he experienced while living in New York. “I found a much more open environment in France and there I started to count with my stay in America.”
But his experiences of racism in French society also quickly became an important source of influence. His “Banana” series borrowed images from everyday pop culture, including magazines, advertisements and cartoons, to expose derogatory stereotypes of black people.
Télémaque took part in the big MoMA rehang of 2019 with Untitled (The Ugly American) (1962/64), a reflection on his experiences of racism in the United States. Blond-haired, pink-faced faces shout “STOP” from the right, while Caribbean revolutionaries like Toussaint Louverture, a leader of the Haitian Revolution, appear from the left.
“New York is an international city now, it’s no longer an American city,” he said to himself on his return to New York to see the painting in situ. “I’m so happy to see that black American artists are starting to have success, which is totally new.”
A retrospective dedicated to Telemachus is currently on tour, having first been exhibited at the Serpentine in London and now on view at the Aspen Art Museum in Colorado.
“We are deeply saddened by the news,” Serpentine artistic director Hans Ulrich Obrist said in a statement to Artnet News. “Hervé Télémaque’s seminal work has taken us down a unique path through the visual languages of colonialism, desire and consumerism. This array of themes has remained as central today as it has in every decade marked by his singular practice.
“I will never forget the precious times spent together and will cherish his words: ‘Art is the speed of experience.'”
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