Delphine Pouillé develops her sculptural work around environments and according to the caprices of polyurethane foam. Pouillé uses the foam to fill anthropomorphic shapes she constructs out of colored fabric and suspends the final sculpture in galleries, parks, and display windows to create gestures that are at once comedic and poetic.

In an interview with Cindy Nemser that appeared in Woman’s Art Journal in 19701, just a few weeks before her death of a brain tumor, Eva Hesse responded to the question of whether or not her work was feminist with the following words: “Excellence has no sex. The way to beat discrimination is by art.” As far as her work is concerned, we can say that history proved her right. Like Eva Hesse, Delphine Pouillé is a fine artist whom we can associate, from a critical perspective, with the post-minimalist movement, working exactly 50 years later; she does not talk about gender in her work, a significant detail in our era obsessed with identity (myself included). It is interesting to note that, just as Hesse with latex, Delphine Pouillé is obsessed with a material that is equally industrial and equally difficult to conserve: polyurethane foam. I will end my material comparison of Pouillé’s work with Hesse’s here; nevertheless, I do want to insist on a genealogy that always seems important to me to mention when talking about women artists, for the entry of women into the annals of art history is still today not self-evident. And certainly, many women of Eva Hesse’s generation toiled to diversify the field of post-minimalism and complicate its stakes, only to see but one among them be crowned with recognition, and this partially due to her romanticized early death.  

Delphine Pouillé is very much alive, and she has been pursuing a career as a sculptor for a solid decade, actively seeking out (and finding) environments that offer the best frameworks for her practice. To begin with, Delphine mostly works in situ. Residencies, spaces, and situations provide inspiration for reflections that lead, more often than not, to singular installations that open up dialogues whose specific pertinence grows out of the work’s interaction with the space. Lastly, the suspended figure has assumed a very particular position in the sculptural vocabulary of this artist who says “not to think in terms of walls.” Delphine builds these figures using a process she has worked with since 2016. In it, she creates shapes out of fabric that she fills with polyurethane foam and then flattens out, either using a roller or—never hesitating to use her body—by trampling or lying down on the surfaces of the pieces (as in Nageurs fossiles [Fossil Swimmers], 2020)—it depends. The foam flattens with more or less pliancy, again depending on the size of the shape she is creating; it is a labor of force that brings us back once again to the history of art, to the particular belief that women don’t make “physical” work with materials (a belief that persists to this day). Once the material is flattened, the excess foam overflows through openings in the fabric, forming a more or less uneven edge. Similarly, the foam often permeates through the fabric depending on its thickness: Lycra lets the foam overflow, fine fabrics wrinkle, thick cottons yellow when the foam dries and is exposed to light. The results are inevitably evocative of skin, especially since Delphine’s recent patterns have all been applied to the same humanoid form derived from a 2018 sketch inspired by sports equipment she saw in Korea while at a residency there in 2017.

The 2018 sketch presented a vaguely human silhouette, a figure standing upright, with skinny legs and a square torso, arms raised to the sky. I admit that at first, I detected in the image the form of female genitalia—joyful fallopian tubes and sturdy uterus (remember, I’m obsessed). Regardless, this drawing quickly evolves into a labyrinth of corridors, guts, lines; anything that could be recognized as bodily explodes into pure abstraction, a network of patterns destined to be stuffed, like brave geese, with ever more foam. Indeed, the artist’s creations now stretch out across several meters and this has made their production difficult, their manufacture approximate and frustrating (Lycra has the annoying tendency to shrink, which often leads to unpredictable dimensions), their transportation once finished, almost always impossible. In any case, the foam (like latex) ages badly: everyone has told her this since art school. Visitors to the park in Brussels where she exhibited one of her most recent creations, Enough for Today, 2021, must have shared this opinion at the time, helping themselves to bits of fabric from the piece and wrapping them around the bars of the sculpture, or using the sculpture as a soccer goal or a screen. The artist wrote a text about this piece that details all the trials and frustrations that occurred throughout its installation. A slapstick tale in the tradition of Buster Keaton that nevertheless conveys honestly and openly the commitment required and the difficulty of being a mid-career post-minimalist female artist, aided on occasion by her father and stood up by her friends just when she needs to borrow their truck. And lest we forget the poor Airbnb manager who hadn’t foreseen the four-meter metal bars blocking the stairwell. 

A kind of inter-species (in the Harawayan sense of the term) collaboration that nevertheless delivers exactly what we might expect from post-minimalism in the purest sense of the term: a real experimentation with material that engenders a troubling sensation of the uncanny, that transforms the material just to the point of unrecognizability, that makes us aware of our bodies by confronting us within the space. Even at a distance, the effect is unsettling; due to the most recent (and hopefully last) lockdowns, Delphine’s latest works have been presented in display windows (happily in light of frequent vandalism). In Relâche (2021), one of her most recent productions, the bright orange man/uterus with legs/vagina of several meters long looks to have eaten too much/is pregnant, for when the polyurethane foam was still wet it settled in the figure’s stomach/cervix because the artist had to hang it over the triangle framework quickly in order to the get the right curvature of the legs. But the accident was a happy one; the effect is comic, appealing. How many passers-by will have been comforted by the rosy, pudgy body in the window of a dilapidated shop in the center of Clermont-Ferrand? Pouillé doesn’t hesitate to seize upon contexts that other artists might deem too peripheral, too far from the “centers”, from the “markets”, from “visibility”: she brings her work into existence through residencies and open calls which we may think of as being reserved for young artists, but which she makes generously fruitful, free of the snobbery that too often qualifies the art world of capital cities, cities that have dried out like the skins wrinkled by the foam she tirelessly crushes, passing rollers and energetically hopping in the studios in France, in Navarre, and further afield, that have graciously been placed at the disposal of her creative fury.

In a 1965 letter to her friend Ethelyn Honig2, Hesse wrote: a woman “…. [is] at disadvantage from the beginning… She lacks conviction that she has the ‘right’ to achievement. She also lacks the belief that her achievements are worthy. […] A fantastic strength is necessary and courage. I dwell on this all the time. My determination and will are strong but I am lacking so in self-esteem that I never seem to overcome.” Thinking over Hesse’s words, and wishing Delphine Pouillé the same success as her illustrious predecessor—be it present or posthumous, I wonder if perhaps Relâche, the big soft creature in the window in Clermont-Ferrand might be an allusion to the atrophied post-lockdown body. For my part, I also see in it a nod towards the ever more free and expansive process of an artist who, in her unwavering commitment to fully exploit all possible contexts in order to create new opportunities for her work, never gives up.

1. Cindy Nemser, “My Memories of Eva Hesse,” Woman's Art Journal 28, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2007): 27. JSTOR 20358108.

2. Eva Hesse, excerpt from “Letter to Ethelyn Honig” (early 1965), in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz eds., Theories of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 593-594.

Dorothée Dupuis, Don’t Give (It) Up. Virtual Body Contact With the Work of Delphine Pouillé

Text written within the framework of the Bourse Ekphrasis (ADAGP, AICA-France & Le Quotidien de l’Art) & published in Le Quotidien de l’Art n° 2446 / 8th september 2022, p.10-12

English translation by Chloé Wilcox