France’s greatest living sculptor has three shows in the UK this summer. We catch up with him to talk about the Impressionists, mixing art with army life in Algeria, meeting Duchamp, and mixing with Rothko and co as a penniless artist in New York
Born 76 years ago in the small town of Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban in southeastern France, Bernar Venet made his name as a conceptual artist in the late Sixties after moving to New York. Venet has exhibited worldwide — including at the Venice Biennale and Palace of Versailles — and in 2005 was made Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, France’s highest honour.
We caught up with him at Blain Southern gallery in London, which is hosting Bernar Venet, Looking Forward: 1961-1984, tracing the development of the artist’s distinct conceptual mode, until 22 July.
Your last solo exhibition in London was in 1976, at the ICA. As if to make up for lost time, this summer you’re back with a trio of shows.
Bernar Venet: ‘Yes, I’m exhibiting 10 new works in the grounds of Cliveden estate in Buckinghamshire; another new work in Regent’s Park, as part of the Frieze Sculpture programme; and I also have this solo show, featuring a number of my early pieces, at Blain Southern.
The earliest works at Blain Southern — the ‘Déchet’ series, in which you dripped industrial paint onto cardboard — date back to 1961. Do you still recognise the artist who made them?
BV: ‘I do, but equally I’ve never been someone to stand still and keep producing a certain type work — or slight variations on it — over and over for money. I constantly try to experiment and move forward. I like to think I’ve travelled a long way artistically since the early days.’
Let’s go back to the very early days. I understand Renoir was an inspiration...
BV: ‘I grew up in provincial France, in a family that mostly worked in the local plastics factory. They weren’t artistic, but I was a boy who really enjoyed art. I used to paint flowers and landscapes — principally because that’s what I saw the local village painter do. As an 11-year-old, I asked my mother to take me to the nearby town, Digne, to buy some paints. I remember walking past a bookshop and being captivated by a cover in the window. It was a picture of a lady washing her feet. I asked the bookseller who it was by, and he said Renoir. “Who?” I asked. “Renoir,” he replied, “the Impressionist.”
‘He then proceeded to show me more pictures, by Cézanne, Matisse and others — giving me a crash course in art history on the spot. I suddenly realised art could be a lot more than just copying what was in front of you, and also that it could be a career.’
Is it correct that you carried on painting while serving in the army, when you were on National Service in Algeria?
BV: ‘Yes, I asked my colonel if I could use a small hut space as a studio and be allowed to paint in the downtime we had, while my peers were all out drinking. He agreed, and it was then that I produced the ‘Déchet’ paintings. In those circumstances, it was a case of improvising materials, hence using industrial paints and discarded cardboard rather than oils and canvas.’
Why did you decide to move to the US in the mid-Sixties?
BV: ‘After the army, I moved to Nice. A number of artists, such as Arman and Martial Raysse, were also there, but the collectors to support us really weren’t. I was practically starving from hunger. New York was where it was at. I was young and followed a dream to try and pursue my career there — even though I didn’t know a soul, nor a word of English, and had only a few dollars in my pocket. I also didn’t know where I’d be spending my first night. As it turned out, I ended up staying in a YMCA.’
It wasn't long, though, before you achieved success and you were mixing with the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein.
BV: ‘Yes, Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko, too. Not that any of those guys understood my art or what I was doing. By then, I was making highly conceptual work, such as the mathematical diagrams on canvas, on view here at Blain Southern. The idea was to create work which wasn’t like anything before it, and also which didn’t mean anything beyond the artwork itself. It wasn’t figurative and it wasn’t abstract.
‘I also had the pleasure of meeting my compatriot Marcel Duchamp, who was in New York at the time, in what turned out to be the year before he died. As the founding father of conceptual art, he appreciated my work and compared it, in his typically arcane way, to “la vente de vent” [the sale of wind].
‘Within a couple of years of arriving in New York, I was exhibiting in group shows at some of its top galleries, such as Leo Castelli and Virginia Dwan.’
Over time your mathematical diagrams evolved into sculptures, such as your ‘Indeterminate Lines’, ‘Straight Lines’ and ‘Arcs’ series — the curving, coiling and jutting pieces of Cor-Ten steel we often see outdoors.
BV: ‘Yes, certain examples will be on view at Cliveden and in Regent’s Park. Others are on view in my foundation.’
Tell us a little about your foundation.
BV: ‘It opened in 2014 in a place called Le Muy, in the heart of Provence, not far from where I grew up. It’s a four-acre park accommodating a number of my sculptures, as well as others by the likes of Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, which I purchased relatively cheaply in New York at a relatively early stage in all our careers.
‘I feel grateful for having been born into a society that allowed me to become an artist, to travel the world, and to do a thing I love. The foundation, which is open to the public through the summer, is my small way of giving something back.’
So what’s next on the agenda?
BV: ‘I’m working on a big, public project on a highway in Belgium. As I said, I’ve never been one who likes to stop and stand still.’
Bernar Venet, Looking Forward: 1961-1984 is at Blain Southern, London W1, to July 22; Venet’s sculptures are on view at Cliveden to mid-October; and at Frieze Sculpture, London NW1, to October 8; Visits to the Venet Foundation in France can be made by appointment