Claude Rutault, master of the painted word, died at 80

Claude Rutault, a French artist whose work was at the intersection of painting and conceptual art, died May 27 in a retirement home in B...


Claude Rutault, a French artist whose work was at the intersection of painting and conceptual art, died May 27 in a retirement home in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, near Paris. He was 80 years old.

His daughter, Ninon Rutault, said he had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for about a year and a half, but the cause of death was not known.

Mr. Rutault, who spent most of his career in Paris, was much better known in Europe than in the United States, partly because he spoke no English and rarely traveled, and because his work was there. more frequently exposed.

He became famous in the 1970s for what he called his “de-finition/method” paintings, which were in fact instructions for making a painting. One of his signature “protocols,” as they were also called, was to paint a canvas the same color as the wall it would be hung on. He didn’t do it himself; instead, he hired a “charge-taker”—an art collector, museum representative, or independent curator—to make the work to his specifications.

Although these monochromatic works linked him to both avant-garde artists like Kazimir Malevich and minimalists like Robert Ryman and Ad Reinhardt, his artistic ideas were more philosophical than material, said Julie Morhange, senior director of the Galerie Perrotin in Paris, which has represented him since 2010.

“A lot of artists of that time worked on conceptual art and radicalism, but I must say that Claude was not part of any movement,” she said in an interview. “He knew very well what was going on with this generation of artists; he was friends with many of them, but he was not part of any group.

Mr. Rutault’s ironically iconoclastic process represented a break with the past, overturning the basic notion that painters are people who paint. Instead of making paintings, he writes texts; yet his work was both collaborative and potentially open. Its “protocols” could be painted and repainted, at the discretion of the charge-taker. As a result, he said, “The painting is never finished.”

“He made a huge contribution to the history of painting,” Ms. Morhange said. “He’s one of the only artists who won’t see what his job will look like in the future, and it will always be his job.”

Claude Robert Georges Rutault was born on October 25, 1941 in Trois Moutiers, France, to Lucien Rutault and BĂ©atrice (Cartault) Rutault. His father was a real estate broker who dealt with local agricultural properties.

Trois Moutiers (the name means “three houses”) was a very small town, and it soon outgrew it. The nearest school was about 40 km away, in the town of Saumur, and he boarded there from the age of about 8 until he graduated at 15.

“He wasn’t very close to his parents, because he didn’t live with them much,” his daughter said. “My grandparents didn’t like what he was doing as an artist either. They wanted him to have a different type of career.

After primary school, Mr. Rutault attended high school in Nantes and then moved to Bordeaux to attend Sciences Po Bordeaux, a political science institute. He had little interest in his formal studies and rarely attended classes, said Ninon Rutault, but he graduated thanks to a classmate, Annie Scamps, whom he quickly fell in love with. “She made him work just enough to be able to graduate,” Ms. Rutault said.

The couple moved to Paris after graduation and Ms Scamps worked in marketing and later in banking. They married in April 1968.

By this time Mr. Rutault had already begun working as an artist, making mixed-media paintings using acrylics and drawings incorporating press clippings from Le Monde, the Parisian evening newspaper.

While they were expecting the birth of their first child, Mr. Rutault decided to freshen up their apartment. While painting the kitchen one afternoon, his paintbrush swept away one of his own canvases, which hung on the wall – maybe it was an accident, or maybe it wasn’t. (“He never used the word ‘accident’,” Ninon Rutault said.)

“He stopped for lunch and came back and he decided to paint over the whole picture,” said Natacha Polaert, a curator who had known Mr Rutault for a decade. “It has become the fundamental protocol: a picture must be painted on a canvas of the same color as the wall.”

That year, Mr. Rutault presented the first protocol in his studio on rue Clavel in Paris and received its first significant critical attention. This space “later became legendary for a generation of young French artists and curators,” Ms. Morhange said.

The couple’s son, Achille, was born in 1973. Due to an indefinite congenital illness, he never learned to speak or walk. Mr. Rutault became his son’s primary caretaker, working from home.

Staying home with his son limited his opportunities to travel to art-world events and openings, Ninon Rutault said, but he never saw it as a problem. “He always said it helped him work and think, and question the world,” she said. “He did everything to make his son happy despite a life that could have been sad.”

Most of Mr. Rutault’s work consisted of writing. From 1973, he wrote more than 650 “de-finition/methods”, which were published in two books; the first was published in 2000 and a second, with the most comprehensive list, in 2016.

“Claude called himself a painter,” Ms. Polaert said. “Everyone called him a conceptual artist. It’s true that he didn’t touch paint or canvas, but instead he wrote paintings.

Mr. Rutault had three solo exhibitions at the Center Georges Pompidou in Paris, in 1992, 2002 and 2015, and one alongside Picasso paintings at the Picasso Museum, also in Paris. His work has also been exhibited dozens of times in other individual and group gallery exhibitions.

In 2014, at the age of 73, he had his first personal exhibition in the United States, at the Emmanuel Perrotin gallery in New York; in 2020 he had a solo exhibition at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles.

His wife died four years ago and their daughter said her death was a deciding factor in her health. He became depressed, she said, and had trouble concentrating. In 2020, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

“She was the first to whom he presented his ideas, she was the first to reread what he wrote before presenting it to other people,” said Ninon Rutault. “She usually had the last word on the show. If there was anything she didn’t like, it was removed.

The last exhibition of his work during his lifetime, “Claude Rutault: A proposal to Peter Nadin, 1979; Realized 2022,” took place this spring at TriBeCa’s Off Paradise Gallery. It was the realization of a brief he had designed for the pseudonymous gallerist, who had a space on West Broadway in the late 1970s. For the show, Mr. Nadin chose to paint the space, and the canvases, a bright and garish lemon yellow.

Mr Rutault had been living in Vaucresson, near Paris, for a few years after his son was transferred to a retirement home there. He spent his last days in a nursing home near his daughter’s family, and had asked to stay there rather than go to hospital.

Besides his daughter and son, he is survived by two grandchildren.

Mr. Rutault assured, Ms. Polaert said, that his work would continue to have a life beyond his own.

“His greatest contribution was to create an unfinished work,” she said. “It was very generous, in the sense that few artists would allow their work to be constantly repainted, in perpetuity.”

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