The well-known French sculptor Bernar Venet is one of the giants of today's art scene. Not only because he's one of the nine olympians of art who have been invited to organise an exhibition at the Palace of Versailles. (In 2011, Venet was the fourth artist at Versailles, after Jeff Koons, Xavier Veilhan and Takashi Murakami). No, Venet is a giant of thought in things that pertain to art and life.
Venet is most often called a conceptualist, and he has worked with a great variety of media: painting, photography, blow-up enlargement, installation, drawing, sculpture, set design, cinema, music composition and even choreography. In the 1960s, his attention-grabbing installations were radical for their time—the amorphous piles of coal, gravel and asphalt as well as the tar paintings and “industrial paintings” in which car paint was one of the materials used. Tas de Charbon (Pile of Coal), Venet's installation from 1963, was recognised as the first sculpture lacking a specific form and also the first precedent in which a completely unaltered natural material was presented as a work of art.
In 1966, having been encouraged by his good friend and artist Arman, Venet moved from Nice in France to New York, where he became known for an even more pronounced radicalism, using the language of mathematics and science in his artwork. He collaborated with the Leo Castelli Gallery and became a part of the art scene of the day, exhibiting alongside Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd and others. The majority of today's art legends were Venet's friends. In fact, they all exchanged artwork with one another, and over the years Venet gathered one of the strongest and also most personal art collections in the world. It includes a veritable who's who of 20th- and 21st-century masters, mostly minimal and conceptual artists: Sol LeWitt, Jasper Johns, Jannis Kounellis, Christo, Yves Klein, Gottfried Honegger, Robert Morris, Robert Indiana, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, François Morellet, Frank Stella, Jaume Plensa, Lawrence Weiner, Dan Flavin, Robert Motherwell and more.
When he was 30 years old, the first retrospective of Venet's art was organised in New York. In line with a previously stated goal, he ceased producing artwork in 1971 and instead turned his attention to theory. Although he initially intended for the decision to be permanent, he nevertheless returned to creating art in 1976. The central element in his artwork became the line, which gave rise to paintings, reliefs and sculptures, some of them known throughout several periods as scribbles, straight lines, angles, arcs and indeterminate lines. In an interview, Venet declared that his sculptures are a story about “how metal resists. They are a test of strength—a battle between myself and the piece of metal.”
Venet took part in Documenta VI in Kassel in 1977. In 1994 Jacques Chirac, then the mayor of Paris, invited Venet to exhibit twelve sculptures from his Indeterminate Line series in the square by the Eiffel Tower. Afterwards, the sculptures travelled to 35 cities around the world. In addition to prestigious French awards—Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, Commandeur dans l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres—in February of this year Venet was the first French artist to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Sculpture Center for his exemplary contributions to the field of sculpture.
Venet has always challenged boundaries, both in himself and in art. And one of the bases for his experiments, studies and also thought is the Venet Foundation in the town of Le Muy in the south of France. The Foundation is Venet's Gesamtkunstwerk—the place where the ideal harmony between art, nature and architecture is continually sought...for Venet's own work as well as his collection. In a way, the Foundation is at the same time a visual autobiography and a concentrated page of art history. Even though the artist's private residence is also located at the Foundation, nothing there is created anew; instead, a constant dialogue between artwork and the environment takes place, a search for the ideal relationship between the two.
After the artist's death, the property that now belongs to the Venet family will pass to the Foundation. “If, after I'm gone, my collection, works and this place have to be sold, I would consider that my life had been a waste. I was born with nothing; I'm going to leave with nothing.”
We meet in early July, on the day before the opening of the Foundation's newest addition, an installation by the American artist James Turrell. As I wait for Venet to arrive, I cannot stop looking at the huge, illuminated Jaume Plensa sculpture Sitting Tattoo XII (2009) in the vestibule of the so-called factory, where Plensa's sculpture has “taken a seat” right across from two monumental works by Frank Stella. The longer I look at it, the more it pulls me in. It practically hypnotises me. Later, I notice the same thing happening with most of the artwork on display at the Foundation. It's a feeling that one cannot experience in such concentration at any museum.
Bernar Venet. Effondrement: 200 tones, 2015
Before our conversation, your assistant showed me your largest work of art to date. It occupies the whole space in the gallery and is the first thing I noticed when I entered. I still can't believe how you set it up, because it weighs 150 tonnes.
Two hundred tonnes.
Sorry in advance about the dumb question, but how is it possible to arrange these dreadfully heavy bars of iron into exactly the positions you want them in? And at the same time make it look like the way they've fallen is more or less random, simply a matter of chance?
They are assembled randomly. I smash the arcs as a maquette so that they find their own position. Then I reproduce it on a larger scale, but then again it cannot be controlled, and that is what interests me. The arcs slide on one another without me trying to stop them. But what's more difficult, in the beginning this piece was assembled in a different way. Ten days ago we took everything out, and then we placed everything back once again. It's crazy. So, altogether we moved two hundred tonnes.
How many people were doing it?
We were three. Two workers and me.
Really? This work of art unleashes some very specific emotions. On the one hand, like being in the mountains, you feel very small next to it. And yet it also has a very unbelievable feeling of lightness.
That was more the case with a previous version of the piece. This one is crazier. It's very aggressive, more chaotic and unpredictable.
I'm curious why you have this need to work on such a gigantic scale?
I can also work on small pieces, in fact, it gives me more pleasure to work on a small scale when I create something new. It's not the size that matters to me, it's the process of creation itself. The radicality of the new composition. And then eventually I can visualise it as being something on a large scale. And then I make it in a big size. It's also interesting to be overwhelmed: “Oh, my God, look at that!” I have a theory about working in art. There should be a heroic aspect in the process of creation. The first is, of course, the radicality of the idea. If you think of Malevich, it was extremely heroic of him to imagine, in the 1910s and 1930s, doing something that was totally impossible for people to understand. And, in a sense, quite impossible for the artist himself to comprehend, too. Because you don't know where you are going when you do something like this. You have no idea if people are going to follow you and one day understand if what you are doing is important and will be appreciated in the future. So, that's one thing—the radicality of the idea. The second is when you do art that shows that you have invested yourself completely and put all your energy into it. You do art because this is what you are supposed to do. And you do it.
(center) Jean Tinguely. Le Lion de Belfort, 1989-1990; (red print on left) Donald Judd. Untitled, 1961-1963/1969; (white sculpture on right) Sol LeWitt. Wall Grid, 1964-1972. Photo: Francois Baille
But you also own an impressive collection of work by other artists. What do you think is the difference between an artist who collects art and simply an art collector?
Some collectors who are not artists themselves just discover one day that they like art and they want to acquire some artwork only for their pleasure. Then there are collectors who are very conscious about what art history is, and they want to have truly significant works of art. That's a little bit more serious. It's not necessarily better, but more serious in the sense of how they deal with art. Then there are collectors who think in terms of investments, how they can eventually sell the art and make a profit.
Artists, who truly love art and also collect it, do not have goals such as these. Donald Judd was one of those people, also Sol LeWitt, but before them Edgar Degas was putting all of his money into art, because he had this understanding of what is serious art. You respect other artists so much and you respect art history so much that you want to be surrounded by it. If you earn money, why not use it in the field that helped you to earn that money? I earn money by creating art, and this money goes back into art, to the fellow artists I admire and respect.
I am often asked why I've established a foundation and why I plan to give away everything I own. Some people think along the lines of “I've acquired a certain number of works of art, and I must definitely pass them on to my children and my wife, in case I suddenly die first.” And this is very nice and very noble, but I don't think like that. Of course, my wife would have everything she needs to live in this environment. And my children also have many pieces of art from me and my collection, but the major pieces, the best of my work, is going to go to this foundation. Why do I do that? I do it because I was born into a certain society, a specific context, and my work allows me to live the way that I do. I've been very lucky. I mean, I became an artist, which was my dream—I love art, and I'm surrounded by major works of art. This society gave me the chance to do this, and I think I owe it to society to give back this art. That's really my philosophy and how I think. So, everything is going to back to society.
Living Room in the Usine, Le Muy. Photo: Raul Candales
Your collection began in the 1960s. Sol LeWitt also began his collection at that same time.
I probably started even before Sol LeWitt, because I was collecting already when I was eighteen and twenty years old. I was exchanging with my artist friends. Like Ben. When I exchanged with Arman, I was only twenty-two. I've always thought it's fantastic to have art around you. That's better and more meaningful than to be carried away by all these stupid, meaningless things. I really have the feeling that I've always been surrounded by important things. As time goes by, a person becomes more demanding, he wants to have museum-quality artwork around him, and eventually he also has these.
Speaking of Arman, he once gave you a piece of artwork in order to sell and fulfil your dream of going to New York. But it was difficult for you to part with it.
Exactly. The story went like this: every once in a while I helped Arman, but I wasn't his regular assistant. For example, he never paid me for my work. But fortunately I got some free meals. I could eat at his place, and that was very important for me at that time. And we had a very close relationship, we were good friends. Although I was a lot younger than him. One day I helped him to make a sculpture. It was a wall relief. And at the end of the day, I noticed one of his works on the floor and said, “Oh, Arman, if one day you want to give me something, I would really want to have something like this, and I will give you anything you want from me.” He said that he couldn't give me this piece because it was a part of a work that already belonged to someone, but that I shouldn't worry and in a few days he would give me another piece of artwork. I returned the next day and helped him again, and at the end of the day he gave me a work of art. A nice piece. And he said, “This is for you if you want to go to New York.” Of course, he knew that I was obsessed by the idea of getting away from Nice. At that time in Nice, nobody at all was interested in my work. I was doing things that nobody appreciated.
Sorry for interrupting, but was that the time when you were making tar paintings?
No, I was already finished with that. I was doing cardboard pieces. But at that moment pop art and new realism were in fashion. You couldn't be abstract, abstract was obsolete. So, I was dreaming of going to New York, and Arman knew this. I had already begun collecting art, and I said to him, “Arman, look, I'm so thankful, but I will definitely find another way to get to New York.” But, thanks to this experience, the idea of going to New York really took hold in my mind and I began to seriously look for the means to do so. Two months passed, then three months. At first I looked at Arman's work of art and thought to myself, “Good God, I have an Arman.” I was so thrilled. But I was really going through a hard time back then. There were days when all I had to eat was bananas and lettuce.
You weren't selling anything at all?
No. I was really living on one dollar a day. It was so difficult. And you're looking at the Arman, and you look at it another day, and another...and soon, after five or six months, you get used to it. And you think, “Oh, my God, thanks to that I could go to New York and eventually manage to survive there. It would be fabulous.” Then I called him up and said, “Look, Arman, if you really let me sell that piece, I will sell it and go to New York.” He said, “You can do that, but go to New York for the right reasons, not just to see your friends and so on.” I said, “Don't worry.” So, I went to New York, and then I was very lucky because, thanks to Arman again, already at the beginning I met the right people who introduced me to the whole art scene. It was still very difficult to survive there, too, but everything was much more dynamic and I managed. And I'm here today, thanks to that time.
Do you think it would be possible today for you to give one of your own works of art to a young artist for him to sell and try his luck in New York? The market is completely different today, and the art scene has changed as well.
I give grants to young artists. Paying for a trip to New York so that they can stay there for a month and try to see what they can do. I don't give artwork, I just give money. And in most cases I'm not the one who selects the artists—that's done by a notable professional art critic with whom I work. For example, Kader Attia is one of the young artists I once gave a grant to. He is very well known today, but that was the first time he went to New York and got his work exhibited there. Today he works with Saatchi and is very successful. I don't want to help people just because they are nice and sweet and everything. I want to help to the right ones.
At first you exchanged artwork with other artists, but now you do that less and less often. If you want something, you simply buy it.
That's more or less true. But I still get some artwork by exchanging. For example, the James Turrell piece that is the latest addition is an exchange not with the artist himself but with his dealer. There could be more exchanges, but because I want to have major works, I don't even ask for an exchange—I just buy them. But of course, due to the fact that I am an artist and also that I'm doing the foundation, most of the time they give me very good prices. Because I'll eventually give it away anyway; I'll give it to the foundation.
Sol LeWitt, for example, is said to never have sold any of the artwork in his collection. But you have sold some of your pieces. For example, you sold a Warhol to buy Ellsworth Kelly.
I don't sell just to make money. Regarding the Warhol, one day I was with Hans Mayer, it was at his gallery in Basel, and he had this beautiful Warhol. I said, “Oh, that's a very good piece.” And he said, “Do you like it?” I said, “Yes.” Then he said, “Do you know what, if you give me a big piece and a small one, I will give you the Warhol.” I said, “OK.” I was getting a Warhol in exchange for a work of mine. I was so happy. I gave him my pieces, I got a Warhol, and I lived with it for two or three years, I don't remember how long. And then one day I saw an Ellsworth Kelly in Daniel Templon's gallery. I told him I'd like to buy it, and he named the price. It was quite high. “Damn, I can't buy it,” I said. He replied, “Why don't you give me your Warhol, and I will give you Kelly?” And I thought, well, Warhol, I respected him, he was a giant, he was also a friend. But Kelly was more my aesthetic. So I thought OK. And then I also took a Tony Smith, because the Warhol was more expensive than the Kelly. This is what I can sometimes do, and I can also do it today. But all the art I have today is what I deeply like. I have a Matisse that I got for an exchange last year. If someone tells me they'll give me a Robert Ryman, then of course, I will give away the Matisse to get Ryman. But I will probably find another way to get a Ryman.
Did you ever exchange artwork with Warhol?
I could have. He even offered to paint my portrait. But I had no respect for his portraits. I thought they were junk. Today, I look at them and am aware of the different aspects of Warhol. Warhol is more complex than I thought at that time.
I was in MoMa some time ago, and I was in a room where there was Rothko, Pollock, Clyfford Still, De Kooning. And I was there and I was thinking, “Oh, my God, I would like to put my bed in there.” I love art like that. Then I moved to another room and I saw this big Andy Warhol red-and-black of Liz Taylor from the Pharaoh series. And I thought that it was even better than what I saw just before. Some of his works are so amazing, and he is so radical. So new, so different from anything what was done before. I think he is a giant. Maybe not all of his works are masterpieces, but in the end you think of him as a whole body of work. And the whole body of work is very good. In Warhol's case, the context is very important, too. You have to admit that.
So, the works by James Turrell, which you already mentioned, are one of the most recent exchanges you've made.
Yes, I exchanged them with a dealer.
Did Turrell himself come to install them?
No, I still don't know him personally. I talked with him on the phone about two months ago. I was telling him that I was going to install his work here. His assistants came, and then a team working for him came to install the piece.
These are fabulous works and true highlights of the foundation. Like Frank Stella's chapel, which has six of his wall reliefs.
Stella supposedly came up to you at a party at Arman's and asked how you bend those huge metal bars of yours. What did you tell him?
It was Arman's birthday in New York, and Arman was very close to Frank Stella. I had known Stella since 1966, but we only said hi, hello, how are you, that's it. We were not close yet then. Today we can talk over the phone all the time and have dinner together. But at that time no. Well, Arman had invited Stella to his birthday party, but Stella isn't a very social person. As at any party, people were talking with each other, and at some point I noticed Stella sitting alone in a corner. So, I went to join him. We talked, and he said, “Bernar, tell me how do you bend this steel?” And I was explaining to him—the technique is very difficult, because it's unusual, it's not the kind of thing people usually do. And he said I should come and visit him, because he also does things like that. A few days later, we took a cab together and I went to visit him. I understood, because he was putting all those round things in front of the canvas. Stella makes his paintings three-dimensional. He believes that sculpture is really a painting, only it's cut out and set up somewhere.
Unlike collectors, I'm not thinking that I want to buy art. But sometimes it just happens. I'll see something, and suddenly I'm thinking, “Oh, my God, I should have it.” If I have money in the bank, I prefer to have art. Back then, a dealer from New Zealand called me and said that he really wanted to work with Stella, and he asked whether I could introduce him to Stella. So I called up Stella, who told us to come on over. We went to Stella's factory together, and while Stella was showing him some of his artwork, I suddenly noticed a huge wall with six big wall reliefs. At first, I couldn't pull my eyes away from them, they were so powerful. I returned a little while later, wondering how I could get them for my foundation. It was clear that these works of art would cost a lot of money. And so I kept coming back to these works of art, until I caught Stella and quietly stated a number—a big number, a lot of money, I had never spent that much in my life. I hoped he would say “yes”, but also that he would give me plenty of time to pay. He shook his head and said, “No, Bernar, no....,” adding another 40% to the amount I had offered. I told him that was too much and that I was never aware of a number like that. To which Stella responded, “Bernar, you can pay me whenever you can. It's OK with me.” And I told him to give me two or three weeks, I would calculate approximately what would come into my account that year, and then I would give him an answer. He said to just take my time.
Three weeks later we met in London, and I said OK, fine. These six works of art formed a kind of whole, and, remembering Rothko's chapel in Houston, I told Stella that we should make something similar. I knew he would be interested, because he had visited me the previous year and had gone to Anthony Caro's Chapel of Light in Bourbourg as well as Matisse's chapel in Saint-Paul de Vence and my chapel in Provence. That's how it started.
A year later I returned to this conversation. I also spoke with a well-known architect, who agreed to work on the project. But the idea he offered could not be done. While we were discussing, I got a message from Stella: “I will design the chapel.” And he sent me plans, which were perfect. First, I realised that this would be the first architectural project that Stella had ever done. And secondly, it was outstanding. Stella had thought about everything—how to place the walls, where rainwater would run off, etc. I knew that the local government would accept the project, too.
You have often said that one of the inspirations for your foundation was Donald Judd's project in Marfa, Texas.
Yes, I knew Donald very well. Since 1967. At the beginning we were not very close, but later on, when I was living in Soho, he lived just two blocks away from me. We saw each other many times. I arranged his first exhibition in France. I remember him telling me, “Bernar, I'm doing something very important, very ambitious in Texas, at Marfa.” He showed me pictures and invited me to visit. That was still long before everybody started going there. But I never went for several reasons. Today perhaps I would go because he is such an important artist. I knew it already then, because I was already acquiring his work. But he was an artist, and I was an artist, and I was doing my own work. I was not going to go spend a week in Marfa just to see what he was doing. But one day after he died, I went there because they organised a special event devoted to him. And I thought, my God, this is what an artist should do. Present his work in the best possible conditions. Spend his energy and do that very well, instead of just making art, selling it and making money. So, it was a big influence.
Bernar Venet. Seven Angles of Random Degrees and Sizes, 2014. Photo: Pascal Hausherr, France
Judd believed that museums and galleries exhibited artists' work poorly, and he wished to create the perfect space for his art himself. Do you, from an artist's point of view, think that the situation with museums has changed today?
There are some museums that have incredible spaces. In my time, they were not so many. But if you look at this installation (mentioned at the beginning of the conversation—Ed.), which takes up a whole big room, which museum is going to do that? None. So, ever since I saw Marfa I dreamed to do this. I don't know if you've been there, but he has this huge space with sculptures, he has about fifty sculptures arranged in it. And they are never moved, it's forever. No museum can do that. So, you do it yourself. That's it.
But there aren't many artists today who are doing something like that. Judd, who is no longer with us. And you....
Yes. There are a few who do as Pierre Soulages, who said, “Give me a museum, and then I will give you my art.” Here we do everything ourselves, and we pay for everything ourselves. And why not? I don't see a reason to not do so. What can we do with money in the bank? Capitalism would use it anyway, so let's at least do something serious.
You've said that the market is definitely not the most important thing for an artist, that art should not be sold, but given away instead.... But, unfortunately, reality is different.
Yes, to the people who deserve it. I prefer to offer a little drawing or a little sculpture to someone who feels it very strongly than to sell a sculpture to someone who says he loves my work and wants to buy it because someone else has told him about me and my work. In such cases, I often simply don't sell my work.
Photo: Antoine Baralhe
Does that mean that it's important for you where your artwork ends up?
Some artists are very involved with strategy, they want their work to be only in museums or in very big collections. I'm not that obsessed. As I said before, I think that people who appreciate and deserve to have art should have it. It's better if we keep our artwork, instead of just selling it at the first opportunity.
But there was a point in your career when you completely stopped making art. Why?
Because I believe in art and I don't believe in making it for the market.
Does that mean that at that point in your career you had reached a philosophical dead end and did not want to simply reproduce yourself?
No. You know, I was doing conceptual art. Using language and mathematical stuff to present my ideas. I was nearing a line that was so rational, so objective, and it was in large part detaching the artwork from me. I could have gone so far as having a scientist from Columbia University decide what I would exhibit. He'd send it to the gallery, which would organise an exhibition, and I wouldn't even attend the opening. I even considered such very radical propositions. So, there was a moment when I went so far, and I also made a programme in advance about what I was going to do and explore. Then I understood that there is no reason to go on—I'm not doing art to satisfy my own personal ego and create a product, I'm not doing art to satisfy collectors or to satisfy museums or to decorate people's apartments or to help dealers make money. I'm doing art to truly investigate it and delve into it, and that's all. So, I stopped and that's it. And the decision to stop doing art then was a conscious plan.
And what did you do instead?
To make a living, I taught at Sorbonne University. Maybe it didn't pay very well, but I still had some money in savings. Because when I stopped making art, I had a retrospective exhibition and many people were buying my work. I could still sell the artwork I had done before, but I was not making anything new. I hadn't finished school. I didn't have a degree like everybody else has – I had quit school because I wanted to be an artist. And because I had stopped very early, I didn't have great knowledge about abstract thinking, philosophy, semiology and things like that. But at the same time, I had in mind that I wanted to explain very precisely what my work, the work I did before, was about. Because nobody could understand why you present a mathematical diagram and say that it's a work of art. Of course, people would say it's a ready-made, they would come with an explanation, bet mostly it was all just speculation. So, I read a lot, every day, and I found my own way of explaining and showing how radical my approach to art had been at the time. And then, as you know, I started again in 1976, because I had a lot of energy, I had this need to go on and to do things. But I also had many doubts about what I was going to do, if it was going to be interesting or not.
I felt totally liberated, because when I stopped doing art, I considered it to be forever. Because when you are an artist, what you do is very much you. You make a product that is you totally. And you do the best. So, I said I cannot be someone else and do surrealist art or figurative art—I did exactly what I could do. And please don't take me seriously if one day I decide to start doing art again. And I was really saying this to a lot of people. What I forgot is that Bernar Venet in 1976 was not the same Bernar Venet as in 1970. I had studied a lot, I had contemplated and reassessed my earlier views, I had taken a critical look at my own artwork, and so on. And I had also understood that if I was ever going to return to art, it would have to be with conviction. I decided to do something but not show anybody. So, I was working and hiding it all—even these huge paintings you can see at the foundation now. I was making them, but I was hiding them all the time, until the day when a friend of mine, who was the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago at that time, came to visit me. His name was Jan van der Marck. I told him I'd like to show him something. I told him that he'd be surprised, but because he was my friend, his opinion was important to me. And he really was surprised when he saw that I had returned to making art. But he was even more surprised by what he saw. And then he announced that he was going to invite me to Documenta.
And then I decided, look, if I'm at Documenta, where everybody will be able to see my work, I should just show it to everybody. And then I started to work again and move and move and move. I'm never satisfied with what I'm doing. But mainly I don't like to fall asleep on what I'm thinking today—tomorrow I have to think up something new.
You began again by doing paintings, but how did you get from there to sculpture?
Oh, that's so easy. With the sculptures, I was still dealing with mathematics, but in a very simple way. There were angles, arcs and straight lines, and one day I started to make a variation that was not geometrical, but instead a free design. And I called it an indeterminate line. And that was the beginning of new things. So, I made a first piece, which is here, the overlapping one. And then, when I had done that, I thought, my God, I should just realise it in space. Why not? From painting to sculpture. And I went to Canal Street and bought five or six rods of aluminium. And I just bent them like this. Then I put them on the table, and I thought this is what I should do.
You've always been quite radical in your views about art. Do you think your artwork has in some way managed to challenge the history of sculpture?
Have I challenged anything? Well, if you look at the history of sculpture and then you look at my work, I don't think anybody did what I did. I don't think many people worked with the concept of indeterminacy and unexpectedness. With objects that are unexpected. You make a sculpture, but you don't have any ideal about how it's going to look later. So, these are concepts that are, I think, relatively new in the context of sculpture. And, if we're talking about the product—which is actually a very derogatory word—then what I'm doing is relatively new, at least in my understanding.
That's interesting—we're supposedly talking about art that is not a “product”, but you cannot avoid using the word.
It's a derogatory word, and I don't like using it. But, in order to avoid it, you need to find something precise enough to take its place. I could say that what I'm doing is.... It supposedly means the same thing. I'll never say it myself, but you could say that the great art I'm creating.... But only time will tell whether it was even worth doing it at all.
When you were young and you were living here in the south of France, no one was buying your artwork, and you were assisting Arman, did you have this dream of being famous one day or not?
I thought I would have a chance to do something one day, but I obviously didn't think that I was going to be well known. Well known where? In Nice? In Paris? In France? But then one day, when you realise that your artwork is all around the world, that people in South Africa, in South America, in New Zealand are buying your work, that's something that goes beyond your imagination. I've been doing art already since I was eleven, that was everything I was doing. I dreamt of being an artist. I dreamt of being an artist and becoming famous after I'm dead. Because I didn't think it was possible to be famous when you're alive.
You had an exhibition at the Palace of Versailles in 2011. What does that mean to you now, a few years later? At the time, it was perhaps the high point of your career.
Well, as you say, it was a major event in my career, definitely because when you do something like that, everybody hears about you. But the most important thing is to do something good. Because you can be at Versailles, but if you don't do something on the scale of Versailles, something that deserves to be at Versailles, then you are in trouble. Some artists have been criticised for not doing major work, just having a show there and that's it. So, what you want to do is make something significant. Of course, it was very important for me. It also definitely had an impact on how people see my work. Because they saw what I was able to do. And it also gives people confidence about my work. If he's showing at Versailles, then he must be good. But Versailles is only one step; there is so much more to do.
Versailles is, of course, a work of art in and of itself. How easy or difficult was it for you to create a dialogue with a “partner” of such scope?
I was lucky to be challenged by Jean-Jacques Aillagon, the president of Versailles. I met him a year before, showed him a photomontage of my eventual sculptures at Versailles and said this is what I can do. He then said: “OK, Bernar, let's do it. But it shouldn't be just an exhibition. You have to think about a big gesture for Versailles.” So I said, “Alright, I'll think about it.” As I left his office and was driving away from the palace, I noticed a statue of Louis XIV. I immediately got an idea, although I knew it would be very challenging to realise. In terms of my project, it isn't just a few sculptures that people remember—it's the two huge arcs.
Why do you think you're so popular in South Korea?
I don't understand why. I probably shouldn't say so, because it sounds pretentious, but there they know me really well—my artwork is in many private collections, I've had several exhibitions in museums, and a few are in the process of being organised right now. I'm more known in South Korea than here.
Is there a difference in the way people approach and react to art, say, in Asia as opposed to Europe? How big of a role do cultural traditions play, or is outstanding art universal?
Being abstract, I think my work is already easier to approach than figurative art. Because figuration is really related to your culture a lot more. The way I do abstraction can be very well accepted in the Middle East as well as in Asia and here, too. I'm a little lucky with that, but I didn't plan it that way, of course.
You once said that when a person stands in front of a mathematical diagram, he or she is confronted with the greatest abstraction ever created. Was that your goal?
That's a very interesting question. About the level of abstraction. And it's very much involved with theory. First of all, you never set out thinking I'm going to do the most abstract thing that anyone has ever made. No, you don't think like this. You just live the adventure. It's like you're on a boat, and suddenly you see an island where nobody has ever been before. You cannot say what this island is going to be. You go there, you walk on it, you discover things. And then you can say this is what I discovered. It's the same in art—you cannot say I'm going to work on this or that concept. You just experience, experience. You experience things, things that are typical to your nature, and then one day you can look back and say this is what I did. And then you see the relationship between all the work you did.
What I'm going to say now, I realised it only five years ago. Ever since Malevich, Kandinsky and others, we know what abstract art is. We know what it looks like, and we also know all of its possible variations. They've all copied themselves in countless ways—in larger and smaller formats and so on. But here I'm presenting a painting (because it's on a canvas) with a mathematical text that can sometimes be read. And it's true that this painting doesn't look like an abstract painting at all. And still, when the text is a mathematical text, I'm definitely presenting a painting with the highest level of abstraction that a work of art can present. Because what can be more abstract? Colour can always mean something. Blue can mean the sky, green can mean nature, and so on. But these paintings have absolutely no relationship with the real world. So, it's totally, totally abstract.
There are perhaps only a few people in the world who can understand what's written on them.
Do you understand this? (points to a flower pot) We don't understand anything—we have only a knowledge of things to a certain extent, and that's all. So, there is nothing, not a single object for which you can give a complete definition. Of course, you can start talking about this flower pot, you could write ten million, ten billion words about it. Where it comes from, the origin of it...there is so much to say, but we will never have a total understanding and knowledge of anything. And the same thing with mathematical formulas, except, of course, those few mathematicians who will take the greatest pleasure in explaining their own theories to you. But I think even two mathematicians might have completely different approaches to pure mathematical definitions.
But are you still interested in mathematics?
You know, I'm very bad in mathematics. I was a “zero” at school. I mean, I probably just barely passed my exams. But that's not the point. Cezanne was also not a biologist, but he painted flowers and plants. He didn't even know the names of all the flowers he painted in France. And the same with Courbet, who painted rocks but didn't know a thing about minerology.
Here in this garden where we're talking, we don't see only your sculptures but also furniture that you've made.
Judd was like that also. He made his own architecture, he made furniture. We have a vision.
About a unified whole?
Le Muy, this place, is my very universe. The foundation is still far from what it's going to be. You have to come back—in five years you will see what it is.
The living room in the Moulin with Arman, Motherwell, and Stella. Le Muy. Photo: Jean_François Jaussaud / Luxproductions.com, Paris.com, Paris
Le Muy was hit by heavy flooding a few years ago. Everything was destroyed. But I read that you felt shock only for a short time—you supposedly very quickly understood that you can create everything anew again, and that this would only give it even more energy. Is that true?
Yes, and I can make it even better. It was funny, because two weeks before the floods came, I remember taking pictures. I was alone and I was thinking about what I could do to make it nicer, better. I took those pictures, and two weeks later everything was destroyed. Completely. Like after a bombing, like after a war. There was only sand and mud, no grass anymore, nothing. It was terrible. Nothing was left – the sculptures, the bridge, everything was in the river.... My assistant, my wife, they saw it and they cried. I came and I looked, and I said “Shit,” but almost immediately after that I said, “OK, we will do it even better.” That's how I am. You have to know something about me. Nothing affects me that concerns only me. There's a beautiful sentence by Andre Malraux: “Rien ne m'importe qui n' importe qu’à moi.” It doesn't matter. If tomorrow I will lose the property, then I will lose the property. I didn't have any property when I was born, you know, so I don't care. I will start something else. You know, we live in such a crazy chaos, anything could happen. I could die tomorrow, but I could also die two minutes after talking to you. Life is stupid. So far I've been lucky, I've done all of this. If tomorrow I lose everything, I will lose everything. It's only a fact, it shouldn't affect me. It's raining, it's sunny, it's cloudy. I'm eating, I'm not eating, I'm starving. These are all just facts. And they should not affect us. That's just how our life is.
Many people who buy art or look at it in museums say that artwork has a certain energy. Do you, as an artist, also feel this?
I think an artist has energy and he does art. Art can sometimes give you energy, yes. You can look at a work of art and it gives you energy. But I don't have anything special to say about that. Yes, it's a fact. I don't think that good art makes you fall asleep.
How many works of art do you have in your collection? Sol LeWitt had around four thousand or more, I believe.
I don't have that many. About 200–250. But about 100 of them are very significant works of art that any museum would like to get.
Does having other artists' work around you in any way inspire you or serve as an intellectual challenge for you? Why do you need their work?
Well, some people want to have empty spaces around them, nothingness—they want to live in a desert. We all are different, we all have different goalsor needs. For me, I love art so much, and it would be fabulous if tomorrow I could get an Ad Reinhardt painting, preferably in black. I would be very happy. I would spend a lot of time looking at it. It doesn't give me energy, it doesn't influence me at all. Instead, what can influence me is looking at magazines of very young contemporary art. Unconsciously, when I see the freedom that some young artists are working with, that can have an impact on me. You need youth around you in order to continue developing. It's simply necessary. Otherwise if you look back all the time to your father, your grandfather or even to yourself, it's a road to nowhere.
Once, as a young man, when you were telling Marcel Duchamp about your mathematical projects, you supposedly tried to passionately prove how radically different your path was from that of the older generation. Duchamp listened to you with interest, and then he interrupted you by saying, “So, you're an artist who sells wind [qui vend du vent].” What did this meeting with Duchamp mean for you at the time?
Yes, it meant a lot. I was extremely proud to meet a giant like him. I knew exactly who he was and what he could mean to art history. And also I was very proud to explain to him that my work was more radical than his work. I was only 26 years old, but I did it anyway. But it had no influence on me after that, because I was just proud to have met him. Just like it's fantastic to meet other great people. Saying that I was “selling wind” referred to my non-material artworks at the time, but above all it was a play with words Duchamp was extremely fond of. “La vente de vent est l’event de Venet” coined by Duchamp is a quadruple anagram of my name.
Have you never dreamed of adding, say, Duchamp’s Fountain to your collection?
I bought his “shovel” at auction, which I later exchanged for a Judd. I was the only person at this Parke-Bernet auction (now Sotheby's) to bid on it. Nobody wanted to buy it. I bought it for 6000 dollars, and the only person bidding against me was the seller. The guy who was selling it was trying to make the price go up. That was in 1972. So I had that. Now I have four pieces by Duchamp. Nothing very major, except for a book cover Duchamp signed “for Bernar Venet” after our conversation back then, which lasted three hours.
Is there a certain work of art that you would very much like to own? A work of art that means a lot to you?
If tomorrow I had the budget to buy great art, I think I would immediately buy a Ryman. I had his work, but I lost it when I got divorced. And I met him also. I went to his studio. So, I would like to have a very good Ryman. Same with Ad Reinhardt. Then I think I would still go for a fantastic Donald Judd. What else? I don't in fact need anything. Maybe I would like to have a fantastic Rothko, a very dark one. But he's so established, and that disturbs me a little bit.
As an artist, you've probably met a lot of art collectors. Do the majority of them really understand art, too?
Yes, of course. Of course, there are always some people who don't understand. All sorts of people come to the foundation, but most of the time I don't see them anyway. I don't lead the tours, and I don't even see the collectors who want to buy my work. I don't want to be involved with the sales of my work. I make the work, and my assistants take care of the talking with dealers and collectors. I hate to talk about money.
What was the turning point in your career as an artist?
It was thanks to Germany. In 1970 I had an exhibition at the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld. The director of the museum bought two of my works and organised an exhibition. Everything changed that day. I had five more exhibitions that year—in New York, Milan, Paris, Zurich and Düsseldorf.
But isn't it so that artists in your day had an easier time being noticed than young artists do today?
I don't think it was easier. Today you have a lot more galleries. When I was 24, 25, 26 years old, almost no galleries in Paris specialised in contemporary art. If you were not showing at Gallerie J, who was going to show you? Nobody understood contemporary art. Today you have 200 galleries showing contemporary art in Paris. Even if it's not at the best one, but if you make a very good show, someone is going to talk about it and at least you have a chance to show your work. At that time there was no chance.
Bernar Venet in front of an Angles sculpture on the occasion of the opening of his show at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, in April 2016. Photo: Steve Benisty, New York
But why, after those successful years in New York, did you decide to return to France?
It's very simple. First you are in New York because you have to be in the art scene. You have to meet the dealers, the collectors, the other artists, the critics, etc. You are young and nobody is interested in you, and you want to show that you exist. We were all like this, and it was important to meet at the right place. At the same place, I mean. And then when you become a little bit more successful, you are still in New York, and then one day you become even more successful, and then you become very much disturbed by all the many people and noise, and what do you do? You go live in the countryside. Many Americans go to Long Island. Rauschenberg went to Florida. So, for me, I'm not going to go live on Long Island, it's not mine. So, I came here. This is my atmosphere. My work is still shown in New York, Los Angeles and other places in America. People don't need to see my face—they see my work. But at the beginning you need to show your face in order to show your work.
Do you still remember your dance with Robert Rauschenberg from those days?
How do you know about that? (laughs)
I read about it.
Read about it?
Yes. But how did you feel at the time?
How did I feel? I wish I could add a picture to this story! (laughs) It was so amazing. But at that time, you know, at that time all we knew was that Rauschenberg was Rauschenberg. That was in 1967. He was well known, but he was not the Rauschenberg of today. Today he is a giant of art history. But I knew all those guys. I was showing with them, we had dinner together, we had parties together—with Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg, etc. I had dinner with Rothko and Motherwell. It was normal. We were a family. Now, you think, my God, really? I'm almost the only one from those days who's still alive. Me and Christo, I don't know who else. Today it's history, but when you're living it, you don't know that it will one day become history. Otherwise, I don't know, I would have pictures with all of them! (laughs)