For over forty years Bernard Frize has been inventing procedures for making paintings without exactly knowing or predicting the visual outcome. He has explained that the process of painting is more important than whether the final result is aesthetically plea- sing, although it turns out that they often are. By establishing procedures he removes himself as best he can from the work, to reduce the sense of self-expression to the barest minimum. As an artist who began working in the 1970s, at the height of minimal and conceptual art, he was, of course, aware of such artists as Sol LeWitt, whose 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art' first appeared in Art- forum in Summer 1967, but Frize's approach was different. LeWitt, for the most part, did not execute his work but left it to assistants.
Frize required assistance in executing one series of paintings when he needed many hands to manipulate brushes simultaneously, but mostly he makes art on his own. His hand is there- fore involved. Whereas LeWitt described his work as emotionally dry, because from his point of view it was executed as though by a machine, Frize's work is cool but can provoke an emotional response. LeWitt's art was manufactured industrially or drawn on a wall. Frize makes paintings on canvas with visible brush marks where colour is embedded in a resin surface. It has the illusion of facture, although none whatsoever. Moreover there is a strong sense of wit and the absurd in Frize's work. LeWitt was not immune to absurdity – think of his Location pieces where the text describing the actions to be taken to execute a simple geometric figure, such as a triangle or a square, is so complex that it requires quite a strong logical mind to decode it. The mental effort required to draw a simple form is enormous. This mixture of complexity and simplicity, of detail and ludicrous outcome was comparable in many ways to the novels of the nouveau roman movement.
Frize's absurdity is somewhat different, more Beckettian. Generally the proposition is a simple one and reasonably easy to execute once the movements are worked out. The titles of his works, chosen by other people, are themselves absurd and tongue in cheek. For example Drexel Burnham Lambert, named after the investment bank, and for- mer sponsors of the Turner Prize, whose illegal trading in junk bonds forced them into bankruptcy, or Uitr which is an acronym for Unem- ployment Insurance Tax Report, or Ydin which is either Finnish for mar- row (of bones) or the name of a Finnish political magazine. While linguistically rich–Frize's work has many different appearances - it is essentially repetitive. It carries no overt symbolic meaning, little external reference, no apparent metaphor. Centred on repetition and variations on the same theme, it is full of silences, muteness, random colour combinations that may at best suggest a mood but little more than that. There are no highlights, it is generally even (there are some exceptions), and though there are incidents where lines and colours merge or change directions they tend to abjure drama. They just are. There can be blemishes that Frize retains as evidence of the process. Like Beckett's characters in Waiting for Godot, the viewer may wait for meaning to be revealed but for some it will be a long time coming, if at all. The surface is dead pan. There are times when what is depicted looks as though it has been squashed flat. Take Mescali (2014) or Pulvérisée (2001) for example, the latter's title reinforcing this suggestion, as though Frize has beaten the life out of any kind of resemblance..
What meaning can we derive from these strategies? How can we interpret these paintings? Frize has deliberately avoided expressionism and self-expression; he has eschewed symbolic narrative at a time of its resurgence; he has to some degree critiqued the tendency in the seventies and eighties towards minimalism–his highly colourful, some might say jazzy works are far from minimal–and if he has adopted conceptual strategies it is to divorce them from the domain of linguistics and structuralism in favour of something that can be sensuous, sexy, psychedelic, dizzying, and impure. His works can be alternately simple and baffling, posing conundrums and questioning the status of the artist painter. One of the fundamental questions he asks is, do we need a painter to make a painting? Absurd as this might seem, we are entering an age when artificial intelligence may well replace the artist in the making of works of art. Although pleasurable for some to exe- cute, the work of art is a useless product of human intelligence and hand. Why not replace it with a machine? Will this develop into one of the tragedies of our times? That something from which we might derive creative pleasure becomes redundant? If AI becomes or has become an essential improvement to the conduct of medical operations will the use of AI really enhance the making of painting?
This might not be an answer to that question but in all Frize's work there is personality. He is a witty man and his humour cannot help but intrude. So if he has failed in the task of depersonalising the work it is an heroic failure. Anyone visiting his 2019 retrospective exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou could not fail to notice that he has a signature style. A Frize painting is instantly recognisable even if there are a multitude of appearances. The surface is always smooth (the French word lisse seems to describe it better than the English) and flat, although the illusion of space may emerge in the end. The paintings can be seductive, their colours brilliant, generally clear but also sometimes gradated, at times pure at others intermingled. But they can also be somewhat alienating. Beauty overspills into kitsch. Paintings that are abstract cannot help but conjure references to the outside world. Frize lures you into a non-referential zone and then abandons you. Is it sustainable that the work is exclusively about process, about itself, self-referential? Can the viewer remain in this pure state? There are definitely times when chinks of the outside world intrude. Is it a coincidence that the oil paintings Jacob, Terah and Isaac (all 2004) resemble the patterns found in Bargello embroidery or that _Emir _(1993) has landscape overtones? Such paintings as Lescilia (2014) evince memories of playing with kaleidoscopes as a child, those long tubes that one turned to create magnificently coloured patterns. They are perhaps the unintended outcomes of the painting process but the images resonate in the world and, as he explains, Frize 'enjoys the misunderstanding of the painting working on several levels. I'm interested in an abstract painting not being pure, reminding you of something you have already experienced.' That is something beyond his control.
The exhibition at the Centre Pompidou allowed Frize to pause and to reflect. He realised that over the years he had done very few large-scale paintings, unlike many of his European and American contemporaries. For years he had wanted to make what he calls 'humble' paintings. He rejected the cult of personality, the god-like status of the canonical artists that pervaded the 1980s and 90s and just wanted the paint to do the talking. It seemed to him inappropriate to the age to paint vast machines that might suggest certainty, that might turn out to be bombastic, empty vessels for highfalutin thoughts about life, des- tiny or history. Thus his painting strategy could be said to be the result of a political decision.
The era of the heroic is long over. Much as he admires the work of say Barnett Newman, and especially his writings, Newman's approach to painting, involving the re-presentation of tragedy and myth abstractly, and on a massive scale, as a positive response to the destruction of civilisation, an attempt to rebuild and to rehabilitate myth and the spiritual out of the ashes of war and the holocaust, was no longer viable to a younger generation. If Newman was one of the few painters of his generation to mask feelings in his paintings by adopting a deadpan surface–notwithstanding the bleeds and stains that occur in the 'zips' that reveal frailty and humanity–his heroic, almost declamatory approach was bypassed by subsequent generations. 'I always disliked dogmatism', Frize explains. 'Painting is a philosophical research with its own means, not a production of commodities. An exhibition is an exhibition of ideas embodied in canvases.' But now in his seventies Frize is coming around to making paintings on a public scale that suggest he has more to say than just about painting.
Pelodisag (2022) is the largest painting that Frize has made to date. Over sixteen metres long, consisting of nine abutting canvases, it is wider than Claude Monet's paintings in the Orangerie, and more than three times wider than Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950–1951). Painted in a sequence of nine panels that abut, Frize has never had the opportunity to see it assembled in his studio, which is far too small. He painted the canvases two at a time to ensure continuity. As he neared the edge of the second canvas, he would set aside the first and abut the third and then carry on over the edge of the second to the third canvas and so on. Thus although he knew what the preceding canvases looked like he never had a sense of the whole. It is an episodic way of painting, perhaps a way of constructing a narrative in time. With impish wit he states that he was 'trying to make a painting that will be hard to sell'. How absurd is it that an artist wants to make an unsellable pain- ting? And yet there is a tradition of artists who have wanted to circumvent the market. Think of Fluxus or early conceptual works, or performance art, although the market eventually finds ways to commodify everything.
Frize executed this painting, like all the others in the show, flat on trestles. Each canvas is of a scale that accommodates his reach. He flooded the canvas with liquid resin, dotting blobs of paint randomly all over and, drawing a large brush through the paint from the centre to the outer edge and back to the centre, allowed the paint to flood back. What emerges from this method is essentially an auto-destructive pain- ting, one where the marks of the brush are disrupted and obliterated by the pooling of paint. The process of making the painting–brushing – is overcome by the properties of the liquidity of the paint. Notwithstanding that the paint is drawn back, it pools because, although the canvas is perfectly flat, it sags under the weight of the materials. There is thus a great regard for the truthfulness of the materials, which act according to their properties. He refuses to negate the liquidity. What results is an imperfection, a breakdown of order, a corruption of perfection. Intentionality is ultimately overpowered by the accidental, and the materials become co-author of the work. The pools become eruptions to the status quo.
There have been previous occasions when paintings have disintegrated, but they are rare. In Spitz (1991) the serpentine lines decompose and, more recently, in Oude (2018), blotches obscure the vertical, linear traces. It seems there have been times when Frize has needed to purge himself of the perfect outcomes of his strategies, when he has wanted to be disruptive, but none more so than in this new sequence of works. If most of the outcomes in previous works were foreseen the
outcomes here are unpredictable, unstable. Perhaps this was the result of seeing so much work assembled together at the Centre Pompidou. Maybe he sensed a need to negate the perfection of his work. Frize has remarked that 'There are periods of construction, expansion, and periods of corruption.' Corruption helps him to create 'new settings', in order to start again.
But I think more is at stake here. We are living in uncertain, unstable times, when civilisation as we have known it over the last seventy years, following post-war reconstruction, is breaking down. We exist in a post-truth world, where lies are validated and truth dismissed, where corruption is rife, military conflicts are fought for spurious reasons and with no regard for the conventions of war, where human values are abandoned in favour of the harshest asylum and immigration policies, where moral values are imposed by superior force, and where the environment is so compromised that we are on the verge of a catastrophic climate change. If these themes are perhaps too onerous for these new works to carry, they were in my mind as I looked at them. They are explosive, almost apocalyptic paintings, full of incident in a way that Frize's previous work seems to avoid. Far from being meaningless their absurdity represents the world we inhabit.
Press release courtesy Perrotin. Text: Jeremy Lewison.