Placing mathematics and scientific principles at the centre of his radical practice, French conceptual artist and collector Bernar Venet continues to amaze with his gravity-defying steel sculptures.
For Hypotheses, Venet's first solo exhibition at Waddington Custot in London (28 September–12 November 2022), the 81 year old artist presents a new collection of prominent 'Angles', alongside drawings and a series of smaller sculptures.
Ahead of the opening Venet spoke with Ocula Advisory about the genesis of the works on show, as well as the evolution of his personal art collection at Le Muy, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur.
Much of your work is rooted in a conceptual framework, but you have also mentioned embracing instability and the accidental. Could you tell me about the genesis of some of your ideas?
A conceptual framework must be a constantly evolving space. How could I have been active for 60 years without a permanent questioning that allowed me to reconsider and rethink my first assumptions and artistic attempts?
In the beginning, choices are made, a direction is timidly taken, and, subject to corrections and renunciations, a path will take shape over time.
I would say that one of the main constants in all my work is self-referentiality. I pushed against the concept of monosemy in 1966, at the very beginning of the conceptual period. If I freed myself from Minimalism to propose more complex sculptural configurations, it was precisely to show that other formal possibilities were possible. This ultimately led to elements such as disorder, entropy, or the uncontrolled.
I have always been committed to developing an open system where we stop seeing things as compartmentalised, cut out, with hermetic borders—and instead as an open space made up of interactions.
Is performance still a fundamental part of your practice and does it directly inform your sculptural compositions?
Performance has always been integral to my practice. Lying in the garbage in 1961 while I created paintings made of filthy, abandoned materials that I called 'Dechets' ('Scraps') epitomised my desire to offer the same discourse through different artistic disciplines.
During my recent exhibition at Kunsthalle Berlin in January 2022, I lined up 30 arcs, each weighing a tonne, on their sides. Using a forklift, I pushed the first arc which caused a domino effect dragging all others to the ground in a deafening noise.
This performance predates Accident, a similar work I made on many occasions, where I would lean about 30 straight bars against a wall at the limit of imbalance. I would personally push the first bar, causing the majority to fall on top of one another.
It's the end result that strikes me: a messy heap, strewn across the floor as a product of fate. The fall is the primordial constitutive agent—the relationship between action and result is evident. The unity between the end and the means is absolute. What fascinates me in this instance is that sculpture becomes a fact of experience.
Could you tell me more about the Venet Foundation in Le Muy?
If you want to learn about Donald Judd's work, you only have to go to Marfa. Similarly, if you're interested in my work, it's in Le Muy that you will find the answers to all your questions.
I moved into the Moulin des Serres in 1989 with no particular project in mind, simply wanting to store my sculptures, which had been cluttering my production studios for too long. There was a hulking building dating back to the 16th century, along with an 1,800m2 factory, both located along a river and its falls.
Over the years, my wife and I have planted many trees to make the space more liveable. We'd go there each summer, hoping to spend a few quiet weeks. But the calm we were looking for never lasted very long because many friends came to visit, particularly art lovers who wanted to discover a place where sculpture had pride of place.
Interest in Le Muy picked up in the 1990s when friends from Berlin's National Gallery visited us, followed by others from American and French museums. A tour cycle took shape each summer that made it possible for lovers of contemporary art to discover works by major artists of my generation such as Judd, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris, Carl Andre, and Frank Stella. The walls of our living room, and other rooms of the mill, are covered with artworks by François Morellet, César, Olivier Mosset, and Arman.
As the years have passed, the collection has grown to include important pieces of sculpture in the park, located on the other side of the river. Examples include Tony Smith, Richard Long, Richard Deacon, and Phillip King, but one of the most spectacular contributions is the Stella Chapel, which is made up of six large reliefs in a structure designed by Frank Stella himself.
An Open Sky by James Turrell has also been installed on the grounds, allowing visitors to have an extraordinary experience of perception, focusing on natural light during the day and an artificial one at sunrise and sunset, alongside a large-scale sculpture by Anish Kapoor.
Le Muy is the perfect solution to ensure all the artworks in the foundation's collection are forever united, while raising their profile and celebrating art that, in my opinion, is history at its highest level.
Could you tell us more about your collection; how you began to collect and how it has evolved over time?
The collection was built over 60 years, however, initially without a defined goal to form a collection. Everything took shape based on my whereabouts at the time.
Arman introduced me to the New Realists in Paris, a group supported by the art critic Pierre Restany. Most of them—Villeglé, Hains, Rotella, Spoerri—became friends, and quite naturally we exchanged our works with one another.
When I arrived in New York in 1966, I met important figures of Minimal Art—LeWitt, Judd. I was able to acquire several Judd sculptures at a time when he was not selling anything and when it was still possible to make exchanges. He himself collected a lot, and the Judd Foundation in Marfa is the natural consequence of his taste for important acquisitions.
But it was with the acquisition of the Muy property some 30 years ago that other works came to enrich the collection which now includes Stella's chapel, Robert Morris' labyrinth, James Turrell's Skyspace, a large Anish Kapoor as well as François Morellet's swimming pool.
I read somewhere that you sleep on a Donald Judd bed. Do you have other artwork in your bedroom?
Yes, since 1982 I have been sleeping on a bed originally designed by Donald Judd for one of his friends in New York. This friend gave it to me a few years later because it was too big for the apartment he was moving into. It's a plywood bed in the style of the furniture Judd was designing at the time. It's a unique piece, both massive and imposing. I never knew if Judd had made one for himself; none are reproduced in his furniture catalogues.
On my bed hangs a large Judd piece made up of six blue boxes arranged in mathematical order. I also have a piece by Sol LeWitt, a painting by Robert Ryman, and an Arman sculpture below the fireplace.
What is a typical day at home like for you?
I don't have a typical day, everyday reinvents itself. I could be in my sculpture studio improvising new models or checking in on the finishing touches of a piece that is about to be exhibited. And then there are trips for exhibitions or installations here and there—unlike painters, sculptors who produce works of large dimensions must go to visit the sites where the sculptures will end up, and collaborate with engineers and manufacturers.
You want to know if I'm taking a nap? Yes, everyday. Don't call me between 1pm and 2pm! It's invaluable for regaining the energy I need to function at a pace that is not that of a man my age.
What is next for you? Do you have any major large-scale 'arcs' or 'straight line' works in corten steel being installed anywhere soon?
Apart from my museum and gallery exhibitions, the projects that matter the most to me are often related to the foundation where each year monumental works replace other monumental works.
Next year, I have decided to create an installation of six large arcs measuring 30 metres high. The public will be invited to walk into a seven-metre deep concrete pit to find themselves at the feet of the six arcs. They will go through a sensory and aesthetic experience as they raise their heads to see the arcs rise vertically under a progressive outward light.
Much more ambitious projects are already underway in the U.S. in Salt Lake City; a large sculpture on a highway in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia; and another in the Hawaiian archipelago that will be inaugurated in February 2023.
Main image: Bernar Venet, Arcs in Disorder 91 Arcs (2008–2021). Corten steel. 230 x 1080 x 1460 cm. © Bernar Venet. Photo: Maxime Bruyelle.