A Brief History of the Archives of Art Criticism

70 years of AICA

Interview between Jacques Leenhardt and Jean-Marc Poinsot

Jean-Marc Poinsot: Together we have created the Association des Archives de la critique in 1989, but the adventure began a little earlier.

Jacques Leenhardt: It started with a little note I saw in Le Monde saying that the Getty Institute was considering acquiring Charles' archives Estienne. It should be remembered that Estienne was a well-known critic of the 1940s and 1950. This brief information suddenly made it clear that these archives and probably others later, leave for the United States and find themselves at the Getty in Los Angeles or elsewhere in universities or museums that are fond of funds documentaries. At that time I was president of the French section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). This information has been for me like an electric shock, I thought to myself: if we leave the American institutions, with their powerful financial resources, expatriate to the United States the archival documents of French art criticism, soon we will no longer be able to study our art history contemporary in France.

J.-M.P. What was the date?

J. L. It was 1985 or 1986. The first documents I found attesting to the exchanges between us on this subject of the Archives date back to 1987. You were then part of the AICA-France office and you were in charge of CAPC documentation in Bordeaux. Logically, I thought that, among all of us, you were the one who had the best competence in this field. It was not yet about archiving, but about documentation. That's when I called you to suggest that we study this issue together. Around that time, we had an appointment with Madame Paradis who represented the Getty in France. Since, at first, collaboration with the Getty did not seem to be self-evident, we considered setting up an organisation to preserve the archives of the AICA art critics and sought help from the European institutions. Fortunately, the Archives de la critique d'art was able to collaborate with the Getty Institute.

J.-M. P. We had some meetings on database projects and then around the Internet that started then.

J. L. Museums and major cultural institutions in France did not show a great interest in the conservation of critical work, with one or two exceptions such as the creation of the Jean Laude Library in Saint-Étienne. By the way, Pierre Restany complained about the lack of interest in preserving its own production.

J.-M.P. We had then begun to work on the project of what an Archives of Art Criticism could be, and the next thing happened. Dominique Bozo had just been appointed to the DAP and he wanted to set up an original project around Villa Gillet in Lyon. He was then looking for a director capable of proposing a program for this villa; he approached me about it and I presented him with our project of the Archives of art criticism. That's when we started to get to the heart of the matter and Dominique Bozo gave us the green light. Françoise Chatel, then a consultant for the visual arts in Brittany, had the opportunity to give us a first grant to design a preliminary project. That was in 1989. A first team has been set up and an ad hoc association set up.

J. L. In fact, I had taken the first steps with three critics - Michel Ragon, Pierre Restany and Georges Boudaille - right before this first green light. By agreeing to entrust their archives to the future institution still dreamed of, these essential figures were in a way a guarantee of the feasibility of our project.

J.-M.P. Yes, you must have talked about it with Michel Ragon, because he had just given his archives away on abstraction at the Nantes Museum of Fine Arts. They were to complete the donation Gildas Fardel. He was then disappointed that after the exhibition closed organized on this occasion, Around Michel Ragon (2010), nothing more happened.

J. L. Indeed, there was a symposium at the Musée de Nantes at the time of the exhibition in which I participated and which was the occasion for a first exchange with Ragon on the future of his archives.

J.-M.P. That's when things started to mature. Thus, for example, at the time we were setting up our project, the Biennale de Paris was in the liquidation phase. It took us overnight to mobilize a truck to prevent the documents from going to the trash.

J. L. It happened that Georges Boudaille, who had been president of the French section of the AICA, was the general delegate of the Biennale, which made this rescue possible in 1990.

J.-M. P. To go back to 1989 when I started talking about our project with Dominique Bozo, he gave me his agreement on the condition that there would be no overlap with the documentary collection of the Centre Pompidou. It was to some extent to prevent us from encroaching on the first half of the 20th century. century. It was therefore necessary for the Archives begin with the living criticism, the one that appeared after the Second World War World War, i. e. with Michel Ragon, Pierre Restany, Frank Popper and Alain Jouffroy.

Subsequently, Restany donated a first part of its archives quite quickly. Then several payments followed, albeit with difficult moments after his death. A significant portion of the archives remaining at his home was in danger of being dispersed, but fortunately we managed to convince his wife and then his heirs to continue the work.

J. L. However, what seems to me to have been decisive is the fact that you succeeded from that time on in mobilizing both students and your colleagues at the University of Rennes around the Archives project.

J.-M. P. Yes, at the time we were setting up the Archives, a fellow historian whom I knew well, André Lespagnol, became President of the University of Rennes 2, and he asked me to be Vice-President of the Scientific Council, but I replied that I preferred the Archives de la critique d'art project. He supported this choice and proposed that an agreement be drawn up rapidly, including the provision of computer equipment and software, as well as the possibility of providing staff with specialised training at the university and the Regional Training Unit. Scientific and Technological Information (URFIST). While the project was ready in our minds, I approached the city of Rennes and the region. As part of my duties as artistic advisor between 1979 and 1981 at the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs, I had been in contact with Pierre Le Treut, Vice-President for Culture of the Brittany Region, and I then found him on the scientific committees of the Regional Fund for Contemporary Art (FRAC), of which I had put in place the first version in 1980. He was also mayor of Châteaugiron and had the FRAC installed there. He had asked me to give him my opinion on a possible candidacy for his leadership. Catherine Elkar, who joined the Regional Cultural Affairs Directorate (DRAC) as an intern when I set up the FRAC, was become a full FRAC collaborator in the first team, and Pierre The Treut was considering giving him the interim position. I confirmed her choice and she took the management of the fund. As she knew very well that I was looking for premises, she then proposed that the old school building where the FRAC was to be located, which was only not yet completely renovated, also welcomes us. At first the Archives de la critique d'art were installed on the ground floor, that they shared with the FRAC team. Two years later, they went up to the first floor, which had been renovated and adapted to our needs thanks to the support of the region, of the department and the DRAC. The installation was very comfortable at the time. In the meantime, the small group of the association's scientific council had organised a number of public meetings at the University of Rennes 2 and in other places such as the Fine Arts Museum or the National Theatre of Brittany (TNB). One of the first was held with Michel Ragon, Thierry de Duve, Marc le Bot and ourselves. It was followed in 1990 by the organisation, with the help of the team set up by the AICA office (Élisabeth Lebovici, Didier Semin, Ramón Tío Bellído...), of the first real symposium, entitled “The place of taste in the philosophical production of concepts and their critical destiny”.

J. L. Which was also the first publication of the Archives!

J.-M. P. It was followed, after the inaugural event where we invited Pierre Restany, Michel Ragon, Frank Popper, Alain Jouffroy and a number of those leading critics who were part of the adventure, by a series of other events on Art Criticism in Europe (1992) or the XXX AICA International Congress: Which memories for contemporary art? (1996). All these events made the Archives de la critique d'art a real place for debate.

The archives were then set up not only as archives, but also as written collections, which were intended to act as a kind of anticipation of future archives while at the same time constituting a living corpus of critical literature. The aim was to establish a direct link with all AICA-France members in order to raise their awareness of the development of the Archives. To strengthen the incentive for authors to contribute their writings, we launched the journal Critique d'art in 1993, which promoted new writings while offering an unparalleled bibliographic service.

J. L. This link with the French section of AICA was more than an opportunity for us; it was a fundamental element of the Archives which had to develop in symbiosis with the critical activity itself. Later, the International IAIS also deposited its archives.

J.-M.P. This was done when you became President of AICA International.

J. L. Yes, since 1990, since I have had two terms as President, from 1990 to 1993 and from 1993 to 1996. That's when IAIS had to leave Berryer Street, to vacate its premises and thus move its archives. It was an opportunity to deposit them at the archives in Châteaugiron.

J.-M. P. Had AICA-France already contributed some archives?

J. L. When I became President of AICA-France in 1980, there were no archives and no premises. There must have been documents in the homes of Michel Ragon, Georges Boudaille, Jean-Jacques Lévêque and Dora Vallier, who had been presidents before me, but none of them sent me any archives. The real start for the IAIS is therefore linked to the contribution of the archives of the International IAIS, which date back to 1948. Hélène Lassalle was the first to use them, particularly during the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of AICA as a UNESCO non-governmental organization (NGO). For AICA-France, it is therefore my own archives (very poorly organized, by the way!) that are the first to integrate the Archives de la critique d'art. I don't know if there are any documents in Ragon's fonds that are reporting to his presidency.

J.-M.P. No, I don't think so. At the time, there was not much interest in the cultural field and neither was there much interest in academic circles for the collected traces of critical practice.

J. L. The lack of interest of French institutions in the art archives being built and its criticism is undoubtedly partly linked to the very history of the AICA which, as an association of art critics, was formed as opposed to art historians by affirming an interest in truly contemporary art. This division between hisart historians and art critics may have fostered, at the time, a certain lack of interest for the collection of archives. On their side too, art critics probably ha so strongly the feeling of living and writing in a present time that they cared little of the historical dimension that their writings could later take on.

Moreover, since 1981 and the ministry of Jack Lang, there has been a clear desire to be in the news, to support the newest and most "young" artistic creation, which obviously does not encourage us to develop a retrospective and historical perspective. It should also be recalled that the university prohibited doctoral theses on authors or living artists until about 1970. This situation will change gradually over the next decade and will also have a significant impact on new memberships in AICA-France. When I was elected President, AICA-France had about 90 members, almost all of them critics writing in the press and magazines. At the time, art criticism was much more abundant and alive in a press. which also gave it a larger place. Academics did not enter AICA and the AICA didn't like academics! It should be remembered that none of my predecessors were academics. But, since 1981, several art critics who were members of the AICA - Gérald Gassiot Talabot, Michel Troche and Anne Tronche in particular - have been joining the Ministry of Culture's bodies. On the other hand, I invited academics who write about contemporary art, such as Hubert Damisch, Georges Raillard, Louis Marin or Georges Duby, to introduce themselves and they are then elected to the AICA. I believe that the possibility of reflecting on the archive has been made possible by this relative enlargement of the population of the AICA, because when I left it it it had more than 300 members, many of whom were teachers.

J.-M. P. Now this concerns at least forty percent of new candidates. The disappearance of many bodies that normally paid their freelancers has contributed to this evolution, alongside the development of the place of contemporary art in university curricula.

J. L. Indeed, journalistic art criticism no longer makes it possible to live and, consequently, to be able to carry out an art criticism activity, one must have a salary elsewhere. This situation has profoundly changed the composition of the IAIS as well as the tendency has been to bring art schools closer to the world and academic research criteria.

J.-M. P. There has also been the emergence of curators of contemporary art exhibitions.

J. L. It was one of my struggles to have the international IAIS recognize that the curator was doing a critical act and that, as such, he was destined to be a member of the association. The art world was creating new actors and they had to find their place in the IAIS.

J.-M. P. The international recognition of the Archives came with the organization of the 1996 IAIS Congress. All the changes you just mentioned then made us start thinking of archival preservation as more than just documentation. It is also the period when artists are increasingly many to integrate archives into their work. We will report on this subject. in 2001 with the symposium Contemporary Artists and the Archive. The following years were marked by the European Vektor programme, with the art market archives in Cologne, the documenta archives in Kassel, the Museo de Arte Moderna in Bolzano and two other partners. This program has made it possible to to adopt international standards for the treatment of archives while comparing methods and objectives. Subsequently, the 2000s were more difficult because of the need to take care of a massive collection and to welcome more and more researchers and curators exhibition in search of "historical" documents.

This was the beginning of the scientific relationship we established with INHA, which supported programs to process specific archival holdings. Similarly, a substantial financial contribution from Getty (2005) enabled us to catalogue a significant part of the Restany collection, at a time when it was a question of convincing his widow of us to entrust the last components of its archives. The opportunity to organize in 2006 a major international conference on Pierre Restany's Half Century at INHA, where I was head of the Studies and Research Department for several years, was decisive in proposing a valuation model that was followed in 2010 by a conference dedicated to Michel Ragon: art critic.

J. L. And now what is the situation of the Archives de la critique d'art?

J.-M. P. The Archives has just emerged from a growth crisis in an unfavourable economic context by creating a Groupement d'intérêt scientifique (GIS) attached to the University of Rennes 2 and by transferring ownership of their collections to INHA. The GIS was founded by the following three partners: AICA International, INHA and Université Rennes 2, but it includes in its scientific council many French and foreign university and professional partners who could help it in its mission of collecting and promoting culture and science. All the conditions are now in place to take the new steps in our development.development in more serene conditions.

“Brève histoire des Archives de la critique” was first published in the catalogue of the exhibition Mémoires croisées - Dérives archivistiques curated by Jean-Marc Poinsot at the INHA/Frac Bretagne.

Histoire des ACA 1.jpg
Histoire des ACA 2.jpg
Histoire des ACA 3.jpg
Histoire des ACA 4.jpg
Histoire des ACA 5.jpg
Histoire des ACA 6.jpg
Histoire des ACA 7.jpg