Metal Guru

Metal Guru

With three simultaneous exhibitions in Britain this autumn – including a coveted spot in Frieze London’s Sculpture Garden – groundbreaking French artist Bernar Venet whose foundation in Le Muy is an hour’s drive from both the Hotel du Cap and Château Saint-Martin, is poised for a renaissance. By Emma Crichton-Miller

This summer, an assertive, monumental, abstract artwork – all jagged elbows of rusted weather-resistant steel, resembling a giant deconstructed hedgehog or an entire building frame collapsing – appeared in Regent’s Park in the British capital. Entitled 17 Acute Unequal Angles, it was part of Frieze London’s annual Sculpture Park, which features outstanding examples of modern and contemporary work.

The grave and impressive piece was created by Bernar Venet. Renowned in his native France and highly regarded in New York, which has been his base since 1967, Venet is almost unknown in Britain, and has not had a solo show in the country since 1976. This year, however, three simultaneous exhibitions – at the London gallery Blain|Southern, in the grounds of the National Trust-owned historic house Cliveden, and in the aforementioned Regent’s Park – have introduced this leading figure in 20th-century conceptual and minimalist art to a new international audience.

Venet, a vivid raconteur, tells his story well. Born in the tiny village of Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in 1941, into a family living in straitened circumstances, he was expected to follow his friends and relatives into employment in the local factory. From an early age, however, he had shown a talent for drawing. His mother was anxious about him – he was precocious but asthmatic, and the youngest of her sons – but nonetheless encouraged him.

Bernar Venet

Venet at his foundation, with some of his sculptures. He spent 25 years transforming the former sawmill into a one-of-a-kind exhibition space

During a visit to Nîmes, aged 11, to buy oil paints, Venet saw a book in a shop window, the cover of which depicted a woman washing her feet. Its title was Renoir. Discovering that this was the name of a famous artist whose paintings hung in galleries and were sold for a lot of money, he recalls, “I realised at that moment I would not work in the factory.”

Highly motivated throughout his teens, he obsessively copied artworks from the books his mother bought him, recreating masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Goya, Cézanne, Picasso and Klee. He was drawn to paintings that challenged convention, that pushed for alternative answers as to how a work is made. He later encapsulated his views thus: “It’s not art if it doesn’t change the history of art.”

“Indeterminate Indeterminate Areas, by Bernar Venet, 1996-1999. As the work’s name suggests, these shapes, created from torch-cut steel slabs, elude description
“Elliptic, Elliptic, Elliptic by James Turrell, 1999. Turrell, an American light and space artist, is one of a number of influential creatives whose work Venet exhibits at his foundation

For Venet, figurative painting was not the answer he was seeking. After a stint at art school in Nice and then in the army, he started to create raw abstract art, using his feet as well as his hands, first with paint and then with tar, which he had seen dripping spectacularly down the face of local cliffs. Turning his back on the Lyrical Abstraction movement fashionable in France at the time, and also the Abstract Expressionism of American artists such as Jackson Pollock, he asked, “What should we do that is new? How can we go beyond…?”

At art school, he had made influential friendships among a radical avant-garde group that would later become known as L’École de Nice. It included Ben Vautier, just a few years older than Venet, who introduced him to Yves Klein, Armand Fernandez and other members of the Paris-based Nouveau Réalisme group, then in its infancy. However, from the start, Venet struck out on his own, creating works using cardboard, industrial paint or piles of coal, and using sound and pioneering forms of performance art. His eye, however, was on the United States. “On 1 April 1966, I went to New York,” Venet explains. Within two months, he had met Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Indiana and other leading Pop Artists as well as the influential gallerists Leo Castelli and Paula Cooper, and had started to exhibit. “I was very lucky. Things moved very quickly. I definitely went there at the right time,” he says. But it was the formal restraint of minimalist artists such as Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Sol LeWitt that really inspired him, and encouraged him to use mathematics and science as starting points for making art.

Bernar Venet

Le Pont Tube – the tubular steel bridge that Bernar Venet created to straddle a waterfall on the Nartuby river, which transects the foundation

From then on, Venet asserts, his work has unfolded according to its own internal logic, interrupted only by the period from 1971 to 1976, when he stopped making art altogether, focusing instead on theory and teaching. Whether creating two-dimensional works based on industrial drawings; relief sculptures of geometrical arcs; films, photographs or furniture; monumental steel sculptures of indeterminate wriggling lines, freed from geometry; or gigantic, entangled nests of rusted metal embodying the collapse of the world, Venet’s creative imagination has always been fired by the ever-evolving sequence of his ideas. “It’s not that I particularly like steel, but it’s the most practical material,” he explains. “It’s the idea that drives me.”

Now a much-garlanded senior statesman of the art world – last year, he was presented with the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award – Venet has also been a passionate collector of the works of fellow artists. At the Venet Foundation, in an 18th-century former mill house set in meadows either side of the Nartuby River in Le Muy, South of France, beside the vast hanger which displays his own work, are exhibited major pieces by an impressive roll call of names: Frank Stella, Robert Motherwell, Donald Judd, Lawrence Weiner, On Kawara, Armand Fernandez, Yves Klein, Jaume Plensa, Sol LeWitt, Anthony Caro. These works pay testament to a ceaselessly creative individual for whom friendship and art have always been intertwined. “Money does not mean anything,” he says. “I would always rather have an artwork.”

Photograph credits - from the top:
Header image: © Xinyi Hu, Paris; courtesy of archives Bernar Venet, New York
Portrait: © Simone Simon, Cagnes-Sur-Mer
Pair left: © Archives Bernar Venet, New York
Pair right:© Frédéric Chavaroche courtesy of archives Bernar Venet, New York
Above: © Serge Demailly, la cadière-d'azur courtesy of archives Bernar Venet, New York