The Voice of the "Charges-Objets"
Clément Dirié

Text written on the occasion of the exhibition "Jean-Michel Sanejouand - Operation contact" at the kreo gallery in September / November 2018

By borrowing its title from the collection of prose poems published by Francis Ponge in 1942, these lines wish to inscribe Jean-Michel Sanejouand’s work, and particularly his “Charges-objets,” into a French cultural genealogy: that of literature and the visual arts as close as possible to the real, which they embody and amplify. A school of vision and thought for which attention to what is common goes hand in hand with an ironic—both disillusioned and sincere— awareness of existence.(1) In Le Parti pris des choses, Ponge offers precise, physical, and spiritual effigies of banal objects to celebrate their beauty and quiet confidence. Without abandoning a rigorous observation of the tangible, these observations also renew our perception, often stereotypical, of daily life through the use of surprise and short circuits. To things, Ponge restores their originality, their “objectivity” —certainly sublimated by his writer’s subjectivity—freeing the objects from the insipidity of their use. To define his practice, he coined the expression objeu (“obgame”), a portmanteau word defining this game with objects, and a new way of being a poet. Twenty years later, Sanejouand’s work “loads objects” (charge les objets) to reveal their intrinsic power, and challenge the artistic, socio-cultural, and domestic conventions of the 1960s.

Among the objects that Ponge, as a “ventriloquist,” renews, are bread, the candle, the orange, the cigarette, the pebble—so dear to Sanejouand—and the crate, a material of the same wood from which frames are made.

Half way between “cage” and “cachot,” or cell, French has “cageot,” a simple little open-slatted crate devoted to the transport of fruit that is sure to sicken at the slightest hint of suffocation.
Devised in such a way that after use it can easily be broken down, it never serves twice. Thus its lifespan is shorter even than that of the perishables it encloses. 
At the corner of every street leading to a market, it gleams with the unassuming luster of slivered pine. Still brand new and somewhat aghast at its awkward position, dumped irretrievably on the public thoroughfare, this object is most appealing, on the whole—yet one whose fate does not warrant our overlong attention.(2)

A visual artist with successive, parallel, and complementary practices,(3) Sanejouand is also a writer, author of aphorisms, a literary genre illustrated by La Bruyère and La Rochefoucauld. With regard to the “Charges-objets,” four of them are published here, among dozens of others written over the past 50 years and gathered under the programmatic title of False Notes. If Sanejouand’s use of rocks, pebbles, and other stones, as well as a certain formal kinship of his works from the 1980s to the 2010s with a Far Eastern aesthetic, make it possible to define them as visual haikus, it seems more appropriate to consider them as three-dimensional aphorisms, of which the “Charges-objets” would be the emblematic examples. An admirer of his work, the critic Bernard Lamarche-Vadel put it in these terms in 1990: “In an analogical way, I consider these ‘Charges-objets’ to be many aphorisms that trace the melodic line of a thought at the end of representation, the death of art, and the birth of a generalized aesthetic. ‘Charges- objets’ are aphorisms about the virtualities of space that condition man’s virtuality. Faced with the current great ideological bazaar for the global canonization of communication, in the early 1960s Sanejouand was already installing switchers.”(4)

Forged by his experience of life and the art world, interwoven with causticity and tenderness, Sanejouand’s aphorisms offer a verbal horizon to his visual work. Allow me, in view of their accuracy and invigorating acidity, to cite three others: 

Growing old is the only way to become less stupid. But the dumb oldies don’t take advantage of it.

Just look at a starry August sky at midnight to see where we stand. 

It is good to be able to say: I was an intellectual; As they say: I was young.

Sanejouand was young in June 1964. He was 30 years old then and began, in a Parisian gallery located in rue du Bac, his prolific artistic journey in which he established himself as an incessant precursor, by revealing his “Charges-objets.” A pioneer for whom experimentation is never as energetic as when it is malicious. Considered at the time as one of the first Pop exhibitions of the Parisian artistic scene,(5) this show, entitled Poulet 20 NF, brought together three artists: Daniel Smerck, Jean Chabaud, and Sanejouand, who displayed about 10 “Charges-objets.”(6) The photographs of their presentation reveal a particular staging: the podium, with its different heights around and on which the works are placed, shows them as if they were in a department store. Playing on their proximity and interrelationship, the artist invites us to consider them autonomously, each in itself, but also as parts of a common space where they all are in conversation. All future exhibitions, especially retrospectives by Sanejouand play this operation of operation, squared(7): the sculptures, environments, and paintings he creates are assemblies that he gathers together. It is undoubtedly this predilection for taking into account the display and the relationship, for giving form to a linguistics of space which, beyond the formal and medium differences of his successive bodies of works, defines the cogency of his entire work. In an Espace-Peinture such as 8.10.84 (1984), the ordering of planes, shapes, and colors is the striking element, painting being simply another way of organizing space.(8) Much later, in Lyon in 1986 and Nantes in 2012, Sanejouand exhibited his “Charges-objets” by hanging them at various heights and linking them to later works.

In a paradigmatic way, all the Organisations d’espace (1967–1974) that followed and extended the “Charges-objets” underline this reflection, as those works wished to “consider the space in which [they] were presented as a material.”(9) The Organisations d’espace presented in 1968 at the Galerie Yvon Lambert are undoubtedly among the most radical pieces of this corpus—realized without much hope of sale in a space with an a priori commercial vocation. In the exhibition catalogue Grégoire Müller wrote: “No form is justifiable in itself from Sanejouand’s perspective. It exists only in terms of a certain space that it helps to determine. This concrete space on which he has been working for four years now is the result of an interaction of colors, shapes, materials, densities, tactile qualities … so many tangible things: it is the absolute negation of the identity space = void [ … ] Each time, Sanejouand limited himself to connecting elements of reality to make them react with each other, to highlight their own expressive charge. Without the slightest anecdote, the Organisations d’espace have a physical action on the spectator; they enter and collide with them; this art is on the same level as reality. It is a real spatial planning that has begun … an organization full of surprises, both aggressive and ironic, subtle and sensual, playing with a sovereign freedom of aesthetics.”(10) In a sense, the Organisations d’espace were, for the artist, his way of subsuming the “Charges-objets,” the first of a series of radical subversions and sincere parodies.(11) In an interview with Robert Fleck, Sanejouand discusses this need for rupture: “If you are at the end of something, you turn to something else. Such reversals are a normal and accepted gesture in the field of thought, but not yet in art. The problem with the ‘Charges-objets’ is that if you do this, you go in very different directions: addressing questions regarding the canvas, the stretcher, kitchens, etc. It goes in all directions, and then you have only one choice—to clarify everything toward a certain aestheticism or formalism, toward a clearly identifiable artistic method, or to leave the field. I was not tempted by the first solution. That’s what a large part of art is. Aesthetics and formalism, but I am not sure I am interested in art under these conditions.”(12)

Fifty-five years after the exhibition Poulet 20 NF, Galerie kreo is exhibiting a significant number of “Charges-objets,” highlighting their historical importance. Conceived in the mid-1960s, they could be seen as a critical response to the promises of the Trente Glorieuses (the Glorious Thirty) and the artistic expressions that accompanied them. In any case they constitute a significant, and paradoxically rather unknown, milestone in the history of French and international contemporary art.

They demonstrate the very singular path chosen by Sanejouand in his staging of the object: beyond Marcel Duchamp’s readymade—no museum sacralization is at work—divergent from the Surrealists’ exquisite corpse—no fantasy is revealed—more scathing than the New Realist approach—no fascination is expressed there. 

What are these “Charges-objets” created between 1962 and 1967? There are many answers; their relevance lies as much in their multiple and open nature as in their typologies and modes of assembly of the used objects that are varied and diversely combined in all of them.

Here are some definitions, each complementary to the other: subjective associations of domestic fetishes embedded in the artistic sphere. Instruments to emancipate the gaze and disturb our relationship to objects—whether they are manufactured products used unchanged (ironing boards, wire mesh, linoleum) or old abstract paintings redeployed without affectation. Bitter aphorisms about the “system of objects,” described by Jean Baudrillard in 1968. A series of works whose title sounds like a warning, each piece constituting an uncompromising portrait the France of Général de Gaulle’s industrial, artistic, and economic modernity. Proof of the artist’s undeniable talent as a colorist. Exercises in irony about the status of the artwork, the artistic movements of the postwar period, and the sacrosanct form of painting.(13) A French response to Donald Judd’s “Specific Objects,” and the anticipation, through the humble “tableaux-objets,” of the forthcoming experiments of Supports/Surfaces. And finally, of course, a way of examining the organization of space and the relationships between things: “the ‘Charges-objets,’ i.e. these connections of striped tarpaulins, fences, printed linoleum strips, etc., responded to a sudden urgent need to experiment with concrete space and a violent desire to provoke this space,” Sanejouand recalled in 1986. This has been one of his major concerns throughout his 50 years of creation, as illustrated by his fascinating Jeu de Topo (1963), in which the outcome of each game is determined by the agreement of the two players on the best possible arrangement of the pebbles-turned-pawns.

Let us take a few examples from the 150 or so “Charges-objets” created between 1962, the date of Toile blanche et lacet de cuir, a simple white canvas that the artist bound with a shoelace, and 1967, when he presented at the École polytechnique Sculpture sur mesure, his first Organisations d’espace. 

In Toile de bâche à rayures et règle (1964), the combination of a colored pattern and a graduated instrument produces a visual short-circuit where the metric system and chromatic spectrum are measured. In Toile noire et châssis (1965), the shifting of the support and surface requires an adjustment of the gaze, heralding the pictorial questions of the 1970s. With Linoléum, châssis et plaque métallique perforée (1966), the investment from floor to ceiling gives life to a furniture sculpture, in which simple hardware materials acquire an unexpected status. In Châssis carré et croix de tissu blanc and Monochrome bleu derrière (both 1964), the reminiscences of art history are undermined by the artist’s irreverence. Everywhere, it is a question of the friction between meaning and the visible, of surfaces that touch and articulate each other, of third spaces created by these operations of contact that enable the objects, the artist, and the spectator to all enjoy themselves together. Invited to put his “Charges-objets” in perspective with Duchamp’s readymades, Sanejouand explains: “I wasn’t looking for the neutral object, I was looking for the object fascinating for nothing. It’s not the same thing. We are fascinated because of its color, because it shines, etc. The side that actually brings me closer to Duchamp is the trap. I think he had a taste for the trap I share.” The trap, a synonym for objeu?

A few more examples, proposals for other stimulations: Fauteuil et carré de toile rouge (1966) which, inexorably, announces the “Furniture Sculptures” of John M Armleder; Made in Nouvelle France (1964) which prefigures the inflatable and inflated provocations of the first Jeff Koons; Bâche à rayures horizontale (1965) which transforms upholstery fabric into a “visual tool” and abstract pattern; En losanges (1964) which dialogues, across the Atlantic, with Sol LeWitt’s geometric experiments; Coupes de cailloux peints (1963) which recall the origin of the “Charges-objets”: those stone assemblages that Sanejouand has been making since 1960 and that he continues to create today. Or L’Armoire verte (1963), which underlines the usual character of the works exhibited as “Charges-objets”: the wardrobe, still visible today in his library, was really used, according to the critics and times, to tidy up his son’s belongings or his photographic archives—just as Bloc-Cuisine (1963), found, after its gallery life, its place in the city, in the kitchen of the Sanejouand couple. Listed in this way, these operations of contact do not (only) wish to propose an a posteriori rewriting of the history of art and its borrowings, but to acknowledge the formidable intuitive nature of the “toolbox”—as contemporary artistic expression would have it—which the “Charges-objets” make up, observed five decades after their creation.

Continuing the dialogues between art and design initiated in 2012 with the exhibition Ensemble conceived in collaboration with Marcel Brient, and recently continued in 2017 with Didier Lavier, a conversation between design pieces and the work of Bertrand Lavier, Opération contact also presents a selection of emblematic creations from Galerie kreo. The “Charges-objets” are displayed in visual “contact” with pieces of a very particular typology: those called “miscellanea,” a term denoting that they do not fully comply with the requirements of the canonical design categories (seating, desks, lighting, storage). Together, miscellanea and “Charges-objets” thus invite us, with their respective and particular qualities, to rethink art and design, our understanding of the common object, its power of evocation and transformation as well as the way we must live with things. Conceived by Erwan & Ronan Bouroullec, Pierre Charpin Hella Jongerius, Jasper Morrison, Julie Lohnman, and Studio Wieki Somers, the design pieces, with their surprising appearances but clear functions, surprise, disturb, and confuse. Coming out of the kreo laboratory, they propose a rewriting of the academic forms and uses of object design, an exercise that Jean-Michel Sanejouand also carried out in 1969 for Atelier A,(14) by creating a symmetrical rocking chair and its essential footrest—for those who wish to remain motionless.
Doubtless, remaining motionless is not the life lesson Jean-Michel Sanejouand is teaching.

Clément Dirié


1. Family and friendship ties between Ponge and Jean Dubuffet allow the latter to be brought closer to Sanejouand. Indeed, his ability to regularly renew his plastic vocabulary offers a kinship with Dubuffet’s artistic career, which is full of (apparent) ruptures. It should be noted that the two artists most frequently mentioned by Sanejouand in his interviews are Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp—Duchamp, whose debt to French literature and poetry at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is well known.

2. “Le Cageot” (The Crate), in Francis Ponge, Le Parti pris des choses, coll. “Métamorphoses,” NRF-Gallimard, Paris, 1942. Translated here by Lee Fahnestock.

3. On his practice and influences, Sanejouand himself explains: “The ‘Charges-objets’ were not cold enough to [appear as a legacy of Duchamp]. Picasso injected warmth into them. The Organisations d’espace, too, were neither cold nor dry. The plans that accompanied them, as well as the project for the Seine Valley, were on the other hand much more in Duchamp’s spirit [ ... ] During all those years, between 1968 and 1977, I switched, almost daily, from plans to Calligraphies d’humeur. Indeed, this coming and going can, in retrospect, lead us to think of a kind of struggle for influence. Later on, I began to have doubts about the direction Duchamp was pointing in. The question is whether we have the humility and audacity to choose to be comparable. Cézanne wanted to be comparable to Poussin. Picasso, on the other hand, wanted to be comparable to Cézanne. Duchamp had a Norman trick: he wanted to be incomparable. How can we compare a bottle rack with a sculpture by Brancusi, who takes the risk of being compared to all the sculptures that preceded him? By positioning himself, very skillfully, in incomparability, Duchamp has become the ideal leader, not too demanding, very friendly, fraternal. Why would you want a young man to resist the temptation to be part of the freed men’s club from the start? I didn’t resist either [ … ] I am indebted to both Duchamp and Picasso for teaching me the basics, that is, to be free, independent.” in “Entretien avec Louis Fardel,” Jean-Michel Sanejouand: Sculptures et Sculptures-peintures, exh. cat., Galeries d’art contemporain, Carré Saint-Vincent, Orléans, February 7–March 28, 1998, p. 7.

4. Bernard Lamarche-Vadel, Jean Michel Sanejouand. Les Charges-objets, La Différence, Paris, 1990, p. 11–14 and 27.

5. A “Charge-objet” by Jean-Michel Sanejouand is reproduced in one of the very first books devoted to Pop art (Mario Amayo, Pop as Art, A Survey of The New Super-Realism, London, 1965), in the company of works by Marcel Duchamp and Yves Klein—a sign of the blur surrounding the notion of Pop art at the time. How can I not take advantage of this opportunity to quote Sanejouand’s aphorism: “The intellectual blur tickles pleasantly.”

6. Other solo exhibitions devoted to “Charges-objets” include Jean-Michel Sanejouand, Charges-objets, MAMCO, Geneva, 2015; Les Charges-objets, Haim Chanin Fine Arts, Art Paris, Paris, 2010; Les Charges-objets 1963–1967, Galerie Froment-Putman, Paris, 1991.

7. The title of this publication and the exhibition at Galerie kreo is inspired by that of an unrealized project designed by Sanejouand in 1970.

8. By focusing on the problematic of space, Sanejouand’s work reconciles painting and sculpture. He often explains: “Painter or sculptor, this distinction doesn’t really matter to me.”

9. In the press kit for Jean-Michel Sanejouand’s exhibition Rétrospective, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1995, quoted by Frédéric Herbin, Les Organisations d’espace de Jean-Michel Sanejouand (1967-1974), exh. cat., École nationale supérieure d’Art de Bourges, Bourges, 2013, p. 15. Herbin’s excellent text offers a detailed analysis of the Organisations d’espace corpus as well as a “genealogy of in situ practices in France,” highlighting the respective specificities of American and European Minimal artists, and European artists among themselves, notably around the figure of Daniel Buren, on this question of work in situ.

10. Grégoire Muüller, J.M. Sanejouand (Deux Organisations d’espaces), Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris, 1968, n. p.

11. The Greek etymology of the term “parody” means the song beside, the counterpoint, the parallel path, which, for Sanejouand, often proved to be the path to innovation and freedom.

12. In Robert Fleck, “Histoire d’une subversion,” Jean-Michel Sanejouand, exh. cat., Centre Pompidou, June 28–September 25, 1995, Paris, p. 12. With Sanejouand, the attitude toward art takes precedence over the form of this art, to use the terms of Harald Szeemann’s manifesto exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Bern in 1969 in which he could have participated.

13. Seeing in the “Charges-objets” sarcastic portraits of their time allows us to anticipate the Calligraphies d’humeur and their caricatural dimension

14. Group founded by François Arnal—a painter—Serge Benbouche, and Olivier Boissière, active from 1969 to 1972. Pierre Restany accompanied the activities.