We’ll Always Have Memphis - Artist Nathalie du Pasquier in Afternyne Magazine
Nathalie du Pasquier has not slowed down in the three decades since she left the art collective Memphis as she continues to inspire fashion designers, gallerists and an unknowing public.
By Renata Certo-Ware
(This article originally appeared in After Nyne Magazine Issue #18 in the UK)
There is a video of artist Nathalie du Pasquier working in her studio in Milan, shot by Judith du Pasquier, presumably a relative. In it, she is positioning a group of wooden shapes into a model and then sketching it out onto a large canvas before painting the objects and their shadows. As she stands in a ray of afternoon sunlight in front of the nearly finished work, one hand rests on her hip and the other flits a small brush up and down the canvas in a controlled, jerking motion, tugging at the colors and coercing them into meeting. There is no noise but the sounds of the street below, dogs and sirens and birds, and it sounds like a window is open. It gives the impression that the very origin of the easy, familiar nature of her works comes from the peaceful meditation of creating them, inventing them.
She doesn’t use a ruler or straight surface to paint the rigid lines of the models she assembles, which very subtly (since her freehand lines are by this point quite precise) gives the paintings an organic, human quality.
To watch her work, it seems that her purpose is to fully understand, down to the atom, her subject matter, and the deft ease with which she does this is a testament to her focus and commitment to her genre, a genre she helped create.
Du Pasquier was born in the French port city of Bordeaux in 1957. At eighteen, instead of heading to university, she took a boat trip to Gabon, where she was inspired by sign painters and African textiles, among many other influences from her travels around the continent that also included stays in Niger and Mali. It was there that the self-taught artist began drawing, and just a year or two after moving to Milan in the late Seventies, she began designing textiles for fashion houses such as Fiorucci.
It was also in Milan that she fell in with a group of international expat artists, including her British-born partner George Sowden and Italian artist Ettore Sottsass. The latter founded Memphis, a collective of postmodern architects and designers that became known for the futuristic, pop-art aesthetic that defined the Eighties worldwide. Du Pasquier and Sowden were among the group’s original members.
For five years, she worked primarily as a designer of “decorated surfaces,” which included Sowden’s furniture as well as textiles, carpets, and more. Sottsass left Memphis in 1985, and du Pasquier followed suit in 1986 after burning out on the excitement of the 80’s. By the following year, 1987, she reemerged as a painter.
To look at her career from the start, it’s clear to see that it has quietly snowballed in it’s nearly forty years. Countless shows, capsule collections and fashion collaborations along the way prove that her aesthetic has remained not only relevant but downright influential.
She herself is somewhat enigmatic, even egoless, seemingly more concerned with the creation of art and the art of creation over the celebration of a job well done. Apart from her vast body of work, striking style and disciplined work ethic, very little is known about du Pasquier on a personal level, and she is famously, as one museum employee said “hard to get a hold of.” (She reportedly once turned down a meeting with Sofia Coppola.) Indeed, most people have never even heard of du Pasquier, and think “barbecue” and “Elvis Presley” when they hear the word “Memphis.”
And yet, even without knowing about the illusive artist, one would be hardpressed to open a design book, browse a furniture catalogue, or shop for clothing without seeing the Nathalie du Pasquier effect all around.
Du Pasquier’s work, and subsequently the work of the countless other artists, designers, and musicians she’s impacted, is so iconic, so particular, and so ubiquitous that it instantly feels familiar, because it is familiar. It’s everywhere.
Her pieces, and those of her Memphis colleagues, can be found in the private collections of David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld, to name a few. She’s worked with high end and high street fashion houses alike on collections, prints and custom pieces, and this year alone, her work appeared on scarves at Hermès and dresses at Valentino, and will be the focus of two major, transatlantic solo exhibitions in London and Philadelphia.
If her work wasn’t so studied, so on-course, so authentic, one could accuse her of selling out, slapping her name and brand on everything from notepads to armchairs. Unlike Youtubers or celebutantes who franchise their names out to any shoddily made fast-fashion or candy-sweet drugstore perfume, du Pasquier’s collabs feel heartfelt, made rather than manufactured. Through collaborations with American Apparel, Rubberband and more, she democratized her iconic aesthetic so that it is no longer just for Memphis enthusiasts, art collectors and gallery walls; it’s in closets and living rooms the world over
Even though her name is synonymous with Memphis (just ask Google), that was only a five year period of her life; it’s her paintings and new textile designs that she’s created in the thirty-plus years since that continue to carry her forward without making her seem like a relic of the past.
Du Pasquier’s paintings are characterized by their precision, and the sometimes quotidien nature of their subjects - cups and pitchers and pocket knives assembled on a tray, cut glass vessels and vases with warped flower stems. Some jump from the canvas, with strong, sharp shadows offering depth, while others are so strikingly flat, both in color and dimension, that they read like stickers or cut-outs. Though her subject matter is almost exclusively still life, energy bubbles under the surface of each piece. There’s a sort of tension in the arrangement of her subjects, but also a balance, sometimes quite literally; in her more abstract work, shapes - spheres, cylinders and cubes - are stacked on top of each other.
There’s a cartoonish quality to her paintings, too, and together with the color palette that makes up her world - oranges and blues, grays and reds - there is something unquestionable and comforting there, like a child’s bedroom in a highly stylized model home. Sofia Coppola’s interest in the artist doesn’t seem so surprising once you get to know her work, and I wouldn’t be shocked if she’s caught Wes Anderson’s eye, as well.
Her work is often described as a study in the relationship between groups of objects. One can't help but wonder if her fascination with groupings of objects that are drastically different but play well with each other stems from her roots as part of the Memphis collective.
Incorporating model-making and assemblage are more remnants of the Memphis days, particularly with regards ot the collective’s focus on furniture and architecture. The fact that she makes her own models is proof positive of the control that she has when she creates, from conception to completion, so that her body of work has come to include the models and grouping of models as well as paintings of them. It’s meta, but with an end result that reads like an evolution rather than introspection or self-interested navel gazing.
Du Pasquier does have a playful side, one that lives alongside her disciplined, geometric work like a loud neighbor that you just can’t stay mad at because the parties are so damn fun.
The obsessive cleanliness of her lines and patterns, the purity of her surfaces is forgivable because there’s a glimpse of her sense of humor, a reassurance that she doesn’t take herself too seriously, that manifests in nearly each piece. That sense of divertissement comes through perhaps most glaringly in the textiles she designs, for the fashion houses with whom she has partnered since the earliest days of her career, and before that, for Memphis. If her models and paintings are controlled and precise, and her color scheme is stalwart, her textiles are blaring, jostling for attention with each other and shapeshifting with the movement of the fabric.
In 2013, du Pasquier designed textile for the Wrong for Hay collection, British designer Sebastian Wrong’s collaboration with Hay, a Danish design brand. The collection was presented at London Design Week that year, and a lush green chair covered in amoeba-like white hexagons was immediately recognizable as a du Pasquier piece, as was a stack of striped and splashy blankets draped over another chair. Pieces from the collaboration with Wrong are still available for purchase via MoMa’s online store under the name HAY NDP, including a pillowcase for $30 and a totebag for $20.
Also democratically priced was her 43-piece collection of womenswear, menswear and accessories for American Apparel the following year. Window-pane crop tops were styled with circle skirts emblazoned with what appears to be a print made up of beige pizzas, and a loose-fitting cotton pyjama gown looks like a cross between a Gabonese boubou and an American baseball uniform. Tighter patterns graced jumpsuits and tent dresses, while a big, bold green print was splashed on an underwire bodysuit that was not for the faint of heart, or shy of skin.
In 2015, she and George Sowden collabed with Zig Zag Zurich, a Swiss bedding company, on the design of cotton bedspreads and wool blankets. That same year, she also designed a textile print for Philippe Starck’s Mademoiselle chair for the Italian furniture brand Kartell, and has since worked with a handful of other designers on Kartell sofas and chairs. Last year, she designed a series of six notebooks in two sizes for the Indian brand Rubberband, priced £7-11 each.
On the higher end, Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli tapped du Pasquier, along with Sowden, for the current collection. Piccioli used several of her designs, some developed for the collection and some from “Counting,” du Pasquier’s 2014 series of posters centered on simple numerical formulas involving addition and subtraction illustrated by witchy hands. This iconography is now found on frocks and handbags in the Italian label’s AW 2017 collection.
Luxury shoppers can also purchase a piece of wearable du Pasquier at Hermès. The four-piece Zeta x Nathalie du Pasquier collection showcases a representation of one of her iconic models in three bright color ways and one in black and white. “I approached this canvas by distancing myself from the representation of real elements with a freedom similar to that which I had when designing fabrics in the 1980s,” she says on the Hermès website. Even though she used the same methods as she did in the 80’s, the pieces feel ultra-modern.
Clothing and collabs aside, du Pasquier’s paintings and models are slated to have a big year this year.
“Nathalie Du Pasquier From time to time” was on display at The Pace Gallery in London for a month this summer, marking the artist’s first exhibition in the UK. The collection included 50 works, many of which were new and unseen and several site-specific elements that transformed the gallery into an immersive environment. At the center of the exhibition, not immediately visible upon entry, was a red room containing more traditional still lifes that represented abstract constructions, mostly from 2008-2014. Her new works were in the rooms radiating out from that central room, with three-dimensional elements that, according to the artist, “show the scars of time.” Speaking of her plans for the exhibit back in April, she had this to say: “What I want to show in From time to time is this continuous shift from one position to another. It is in that movement that I recharge the dynamo.”
There was a hint of irony in the juxtaposition between the artist’s desire to physically induce movement through the layout of the exhibition against the very nature of du Pasquier’s subject matter - mostly still lifes and furniture, which are, generally, stationary objects. Perhaps she is growing restless, ready to jump onto a sailboat to Gabon or travel through time.
Another site-specific element was a “rhythmic,” free-flowing design applied directly to the walls of the gallery, nodding to her textile design and uniting the various rooms and ambiances present.
Next, in September, "Nathalie Du Pasquier: Big Objects Not Always Silent" opens at The Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, in collaboration with Kuntshalle in Vienna, Austria. “Big Objects” shares a catalogue with Kuntshalle, which includes over 100 works that will journey from the Memphis years and through her painting and sculpture to more current work. However, the ICA exhibit is considered the first comprehensive international exhibit for the artist.
Luca lo Pinto, the curator of the exhibition at Kuntshalle, joined du Pasquier in Philadelphia to meet with Alex Klein, the ICA’s curator, to help stage “Big Objects.” Because of the differences in size of the Vienna space versus the Philadelphia space and the unique layout of each, the two shows, although sharing a catalogue, will end up feeling quite different. “In fact that is what’s interesting, to see how, from the same group of works and basically the same idea about what the show should look like, it will be a very different exhibition” du Pasquier says of the ICA exhibition.
Indeed, space is as important to this collection of works as time was to the Pace exhibition.
“The exhibition is installed as a kind of city, within which the different rooms can be seen as buildings that focus on different aspects of her thinking and creative process,” explains Jill Katz, the ICA’s Director of Marketing & Communications.
Du Pasquier’s wallpaper designs, another collaboration with Zig Zag Zurich, will serve as backdrops, juxtaposed with sculptures, textiles and still-life paintings.
There will also be a sound element in the exhibition, hence the title “Big Objects Not Always Silent.” Du Pasquier explains” “The reason of the title is this little room which contains three big, grey constructions. One of them talks with the voice of artist-musician Steve Piccolo. Steve is a friend and he has combined sound I recorded one day in my studio last year with a poetic composition he did specially for this occasion.” This room will stand in stark contrast to the bright energy of the rest of the show; the room is entirely grey, and Piccolo’s voice is monotone.
One of the other rooms bears a promising title: “inside my head.” Du Pasquier describes it as having walls that are “covered by shelves that contain a mixture of paintings and objects from the last 35 years.” The room will contain items outside of her oeuvre, too. “There are pieces which did not develop in any further series, there are objects I like, a brick, a stone, there are design pieces from the 1980s, some sketches for textiles because I was designing textiles before being a painter, there is a painting of a motorbike, a little terra cotta door…many different things which have piled in my studio and in my head. The room is painted blue, like a thought, like a memory of a time that has gone.”
Other rooms will be dedicated to drawings, and one of the bigger spaces will house large-scale items like carpets, which unlike at Vienna, will be displayed on the walls like tapestries rather than on the floor as, well, carpets.
There will be no dates or materials listed, however, which is fascinating considering that the show serves as a retrospective of sorts. It’s on the viewer to figure out the timing and create a narrative of du Pasquier’s evolution. “You will be the one to do the connections. You will be the one to recognize elements from a painting to the next or from an object to a painting.”
Visitors will likely thrill to see “Emerald,” a console du Pasquier designed for Memphis as part of this exhibit, too. It’s an important piece for du Pasquier, because even though it was one of the earlier items from her lengthy career, to her, it shows that either time is cyclical, or that she is still the same young artist she was in the 1980’s.
“I recognize many of the things I did later,” says du Pasquier about the piece. “In the end one never completely changes.”
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN AFTER NYNE MAGAZINE ISSUE #18 IN THE UK