César Baldaccini, known as César, was born to Italian immigrants in Marseille in 1921. Though poor he was interested in art and enrolled in night classes as a teenager. At school this interest grew into a passion, and in 1943 César moved to Paris and enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts.
He emerged a sculptor whose work was in equal parts inspired by an impoverished childhood and the contemporary artistic movements taking root in Paris & New York. He quickly became one of the forerunners of the Nouveaux Réalistes, a movement led by Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, and Jean Tinguely that tied elements of Italy’s Arte Povera with a focus on industrial materials.
In 1958, Galerie Lucien Durand gave César his first show, and in 1958, he exhibited his first “compression” sculpture, a remarkable new type of work for which he is best remembered to this day.
César’s “compressions” were solid sculptures assembled from found objects like piping, cans, or refuse—notably pieces from of old cars—compressed and welded into abstractions, sometimes total, and at others suggesting men or beasts. The artist saw these as the greatest testament he could give to his post-war industrial age. Many critics agreed: by 1960 César had become one of the most celebrated living French sculptors.
In the late 1960s, César took off in something of the opposite direction, creating a series of pieces known as “expansions.” To do this, he poured tinted liquid polyurethane foam (then a new substance) into a mold, and would stand back, allowing it to solidify and, in so doing, expand, spilling out over the mold’s side and onto the floor. Where César’s “compressions” were packed and forced into a shape alien to their original form, his “expansions” spread out, refusing to be constrained to the shape in which they were poured—the one representing an exertion of the artist’s will, the other a defiance to it. Quickly, he added another dimension to these works. By introducing spectators he transformed the process into performances, which he called “happenings.”
César’s interest in molds led him naturally to works of plastic and glass. At times these were used to create sculptures of everyday objects; at others, these materials were used in encasing these same objects, as in a clear or tinted three-dimensional frame. He also began to create objects of functional utility, making bronze ashtrays, glass lamps, and vases for the eminent French firm Daum, and furniture for the designer Henri Samuel. César considered his functional objects in no different than the rest of his work – to César all were sculptures.
César continued to work until his death in the late nineties. In 1993 he was made Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. In 1995, he was commissioned to paint a McLaren F1 GTR slated to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He later designed his own grave at Montparnasse, where he is now buried.
César's work can be found in public squares around the globe, from France to China, as well in the permanent collections of the most prominent museums in the world, including le Centre national d'art et de culture Georges-Pompidou, the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London, the Musée d’Art Contemporain (MAC) in Marseille, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.