“I’m not a white wall person,” says artist Nicolas Party. That’s a bit of an understatement, considering his recent, drastic transformation of Chelsea’s FLAG Art Foundation into a pastel-colored wonderland. Dramatic color-blocking, specially built arched doorways and elaborate wall murals are a splashy rebuke to the cold neutrality of so much contemporary and modern art. Party’s latest show — which mixes his own work alongside that of masters like Edgar Degas and 21st-century peers — is a rarity: conceptually and formally astute, while also guaranteed to slay on Instagram.
The FLAG exhibition, “Pastel,” on view through Feb. 15, 2020, is a sprawling love letter to the Swiss-born artist’s medium of choice. While the 39-year-old artist started his career as an oil painter, the laborious process eventually wore him down. “I was way too slow,” he says. “In art, you can just add, add, add — it’s never-ending. I was never satisfied with colors; I was always changing things, slightly.” He would find himself toiling over a single still life or portrait for a year or more. Pastel presented itself as a swifter option; if oil paint takes ages to dry, pastel simply never dries. Party delighted in the shading effects he could achieve with pastel and how the medium short-circuited his usual attempts to layer, rethink and start over with a painting.
The artist is well aware that he’s an outlier; he can’t think of a single peer who is working with pastel on canvas, as he is. Some of the younger artists he has curated into “Pastel” (Louis Fratino, Robin F. Williams, Loie Hollowell) do dabble, but mostly in the form of sketches or studies. Party became fascinated with why pastel was still so out-of-favor as a material. “If you use it, people will say, ‘Well, that’s not really serious. Why don’t you metal or oil paint on a big canvas? [Like] Richard Serra or Jackson Pollock.”
Discrimination against pastel goes way back to the early 18th century, when women artists picked it up in earnest during the Rococo period. Party cites art historian Melissa Hyde as his own guide to the complexities of how, and why, pastel came to be so scorned. “It became extremely popular in the womens’ art world,” he says. “A lot of the academy and the establishment was against it, basically for all the reasons that people are criticizing women [themselves]: it’s frivolous, superficial, it’s about aesthetics. It’s not serious, too colorful, too pink, not intellectual.”
Party’s FLAG exhibition confronts these prejudices head-on. Here, there’s no such thing as too colorful or too pink, and a keen intellect undeniably simmers beneath all the delectable ornamentation. The heart of the show is a series of massive wall murals that Party created over six marathon weeks this fall; each is appropriated from an existing Rococo painting. The most immersive room features a blown-up, pastel recreation of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1773 painting “The Progress of Love,” stretching across three walls. But Party cropped out the main action of the work, leaving only the accompanying foliage and shrubbery. “I love the bottom” of the painting, Party clarifies. He was just fascinated by Fragonard’s trees, which he found “very voluptuous and cloudy — they look like vegetables.” Atop this mural is a tiny portrait by Rosalba Carriera, an early Rococo-period adopter of pastels. (Many of the historical works found here are loans, but in two cases — including the Carriera — Party bought paintings at auction to include in the show.)
Elsewhere at FLAG, Party has recreated a 1758 portrait by François Boucher (lopping off the subject’s head in order to focus on the fabric of her dress, he explains), using it as a backdrop for an 1895 Edgar Degas pastel borrowed from Acquavella Galleries. In another room, a wall-sized pastel rendering of Fragonard’s “The Birth of Venus” is paired with an absurdist portrait by Robin F. Williams titled “Alive with Pleasure.” Similarly playful juxtapositions are dotted throughout the bi-level exhibition, which wrangles pastel works from across the centuries — from Impressionist Mary Cassatt to Billy Sullivan, whose breezy portraits of young men from the 1980s and ‘90s give off a casual sensuality.
Party’s own works in the show, though, are some of the strongest testaments to pastel’s ongoing power. “Portrait with Pink Bows” (2019) is built up from a single rich, gold pigment: a picture of uncanny elegance. There’s a series of drawings of trees on paper, a large still life of fruit and a pair of landscapes — “Sunrise” and “Sunset” — that are an excuse to go wild with abstract shape and color.
As FLAG associate director Jonathan Rider notes, Party’s practice often involves recasting some of art history’s most time-honored tropes, but doing so in a manner uniquely his own. In “Pastel,” where Party does double duty as a curator, his diligence as a long-time observer shines through. “When you see something great, you’re basically trying to take as much as you can from that painting,” he says. The heroes he’s learned and borrowed from, in terms of color, include Henri Matisse, Milton Avery, Félix Vallotton (“probably one of the best painters, for greens”) and Giorgio Morandi (“I love those greyish, pinkish, fleshy colors”).
While Party seems surprised that more contemporary artists aren’t working with pastel, he’s the first to admit that the medium has its quirks and difficulties. Unlike oil paint, he explains, pigments can’t be readily mixed or lightened on a palette. As a result, a typical pastel kit contains hundreds of sticks, each its own minutely different shade of color. And that set-up doesn’t come cheap; a full array of pastels from the high-end French brand Henri Roché — displayed in a long vitrine at FLAG — would run around $24,000. Pastel is also challenging to fix and preserve, since it does not dry (anyone reaching out to touch one of Party’s wall murals would be courting disaster).
Does that precarity bother him, I wondered? To the contrary. “I fell in love with the fact that pastel is super fragile,” Party says. There’s a poetic edge, he explains, to an artwork that can so easily become nothing more than “dust in the air.” When Party has completed site-specific murals in the past, he’s grown used to visitors lamenting how those works will eventually just be destroyed. “That’s actually what I like,” he counters. “There’s something very reassuring, relaxing and soothing to do things that go back to dust.”
“Pastel” runs through Feb. 15, 2020. For admittance information, click here.
Top Image: Installation view of Nicolas Party: Pastel at The FLAG Art Foundation, 2019. Photography by Steven Probert.