How César's Compression "Ricard" Divided the Art World & Got My Attention
Having been familiarized with the Nouveau Réalisme sculptor César Baldaccini (1921 – 1998) at a young age because he was, as I am, from the French city of Marseilles, standing in front of one of his compressions will stay a defining aesthetic experience for me. Let me tell you why.
Born a simple man, César became a socialite after spending a few years at Paris’s prestigious École des Beaux-Arts beginning in October of 1943 after passing a rigorous entrance examination. According to the New York Times: “Cesar – he was born Cesar Baldaccini but used only his first name – was France's best-known sculptor of recent decades, yet his works provoked strongly contradictory reactions."
One of his more controversial works is Compression “Ricard” (1943), which consists of colorful pieces taken from different color cars that were then positioned in a hydraulic crushing machine, where the metal articulated itself in the strength and length of the press’s action. Though César had only an idea of the final product, he was the decision-maker with creative input that drove the process; one additional second or one less bar would alter the final rendering.
His contribution, it seems, is expressed in the sculpture’s conceptual and compositional aspect, as well as in how he titled the work. In this case, I believe César referenced a piece of his home’s culture, “Ricard” being a local and very popular alcohol in Marseilles, and shows firsthand the love-hate relationship he maintained with the city by crushing a symbol of it. And yet, the formal characteristics of the artwork are ambiguous; the simplification as well as the abstraction of these metallic elements from their original form and function allow for endless interpretations.
I think with "Ricard", César is expressing his views on ontology and experience; it is a reflection on the nature of identity and, in this case, the identity of a thing. Does it lie in its essence, or, in what I make of it? What should I, as a viewer, take away from it? Is there something specific the artist wanted me to see? I guess it is this complexity that moved me.