Simon Hantaï was born on 7 December 1922, in Bia (now Biatorbágy), Hungary. From 1941 to 1946, he studied in the mural division of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, Budapest. In March 1948 Hantaï obtained a government grant to pursue his studies in Paris where he arrived in September 1948 with his wife, Zsuzsa. Hantaï would remain in Paris after learning that his grant was revoked, due to the Communist takeover of what came to be known as the People’s Republic of Hungary, developing a close group of Hungarian friends – mainly Vera and François Molnar, Pierre and Vera Szekely, and, upon her arrival from Hungary in 1950, Judit Reigl – but would also develop relationships with Joan Mitchell, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Sam Francis. Hantaï experimented with many Surrealist automatist techniques between 1949 and 1952, including pochoir (stencilling), decoupage, collage, grattage, decalcomania and frottage, marrying them with the material and gestural approaches of Art Brut and Art Informel.
After meeting André Breton in December 1952, Hantaï became associated with the Parisian Surrealists and had his first solo exhibition in January 1953 at the L’Étoile Scellée. The Surrealist works expand on his biomorphic imagery; they also incorporate found objects and present monstrous and often erotic half-human, half-animal beings. In March 1955, Hantaï broke with Breton’s group and abandoned figurative painting, turning to large-scale gestural abstractions informed by the work of the Abstract Expressionists and made by scraping the surface of the canvas with a dismembered alarm clock. These were first shown in May 1956 at the Galerie Kléber, Paris, under the title Sexe-Prime: Hommage à Jean-Pierre Brisset. Hantaï continued to show at the Galerie Kléber into the early 1960s, exhibiting works inspired by Christian theology that combined calligraphy with the repetitious application of paint in little strokes.
In 1960, Hantaï began creating the first two series of folded and knotted paintings titled Manteaux de la vierge and Mariales (both 1960-62) using his now-emblematic method of pliage (folding). Between 1960 and 1982, he created eight series of paintings by varying the size of the canvas, the method of folding/knotting of the canvas, as well as the colours and their means of application. In 1965, he left Paris and moved to Meun, France, a village in the Fontainebleau forest where he produced the Meuns series (1966-68), characterised by the use of a single colour alongside white. Subsequent series made by “Le pliage comme méthode” (folding-as-method) — the artist’s phrase to describe his process — include spherical and rectangular shaped watercolours known as Aquarelles (1971-72), Blancs (1973-74), which are dominated by ‘blank’ or colourless zones, and two sequences of Tabulas (1972-74, 1980-82), which feature formations of grid-like patterns. In 1976, Hantaï was the subject of a large-scale retrospective at the Musée national d’art moderne in Paris, and in 1979, he would return to Paris with his family. In 1982, after representing France at the XL Venice Biennale and showing the white on white paintings, Tabulas lilas, at Galerie Jean Fournier, Paris, Hantaï ceased exhibiting his work. In 1998, he began exhibiting again with Laissées, a series cut from his 1981 paintings, on view at the gallery Renn Espace, Paris, which was followed by exhibitions worldwide, including those at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris (1998); Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Münster, Germany (1999); and Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York (2010). Hantaï died on 11 September 2008, in Paris.
Hantaï’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; City Museum of Fine Arts, Osaka; Ludwig Museum, Budapest; Musei Vaticani, Rome; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris; Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon; Musée Cantini, Marseille; Musée de Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse; Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique, Brussels.
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