publication of the International Sculpture Center
A Conversation with Bernar Venet, A Renaissance Artist
the Third Millennium
by Laura Tansini
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Indeterminate Lines, 1988. Painted steel,
12 meters high. Work installed at La Défense
in Paris, France.
Bernar Venet, being an artist means not only to paint or to make sculptures,
but also to speculatein art, science, philosophy, mathematics, geometry,
and music. He is an internationally recognized painter, sculptor, and
composer (of concrete music), and his main interest in art is to raise
questions, to push his work further and farther, and to search for new
approaches. At the end of the 60s, Venet went through a strict rational
moment that brought him to what he thought was a dead end. He was saved
by the benefit of doubt, the necessity to question himself,
and the capacity to face changes.
In 1967 Venet frequented
the Mathematics and Physics Department at Columbia University. He was
a conceptual artist then and created non-visual works on magnetic tape:
My interest in art was focused on the content, not on the visual
side. He set a 3.5-year program of work and decided that at its
completion he would stop artistic production. For six years he ocused
on lecturing and writing. Of course that was not enough: he needed to
move ahead, to make new experiments and have new experiences, and to find
new ways in art. In 1976 he again began to paint and make sculptures.
After Coal Piles (1963), which you consider your first sculpture,
you abandoned sculpture until 1979.
Not exactly. Three years after Coal Piles, I created and exhibited my
Tube sculptures in Nice. These works are less known because
they were not exhibited as much, and yet they fit quite logically into
my evolution. They even play an essential role because they are at the
origin of my industrial drawings (tube plans), which marked the passage
toward my conceptual period when I abandoned the object in favor of diagrams.
I sought to develop a work with an industrial character, as impersonal
as possible and devoid of imagination, a work that underscores a rupture
with the understanding of the artwork as an expression of its author.
My propensity for neutrality led me to present sculptures without getting
involved in the production stage. The buyer could thus choose the length
of the tube, the ends of which were cut according to his wishes,
in slants or perpendicular to its length. The tube sculptures were made
with cardboard rolls and painted industrial yellow. Others were made out
of industrial gray polyvinyl chloride pipes. The smallest acted as models
that I later reproduced on a larger scale in steel. These sculptures were
empty, that is to say, their surfaces were visible both from the inside
and the outside. (Donald Judd was also interested in transparency and,
in 1966, he too created open parallelepipeds.) My sculptures were directly
dependent on the laws of gravity because the slanted cuts determined their
positions. The Lodz Museum (Poland) tube, whose ends are cut at 90 degrees
has neither top nor bottom, neither front nor back.
are not only theoretical. They add nothing to the aesthetic of the work,
but they create new experienceseach time compelling one to learn
how to look in a new way. This was my main interest at the time.
the end of the 60s you stopped making art.
BV: Yes, to
be more precise, I stopped my activity at the end of 1970.
does it mean for you to be an artist?
BV: To be
an artist is to ask questions about the very nature of art, to have a
creative activity that allows one to ask these questions. Unfortunately,
the public mind associates any painting or sculpture with an artistic
product. These objects may be devoid of real cultural value, without any
formal originality or substantial innovative content. They are only paintings
or sculptures and dont, in my view, merit the status of a work of
art. Their authors faithfully base themselves on the foundations of the
past, on a repertory of known forms, and it is through a resemblance to
past art that they believe themselves to be making artistic work. They
act according to the principle of duplication, of repetition and multiplication,
when true artistic activity should be conceived as an uninterrupted construction
of innovative events. I have little respect for looking back, for rediscovering
primitive or primal sources of expression. Increasing levels of abstraction
and complexity frighten those for whom art is a means to attain a comfortable
expression of calm, luxury, and delight.
Arcs, 2003. Rolled steel, project for a
sculpture for the Louvre Garden, Paris.
you confused about your role as an artist?
BV: No, my
position and my convictions were very clear. If one understands the ideas
from which my work evolved, if one accepts its rational, methodical, depersonalized,
almost scientific character, one can then comprehend the logic that led
me to cease all activity. In 1967 I established a work program, a list
of disciplines to be explored within the context of my artistic activity
in order to broaden its sphere. This program was to end in 1970. That
is what I did.
was that the end of your strictly conceptual phase?
BV: Yes, it
was the end of the period during which my work developed around the principle
of monosemythe use of texts and mathematical diagrams with only
one level of signification. This principle can be found in my sculptures
on which the measure of degrees is systematically inscribed. There was
no way around it, there was a logic to it and I had to respect it. I thought
that I had pushed my process to its extreme limits, and this called for
an end. Otherwise one only speaks of art or one lets oneself slip into
a production that suffers in quality. At 30, one has convictions. An artist
explores, he does not exploit.
the time you stopped making art, you continued your activity as an art
theoretician, writing and giving lectures. You could not escape art.
BV: Art theoretician
is saying a lot. It is true that I taught theory in 20th-century art at
the Sorbonne and that I wrote and gave several lectures. I didnt
abandon the artistic field, but teaching and thinking about this discipline
did not make an artist of me. To the famous statement, This is art
if I say so, I countered: I am not an artist if I say so.
1976 in New York you started painting again, representing mathematical
equations, a very unusual subject. You are not interested in the meaning
of equations, you simply use them as images, forms for your paintings.
Did that happen by chance or because you were searching for a new language?
BV: When I
resumed my activity in the fall of 1976, my mathematical subjects were
different from those
I used in the 60s. Notably the Straight Lines, the Angles,
and the Arcs became the basis for my investigation into the
theme of the line. First translated onto canvas then in relief form, these
subjects, to which the Indeterminate Lines were added, took
on a central place in my sculptures. Motivated by the desire to constantly
enrich what I had previously created, over the years a shift occurred
that allowed me to move from the dematerialized art of the
60s to todays rather large-scale sculptural activity.
you agree that scientists, mathematicians, and artists are similar in
that they are all researchers?
2004. Rolled steel, 12 ft. high.
read many books written by some of the most prominent scientists and researchers.
I think that their intuitive process is very similar to that of artists.
It happens that the most implausible hypotheses are at the origin of original
ideas and have the richest potential. One must then prove the validity
of these first intuitionsthey may perhaps bear fruit or they become
something else even more unpredictable. Some think that scientific thought
is more oriented toward reason, demonstration, and objectivity. I sometimes
feel quite close to these methods, which have the advantage of short-circuiting
the wait for inspiration.
aesthetics have any role in your work?
and concept go hand in hand because it is in the aesthetic field that
my activity and ideas co-exist and stimulate each other.
do you consider to be aesthetics?
BV: All that
which, in my eyes, has a profound intrinsic beauty. All that provides
me with satisfaction and intellectual pleasure, often transcending the
field of the visual. It is a vast territory, covering all of art history
from the first artistic expressions of humanity all the way to today.
Even when it is enriched by knowledge, the aesthetic feeling remains profoundly
subjective and cultural. No one will ever provide a definitive definition.
My aesthetic feelings
are satisfied far more successfully by Piero Manzonis Merda dartisti
than Marie Laurencins Bouquets de fleurs. But the aesthetics I am
most interested in is the one that remains to be discovered, the one whose
meaning needs still to be formulated: all these objects or phenomena that
I am not yet sensitive to, that surround me without my even taking notice;
objects or events that remain foreign to me, to which I am deaf or blind,
like those people who pass by an Ad Reinhardt without feeling its charge.
The aesthetic sense allows me to move to another level of perception.
It is a more subtle perception when I am familiar with the theoretical
or contextual framework. In this case, the black painting on which one
can barely distinguish a cross becomes the site where the subtlety and
originality of Reinhardts vision is concretely exteriorized.
Indeterminate Lines, 2003.
Rolled steel, 104 x 102 x 173 in.
sculptures have their own beauty, based on balance, the strength of the
material, and changes in spatial perception. When you create a new sculpture
do you start with a drawing or small model?
BV: I never
make preparatory drawings, and if you are alluding to the Indeterminate
Lines, each one was the result of improvised, intuitive, empirical
work. I am uncertain of the result during the entire process. Steel imposes
its limits: I must yield to this and accept its nature.
you say the work creates itself?
BV: No, these
sculptures dont create themselves. One must witness their production
to understand how difficult it is to cold-twist steel bars that measure
4.5 inches in section. One then understands the danger and the physical
effort. At each instant it is necessary to find improvised solutions so
that I can attain the desired goals. Despite the mastery I have acquired
over the material, there is always an element of surprise that awaits
me each time that I finish a line. The most recent Indeterminate
Lines handle these unexpected results the best. I now create installations
with Indeterminate Lines of variable configurations. I can
propose five, six, or seven lines tangled up in each other. The same lines
are then used for different configurations according to the available
you create monumental works, you make a maquette: form, weight, and balance
are calculated and decided in advance. Do you do everything by yourself
or do you work with engineers?
to the importance of the project and the installation difficulties that
I expect to encounter, I sometimes create several different models. I
then choose the one that best corresponds to the site and to the limits
that I must work within. The role of the engineers is limited to wind
testing problems, especially for my big vertical arcs, which are
subject to vibration phenomena (galloping). They also study the volume
of the foundations and other technical details that I know nothing about.
you make changes between the maquette and the final work?
BV: Only in
the details. My greatest difficulty consists in properly calculating the
square section of the line in accordance with the works dimension.
titles of your works often suggest contrasting meaningsfor example,
true. My sculpture is based on concepts that appear to be divergent, but
which in the context of my activity organize themselves in a complementary
manner: order and disorder, the determinate and indeterminate. We know
that matter, nature, and life organize themselves according to complementary
principles (organization, disorganization), and my work is no exception
to this universal model.
obeys the disintegration principle; the result of the falling
bars is unpredictable. This presents another sort of assemblage
that no longer depends on the controlled organization of the artist, and
I have to accept the completely unexpected. Some may be tempted
to speak of a contradiction between works in which randomness intervenes
and the very simple determinate lines such as Diagonals or
Arcs, the Nice Arc de 115°, for example. I need these
oppositions to move forward; this complementarity is vital for my sculpture.
I understand that my work may appear incoherent at times. That is because
the observer bases his reading on frameworks from the past, on explanatory
schemes that I no longer subscribe to.
Installation for the Robert Millery
Gallery, New York, 2004. Rolled steel,
approx. 10 x 18 x 18 ft
your sculptures you use different forms. Are they all originated by the
yes. The better part of my sculpture (with four variations) originated
by taking the line as a point of departure: the straight line (Diagonals),
the curved line (Arcs), the broken line (Angles),
and the line freed from mathematical constraints (Indeterminate
Lines). In 1979, I created an Indeterminate Surface
in wood, a relief covered in graphite. In 1995, I had more success in
solving the problem of surface by creating an entire series
of large-scale steel Indeterminate Surfaces cut with a blowtorch.
The Point is a subject that I have also focused on, which
allowed me to create an installation in 1984 at the Musée de Villeneuve
dAscq where I showed the relation of volume, surface, line, and
you like to create outdoor works?
BV: I take
as much pleasure in installing my sculptures in interior, more neutral
spaces. The relation to the landscape can affect the identity of the sculpture.
Observation can be deformed by the beauty or richness of the surrounding
nature. In the same way, on a neglected or cluttered site, the sculpture
will be diminished and lose all its impact. Sometimes the situation is
different. Right now I am working on the installation of a large straight
line that leans against a chateau in France. In this example, only the
integration of the steel bar into this environment legitimates its status
as a work of art.
you develop a new sculpture, what is your main interestmaterial,
form, balance, space?
BV: I am interested
in discovering how, from certain starting principles that are mine, my
sculpture can evolve and be enriched. The best moments are those when,
either through chance discovery or systematic study, I discover other
conceptual or formal options to advance my work.
your many current projectssuch as the exhibition in spring 2004
on Park Avenueyou are working on a very special project, Global
Diagonals, subtitled Global ArtGlobal CommunicationGlobal
Humanity, is a very ambitious project I have been working on for several
years. The idea came to me in 1989, when the French Minister of Culture
asked me and four or five other artists to think about a gesture to commemorate
the bicentennial of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. I immediately
thought of proposing a large-scale straight line that would virtually
link two continents. The two ends of this line were to be visible (about
110 yards long): one in France and the other in a country chosen for its
respect of human rights. My idea was not accepted, but with time, I was
able to develop another aspect of the project, which concerns the interior
spaces attached to it. Since then a catalogue was put together in which
a link between New York and Shanghai is proposed. It illustrates and describes
the underground part of the project where people can go and communicate
directly and in real time with their counterparts on the other side of
the earth. We have planned to use giant screens to give the illusion that
you are in the other country. Virtual reality has also been considered
as a possibility to make communication between people of different cultures
and races possible. Through its symbolism and goals, this project goes
far beyond the creation of a sculpture. The Eiffel Tower makes it possible
to see distant Parisian suburbs, Global Diagonal would put the world virtually
within our reach.
13 Arcs, 2004. Rolled steel, 7 x 21 x 6 ft.
is your definition of art?
are artists who, mistaking themselves for Louis XIV, would answer Lart,
cest moi. I am not so self-centered and think that art is
multiple because it is where expression is granted the greatest freedom.
When speaking of art, we all fall prey to too many personal appreciations,
sensations that are difficult to communicate; there is too much vagueness
in the interpretation. Traditional aesthetic theories attempted to define
art, to formulate criteria that were sufficiently open to be definitive.
Today we know that this is impossible, that the concept of art is an open
concept. We have to wait for new creations, new entities that will contribute
to extending this category called aesthetics. The paradox is that in order
to make art one must each time move beyond the sphere of art. For those
who believe that they can define what art is and what its goals are, I
would like to remind them that, as philosophy teaches us, the world
is intrinsically devoid of meaning, foundation, and finality. How
could it be any different for art?
is a writer living in Rome.
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