French artist Bernar Venet creates works that are devoid of any intended meanings

STIR speaks with the multidisciplinary artist on the sidelines of his ongoing exhibit, Trajectory, at Von Bartha, Switzerland, on ideas of ‘concrete art’ and self- referentiality.

by Rahul Kumar Published on : Feb 01, 2021

I personally dislike the term ‘abstract art’. If one were to go by the literal meaning, abstract means existing in thought and not having a physical existence. Huh? So, why would anyone refer to a physical work, an object occupying space, one that can be touched and acquired – and call it abstract? ‘Non-representational art’ is a better way to denote what is loosely called abstract. Within the broader context of this genre, concrete art was a movement in mid-1900s to further distinguish the vision of practices that desired to focus on the materiality of the medium used. It was devoid of any symbolism; its manifesto read, “A pictorial element does not have any meaning beyond “itself”; as a consequence, a painting does not have any meaning other than “itself””.

French multidisciplinary artist Bernar Venet works across painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, and performance. His practice is committed to self-referentiality. The artist is drawn to the beauty of the immediate simplicity and purity of a formula, and assigns no further meaning to the canvases and sculptures he creates. His early works from 1960s include Goudron (Tar) paintings and his iconic sculpture Tas de Charbon (Pile of Coal) – commencing his quest for non-representation.

Untitled work at Trajectory | Trajectory | Bernar Venet | STIRworld
Untitled work at Trajectory Image: Simon Schwyzer, Courtesy of Von Bartha and the artist

I speak to the artist about his practice and his ongoing exhibit titled Trajectory at Von Bartha, Basel, Switzerland, that features a series of paintings and two new sculptures.

Rahul Kumar (RK): If one must classify your abstract art, it fits the ideology of ‘concrete art’. Would you agree? Do you subscribe to the philosophies of Doesburg, or have you sourced inspiration from the works of artists like Frank Stella?

Bernar Venet (BV): Actually, van Doesburg’s definitions of ‘concrete art’, the lucidity of his theoretical discourse, were of particular interest to me when I found myself needing, around 1971, to define the origins of my work and its evolution through my conceptual art period. As early as 1961, and in 1963 as well, my tar-covered paintings could already have been thought of as ‘concrete art’ but in a very different way, as I did not paint as my predecessors did. What was concrete in my work was the tar, the material itself, presented for what it was and without any reference to anything external. The tar deposited evenly on the canvas was not used to compose a painting, but was the object of the painting itself.

At that time, I did not yet know the work of Frank Stella.

Venet’s works focus on materiality | Trajectory | Bernar Venet | STIRworld
Venet’s works focus on materiality Image: Simon Schwyzer, Courtesy of Von Bartha and the artist

RK: When you conceive of a work, especially sculpture, because of the sheer form and scale, you influence the spatial perception. Do you begin with end in mind?

BV: When I begin to work on a sculpture, my primary objective is to orient myself towards a concept and a configuration that I have not yet mastered. What has not yet been designed is precisely this space that I want to discover! Moments of weakness are those in which we indulge ourselves in the pleasure of what we have already partially mastered, and which will give results that we may already expect. My moments of happiness are often those when an ‘accident’ during the production of a work makes me discover a possibility that I had not previously thought of. The secret of this method is to have your eyes and mind open enough to take advantage of these events and to draw conclusions that will benefit what is being created.

Display at Trajectory | Trajectory | Bernar Venet | STIRworld
Display at Trajectory Image: Simon Schwyzer, Courtesy of Von Bartha and the artist

RK: For the large-scale works, how does the architecture around them compliment the work?

BV: Again, in the process of creating a work, the only thing that interests me is to discover how to push the boundaries of what has already been achieved in the field of sculpture. When a site is proposed to me, I try to envision, which from among my different sculptural variations might work best in the environment. Often it is sufficient to take a model and enlarge it to adapt it to the scale of the place. But at other times, proposed sites are the source of new conceptual and formal possibilities. And there the creative part takes over. It’s a much more satisfying situation for me as an artist.

Holographe | Trajectory | Bernar Venet | STIRworld
Holographe Image: Jerome Cavaliere, Courtesy of Von Bartha and the artist

RK: I am very intrigued with the spectrum of your creative expression – painting, sculpture, poetry, sound, furniture! How does it all fit in and come together? Or does it? Do you feel you spread yourself too thin?

BV: By exploring all of these disciplines, I am simply developing what I have, for many years, called the ‘principle of equivalence’. In 1963, showing paintings covered in tar (a surface of black matter); exhibiting a pile of coal (a volume of black matter); presenting a book in which all the pages are black without reference to anything other than the idea of a book; listening to a sound composition – monotonous, sober, repetitive – made from the movement of a wheelbarrow across tarmac; producing a set of black photographs of the asphalt in the road with no particular composition – all of these proposals are linked by the discourse around their own self-referentiality, but also by sobriety, by darkness, and by primary gestures. It is this self-referentiality that later led to my introduction of the concept of ‘monosemy’, that is, the exclusion of interpretation, wherein a diagram as well as a mathematical text, a schema for a tube or a sculpture in the form of a tube, impose only one possible level of meaning of the works. This is in opposition to figurative or abstract art, which I was starting to tire of after encountering millions of variations. The fields of creative thought are immense, and being satisfied with a formal language – identifiable at first glance – considerably limits the creativity of those who find their happiness there.

Venet’s works are non-representational | Trajectory | Bernar Venet | STIRworld
Venet’s works are non-representational Image: Simon Schwyzer, Courtesy of Von Bartha and the artist

RK: Please tell us about your recent exhibit Trajectory at von Bartha, Basel, and your continued “investigation into the mathematical and philosophical implications of the line as well as the dichotomy between order and chance”.

BV: Since 2000, I have resumed my pictorial activity linked to the paintings with mathematical content that I was doing in the 1960s. I thought that I could offer a very wide field of original subject matter compared to all the paintings that have been produced in the fields of figuration and abstraction.

For a few years, this activity supplanted that of my sculpture. There are precious moments where a new idea excites me, and where I then devote myself entirely to it, abandoning the rest of my activities. In 2010, for example, I made five paintings from drawing proposals I did in 1966 and that I had not created at that time, thinking that the results would be too attractive compared to the rigor that I imposed on myself then.

For this exhibition at Von Bartha, we agreed that it would be interesting to show a series of paintings mostly produced this year, alongside two works from 1966 and 1967 to which the new works are very visually related. The tables in the form of ‘tondos’ are not in themselves very new compared to their predecessors from the 1960s. They deal with ‘kinematics of a material point’, or trajectories, which is a subject that I had not previously approached, but it is the execution that differs appreciably since they are not made by hand with a marker but rather from adhesive stencils that impart a more technical look, with their quality design and lettering. I made these paintings to please myself, because I found a certain freshness in them that satisfied my desire to vary my activity in that moment. They took me back to the orientations and fundamentals of my work in the 1960s.

Bernar Venet | STIRworld
Bernar Venet Image: Laura Stevens

The exhibition ‘Trajectory’ is on display at Von Bartha until February 20, 2021.

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