It's safe to say that Jonas Salk was lucky Françoise Gilot had a fascination for stylish architecture. That's what hooked her into agreeing to a personal tour of the Salk Institute by its founder in 1969.
The way she described their initial encounter in an interview with journalist Charlie Rose, Gilot wanted nothing to do with scientists. What could an artist possibly have in common with a researcher? A lot, she would find out — and lucky for Gilot, Salk's natural curiosity fed his desire to get to know the quiet French woman he had met days earlier over lunch. His persistence would lead to a cross-Atlantic courtship and their eventual marriage of 25 years.
This is just one of many stories shared during the opening reception for "The Floating Paintings 1980-1986, Works by Françoise Gilot," an exhibit of the artist's work currently on display at the Institute. Through slides of her artwork and video clips, Dr. Mel Yoakum, curator and director of the F. Gilot Archives, told the fascinatingstory of Gilot's life as a young artist who, against her father's wishes, dropped out of law school to pursue painting.
Along the way, she engaged in a much-publicized and combative 11-year relationship with Pablo Picasso, before striking out on her own to become an internationally renowned artist and best-selling author. A group of more than 160 members of the Salk's President's Club, distinguished faculty and friends of the Institute filled the Frederic de Hoffmann Auditorium in June to hear Yoakum's presentation, titled "Francoise Gilot: An Artist's Journey," which was followed by a reception and viewing of the exhibit.
Each of the nine pieces on display is part of a series Gilot painted in the early to mid 1980s using thin layers of acrylic paint on unstretched canvas. They were intended to "float" on the wall and demonstrate powerful color palettes reminiscent of theater backdrops.
To create the pieces, each of which measures about 100 inches by 100 inches, Gilot laid the large canvases on the floor of her New York studio and used brooms and rollers to apply the paints – creating geometric motifs with her signature dramatic use of color.
However, gauging her progress wasn't as easy as simply taking a few steps back from an easel, especially for the 5-foot, 4-inch artist. Instead, Gilot used a stepladder placed next to the painting to get a bird's eye view, Yoakum said.
"It's like the Stairmaster for artists because all day long she would go up and down the stairs to get a view of her paintings," he said.
By 1986, Gilot became allergic to the acrylic paint and was forced to abandon the series. As a result, the pieces on display at the Institute represent the last of her works created in that particular medium.
That period in her career coincided with a sense of freedom Gilot experienced after having resolved the legal acknowledgment of the two children she had with Pablo Picasso – Claude and Paloma. Since Picasso died in 1973 without ever having written a will, the estate, including the inheritance rights for Gilot's children, was not officially settled until 1985, Yoakum said.
It was reminiscent of another period in the mid 1960s when Gilot painted birds and open windows to reflect the freedom she felt after publishing "Life With Picasso," a book that described her observations of the complex Spanish artist during their time together. Picasso responded with three lawsuits, each of which resulted in victory for Gilot and her publisher.
"Pablo called Francoise and told her, 'I don't approve of what you did, but you know how much I admire a winner,' " Yoakum said.
The phone call in the autumn of 1965 was the last conversation to two ever shared.
Birds are a reoccurring motif in Gilot's paintings, Yoakum explained. However, the environment in which they are depicted serve as strong metaphors for the message she conveys.
A Gilot painting Yoakum shared from the early 1940s during the German occupation of Paris, for example, displays a hawk with its wing tip stretching high over its head, but just short of reaching the tip of the Eiffel tower that can be seen outside the latched window in the background.
"The hawk represents the German forces, but the Eiffel tower, which is the symbol of Paris, is higher than the hawk's wing, which is saying: 'We will prevail even though our current situation is locked,' " Yoakum explained.
His presentation also included slides of other paintings and photographs from the early 1950s that evoked the growing strain in Gilot's relationship with Picasso. The pair met in 1943, the same year of Gilot's first exhibit in Paris when she was 21 and he was 61.
Yoakum described Gilot's life with Picasso as a "whirlpool" that included an undercurrent of competitiveness between the two. Yoakum best described this with another story of when a young Claude was trying to get into the studio where his mother was busy painting behind the closed door.
Twice he knocked relaying sweet messages to Gilot who acknowledged him, but wouldn't let him in. Playing to her competitive spirit, Claude succeeded on his third attempt when he knocked again and said:
" 'Momma, I think your paintings have fantasy in them...I think they're better than Poppa's.' "
During that period in her life, though, she was surrounded by the legendary artists of the day and developed strong friendships with Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Jean Cocteau. The art-focused conversations she witnessed between Picasso and Matisse would eventually serve as the inspiration for her second book, "Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art," published in 1990.
In 1953, Gilot abruptly ended her relationship with Picasso and two years later, she married Luc Simon, a French artist with whom she had a third child, Aurelia. They shared love and passion, Yoakum said, but lacked the dialogue Gilot experienced with Picasso. The marriage was short-lived and by the early 1960s, Gilot was working on the manuscript for "Life With Picasso," as well as a group of paintings that became known as her Labyrinth series.
During one of her visits to the West Coast in 1969 to make lithographs, she met Salk and ultimately agreed to his invitation to a personal tour of the Institute. They married the following year while Gilot split her time between her studios in Paris and La Jolla.
Gilot and Salk traveled extensively throughout their marriage and together created a vital international presence in art circles and the scientific community, Yoakum said. Although Gilot returned to New York after Salk's death in 1995, she remains close to the Institute as an active member of the International Council and by serving as the honorary chair of Symphony of Salk for the last 13 years. Her paintings have also been featured as the signature artwork for each of the concerts since the event's inception in 1996.
Gilot's journey as an artist continues to this day, Yoakum said. She remains active in the art scene through her exhibits in galleries throughout Europe and the United States. She also recently began a new series of paintings, which Gilot describes as some of her best work to date because she's now painting with more ease and spontaneity – something that Yoakum believes she also found in her marriage with Salk.
"I think what Françoise found was the dialogue that she had earlier (with Picasso), but without the combativeness. Jonas and Françoise experienced fame early in their careers and one might think that having that would be a really solid platform to continue the rest of your work," Yoakum said.
"However, creativity is an experiment, it's trial and error — and with the loss of anonymity, there is also the added scrutiny. This creates an additional burden that they had to carry," he said. "I think they both understood that very well, and one of the many characteristics that they each brought to their relationship was their ability to understand that in each other."