Bernar Venet: Indoors, Outdoors

Featured in Frieze Sculpture, and solo shows in London and Cliveden, the French artist talks about his career, Renoir, and sculpture in context

BY Matthew McLean AND Bernar Venet in Interviews | 19 JUL 17

Matthew McLean This is your first solo exhibition in London since that at the ICA in 1976. The works included span the decade before that, and up to 1984. How would you describe that early period of your work? What was your ethos or ambition?

Bernar Venet What’s an ‘ethos’? A new word to me. I’m totally uncultivated - I’m terrible!

Well I was only 19 years old when I started making work, and I was reacting to art history before me. My taste was very much about soberness - I was against the lyricism in France, and Abstract Expressionism in America: in 1961, these were still powerful movements. Pop Art was being born, and Neo-realism too. I respect figurative art, of course, but I have been interested in it. Martial Rayasse and the like - I was never going to follow that way. What I wanted was abstraction as neutral, as difficult, as pure, as powerful as possible. I was against flamboyance, the seduction of colour, the spectacular. Yves Klein was too spectacular, though I respected him too. I wanted to do something very serious!

But I was young - all I was looking for was to impress my artists friends. I wanted to be respected. I wanted to be part of that - very small - French avant-garde.

MM And where did that ambition take you?

BV As soon as I got involved in Conceptual art - mathematical forms - the direction was set, the content has been consistent since. Though my attitude was that I was never satisfied with anything I did. There was so much to make in art - so much remains to make in art.

What I did was already Minimalism, I think. That word didn’t exist at the time with the meaning it has now. But the black tar paintings [the ‘Goudron’ series) were Minimalist. I wanted to show the material as matter - no expression, no spectacle, not to make a composition but just to show the matter. The same with the charcoal sculptures [Tas de charbon (‘Pile of Coal’, 1963)] - I did them just to show the material, the material was the sculpture. Charcoal was the sculpture.

Bernar Venet, Tas de charbon ('Pile of Coal', 1963), installation view in 'Bernar Venet, Looking Forward: 1961-1984', Blain | Southern, London, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and BlainSouthern. Photograph: Peter Mallet

MM The title of the exhibition is ‘Looking Forward’, which suggests a definite direction or momentum. Where did this experimentation lead?

BV When I first started with my Conceptual period I thought of these tar and charcoal works as too conservative, too traditional. So I started working with mathematics and scientific data as a way to totally escape considering the formalistic aspect in art. I spent a while thinking everything I had done was junk: just some variations on existing themes.

In the period 1971-76 I stopped doing art. I was reading a lot, analysing my work, criticising it. It was only then that I saw the relationship between my earlier work and what I was about to do. I realised that my feeling that anything looking like an artwork was not to be considered was already present int those early works. My idea of self-referentiality was already there when doing tar, or doing charcoal - because in those works the work was was tar, it was charcoal. It’s totally one thing, the same thing. The relationship is now obvious! I was not using matter to do something else, I was presenting it as itself. And this is the same with the Conceptual works, and with the line, which I then concentrated on exclusively.

MM Five year after the scope of this exhibition closes, you acquired Le Muy in The Var, and then 25 years after that formally cemented it as the the Venet Foundation. How do you see your role as a collector/patron of art in relation to being a creator of it?

BV Here’s one thing about being an artist: you have time, more time than some, you can enjoy travelling, you can go to museums. When you’re in contact with art, learn about it, study it, enjoy it, and why not acquire it? Many great artists collected - Rubens, Degas, Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, right through to Damien Hirst and others. Artist who are collecting are the ones like Rubens involved in art history - they know the weight of it. They don’t just do art to entertain themselves, they consider the place of themselves in the history of art - so they surround themselves with it.

Also, let me say this: it is thanks to art that I have a great life. I have a beautiful life. It is to art that I should devote my energy, and give back what I earned. Some artists are spending their money on drugs, on alcohol, on girlfriends (or boyfriends). Some put it in bank accounts…

But to me it’s not really about collecting but about a philosophy of life in general. I was born in a society that allowed me to become an artist, to work, to go to New York, to meet these great artists, to exchange work with them, to sell work ever since. Partly I am paying homage to these artists older than me who helped me when I was young. But mostly it is because it’s thanks to that society that I have the life I have, and can make the art I do: so I want to give back everything to this society. Everything I acquired will go to them - my wife, my kids, they won’t have the major pieces. They will stay here for everybody…

Bernar Venet, 17 Acute Unequal Angles (2016) in Frieze Sculpture, The Regent's Park, London, 2017. Courtesy: Bernar Venet Archives, NY and Blain | Southern. Photograph: Peter Mallet

MM I heard Renoir was part of your journey to becoming an artist. Is that true? Does the art of the past still have a place in your imagination?

BV When I was 11, I was living in a small village. No-one had heard the word ‘art’ before, not my parents certainly. There was a local painter - a lousy one - who did flowers, landscapes. I talked to him and enjoyed trying to develop a hobby. But there was no idea that art would be my life, instead of the factory. One day in Nimes, I saw in the window of somewhere I was buying some paints some books. In one of these I saw a painting of a woman washing her feet. There was a word by it that was totally abstract to me. Ren-o-ir? So I asked the local artist about this, and he showed me a book about impressionists. I didn’t know what this word ‘impressionist’ meant either. I found out this Renoir’s paintings cost a lot of money. And I knew then I would not go and work in the factory!

After that I copied Renoir, impressionists, then Picasso, blue period. At eleven years old, you don’t understand the most sophisticated abstract art, I think, so it was all figurative. But I guess like a Conceptualist, I was drawn though to things I didn’t understand. How can you paint like that? 

MM Le Muy contains both indoor and outdoor exhibition space. Do you think that there is - or should be - something fundamentally different for sculpture devised for the outdoors versus the indoors? Or do you think that the context merely a matter of display preference?

BV Initially at Le Muy I had space for myself, but not a big piece of ground to show others. The collection of other artists - the Stella chapel, the open ceiling from Turrelll, and this year, Caro, King, Morris, LewWitt, Bell, among others - is really quite recent. Before that it was mostly inside space.

Context is completely important. I have an indoor space of 22 thousand square feet, which allows me to make very big pieces, 200 tonnes of metal. To see that inside: it’s very physical. As as soon as you enter this room, you really feel the work, on your face almost.

In a way I prefer inside spaces like this, but I don’t have enough of them. Sometimes if the landscape around the sculptures is too beautiful it can overdetermine the work. They are some sculptures, 130 tonne ones, which I am happy to show outdoors but I think - if this was inside, it would be a knockout!

Bernar Venet, 88.5° ARC x 8 (2012), installation view at Gibbs Farm, Kaipara Harbour. © Gibbs Farm 2013


MM But what about works like the sculpture installed at Gibbs Farm, 88.5° ARC x 8 (2012)?

BV Ah, the Alan Gibbs, yes, I love that one. It has a majesty, there: it’s right on top of the hill. The verticality of that piece works with that site. Also, these rusted works of mine, the red works well against the green of a landscape. No, it is so spectacular that one - I would never move it inside or anywhere. I am very happy with that.

MM Since about 1979 you’ve been working tirelessly with the line, the arc, the angle. At Frieze Sculpture, you’ll be presenting a very recent work, Eleven Acute Angles (2016). Does the acute angle constitute a new area of research or exploration? What draws you to it?

BV The line - yes, since 1976 the line has been main element. Between poems, other areas of work. Acute angles are new, you’re right. For a long time I really had some problems with angles. It was only really four to five years ago that I worked out what to do with them. It was in part thanks to new configurations, using computers. I could involve some disorder, chaos, the non-controlled with the acute angles - the effrondrement du monde, the collapse of the world, I call it. You have a bunch of arcs in order, and boom - all of a sudden it’s like shoulders and elbows smashed into it. I have to move on in this way. I always think: I better move my art. I’m not going to fall asleep satisfied with anything I did.

MM You’ve been active in the art world now for more than five decades now, and have been involved with a remarkable range of influential movements and individuals, from Man Ray to Francois Morellet to Frank Stella. Would you say that the art world has changed over the course of your career, and how? 

BV It’s almost a banality now, but when I was 24, in Paris there was one gallery for the avant garde. If we showed at the museum of Museum of Modern Art, we had to paint the walls ourselves. To be in the catalogue, we had to pay for the reproduction of images - in black and white of course.

Collectors in Germany started to pay attention - Ludwig, etc. And then we had a market. Today the market is very strong. I’m amazed today, actually. You’re Kassel now, right? An incredibly elaborate and expensive exhibition for artists that, to many, are totally unknown. There is a lot of money available for this now.

Bernar Venet in his studio, New York, 1978. Courtesy: Archives Bernar Venet, New York

MM Do you think it’s still fun?

BV Is it still fun to be an artist? It was for me in New York, because we were very young, and could still afford to spend time having fun. Going to Warhol’s studio, you know, slow dancing with Rauschenberg… Today not so much for me. But when they are older, artists are obsessed with their work, their legacy - the idea of finally trying to do something interesting. I am sure there is a scene of fun and exchanging ideas out there. But perhaps ask a younger artist.

Bernar Venet, ‘Looking Forward: 1961-1984’ is on view at Blain | Southern London until 22nd July

‘Bernar Venet at Cliveden’ is on view at the National Trust property Cliveden until 15th October

Benar Venet’s Eleven Acute Angles (2016) is part of Frieze Sculpture, on view in The Regent’s Park, London, until 8th October

Main image: 'Bernar Venet at Cliveden', installation view, 2017. Courtesy: Archives Bernar Venet, New York and Blain | Southern. Photograph: Jonty Wilde

Matthew McLean is creative director at Frieze Studios. He lives in London, UK.

Bernar Venet is an artist, based in New York, USA and Le Muy, France