Alain Satié: a Primer by David Seaman
David W. Seaman is a scholar of the avant-garde, with degrees in German and French from Stanford University. His Concrete Poetry in France (UMI, 1981) is a classic in the field, and he has published many articles in English and French, as well as translations of poetry, novels, and criticism from Italian and French. A visual artist, he has exhibited with the Lettristes, and as a close friend of Alain Satié, spoke at his Père Lachaise cemetery memorial. He now participates in Inismo.
The second generation of Lettrists brought fresh artistic talent that was needed to exploit and illuminate the burgeoning ideas of the movement’s founder, Isidore Isou. After the initial period of manifestos and scandals, Lettrism needed to show that it was artistically pleasing and commercially viable.
Alain Satié was a brilliant talent in the new group of artists, joining the movement in the 1960s. He was born in 1944 in Toulouse, where he studied at the Beaux-Arts de Toulouse after technical training. He followed his brother to Paris and worked in graphic arts and adopted Letterism as his passion in 1964. He died in 2011, and was honored with a memorial at the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Satié was established as one of the few Lettrists who lived only for his art, and only by his art. He occupied various studios in Paris and eventually established his residence and studio in a former farmhouse in the village of Bouleurs, near Crécy-la-Chapelle, about an hour east of Paris.
The earliest Lettrist works were “Lettries,” phonetic poems composed of letters and sounds (the alphabet was augmented with symbols for clicks, burps, farts, etc.). This is the revolutionary medium invented by Isidore Isou and promoted in his 1947 Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique (Paris: Gallimard). Examples of Satié’s Letterist scores appear in the book Exposé sur les creations de Alain Satié by Marie-Hélène Montbazet (Paris: Editions PSI, 1991). In “le portugais électrique, ” composed in 1964 and performed for the first time in 1967, the score is for seven voices, but the geometric pattern of the presentation already suggests Satié’s prediliection for visual design.
Fig. 1 – “le portuguais électrique,” 1964
A photo of Satié performing in 1973 at the Salon d’Automne was published in the book, La peinture lettriste (Paris: Rocher, 2000).
Fig. 2 – Photo of Satié (on left) performing Letterist poetry, 1971
But soon the idea of hypergraphics arose, where visual works could employ letters and signs from all alphabets and even invented ones. This led to the creation of distinctive sign systems for each of the different Lettrists; while some appeared to be based on Egyptian (Broutin) or Chinese (Poyet) writing systems, Satié’s was clearly new and his own.
A characteristic work by Satié is the series he called Quotidiens lettristes / Letterist Dailies, a series created in 1988 to illustrate “the hypergraphic novel that we live out daily without realizing it.” (Peinture lettriste, p. 87) He illustrates his visual system by superimposing the signs in “cartouches” on a news paper page, letting some fragments of the news stories emerge:
Fig. 3 – Satié: from Lettrist Dailies, 1988. Private collection
Satié was always involved in exploring all the media possible to illustrate Letterist concepts, even to the point of vegetable art, where he trained a wisteria vine to trace his signature phrase: “letter – signe – mot.” Alain Satié’s “Les Mots Parlent,” is another fine illustration, a large sardine tin, the lid rolled back, and filled with fragments of a photo of movie stars next to a Porsche, cut into significant Satié shapes, along with a card decorated in one of Satié’s meticulous visual designs. The outside of the tin is covered with more of Satié’s characteristic signs.
Fig. 4 – Satié “Les Mots Parlent,” 1970. Private collection.
This artwork in a tin is labeled “Roman,” or novel. It is part of the Lettrist practice of “Hypergraphic Novels,” which stemmed from Isidore Isou’s Journaux des Dieux (1950) and was taken up by Gabriel Pommard in St. Ghetto des Prêts as well as by most of the major Lettrists. Satié published another hypergraphic novel, Ecrit en prose (1971), which is in a more conventional codex form, until one opens it to see people whose speech bubbles are filled with unreadable Satié signs. The whole appears to be a detournement of a French bande dessinée or a soap-opera in print, the Roman photo. In fact, the agenda of the hypergraphic novel is to chisel away at the conventional novel, invading with Lettrist hypergraphics. In Satié’s Ecrit en prose, the pages pulse with implied narrative as he combines pictures of conventional visual narration, such as the hand reaching for the telephone, with his dazzling hypergraphic signs.
Fig. 5 – Satié, detail, Ecrit en prose, 1971. Private collection.
In his typical explorations of all forms of his work, Satié later created a relief sculpture based on the work, where a copy of the novel is mounted on a wooden frame, its pages are symbolically chopped, and Latin alphabet letters dribble out of the book.
Fig. 6 – Satié, Ecrit en prose sculpture, 1996. Private collection.
At a certain point, Satié realized that his hypergraphic signs were beautiful elements in themselves, and he began making relief sculptures from them. Some are fairly large and have strings of lights behind them to make subtle lamps. The one seen here measures 27” x 20” and stands out nearly 4 inches from the wall.
Fig. 7 – Satié, “Smile” sculpture, 1989. Private collection.
Isou had quickly imagined many different kinds of expression that are grouped under the label of Letterism. After Hypergraphics, there was “Infinitesimal” art, which sought to conceive of the infinitesimally small, and infinitesimally large. Because this art could only exist in the mind, it could be attached to symbolic trigger works, and was also called “Supertemporal,” because the creative moment of the artwork could be produced at any time, under the influence of the viewer. An illustration of this is a work composed of the spine ends of six thick French phone books; Satié had them sliced off about 2 inches from the end, and they are mounted on plywood. His label on the front of the work says it is an infinitesimal work, and that “the elements chosen to compose this work, representing the chain of beings in perpetual progression who give themselves a place in society through their address….”
Fig. 8 – Satié “Phone books” infinitesimal sculpture, 2000. Private collection.
In the 21st century Satié became intrigued with various theories of art, and began writing books, often illustrated with his works. He was a prime mover for the elegant volume, La peinture lettriste (Paris: Rocher, 2000), where Isou, Satié, and Gérard Bermond are listed as authors, for which they asked David Seaman, the only Anglophone Letterist, to do the English side of the bi-lingual edition. Another was Autour et detours du portrait / In and out and roundabout the portrait (Verona: Conz Archive, 2009). The book has a lengthy essay on the subject, with portraits of various Lettrists. Satié’s portrait of Seaman includeshis face in a treated photo, fragments of Lettrist exhibition catalogs and events he was involved in, and lots of cartouches of Satié signs and embellishments.
Fig. 9 – “Portrait of David W. Seaman,” from In and out and roundabout the portrait
This short essay concludes with a charming side of Alain Satié, his love of nature and adventure. Satié had a technique of recomposing a scene into a Lettrist work by photographing the location with a personal hypergraphic card in the frame, which he called an “intervention.” He did this at the Red Square in Moscow, and when he visited Georgia, he wanted to do the same with alligators. Unfortunately his visit came in winter, when the ‘gators were deep in the mud. So it was contrived that Seaman would add his own hypergraphic card to Satié’s, and make a joint artwork when the alligators came up on the bank. Art is dangerous.
Fig. 10 – “Alligator intervention,” Savannah Wildlife Preserve, 2000