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Puzzling anew over enigmatic artist Guy de Cointet

The late L.A.-based Guy de Cointet is enjoying a major resurgence in the local art world, with LACE the latest to take on the cryptic artist's legacy.

January 09, 2013|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • Samuel Freeman gallery director Amy Thoner, center, and Samuel Freeman, right, stand near Guy de Cointet's piece "Sophie Rummel (4)."
Samuel Freeman gallery director Amy Thoner, center, and Samuel Freeman,… (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)

Making the rounds at galleries these days, it's easy to feel like you're hot on the trail of the artist Guy de Cointet.

Although the Paris-born, L.A.-based artist died in 1983 without great acclaim, his drawings, paintings and sculptures are now popping up in museums and galleries across town. And many of the artworks themselves look like clues.

Bold paintings feature strings of numbers that don't quite add up, or letters that don't make familiar words. Elegantly patterned geometric drawings have cryptic captions or titles written in cursive along the bottom, lines like "The widow will never come out again" and "Time flies with a fighting whale on one's hands." A fake newspaper from a theatrical performance is called ACR/CIT, which doesn't make any more sense in French than English.

It's enough to make you wonder: Who is this guy and what exactly is he trying to tell us?

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L.A. gallery owner Samuel Freeman, who had a small Cointet show last month, said he has not cracked the code.

"Some of the pieces are pretty plain — like reverse mirror images," Freeman said. "But most of them are very hard to solve or resolve. You know there is some sort of code in there, but he keeps you in limbo, unable to figure out what the symbols mean, or how they lead to that answer key written at the bottom."

Freeman, who organized his exhibition to accompany new work by Stephanie Taylor, said he sees a new generation of artists inspired by Cointet, not just because of his use of cryptography but because he made bold sculptural objects that double as theatrical props and sometimes serve as abbreviated scripts too.

"He was one of the early conceptual artists to merge visual art and performance, two things that are hard today for us even to split," Freeman said.

Now, in part because of strong interest in performance art, he's enjoying a major resurgence. Last year he appeared in multiple museums' Pacific Standard Time shows, including MOCA and the Orange County Museum of Art.

New stagings of his absurdist theater work have taken place at both the Getty Museum and LACMA. The Barnsdall art gallery currently has a handful of his works in their French-American exhibition "Lost." On Wednesday LACE will open a group show that explores the artist's legacy. (Both the Barnsdall and LACE shows are part of a larger French-centric arts festival, "Ceci N'est Pas…".)

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Carol Stakenas, the director of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, said the "multifunctional object" is one of the key threads of her show, which has examples of prints that Cointet made in 1973 for his first theatrical piece, called "Cizeghoh Tur NDJMB," alongside work by 20 living artists.

These artists, who come from many countries, give objects odd or secret uses, according to the exhibition announcement: "a wall drawing is also a poster; a drawing can be also a script; a mailed letter becomes a map; a carpet is a score; and a window blind is a poem that can be sung."

Stakenas said she discovered Cointet in doing research for the 2011 Getty-funded initiative Pacific Standard Time. By that time his work was gaining art-world currency, with the French gallery Air de Paris representing the estate and Cirrus and Overduin and Kite galleries having shown the artist's work in L.A..

But Stakenas said she didn't think about holding a Cointet show until meeting Marie de Brugerolle, who became the guest curator of her upcoming exhibition.

An art historian who teaches in France and Switzerland, Brugerolle staged major shows of his work starting in Geneva in 2004, published a book on him in 2011 and just completed a documentary that's making the rounds on the museum-screening circuit.

According to Brugerolle, some facts about Cointet's life are clear. Born in Paris in 1934 to a high-ranking French military officer, he grew up a great reader of avant-garde French literature, cultivating a taste for the opaque poetry of Mallarme and the riddle-poems of Raymond-Roussel. He also developed an abiding interest in cryptography.

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He moved to New York in 1965. At the time he was trained as a graphic designer, but a meeting with artist Larry Bell through Warhol superstar Viva led to a job as Bell's assistant. When Bell returned to Venice Beach a couple years later, Cointet drove Bell's VW bug to California and worked in his studio until Bell moved to Taos, N.M., in 1973. At that point, Cointet focused more on his own art, working locally until he died in 1983 of Hepatitis C.

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