Art is first of all a question of choice. At the end of the Second World War, when five years of German occupation had reduced cultural life to its strictest minimum, everything seemed possible for a young gallery. The first exhibitions organized by Denise René, as early as June 1945, bore witness to the fierce need for liberty and the desire to experiment, even when later channeled into geometric abstraction and then Kinetic Art, that are without doubt her most constant traits of character. From Max Ernst or Picabia to Atlan or Lapicque, during her first five years of activity, the pleasure of showing forgotten masters (and therefore unknown) from before the War, as well as new artists gave a new image to the already renowned Ecole de Paris. One common trait that was essential in the virulent debates shaking the world of all these "abstract" artists (even if today this title may be quite logically questioned by many of them), was that to create a new aesthetic they first of all refused any academism that could be tied to a figurative tradition.
Denise René took as her guiding principle the idea that art must invent new paths in order to exist; this was to be the basic intuition of her analyses. In this still confused grouping, that went under the term ‘abstract art’, where the non-figuration of a Manessier an Estève or a Bazaine was next to the informal research of Fautrier or Dubuffet, in order to keep the image subjacent she emphasized formal abstraction; that which in developing the fundamental ideas of Cubism transforms the painting into a purely plastic act, where emotion is born not from narration but finds its inspiration in the combination of the forms and colours. Having chosen this path, Denise René gathered together historical artists and young creators in a dialogue that the Gallery has always kept alive. In this way, from the early years, she put together Arp and Magnelli, Sophie Taeuber and Herbin, all first generation abstract pioneers, with young artists that she discovered and introduced, like Vasarely, Jacobsen, Dewasne or Mortensen. In the context of her work to highlight the pioneers of abstract art, she was also the first to manage what no French museum had ever done: in 1957, with the help of Dutch museums, she showed Mondrian, who had lived in Paris from 1919 to 1938 but had never had his own "personal exhibition".
This dialogue between the generations, this feeling of continuity in art history, and the idea that the work of a gallery is to discover and make familiar until museums take over, is the basis of the historical exhibition that Denise René and Vasarely held in 1955: Le Mouvement. In seeking historical antecedents, like Marcel Duchamp or Calder, and in recalling the articulations represented by the works of Vasarely or Jacobsen, the exhibition provided a framework and justified the research of young artists like Tinguely, Soto, Agam, Pol Bury who were unknown at the time, although this is difficult to imagine today, and who were laying the foundations of Kinetic Art.
Denise René developed this task of putting the different generation of abstract art into perspective by introducing to Paris the historical figures of the concrete avant-gardes of Eastern Europe. This tradition was unknown in Paris up until then and was highlighted by the retrospective of the Hungarian Lajos Kassak, Stazewski from Poland and the exhibition "Précurseurs de l’Art Abstrait en Pologne" (Precursors of Abstract Art in Poland) in 1957, with Malevitch, Kobro, Strezminski, Berlewi…(just as today she is showing the young Russian artist Jeltov). At a time when international exchanges were far less frequent than today, the gallery wanted to be open to creators from all over the world.
The Denise René Gallery became a natural gathering point for artists from the Latin American continent who preferred plastic research to narration: people like Cicero Dias from Brazil, Sot and Cruz Diez from Venezuela and the Argentinians Le Parc, Tomasello or Demarco are all witnesses to this. This privileged relationship with Latin America began in 1956 when Denise René published "Vénézuela", a Vasarely album that echoed the painter’s experience with the architect Carlos Raul Villanueva. A Vasarely exhibition organised and presented by the Gallery in 1958 in Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Sao Paulo furnished the opportunity for new encounters during its inaugurations, and many exhibitions.
Denise René had not only been one of the first French art dealers to understand that a gallery must review international creation and not limit itself only to those artists who came to live in Paris, she also knew, rapidly, that after the War information had a tendency to be world-wide in character and that it was not sufficient to wait until foreigners took advantage of a trip to Paris to discover new artists. The militant Denise René Gallery sought out and found new structures, a new public and made the most contemporary creation available to them. From April 1948 she organised exhibitions in Denmark, finding partners in the big, local galleries (Birch, Tokanten, and Rasmussen) who could continue her action to make constructed art known. In 1951 the organization of the Klar Form exhibition that toured the museums of Scandinavia and Belgium for a year was the concrete result of this visionary conception of the work of a gallery.
From time to time a dealer who accompanies the art of his or her time becomes a part of it; this was the case with Kahnweiler and Cubism, Herbert Walden and German Expressionism, Castelli and Pop Art. In 1955, when Denise René organized the exhibition "Le Mouvement" she instigated a new artistic concept and created a movement at the same time as she revealed a new generation of artists. Kinetic Art, to use the term coined in 1955 by Vasarely, followed by the development of Op Art, became one of the major tendencies in international contemporary art for fifteen years. The rapid public success of Kinetic Art, and its immediate echo in Europe and the United States should perhaps be seen as the natural and indispensable counterpoint to Pop Art. Where the latter restored the image and its power to bear witness to the social world, the Kinetic artists questioned art again, interrogated vibration, virtual colour, and all that in a fixed image calls upon the optic nerve or, on the contrary, introduced with real movement a dimension of duration that modified the approach to visual arts by bringing them nearer to the developments in time offered by the cinema and music. The immediate echo of these ideas, the influx of new artists who joined them, bore witness to the correctness of the intuition of the initiators of the movement, and also swept away the seeds of academisation. Multiples, a generous social idea that consisted of putting art within the reach of the greatest number of people rather than only that of the rich collectors, in diffusing the artists’ works by the hundred, made these consumer goods little different from those that Pop Art boasted about. The Grand Prix for Painting at the Venice Biennale in 1966 was given to Julio le Parc and showed official recognition of Kinetic Art, as the prize conferred on Rauschenberg two years previously had done for Pop Art, making Optical Art a fashion phenomenon. As is always the case with art, however, public recognition of a movement sounds its death toll. Denise René was not just a witness to the second half of the Twentieth century, but was a leading actor. Without her a part of the art of this century would have taken many more years to be discovered. Certain artists may not even have found the means to continue their creation without her support. In retrospect, one can take an inventory of that which the Gallery did not take into account, ask oneself why Bridget Riley or Takis did not find their place there, be surprised that Minimal Art was not the logical follow-up to the line of thought maintained by Denise René.However, aside from these lacuna, what remains is the admirable fidelity of a dealer with a guideline, the capacity to resist fashion’s sways and the financial or media ebb and flow that goes with them. If everybody agrees today with the severity and the importance of the choices made, what is perhaps most impressive is the moral dimension that Denise René gave to a profession of which few imagine that this is its major quality.