François Dallegret: Beyond the Bubble 2023
Much to François Dallegret’s credit, the passage of time makes it no easier to write about the artist’s work. He remains a vexing member of the mid-twentieth-century avant-garde, much like Paul Rudolph, designer of the bushhammered gallery where Dallegret’s work was on display this spring.
Over the course of his career, Dallegret’s varied and prolific output attracted a variety of labels, which were slapped on, accumulated, and slowly slid off like weak fridge magnets. Contemporaries have labeled him variously as architect, designer, artist, car buff, jester, eccentric visionary, provocateur, bricoleur, entrepreneur, “half Piranesi, half Harpo Marx,” sanctimonious, profane. The list is infinite and always more than partially apt. Sifting through the vast detritus of Dallegret’s shifting self-presentation on view throughout the gallery, one could find only three examples of a concrete, articulated self-description: “aesthetician,” “idealizer,” “GOD.”
Words, however, were never Dallegret’s medium of choice. Admittedly not a man for writing, nor for reading or interviews, he nevertheless took immense pleasure in list making and in note taking, and crucially, in titling his own work. It is perhaps in his titles that we find the skeleton key to an understanding of his project, of a consistent disposition played out across time on both sides of the Atlantic. They jam together technical nomenclature and cheeky double entendre — for example, GOD, an acronym of “Go Dallegret”; the voluptuous curves of the ASS IS chair entreating viewers, in French, to sit; the CliclaCrocoTartoMatic, a machine for tripping, slapping, and/or pieing one’s interlocutors with lemon tart; Râpe à Fromage, an inhabitable cheese grater — each reminding us not to take it too seriously. In many art forms the most poignant, if only, line of poetry can be found in the work’s title. But with Dallegret these produce a taut ambiguity. If he was careful not to take himself too seriously, his work possesses the devoted self-seriousness of a good comedian. Is he joking or dead serious? Look as close as you like, but you’ll never find a crack in the façade.
The works surveyed are representative of Dallegret’s most prolific years, spanning the early 1960s to early ’80s. Two outliers bookend his life’s work: a sketch for a streamlined concept car, produced while he was a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1957, and the ASS IS chair, designed and perfected over the course of ten years, starting in 2007. What the selection of work makes immediately evident is the breadth of Dallegret’s output and his effortless range as an artist. In addition to the expected inclusion of architectural plans and sections, there were designs both speculative and realized for buttons, matchbooks, lapel pins, shopping bags, bars of soap, letterheads, logos, business cards, rubber stamps, postcards, posters, currency, chairs, lighting fixtures and lamps, films, kinetic sculptures, machines of wildly varying utility, magazine illustrations, toys, photographs, costumes, paper hats, illuminated mannequins, a french curve, park benches, picnic tables, trash receptacles, billboards, cars, space stations, and intentionally inscrutable objets d’art, along with a panoply of painstakingly crafted drawings and photomontages. The imagination on display is nothing short of virtuosic. An irrepressible joie de vivre is apparent, with an intense amount of care for the craft of each work uniting the eclectic display.
Dallegret rarely composed the text that accompanied his drawings, leaving the “secondary” work of description to his editors (the exception being his collaboration with Reyner Banham, which he drew in real time with the critic). Consistent with this taciturn tendency, the exhibition was marked by a striking lack of explanatory text. Aside from an introductory panel and a brief exhibition pamphlet authored by Beal, all original drawings and objects on display were left to speak for themselves, contextualized through proximity, sparse labels noting titles and dates, and vitrines displaying publications alongside related photos and ephemera. As Dallegret once articulated, his original drawings for Art in America were best understood alongside the publications they were reproduced and circulated in. The curators took his cue by presenting this documentary footprint side by side with the related full-scale originals.
Suspended in the middle of the spacious double-height gallery was Dallegret’s Tubula, a prototype of an “automobile immobile,” at once hulking and weightless, with comically oversize rubber wheels. His zodiac of Astrological Automobiles received its proper due too, occupying a full wall. The orthogonal nooks and crannies of Rudolph’s gallery suited Dallegret’s flights of fancy. Tucked in a far corner was a curious, colorful trunk that rewarded the patient visitor with its case covers splayed open to reveal Dallegret’s design for Palais Métro, a proposed “Fun Palace à la Cedric Price,” meant to occupy a former convention center in the heart of Montreal. Weaving between spacious and compressed gallery zones, between full-size drawings and their scaled-down reproductions, the visitor had the distinct sense of being fully immersed in Dallegret’s universe. Rarely does an exhibition’s content fit its surroundings so well as here, like the sharply tailored suit of an eccentric.
Writing in the exhibition catalog, Beal notes Dallegret’s iterative way of working, of recycling and extending the same forms and motifs again and again, akin to a running joke tested in every context until it runs out of steam. Dallegret’s work is rarely intended for a single use. It offers provocations over answers. If there is an antagonist providing friction in his work, it is perhaps the constraints and limitations of whatever constitutes common sense, the rational, and the everyday in the prevailing imaginary. Dallegret is openly hostile to Cartesian logic, but like any artist, he is a bundle of contradictions. Despite his future-focused obsessions and early adoption of new technologies, Dallegret’s tool of choice remained the notoriously difficult to master German-made Pelikan Graphos fountain pen, an enduring classic of the 1930s. A typical drawing took him three to four months to complete and was composed on a homemade, oversize drafting table. He discovered the ideal medium in India ink on vellum or acetate, due to the ability to revise a drawing by scratching off errant lines after they had dried on the brittle substrate. In the show Dallegret’s own timeworn Graphos pen, complete with a variety of rusted nibs and an inscribed case, sat humbly in a peripheral vitrine surrounded by the work it brought to life, serving to remind viewers that every image is ultimately a construction.
Despite his formal training, Dallegret has never fully identified as an architect. There is something uncomfortable about the word. He is known and most legible in architectural circles as the draftsman who provided the striking visuals accompanying Banham’s now seminal essay “A Home Is Not a House,” published in the April 1965 issue of Art in America. It is often erroneously presumed that the collaboration launched his career. By the time Dallegret had washed up on the shores of New York City from Paris in 1963, working on the article’s illustrations from his accommodations at the Hotel Chelsea, he was a known and well-connected figure in the world of contemporary European art. Shortly after graduating from the École des Beaux-Arts, Dallegret showed his Astrological Automobiles at the fabled Iris Clert Gallery, a short-lived but now legendary venue for which watershed exhibitions were the routine. Dallegret charmed the Parisian scene with apparent ease, counting Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, Salvador Dalí, the Vicomtesse de Noailles, architects Peter Blake and Frederick Kiesler, and photographers Harry Shunk and János Kender among his friends. This fast track to prominence may have unwittingly triggered his expatriation. In Dallegret’s recollection, “Paris, and ultimately France, just seemed like places to leave.”
After Dallegret moved to New York in 1963 his good friend Peter Blake, then editor of Architectural Forum, put him in touch with Jean Lipman, editor of Art in America. Lipman was taken with Dallegret’s work and gave him carte blanche to contribute to the magazine at any time, pairing him with Banham for his initial job. It proved to be a natural creative partnership that blossomed into a friendship lasting well beyond “A Home Is Not a House.” It is implicit in the show title Beyond the Bubble, however, that there is more to Dallegret’s oeuvre than the depiction of a transparent polyethylene parachute bag protecting our two nude visionaries from the elements. After less than a year in New York, Dallegret decamped to Montreal to join the team preparing for Expo 67. The move proved fitting and permanent, with Dallegret a fixture of the Montreal scene ever since.
Today, in a cultural landscape oversaturated with didacticism, it’s refreshing to encounter an artist who has refused to ascribe grand narratives to their work. This iteration of the exhibition successfully preserved Dallegret’s reputation for eschewing the discursive aspects of self-mythologizing (that need, within the Dallegret universe, might be filled more aptly by his Relationpublicomatic, 1963, a machine for public relations). Yet in some respects his deferral to others to contextualize his work in a historical or political context (claiming on several occasions that he simply had “no idea of what was going on around me”) comes across as a willing disavowal of the political. While the 1960s boiled over, Dallegret continued to practice. Though Montreal was a boon to productivity, he observed current events at a distance. Part of the discordance entailed in situating his practice stems from the wider political ferment of the time in which his work emerged, and its inability to track neatly with most historic inflection points. A natural question any habitué of the American campus may have asked upon entering the exhibition is one now felt in the collective consciousness with exponential frequency: What is left to dredge up and wring out of the depths of secondhand perceptions of the 1960s? What is resonant in the prolonged recuperation of this era for today’s student of architecture and design?
The show was visually dazzling and conceptually playful at every turn, underlining the fact that practitioners committed to a life of experimental, independent practice are a dying breed worthy of study and recirculation. Yet while drifting from vitrine to vitrine, any contemporary practitioner could equally observe that Dallegret’s solo artistic endeavor is a largely inaccessible historical model from a bygone age. The ambition of his work is unquestionable; the anachronism lies in how carefree it is from top to bottom. Each project required generous allotments of physical space, time, financial resources, and connections to adventurous manufacturers. In an extensive interview with Alessandra Ponte from his aforementioned retrospective, Dallegret admits to feeling ambivalence and detachment toward the politics of May 1968, the emergence of cybernetic thought, and the machinations of the Cold War as they passed him by in real time. Though he may have been deflecting timeworn subjects or simply feeling the attendant narrative fatigue of over-exalted radicality that burdens former 68ers, one takes him at his word. That he also found no shortage of time to maintain a well-known penchant for parties, fashion, model scouting, entertaining celebrity friends, and collecting sports cars helps to round out the materialist’s portrait. It has been an enviable and beautiful life, timed by chance to be carried away on the crest of a long-vanished wave.
Still the whimsicality of Dallegret’s work remains the source of its strength and enduring appeal. Its limitations and offerings might have been best summed up in a letter by his oft-editor and friend Peter Blake written to Anne Brodzky, then editor of artscanada, for a 1972 issue on Dallegret’s catalog:
There are some people, like Bucky Fuller, for example, who make you look at the world around you in a totally unexpected and rather unhinging way — the world around you, from a toothpick to an atom bomb. François is another. François’ world is a world of surprise and pleasure and delight, that I did not know until we became friends. I think that François Dallegret is, probably, unemployable in that world. Tant pis for him — more so for our world (it could, I think, benefit considerably from his unlimited imagination).
Even if we take his interviews at face value, Dallegret’s work is testament enough that he was more attuned than he lets on. Consciously or not, Dallegret embodies the very spirit of Marshall McLuhan’s electronic information age, seeking technological extensions of his senses project by project. He had a new camera in tow every time you ran into him, Blake recalled. Like the Pop artists, he knew consumerism had supplanted society’s traditional structures. He was blending the natural and supernatural, exploring the spiritual dimensions of feelings, astrology, and the cosmic. This Libra’s incessant lifelong search for modes of increased creative freedom is infectious. Frequently the bubble that is architectural practice pushes its mavericks to the periphery to toil without support in the land of the speculative and hypothetical. One of the defining aspects of a bubble is its ability to effortlessly merge with another bubble on contact to form a greater whole. Despite his early absorption into worldly inner circles, Dallegret found the center unaccommodating — a place to leave. Voluntary settlement at the periphery unlocked something in his ability to make. Like any good visionary, he attempted to produce the otherwise from within the given. By comparison, the given looms ever larger in our present moment, with disciplinarity and professionalization walling in the scope of our vocabularies, imaginations, and social relations — all while entrenching the specialized and often closed-minded as intractable “experts” in our institutions. In this light Dallegret appears to be the only sane person in the room. But the truly inescapable question to be asked while marveling at Dallegret’s beautiful work — one that many architects have no trouble contemplating — was what kind of world would we be living in if all of us were afforded a chance to be GOD?
— Anny Li is a writer and PhD student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
— Willis Kingery (MFA ’19) is a designer living in Somerville, Massachusetts.