ICA Miami is proud to present “Hervé Télémaque: 1959–1964,” which brings together over a dozen paintings from the artist’s first five years of production. Relying on an established exhibition and research practice of delving into significant periods in artists’ careers, ICA Miami takes a deep and definitive look at the earliest works in Télémaque’s oeuvre.
As one of the preeminent painters of the postwar period, with an artistic output that spans grotesque figuration to Pop art to assemblage, Télémaque has been at the forefront of a number of modes that characterize contemporary art. “Hervé Télémaque, 1959–1964” examines the very beginning of his practice, exploring a period of turbulence for the artist, both artistic and existential. In 1957, when François Duvalier came to power in Haiti and Abstract Expressionism was in its waning years, Télémaque moved to New York City from his native Port-au-Price to become an abstract painter. What he found in America, aside from artists with whom to dialogue, like the painter Julian Levi, was a deeply segregated society that racialized his body in a way that he had not experienced in Haiti. This new and difficult social reality began to register in early abstract paintings like Toussaint L’Ouverture in New York (1960) and Othello (1960), which of course could not help but turn the abstract painter’s desire for “nonreferentiality” back to the textures and problems of everyday life. In this vein, sexuality, too, became an important theme in the work.
In 1961 Télémaque decamped to Paris, where he befriended a number of Surrealist and Latin American artists, like Wifredo Lam. By 1962 he had slowly evolved his gestural abstract language into a politicized grotesque abstraction. Aggrieved and distorted figures, often depicted as giant mouths or headless bodies, became necessary to register the impact of the social situation he lived through in America. They also became essential in articulating the critique of colonialism that Télémaque turned to as he began to feel a deep affinity with the radicalization of Caribbean politics starting in the late 1950s and running through the following decade. Paintings like No Title (The Ugly American) (1962/64) and My Darling Clementine (1963) are scathing critiques of physical and ideological American incursions into what, at the time, was called the Third World, while Portrait de famille (1962/63) pokes fun at general bourgeois values. During this time, Télémaque would also become involved with a group of artists that included the likes of Öyvind Fahlström and Bernard Rancillac who gathered under the rubric of Narrative Figuration in order to reinvigorate a French cultural scene that was stalling out on Abstract Informalism.
By 1964 the signs of a new visual language begin to appear in Télémaque’s work, bringing him closer to what would eventually blossom as Pop art. While continuing to cast a critical eye on the colonialist tendencies that permeated French society, Télémaque also began to develop a more hermetic and cold visual language, which would increasingly characterize his work in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, culminating this early period of both migration and deep experimentation with visual languages.
Hervé Télémaque (b. 1937, Port-au-Prince, Haiti) moved to New York in 1957 and attended the Art Students League of New York until 1960. He moved to Paris in 1961, where he has lived ever since. He was the subject of a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2015 and a survey exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries in London in 2021. His work is included in numerous museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Centre Pompidou; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; and the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Saint-Étienne.
“Hervé Télémaque: 1959–1964” is organized by ICA Miami and curated by Gean Moreno, Director of the Knight Foundation Art + Research Center.
Exhibitions at ICA Miami are supported by the Knight Foundation. Additional support is provided by Christian Louboutin.