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Jean Nouvel curates French sculptor Cesar at the Cartier Foundation

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James Pallister visits Jean Nouvel's César show

César: Anthologies par Jean Nouvel
Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain
Boulevard Raspail, Paris, 75014, Until 26 October

Like Astérix, César Baldaccini is a Frenchman with no need for a surname. The sculptor’s 50-year career included commissions for Classical sculpture and the crushed cars for which he became famous. For the first major retrospective since the sculptor’s death in 1994, another indomitable Frenchman, architect Jean Nouvel, was called in as curator.

Nouvel is on familiar territory. Student, admirer and friend of César, he also designed the exhibition's venue, the Fondation Cartier in Paris. Since its completion in 1994, the luxury brand’s Parisian headquarters has doubled up as an exhibition space. The ground-floor foyer’s plate-glass windows can slide out of sight, transforming the building into a huge structure on stilts. It’s some way from the white box of many contemporary galleries; more a well-lit foyer that doubles up as an art space.

As curator, Nouvel has run with this openness. Pieces are scattered around the ground floor, aping the apparent fluidity of César’s polyurethane ‘expansions’. These luxurious spillages come from mixing plastic with Freon gas. Some have the ultra-smooth finish of a boat’s hull, others a rusty, crustacean look.

Amused by the gladiatorial connotations of his namesake, César chose his own thumb as a subject for his series of sculptures of scaled-up fragments of body parts. Disembodied breasts, hands and thumbs abound, every pore picked out in marble, resin and aluminium. These are laid out haphazardly on shallow plinths of the same texture as the polished concrete floor.

César discovered the hydraulic press, a machine capable of crushing cars, in the 1960s, results of which are displayed in the Fondation Cartier’s basement. He mastered ‘directed compressions’, retaining an element of craftmanship and differentiating himself from sculptors working with ‘ready-mades’.

Friendship aside, Nouvel and César make an odd pair. César’s 2m-high thumb cast in bronze has a solidity which is at odds with the plate glass and steel of Nouvel’s building. And where César disliked intellectualising his work, Nouvel relishes poetic noodling. But the loose informality of the curation works, and the design of the building does not frustrate the sculptures in the way it might have with two-dimensional work. Just don’t try and find too many similarities between this duo.

Resume: César and Nouvel make an odd couple in Paris

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