Bernar Venet, Looking Forward: 1961-1984 traces the development of the artist’s distinct conceptual mode, focussing on examples of works that were pivotal in defining his practice. It will be the French artist’s first solo show in London since the ICA in 1976. He was in his thirties at the time yet had already been the subject of a career retrospective in New York and was widely esteemed for his role in the development of conceptual art.
1961 was a significant turning point for the young artist. While conscripted to military service in France he was preoccupied by the question of how to free his art work from personal expression. He started employing performance, sound and randomised painting in order to avoid the idioms of pictorial art. After noticing tar dripping down the cliffs in an old quarry, he became fascinated by the physical qualities of this material and how it adhered to the surface, beginning two new bodies of work as a result. By dripping industrial paint onto discarded cardboard he created Déchets (see image), whereas in his Goudron works he demonstrated a different application using tar, firstly onto paper and later onto canvas. On occasion he even used his feet to avoid identifiable form or obvious signs of the artist’s hand. Later the same year, with Gravier Goudron, he became one of the first artists to create a solely auditory work from recorded noise. By 1963 he had presented Tas de charbon (Pile of Coal), the first sculpture to have no determinable form or fixed dimensions.
The timing of these events is notable when considered in relation to the rise of Arte Povera in Italy, and Minimalism and conceptual art in New York, where Venet found himself in 1966 as his interest moved towards science and mathematics as starting points for creating art. He began his exploration of information specific to an esoteric area of study, presenting a bevelled industrial cylinder alongside an annotated diagram of the object (Tube n° 150/30/45/100). Presenting them unchanged and without metaphor, Venet began his pursuit for total monosemy, where an object refers to nothing beyond itself.
He began to mine the rich seams of information from highly specialised professions that were readily available in New York. From academia to Wall Street, Venet pinpointed individuals who were experts in their field and over the following four years he created wall-based work from visual presentations of their data such as diagrams, graphs, equations, weather and financial market reports (as seen in How to Pick a Fund, 1969). He also staged and recorded performances in the form of lectures by such experts, notably with physicists from Columbia University at Judson Church Theatre, NY in 1968.
Venet found that the precise geometrical definitions of angles, arcs and chords that determined an outline, allowed him to reengage with aesthetics. Firstly as in Position of Two Angles of 120° and 60°, 1976, it dictated the shape of his canvases and then, in 1979, the outline alone became the work in itself, as in Position of Two Major Arcs of 268.5° Each.
Position of an Indeterminate Line, 1979In 1979 Venet also made Position of an Indeterminate Line (see image) and shifted his focus from pure geometry. Created randomly without the aid of instruments, this graphite-on-wood work was in sharp visual contrast to earlier works. The introduction of chance into his practice, over time, created various opportunities for him to explore new aesthetics in works that remained rooted in mathematics.
Whether geometrically defined or indeterminate, the relief of Venet’s wall-based works moved closer over time towards sculpture, first connecting with both the wall and the ground in Indeterminate Line, 1984. His free-standing three dimensional sculptures of Arcs, Angles, Straight and Indeterminate Lines have been exhibited in museums and institutions around the globe, from The Guggenheim, New York to the Château de Versailles.
Alongside this comprehensive exhibition, Blain|Southern is also proud to announce Bernar Venet at Cliveden, an outdoor exhibition of Venet’s sculptures at the National Trust property in Buckinghamshire. This is the first exhibition in the National Trust’s contemporary arts programme, at this historic location.