The work of Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne—on display at Paul Kasmin Gallery—brings whimsy and charm to the quotidian.
by Jeffrey Slonim
FROM LEFT: Choupatte (Très Grande), 2005, copper and bronze; Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne in Tourterelle, 1997.
Secreted away in the most unlikely section of Tenth Avenue in West Chelsea, Paul Kasmin Gallery abuts the nightclub Marquee. In the wee hours, smokers escape the confines of the club’s worn velvet ropes and crowd the sidewalk in front of the gallery’s tony glass front. Kasmin, whose father was a top London dealer, made his name selling the relatively affordable side projects of New York artists in a modest space in Manhattan’s Soho. He has now upgraded to a rambling, nearly bourgeois space with polished-cement floors, white plaster walls, and leggy assistants with accents. The established dealer now shows works by the likes of James Nares, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frank Stella, David Hockney and Morris Louis.
This summer, Kasmin adds to his heavyweight offerings with an exhibition of works by Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne called Les Lalanne—the eccentric French husband-and-wife sculptors who have cast all forms of flora and fauna in iron and bronze for the past 50 years.
The pair’s work represents a surrealist zoo of everyday objects. François-Xavier—who passed away last December at the age of 81—produced realistic bronze sheep covered in fluffy sheepskin, which famously graced the library of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé (reflected in wall mirrors framed by lily vines cast by Claude). The arms of François-Xavier’s stylized cast-iron baboon fireplace swing open to reveal fire in its belly. Noted art dealer Alexander Iolas dined with silverware by Claude that recalled veggies on the vine, and the rounded top of François- Xavier’s Grand Rhinocrétaire opens up like a car hood, revealing a modernist desk.
“[François-Xavier] would have called it ‘usable sculpture,’” says Kasmin.
Garden designer Madison Cox introduced Lalanne to Kasmin, who became a friend of François-Xavier. “At the end, our chats were about sculpture rather than about health or life,” he says. “His last piece was an enormous monkey. That was our last phone conversation the day before he died.” (Said monkey figures prominently in Kasmin’s show.)
François-Xavier began studying sculpture, drawing and painting at Académie Julian in Paris at age 18. He met Claude during his first gallery show in 1952. Twelve years later, their first collaborative exhibit included his famed Rhinocrétaire desk and a small cabbage with chicken legs created by Claude. Neigh bors of Constantin Brancusi’s studio on the Impasse Ronsin in Mont parnasse, the Lalannes were immersed in surrealism. Brancusi introduced them to Man Ray. Jean Tinguely lived nearby. Marcel Duchamp visited their workshops in Ury, near Fontainebleau.
At first the art world considered the work too practical—an opinion that the couple countered. “To be honest,” Claude later mentioned in an interview, “a desk in the shape of a rhinoceros is not that practical. If you need a desk, you don’t immediately think of buying a life-sized rhinoceros… maybe for Dali, but not ordinary people.”
That said, Lalanne sculpture delights both neophytes and established aesthetes. “I first bought the sheep 10 years ago,” says Richard Mishaan, who owns Homer, a modernist furniture boutique on Hudson Street. “They made our gardenscape more rural.”
“I find great energy in the work,” adds hair guru Frédéric Fekkai, introduced through Kasmin and collector Tom Ford. “It inspires me, makes me want to sculpt again.”
And New York architect Peter Marino, who has assembled possibly the world’s largest collection of the art, writes that when he commissioned a lily pond in the country, his young daughter said to Claude, “I’d like to be able to skip across the pond on hidden steps that no one could see, so it will seem like I’m walking on water.” Claude responded by designing bronze lotus-leaf pads rising on stems bolted to the tiled floor of the fountain.
“They lived and worked together 50 years, were inseparable,” says Kasmin of the couple. “The alligator chairs, that’s her; the hippopotamus bar, him. His pieces tended to be made in a foundry in an edition; her work is more organic, made of bits and pieces.”
But not all of Claude’s works are modest in scale. Kasmin will present a unique cabbage with chicken feet—prepare the kids for the daunting scale of the sculpture, which is very Day of the Triffids. It’s “human height,” according to Kasmin.
Les Lalanne runs through July 3 at Paul Kasmin Gallery, 293 10th Avenue, 212-563-4474.
photographs by Percy Washington (SCULPTURE); Steven Sebring (LALANNES)