Barry Schwabsky on Sam Szafran

Though encompassing nearly one hundred works on canvas and paper, “Sam Szafran: Obsessions of a Painter” did not offer a full-scale retrospective of its subject. Instead, the exhibition provided a deep look into two of the artist’s key themes: interior spaces and luxuriant foliage, often in a garden or greenhouse, where the distinction between inside and outside becomes moot. More than just covering different subject matter or, as the exhibition subtitle would have it, following different obsessions, these two bodies of work could almost be by different artists. And yet they come from the same hand, that of a man born in the heart of proletarian Paris in 1934. Szafran lost much of his family to the genocide of the European Jews, and, after a harsh youth mixed up with gangs and petty crime, became a mostly self-taught artist. He died in 2019.

The studio, as Szafran depicts it, is hardly a place fit to nurture art, to concentrate. Instead, it’s a Piranesian scene of confusion and unease, a place against which the artist must fight to find the space to act. Particularly in a group of large charcoal drawings (about three and a half by two and a half feet each) from 1969 and 1970, walls and ceiling seem to press in on a lone inhabitant—the artist, pushed down to the foot of the rectangle like a sleeper who fleetingly catches sight of himself in his dream.

Less melodramatic, perhaps because they have to do with a less intimate scene, are paintings of the Imprimerie Bellini, a printshop Szafran founded in collaboration with several others in 1970. In depictions dating from 1972 through 1974, the artist’s penchant for seeing things from odd viewpoints and vertiginous angles is submitted to a strange aura of objectivity, reminiscent (to an American viewer) of Rackstraw Downes’s rather rare portrayals of indoor spaces. Like Downes, Szafran eschews one of the principal fictions of most realist art: namely, the illusion that a scene has been grasped from a single viewpoint at a single moment in time. Szafran’s is a traveling eye attached to a brain that constructs what it knows as if by collaging.

Some worksheets dating to the late 1970s show Szafran using Polaroid photos taken from diverse angles to try out compositions. Anticipating, in a way, David Hockney’s 1982 composite Polaroid pieces, they are entirely free from the grid to which the English artist adhered; rather than recalling Cubism, they reach back to the Baroque. Those collage sketches relate to a body of work that occupied Szafran from 1973 through the ’90s. In these works, he returns again and again to 54 rue de Seine—where his close friend, poet Fouad El-Etr, lived—for his most delirious encounters with interior architecture. El-Etr called the building’s stairway, as Szafran perceived it, “a spiral that turns and turns and only stops, perhaps, in the middle of the night.” The result: a drunken structure recorded with mathematical sobriety. The space seems somehow Riemannian, yet we are also close to the atmosphere of the classic German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Alongside these mostly anxious encounters with interiors, Szafran pursued the theme of foliage, seen in this show in works ranging from 1966 to 2012. While Szafran maintained that it was the experience of Giacometti’s art that convinced him to work representationally, these works seem closer in spirit to the paintings of Bonnard. The dry touch of the interiors gives way to a quiet opulence. The profusion of flora, predominantly rendered in pastel, is as wild as the bizarre permutations of the built environments Szafran surveys elsewhere, but as flourishing life they feel welcoming, creating a place of refuge. As in most of Szafran’s work, the human figure is a minor and anonymous occurrence in these pieces, tucked away safely. His art conveys the sensation of being overwhelmed as both a threat and, here, as a consolation.

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