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Joseph Kosuth's One and three chairs © Wikimedia Commons
Joseph Kosuth's One and three chairs © Wikimedia Commons

10 Overlooked Masterpieces at Paris' Pompidou Centre

Picture of Jade Cuttle
Updated: 12 September 2017

The Pompidou Centre, housing over 100,000 works, is visited by several million art-lovers each year. Most people will prioritise the pop-up exhibitions over the permanent collection, especially on a flying visit. But a quick dash to these top 10 overlooked masterpieces – unassuming, unexplained, or literally under your feet – will be sure to ignite the imagination.

Nam June Paik’s Zen For Film (Fluxfilm No. 1) (1964)

This work is video art stripped down to its core basics: a loop of clear, unexposed film leader is passed through the projector, showing nothing but the flicker and fumble of scratches dug in by dust over the years. As we wait and wait for the film to start – the few who stay to see it through – we soon realise there’s neither start nor end. We are left with pure materiality and a lingering sense of longing that leads us into the land of contemplation – also into mumbled pardons as people hesitantly pass in front of the screen. It’s a spectacle of shadows, and the spectator is the star.

Carl Andre’s 144 Carrés D’étain (1975)

You’d be forgiven for overlooking this one because you literally walk over it as soon as you enter Pompidou’s contemporary section. It simply blends in as standard floor surface, a bit like a sewage grate. But the focus on industrial properties in this piece, composed of 144 tin tiles, points to a political outlook where art is aligned with the labour of a factory worker. It’s part of a wider series exploiting a range of materials. A lesson to take away is that artistic inspiration can be anywhere, everywhere; in the air you breathe, or even right under your feet.

Hans Richter’s Vormittagsspuk (1927-28)

Unlike most other film projections on permanent display at the Pompidou, there’s no seating nearby for Vormittagsspuk, meaning this hilariously cheeky gem of 1920s avant-garde doesn’t bring in the crowd it deserves – even Nam June Paik’s empty film strip has viewers’ seats! With plates smashing and mischievous bowler hats flustering around and, frankly, just causing mayhem, a spot of seating would not only entice more viewers but also help in getting a grasp of the surreal but delightful chaos.

Piero Manzoni’s Merda D’artista (1961)

A metal tin measuring 4.8 by 6.5 centimetres (1.9 by 2.5 inches) is easily small enough to escape the eye’s attention, but there’s never been so much scandal packed into such a tiny space. Initially, Manzoni‘s project was to produce invisible paintings. But this series takes the idea of invisibility one (slightly grotesque) step further: 90 tins, each containing 30 grams (one ounce) of his own excrement, purchased by weight at the going price of gold. The aim was to shake the spectator’s confidence in the titles artists give to artworks, and undoubtedly cause a stir.

Piero Manzoni’s Merda D’artista | © Jens Cederskjold/WikiCommons

Yves Klein’s ANT 76, Grande Anthropophagie Bleue, Hommage à Tennessee Williams (1960)

If you’ve ever had a fight with a fountain pen, or been caught in an ink cartridge explosion, then this work may resemble a massive accident rather than a finished masterpiece. What’s more, on the same floor you see the work of Kazuo Shiraga and Georges Mathieu, who also seem to specialise in splatters, meaning they all start to look the same after a while. However, what makes Klein’s splats stand out is the striking fact that women’s bodies served as paintbrushes – sprinkle it with a spot of feminism and his pieces become very thought-provoking. Alternatively, you can just amuse yourself by spying for footprints, fingerprints, other prints.

Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale (57-G.4) (1957)

This work is from a sequence of slashed canvases, creating art through destruction – they blur the distinctions of dimensionality. In swapping the brush for the blade, the gestural aesthetic draws upon a knife-point incision through a dominant visuality of damage. There’s not much written on the walls about the post-war context of cosmic exploration that permeated international political discourse at the time of its production, positing the moon as the next point of human exploration. Yet these are the ideas that permeate his pieces quite literally through lacerations.

Robert Ryman’s Sans Titre (1974)

This work is a plain, white canvas, but one revolutionary idea of the time was that you can project your own ideas onto a plain surface as a means of making art. If you squint and wiggle your head around, the gallery light starts to glimmer on its surface like the sun, shimmering like the sea, allowing the brushwork on the bare canvas to take on brilliant significance. However, imagination obviously can’t be represented here. The piece takes a new interest in physicality, exploring what Paul Klee called ‘the painting’s anatomy’: dissecting the medium of painting until you’re simply left with its skeletal remains, canvas and brushstroke. So while it’s a canvas painted white, it isn’t entirely blank.

Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965)

This piece isn’t quite overlooked to the extent of being mistaken as a museum guard’s chair – though opposite there is one such chair, practically the same. It’s overlooked in the sense that most people interested in 1960s conceptual art will dash straight to see Duchamp’s famous ‘readymade’ urinal. However, the wooden frame of this work stand as a foundation to this movement: Kosuth presents a chair, its representation in the form of a photo, and a definition of the word, stripping artistic status back to nothing but concept. Coincidentally, just round the corner you can often hear a guard having to remind art revelers of the work’s artistic status: Monsieur, s’il vous plaît. C’est une chaise, pas une table. (‘Excuse me sir, it is a work of art, not a chair’.)

Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs | © Gautier Poupeau/Wikimedia Commons

Daniel Spoerri’s Marché aux Puces (hommage à Giacomettil) (1961)

Spoerri is most known for his Eat Art work, but he produced many other masterpieces as well. The story behind his signature ‘snare-pictures’ series (where real, found objects are attached to the wall) is not always so obvious. Inspired by the wire noose of a hunting device that entraps and entangles, looping tightly around a prey’s neck until lifeless, Spoerri is trying to ‘snare’ a moment of time, and nothing can escape its eager snatch. The fraying threads of this assemblage dare defy not only the laws of gravity but also the laws of looking at art: perspective is quite literally flipped on its side, leaving us dangling in disorientation. It’s a mess, but a beautiful mess, fueled by the fear of being forgotten – also rekindling dreams of dropping by a flea market in rural France to rummage for secondhand gold.

Enrico Castellani’s Superficie Angolare Bianca No. 6 (1964)

Castellani’s bulging, blank canvas seems to be nothing more than, well, a bulging blank canvas, but it’s a piece that revolutionised the perception of space. In a similar mind-set to Ryman, showcasing an expanse of emptiness in Sans Titre, Castellani here calls for a rejection of representation. However this time, the aim was to create a new dialogue between artwork and the architectural space that surrounds it. Owing to the playful show of shadows upon the curved surface, the piece offers a different viewing experience depending on how much daylight there is when you visit it. You’ve got to see it to believe it.