Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, and Kunstmuseum, St Gallen, Switzerland
Olivier Mosset’s much anticipated retrospective (his first since 1985) was held simultaneously in Lausanne and St Gallen, and was a unique opportunity not only to examine four decades worth of work, but to confront it with the huge amount of critical discourse it has generated over the years. Mosset’s paintings have been variously associated with Minimal and Conceptual art in the 1960s, the monochromatic endgames of Radical painting in the 1970s and the critique of modernity by Appropriation art in the 1980s. The fact that the work has crossed such heterogeneous, and sometimes even contradictory, contexts has often made it difficult for much of the art world to perceive it as a whole.
Faced with the somewhat paradoxical task of mounting a survey of an artist who denies the idea of the masterwork, and whose approach demonstrates a profound antipathy to sublimation, Mosset and associate curator Lionel Bovier initially hoped that the two venues could feature simultaneous, identical exhibitions. Although this scheme was, for practical reasons, eventually abandoned, this austerely titled retrospective, ‘Works 1966-2003’, nevertheless managed to avoid the pitfalls of hero-worship often associated with this kind of exercise. Avoiding a strict chronological sequence, each room was conceived as a narrative about what a painting can conceivably do; what we, as viewers, want it to perform; and what constitutes the space that separates our expectations from what is actually accomplished.
In one room in St Gallen (where the show was co-curated by Roland Wäspe) two huge red untitled monochromes from 1983 were hung side by side. Painted at a pivotal moment in the artist’s career, each work could have prompted a different critical interpretation. The first could have been read as a manifestation of a formal sequence historically defined by the teleological endgame of monochromatic, ‘last’ paintings still discussed in that era, and the second as its afterthought (a ‘painting of a painting’ of, for example, a Barnett Newman). However, faced with the quasi-identical nature of both works, these elaborate considerations became a moot point. Rather, the confrontation of the two canvases simply points toward the incidence of colour. One is struck by the overwhelming phenomenological presence of the hyper-saturated, ultra-matt pigments whose echo reverberates across the space as dramatically as in a James Turrell installation (stripped, in this instance, of its auratic, New Age pretence).
In Lausanne’s Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, a 19th-century Neo-Classical building, a pale blue monochrome (Untitled, 1993) is so tall that it covers the ornate stucco plinths of both floor and ceiling. Across from it is another red monochrome, hung on two walls as a corner piece (Red Square, 1998-9), while a white painting is suspended from mid-air as a false ceiling (Untitled, 1993). The display emphasizes the architectonic qualities of these artworks - literally delineating a series of spatial events that can only be experienced physically. This experience of ‘objective’ recognition is as much a product of the work’s size, colour and application as of acutely graphic attributes: even the most abstract pieces often have something of the pictogram about them. This dimension of the work is perhaps most evident in the artist’s recent sculptures, such as the ‘Toblerones’ (1993), minimal structures whose shape duplicates Swiss anti-tank blocks, while their name is that of the famous triangle-shaped Swiss chocolate.
This tension between the work’s objecthood and its facility to be read as an iconic sign is apparent even in the early circle paintings of 1966-72, for which Mosset is best known. Examples of this series of over 200 identical canvases - each bearing a black circle in the middle of a white square canvas - were exhibited alongside the work of Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni in the famous ‘BMPT’ exhibitions of 1967. At the time the artists described their works as arbitrary signs, the purpose of which was to perform the mechanics from which (all) paintings result. However, far from being interchangeable, these signs are actually symptomatic of each artist’s subsequent relationship to painting. In the case of Mosset, the circle paintings (which were shown in a room of their own at both venues) bear a clear affinity to both Pop and Minimal art. Their mute iconic presence relies, much more than Parmentier and Buren’s stripes and Toroni’s marks, on a graphic, retinal property. John Tremblay once described these paintings as Op art whose effect ‘may take years instead of seconds’. As demonstrated by this retrospective, their vibration has yet to stop.