Time and the line: central concerns in the art and poetry of Pierrette Bloch throughout her long career. This seems appropriate for an artist born into a family of Swiss watchmakers in 1928. But, unlike the automated mechanism of a clock, Bloch employs precision in the service of the irregular.
Bloch had her first solo show in Paris in 1951 and two others that same year in the United States. Her work has been compared to Henri Michaux and Pierre Soulages and she has been seen as a forerunner to the French art movement Supports/Surfaces. During the 1950s and ’60s she visited America several times and was influenced by the abstract expressionists. Her looping wax text drawings, for example, are reminiscent of late-’60s Cy Twombly. But where Twombly revelled grandly in mythology and the power of the proper name (Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares), Bloch is more modest. Almost all of her works are untitled; signatures are relegated to the rear. In series after series of small-scale works, she offers an interrogation of poetry’s formal components: the stanzas, the syllables, the punctuation that structures breath and rhythm.
Every mark Bloch makes is subtly different: rows of little white tally marks or loose circles of pastel or ink on black paper, pooled and cracked like charcoal. Her monochromatic approach – leavened occasionally by an earthy red or jolt of blue – places the emphasis upon materials: transparent tracing paper, heavy Canson paper, sheets pinned together or yellowed with age. In Untitled (1972), plump blobs of Indian ink appear like punctuation marks or embryonic letters. Several of these marks have a little line to the bottom right, like the tail of a comma or the link between letters in joined-up handwriting. They suggest that the artist is right-handed, that after a slow press against the paper, the brush is lifted away with alacrity. Occasionally individual marks blur together and the integrity of the line begins to break down.
Like Bloch’s work, this exhibition ‘Un certain nombre d’œuvres. 1971-2016’ (A certain number of works. 1971–2016) resists chronology. From the main front space to the gallery’s smaller back rooms, 88 drawings, collages and sculptural pieces from the last 45 years have been hung together. In the final room, three quite different pieces encapsulate both the diversity of Bloch’s work and her most persistent interests. Untitled (2015) is a Twombly-esque scrawl of oil stick on paper. Lines of spiralling ‘e’s gradually unravel into individual ‘o’s, as if joined-up writing has had to be unlearned. Opposite hangs Maille (1974), meaning ‘mesh’ or ‘stitch’. Black nylon thread and packing cord have been woven together in a dark patchwork of chainmail or fishing net and attached to a backing of pale felt. At over two metres high, this is the closest that Bloch’s work comes to asserting its physical presence. Each patch seems to sag a little under its own weight.
Between these two works is the most delicately mesmerising piece in the exhibition: Untitled (1988). A three-metre line of nylon stretches from one end of the wall to the other, at horizon level – one part below, 1.6 metres above. Along its length, Bloch has woven countless threads of horse hair. The ceiling lights cast a line of shadow along the white wall just below. Up close, you can see the subtle gradations in colour, from pale golden ochre to darkest ebony. The hairs flow horizontally in loops. In places, the artist’s fingers have woven intricate knots as sporadic punctuation; in others, individual strands whisper loosely outwards. They quiver each time I breathe out. It reminds me that, for Bloch, it is precisely these knots and loose ends that differentiate a living marking of time from the relentless repetition of mechanical automation.