Interview with Olivier Mosset*
by Lionel Bovier and Christophe Cherix
* This interview was conducted in 2000 and first appeared in the publication accompanying the artist’s retrospective (Olivier Mosset. Travaux), curated by Lionel Bovier for the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, the Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, and the Carré d’Art, Nîmes. It has been revised for the Prix Meret Oppenheim 2015’s publication and adapted from Sarina Basta’s English translation.
Lionel Bovier / Christophe Cherix :
You made your debut in 1962 with “relief paintings” and, starting in 1965, with letter paintings (of which several “A’s” have survived) and circles. Upon leaving Switzerland, you worked as an assistant to Jean Tinguely, and subsequently to Daniel Spoerri. You associated with the Parisian art world of the 1960s (including the critics Otto Hahn and Alain Jouffroy, the artists Ben Vautier and Daniel Pomereulle, and the filmmakers Philippe Garrel and Pierre Clémenti). How did you meet Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni, the other three members (and initials) of BMPT ?
Olivier Mosset :
Otto Hahn had told me that a painter — who had seen one of my circle paintings — wanted to meet me. This painter, Daniel Buren, was participating in a group exhibition (Triptyque, in May 1966) at the Jean Fournier gallery. I was quite impressed by the works by Buren and Parmentier. They introduced me to Toroni. We visited each other’s studios, we spent a lot of time together, and we talked a great deal.
What were the ideas uniting your respective works, in your opinion ?
OM From an ideological point of view, I was quite opposed to everything. I reacted instinctively against the “bleak” and “found object” aspects of Nouveau Réalisme. Instead, I turned toward Malevich, the Russians from the turn of the century (the little I knew of them), Duchamp, Picabia, and Mondrian. I also had a certain admiration for Warhol, his detachment and his use of repetition. I considered my own painting to be a critique of the market and of the uniqueness of the art object — and a critique, as well, of the sensitive and expressionist aspects of the painting of that period. I found similar preoccupations in the works of my fellow artists BPT. Without having read Greenberg or seen Minimalism : that was the kind of discourse and sensibility that brought us together. At the same time, we were trying to develop an artistic practice with a more political approach.
Would you describe your activities together as the work of a group or (as Buren suggests) an association ? Or would you use another term altogether ?
OM Although we were invited as a group to the 5e Biennale de Paris, we never considered ourselves as such, and certainly not as the “BMPT group.” That label was invented by the critics. I elieve the first person to use the term was François Pluchart, quickly followed by others (Grégoire Müller, Otto Hahn). Ironically, we ourselves did not use the term “group” until we had already separated ! It was Parmentier, in a pamphlet dated December 6, 1967, who wrote that “the Buren-Mosset-Parmentier-Toroni group no longer exists.” We did not use the term “association” either. We simply did together whatever we wanted to do together !
In an interview with Jérôme Sans,1 Buren stated that your “points of convergence were based more on what [you] completely rejected than on what [you] jointly accepted” and also that your “true common ground was what the four of [you] created and presented all together.”
OM It would be interesting to study the differences between our respective works, and thus go beyond simple descriptions of our shared characteristics (“zero degree,” repetition, neutrality, anonymity, materiality, the questioning of painting through painting). That has never really been done and, for strategic reasons, we may not have wanted that issue to be pursued at the time. These are necessary questions, however, for anyone who really wants to understand what happened then. Although it is not for me to take on the task, I would like to simply mention a few of those differences. In Toroni’s work, there is a reference to the gesture of the painter, which is absent from the work of the others. Parmentier uses a system or process unique to himself. As we know, things don’t fall from the sky, but generally have a history. Parmentier knew Hantaï. Toroni had worked for the Swiss sculptor Antoine Poncet (although that doesn’t explain much), and I had been an assistant to Tinguely and Spoerri. Buren, in turn, was familiar with American painting. He painted on mattress fabric reminiscent of the cotton duck used by American painters, which was certainly not available from European art suppliers at the time. When this particular type of canvas is exhibited for itself, it becomes charged with a Nouveau Réaliste quality (Buren had said that he was struck quite early on by the work of the Affichistes) or a “readymade” (assisted) character. That last point might explain Buren’s aggressive attitude towards Duchamp !
In fact, you have all discussed your respective practices quite extensively over the years.
OM My work has been described as literary and “mechanistic,” notably by Buren (who has undoubtedly expressed himself the most of all). Although I have great respect for what the members of the “group” are still doing today (and in particular for Buren’s work), his writings sometimes annoy me quite a bit. In an interview in the year 2000,2 for instance, he claimed that “to last, one must conceal.” While Parmentier manipulated the canvas in order to succeed, Buren, at every stage of the game, has manipulated the discourse (starting with his name and his relationships with those who have supported him). For people who sought to demystify the art of their time, this strikes me as problematic.
Exactly what political culture and commitments did you share in the context of pre-May ’68 Paris ? Your own political opinions led you to leave France ; what about the others ?
OM We were, of course, in an atmosphere opposed to the Vietnam War and to the reactionary positions of de Gaulle’s government.I believe, although I’m not sure, that Parmentier may have been a party member at some point. On the other hand, I do remember Daniel Buren bringing us On the Poverty of Student Life, the Situationist manifesto by the students from Strasbourg. Then there was May ’68 and people fighting in the streets. It was not so much my political opinions that caused me to leave France : my residence permit was simply not renewed. I was given two weeks to
leave the country. When I asked for a reason, they simply said that I knew very well why ! As for my former companions, I think that Buren has been made an Officer of Arts and Letters (or something like that), and that Toroni is doing well. I have no news of Parmentier.3
Your meeting with Buren, Parmentier and Toroni can be credited to Otto Hahn. But who took the initiative for the Manifestation no 0, the pamphlet-letter that marked the founding of BMPT ?
OM Buren and Parmentier (especially Buren) seemed to want to do something that would lend higher visibility to their works. So in December 1966 we sent the letter as a way of introducing ourselves, as we were planning an intervention at the Salon de la Jeune Peinture.
This letter was in fact followed by what Buren calls Manifestation no 1 : your participation in the 18e Salon de la Jeune Peinture. The day of the opening, January 3, 1967, the “group” organized a collective action that consisted in painting live and on location, face to face with the public. The act was accompanied by a banner with the painters’ names and a message announced
via loudspeakers (“Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni advise you to become intelligent”). At the end of the day, you wrapped up the canvases and the materials and, in their place, hung another banner proclaiming your refusal to exhibit. You also distributed a pamphlet indicating that, essentially, you were not painters in the sense of how painting was currently being perceived (associated with aestheticism, the gestural, politics, and the imaginary). This was the first time that BMPT publicly presented its artistic investigations. Beyond the rejection of the group show as a system of presentation, did you not also wish to attack painting as a simple means of producing objects ? Not, however — contrary to what Buren suggests — to attack the interpretation of painting (which is, as he puts it,“unutterable”) but rather the role that was attributed to it, by endowing it with a capacity to generate a situation, to respond to a conflict, and thus to be much more than the sum of the works that constitute it.
OM By painting directly on site, I think we were doing two things : we were exhibiting our paintings and we were showing how painting was done (“to render visible the mechanics from which it proceeds,” as we put it in the letter). We presented work that certainly questioned art in general and painting in particular (even if I have the impression that, at the time, we did not distinguish between painting and art). In any case, the “performance” was an attempt to demystify these questions. As for myself, I have always made a distinction between the nature of painting and the way it is exhibited.
Did the simplification of your respective practices (the horizontal or vertical stripe, the brushstroke, the circle) derive from a desire to expose the “mechanics” behind painting, or was it the other way around ?
OM We each had our own motif before we met. I think that, in the event that took place at the Salon de la Jeune Peinture, the “mechanics” was exposed by the act of painting on site. No more mystery : everyone can see how it’s done. In my case, looking back, I would say that the circle attempted in a certain way to define painting (the canvas) and in doing so to demystify its function, its appreciation, and its consumption.
After leaving the Salon de la Jeune Peinture, you wrote a letter (“Lettre contre les salons”) in which you explained your refusal to participate further in this type of event. It was Manifestation no 2. Had you planned this at the same time as the intervention at the Salon, or was it truly a reaction to the exhibition itself ? And also, how did the other Salon participants react to your refusal to exhibit your paintings ?
OM Right from the start (if I remember correctly), we wanted to paint but not to exhibit. I suppose that the other participants at the Salon were rather disgusted. When the (local) press reviewed the exhibition, they most often mentioned our action, which had precisely sought to question the show itself. Buren and Parmentier in particular knew the painters whose figurative, narrative style was the basis of the Salon. Some of them had previously painted, in a realist style, the assassination of Marcel Duchamp … Our advantage was that our attack had not been personal. We attacked everything and everyone. And in one fell swoop, we got ourselves noticed on the Parisian scene …
In your letter of January 3, 1967, you condemn the Salons in three points : they are of a previous century, they encourage a passive public, and they exhibit painting (“reactionary by nature”). In other words, if we may put it this way, the Salons were what theater is to cinema. And yet, wasn’t the Manifestation no 3, which you organized in June 1967, held in a theatre, of all places ?
OM More than a theater, the hall of the Musée des arts décoratifs — although it featured a stage — was a conference room. I even wonder whether there wasn’t a screen behind the stage curtains ! In fact, organizing a performance in a museum (Manifestation no 1) and hanging works in an auditorium (Manifestation no 3) were attempts to question the way in which works are shown. One must remember that at the time, although there had already been Happenings and events, performance was not yet an established artistic practice. In addition, there is nothing very
theatrical about hanging paintings in a theater…
What were the origins of the event and how was it organized ?
OM Jacques Polieri, a stage director, contacted the “group” after the performance at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, in order to organize a public event in the form of a festival. After some discussion, we decided to hang our works in an auditorium rented for the occasion. Although the event had been financed by the organizer, the spectators, invited by mail and through poster announcements, had to pay an entrance fee.
What was the reaction of the public, invited to come at a precise time ?
OM The public was seated in the room, facing the paintings, waiting for something to happen. After a while, as nothing was going on, people started to become restless. Pamphlets were then distributed, indicating that one had to watch the paintings by Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, and Toroni. “A success in the genre of the frustrating happening,” remarked Marcel Duchamp, who attended the event.
The next event, September 29 to November 5, 1967, also took place in an unusual space for presenting art.
OM Indeed. In a space that no one wanted, near the bar of the 5e Biennale de Paris (at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris), because we had been unhappy with the room originally offered to us. It was a location with a lot of traffic, situated between the different exhibition rooms. We showed our paintings and organized a slide projection (of the Pope, landscapes, and animals). In addition, there was a soundtrack on tape, repeating the words “art is an illusion.” Depending on the image being projected, it added “of presence” for the image of the Pope, “of nature” for the landscapes, and so on. After each series of slides, a spotlight was turned onto the paintings, one after the other, while a recorded voice would say : “not the painting of” and add “Buren” (when his painting was being lit), “Toroni,” etc. At the end of the sequence, when all four paintings were illuminated, the tape intoned : “Art is a distraction. Art is fake. Painting starts with Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni.”
Paradoxically, this was the last time that BMPT exhibited all together.
OM Manifestation n°5 — which never actually bore that name, marked the end of our activities as a quartet. It took place without Parmentier, in a space that had previously been the J. gallery, the gallery of the Nouveaux Réalistes. The place was empty at the time and the owner, Jeannine de Goldschmidt, let us use it. We wanted to work together to create another event. We had all sort of ideas — like exhibiting an elephant or transforming the gallery into a hen house — but strangely enough, this led to some reflection on the different signs in our respective works. One of the suggestions, probably introduced by Buren, was that each of us would do the work of the other three. It was then that Parmentier, finding the idea devoid of interest, withdrew from the debate. There was also a problem of format : his paintings maintained a precise relationship between height and width, whereas the idea was to standardize the size of the paintings presented. Finally, the three of us claimed authorship for the paintings of the others (I claimed the works of Buren and Toroni ; Toroni, Buren’s and my own ; Buren, Toroni’s and mine).
How was the visitor made aware of this, if the paintings were not signed ?
OM The exhibition was accompanied by a text by Michel Claura ; I think it was hung on a wall. It indicated that each of us was presenting the paintings of the two others and had signed them with his own name. The works were exhibited in three identical groups, each showing one painting with stripes, one with brushstrokes and one with a circle. Each ensemble was attributed to one of us.
In December 1967, Buren and Toroni organized an exhibition in Lugano. What was it about, and what was its relation to the previous event ?
OM During the exhibition at the J. gallery, I’d had the feeling that even if I painted a work in the manner of Toroni, it would still be my painting. In the event that followed, Buren and Toroni had their paintings done by the public, which came down to saying that anyone could create them. I did not need to express my refusal to participate, as I was never asked to
take part in the show. We exhibited one last time together in Lyon, at Guillaumon and Guinochet. Each of us — Buren, Toroni and I — had a painting displayed in a separate room. After 1968, Parmentier had stopped painting. At the exhibition Douze ans d’art contemporain en France : 1960–1972 at the Grand Palais in 1972, in which Buren,Toroni and I had refused to participate, Parmentier presented his oldest works, accompanied by a statement announcing the end of his artistic practice.
How did your own work develop during the progressive erosion of the association ? How did it relate to the decline of this “collective” practice ?
OM My practice as a painter continued. In 1968 I received the funds to publish a catalogue (Catalogue n°1). I imagined a publication that dispensed with any exhibition. It featured five reproductions of the same circle painting, prefaced by a text by Serge Bard in the form of an imaginary interview. The events of May ’68 took place shortly afterward. Although those events affected me profoundly, I did not stop painting. I even did a solo exhibition of circle paintings at the Rive Droite gallery at the end of that same year. I had the impression that the events of 1968, in a way, corroborated our respective practices. A second one-man show was held in the same space the following year (from December 5-25, 1969). It was accompanied by a catalogue with a textby Jean-Paul Dollé, in the spirit of the art criticism of that time. The show featured circle paintings, hung in the same way as the previous year. Although identical to those shown in
1968, they were new paintings. That show put an end to my collaboration with the gallery. It was in 1973 that I started the stripe paintings.They were exhibited in 1974 at Daniel Templon’s in Paris, and stirred up some controversy. The whole thing flared up with the anonymous distribution of a fake invitation card entitling the show “Hommage to Daniel Buren” and with the circulation — through the gallery’s mailing list — of a letter from Buren that also proved to be fake ! If the paintings seemed to appropriate Buren’s visual device, my intention was to question the link between the signature and the use of the device, and to interrogate the relationship between form and content. At that time, it seemed that the reception of BMPT’s work had been modified, because of the immediate identification of the paintings with their authors. Through this new work, I wished to return to the ideas developed during the exhibition at the J. gallery and to re-launch a debate about painting. I presented canvases with alternating gray and white vertical stripes, each 10 centimeters wide, the first and last in white. The paintings, with dimensions of 200 x 210 cm, were first painted white, with gray stripes added subsequently.
Beyond the controversy, didn’t this exhibition give you the chance to re-launch a pictorial practice derived from, but yet independent of, BMPT ?
OM It was indeed a way to escape from the repetition of the motif associated with me, by adopting the repetition of something I had in fact appropriated ! A second series of thes eworks was exhibited in 1976 at Daniel Templon’s.The canvases were first painted white and then off-white (or the opposite). I wanted to simultaneously reintroduce color while escaping repetition : in each case, the white was “set off” by the added colors. I completed this series with a painting of white on white (sold from my studio), and created a similar one (which, to my mind, was its total opposite) in November 1976 for the Ecart gallery in Geneva.
How did you develop the idea to reintroduce color into your work ?
OM Following the painting made for Ecart, I exhibited canvases with gray-on-gray stripes in 1977 at Marc Hostettler’s (Média gallery, Neuchâtel). These paintings, close to monochrome, led me to understand that I could now use colors unavailable to me before. For example, I was able to create a big painting of red stripes on a red background ; red stripes on white would have been too close to Buren’s work or the signs from construction sites.
Were you interested, as other artists were at that time, in the question of seriality and the exhaustion of a motif or structure ?
OM I did realize my work gave the impression that it was defined through series or groups, yet no precise program had determined them before their creation. The second version of the red stripes on red background painting is an example : the first painting had been damaged by mistake and, when I redid it, I left the outline of the stripes in pencil without filling them in. It was this work that was exhibited, in 1977, at the 10e Biennale de Paris.
How did this move — to stripes that were indicated in pencil and no longer painted — point your work in a new direction ?
OM It dissociated the “drawing for the painting” from the painting itself. The works that followed in 1977 and 1978, except for some made in the United States, were monochromes. I wanted to abandon drawing in the process of painting. In this way, the canvas itself took the form of a drawing. The first monochromes were red, and from red I gradually moved to orange, pink, green and all the colors of the spectrum.
In 1977, while this evolution took place in your work, you left Paris to settle in New York. What were the reasons for that choice?
OM At the time, my residence permit was withdrawn and so I was not living full time in France, even if I was there often. Around 1975, I had made a three-month trip to New York, which gave me the idea to return and settle there. Let’s not forget that New York was one of the big topics of conversation in Paris …
Could we say that, at this stage, the influence on your work was more American than before ?
OM Frank Stella’s first paintings interested me a great deal. Thanks to Grégoire Müller, I also rediscovered artists championed by Greenberg, and especially American abstract art from the 1950s. In that, my work was redefining itself even more as an exploration of painting.
Beyond the question of drawing, what interested you in the practice of the monochrome, and who were the great innovators in that area, for you ?
OM What interested me was the manner in which a canvas was painted. So it was a question of painting, but of painting reduced to its simplest expression. In Europe, Yves Klein occupied the territory of the monochrome. In the United States, on the other hand, different practices (Ralph Humphrey, Brice Marden, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman) seemed to open up a more diversified field.
To you then, a painting exists entirely through the act of painting?
OM Painting is indeed defined by a practice,but it leads to a painted object, which is the painting. And painting is above all the painted object, which is the result of this practice. During this period you met different artists interested in the question of the monochrome.
Can you describe the contacts you made at this time and the way you worked together ?
OM I called Marcia Hafif after her article “Beginning Again” was published in Artforum in September 1978. Her views seemed to correspond to my thoughts at the time, so I met up with her. Other painters concerned with similar questions eventually joined us (Jo Marioni, Phil Sims, Howard Smith, Frederic Thursz, Günter Umberg, Jerry Zeniuk). We organized meetings to talk about painting. Those discussions led to a couple of exhibitions, including New Abstraction at the Sidney Janis gallery in 1983 and Radical Painting at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown.
Could you explain that last title ?
Our practices were not dominant in the New York scene, which was witnessing the return of Expressionism (Julian Schnabel, David Salle). To find a title for the show, we were inspired by the press release for New Abstraction that spoke of our works as proceeding from a “more radical abstraction.” It seemed interesting to us to pursue this angle further and to speak of painting rather than abstraction. At the time we hesitated between the terms “abstract” and “concrete” art. We also wanted to insist on our identity as painters. Ultimately, this issue was similar to the questions raised during the BMPT period.
Did this moment also correspond to the end of a period ?
OM Following the show in Williamstown, I feared that my work would become academic. So in 1985, I raised the question of the monochrome through “abstract constructed paintings.” Paradoxically, to avoid lapsing into academicism, I moved toward something considered even more academic ! I also started giving titles to my paintings. The first large painting of this new series was entitled A Step Backwards. It was shown in early 1986 during my solo exhibition at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva run by Adelina von Fürstenberg. Let me add that, at the time in
New York, abstraction was once again a central debate. I did, in fact, exhibit my monochromes in the context of these new Neo-Geo and Simulationist trends (at the Cable gallery in 1984 and Postmasters in 1985).
Did the contrast between your monochromes and the new Neo-Geo scene lead you to redefine them ?
OM To a certain extent, although it was my thoughts about my own practice that led me to confront that new generation. Despite my presence in the Peinture abstraite show organized by John Armleder in Geneva in 1984, despite statements by artists such as Sherrie Levine and despite Jean Baudrillard’s catalogue text for my exhibition at the Swiss Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 1990, I was never really part of this trend. I was nevertheless quite familiar with the approaches of Peter Halley, Philip Taaffe, Helmut Federle and John Armleder. For example, a book of essays and interviews was published around that time, bringing together my work with those last two artists (John Armleder — Helmut Federle — Olivier Mosset, Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture et Maison de la Culture et de la Communication, Grenoble & Saint-Etienne, 1987). I was related to this scene without actually participating in the critical movement that brought it to the forefront internationally around 1987. The circle paintings had already developed the idea that a painter’s practice rapidly led to “paintings of paintings.” Furthermore, this appropriationist
perspective is already explicit in the stripe paintings. The desire to signify the painting as a painting leads, invariably to the making of “second degree” paintings. It seemed to me that the Neo-Geo painters initiated an interesting return to painting. I remember saying to John Armleder, during an interview, that I appreciated his solution of delivering the painting to the collector along with the living-room furniture (“Conversation entre J. Armleder et O. Mosset / ”, republished in op. cit. supra, p. 252–262).
As for me, the awareness of painting’s tendency towards objectification needed to continue to formulate itself in purely pictorial terms.Only the titles of my works allowed me to add a critical gaze to the context of the time and my own practice (for example : Bandwagon,Lobby, Double Reverse, Too Little Too Late).I think this period showed that it was possible to lead painting either in a critical and conceptual direction or toward the affirmation of its pictorial qualities. This was, and still is, my case. I always thought painting was a sufficiently “specific” object. Paint has, in itself, the quality of an object. The monochrome, as it was practiced in the New York art scene of the 1970s, was founded on a real opposition to the birth of Neo-Expressionism, which considered painting as an arena for subjectivity and the place for a centuries-old tradition. Our convictions were therefore diametrically opposed. However, our position did not coincide completely with that of the Simulationists and the Neo-Geo artists. Most of the artists associated with the practice of the monochrome in the 1970s would not exhibit together with the exponents of Neo-Geo painting in the 1980s, except for the exhibition RED, an idea I had suggested to Bob Nickas (Massimo Audiello gallery, New York, in 1986 and Isy Brachot gallery, Brussels, in 1990). As the practice of the “monochromists” was largely colored by idealism, it fit badly with the deliberately intellectual position of the 1980s scene. As far as I was concerned, I would always return to the concept elaborated by Greenberg : if a painting is done properly, it will contain a critical dimension, in relation to itself as well as to the art market and system.
Could one say that the ironic relationship you established with the stripe paintings was then repeated in relation to a different context ?
OM Actually, that relationship was never ironic. These are painting solutions and answers to formal problems. If the production of the painting is indeed serious, nothing prevents us from adopting a certain distance to the finished product. This distance can, for example, be expressed in the title, which generally has no fundamental relationship with the painting. I would also like to add that most of the artists with whom I associated had gone through a development parallel to that of the Neo-Geo group. Worth mentioning here are Sherrie Levine, Cady Noland and Steven Parrino, as well as younger artists such as Dan Walsh and John Tremblay. These artists do not, in fact, have an ironic or satirical relationship with questions of painting. This does not stop me, of course, from exhibiting and being friends with artists like John Armleder and Sylvie Fleury.
How is this fundamental relationship to painting expressed in the “shaped canvases” that you made later on ?
OM The “shaped canvases” must of course be seen as a critique of the traditionally rectangular format of painting. When I made these works, they already belonged to a potential repertoire of solutions. The idea was also to suggest a rereading, within my practice, of previously-used motifs (for example, the painted and cut-out star).
What about the three-dimensional pieces ?
OM After having produced a public art project for the telecommunications building in Neuchâtel (a large panel attached to the façade), I was invited to participate in a sculpture exhibition in Môtiers. I then needed to think about the question of sculpture and its relationship to painting. I tried, as in the case of Cimaises (Gallery Walls, 1993), to treat threedimensional space and pictorial space in a similar manner. I also produced paintings that were on the border between relief painting and sculpture. In these cases, it is the frame in particular that gives the effect of sculpture, rather than the painting itself.
You seem to have recently renewed your interest in the monochrome.
OM The “shaped canvases” and the third dimension have probably renewed my interest in painting on canvas once again. In the early 1980s this question seemed to me to point toward an academic direction, but today it offers an interesting field of experimentation beyond the issue of the monochrome. Producing monochromes once seemed like a statement, but that is not the case anymore today. In addition, it is a personal practice that ultimately cannot be defended.
Cannot be defended ?
OM As we used to say during the BMPT period, painting is perhaps “objectively reactionary.” I cannot justify it further, even if certain formal solutions continue to interest me.
Is your work, as it has evolved independently over the past thirty years, still indebted to the BMPT period ?
OM Of course the issues raised during that time — repetition, the signature, neutrality — informed the development of the works that followed. However, the different members of BMPT each followed their own paths. BMPT was important to all of us, but it remains confined within a certain period of time.
So much so that today, even your older work (such as the circle paintings) is sometimes placed in relation to things very different from BMPT. This was the case, for example, in 1999, in your exhibition with Cady Noland at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Zurich.
OM Even if things have changed, there has not been a complete rupture between what happened with BMPT and what happened later. For that reason, these different works can be seen together or associated with different contexts.
In the Zurich exhibition, there was an easy analogy to make between the circles of the older paintings and the tyres in Cady Noland’s installations. Suddenly the question of the signature disappeared entirely.
OM This was indeed the reading upon which the exhibition was based. At first, Cady Noland and I thought of mixing my circles and her tires, her brick walls and my Cimaises, and so on. In this light, the circle paintings would regain the autonomy they had lost in the group context of BMPT. In the end, however, the exhibition played less than initially planned on such literal and formal comparisons.
A further affinity came to light with the encounter between your two different approaches : the issue of radical practices, threatened precisely by the questions they raise. What, today, gives you the energy and the desire to make new works ?
OM In the Zurich exhibition, my “formal radicalism” was opposed to Cady’s “social and political radicalism.” These days, painting is almost always a conceptual work reflecting on art (formal solutions still keeping their autonomy). To be interested in what is not art is also a way of speaking about art. To me, art is always about working on form (even if it is devoid of form or shapeless). All work engages in dialogue with other practices, whether it is exhibited with other pieces or whether it is placed in relation to all of the works comprised within art history. Furthermore, works of an artistic nature engage in dialogue with subjects that are not art per se (architecture, design, the media). In this sense, Buren is right to take into account
the place in which he shows his work, though this notion of place obviously extends beyond the exhibition space itself. One way I approach these questions is by not taking them into account : by concentrating on problems of surface, of how to treat it, of medium, of color, of materials used, and on the manner of applying them. I have difficulties in painting, in choosing a color, determining a format, and applying the paint to the canvas. Although I am only very rarely satisfied with the result, it is still something that interests me — a lot in fact. I would like to be able to paint, destroy and start over — that is, in fact, more or less what I do ! The rest, how the works will be shown and what will happen to them, is another matter.Today, my place in the art system and its history doesn’t interest me that much — although the economic factor is what allows me to continue or not ! In the end, a correct formal solution to a formal problem is determined by the critique of the system that underlies it, and by revealing the limits of such a critique. Painting is equivalent to looking at things. As a result,I am not very connected to the event aspect of the contemporary scene. It is problematic to participate in that scene, even in a critical manner, because one always ends up supporting it in the end. Not to know it and not to take part in it removes the possibility or the right to criticize it. However, in spite of everything, I think that the nature of one’s work establishes a certain discourse, even though that should not be considered a form of communication. I am trying to do something. And it is certainly because a few people are (relatively) interested in it — since and perhaps because of BMPT — that I can go on today.
Go on painting ?
OM “Only good at that,” said Beckett, about being a writer. Newman claimed that one painted against the catalogue. I think we paint against the fact of not being able to paint. If Giacometti did not succeed at representation, then maybe I cannot succeed at applying paint to a canvas anymore. And yet, I continue to paint, and my paintings are what they are. Why fool around thinking that they are not what they are meant to be ? They most certainly are.
The interview is available in the Prix Meret Oppenheim 2015 publication in both French (p.56-61) and English .
1 Au sujet de …, Flammarion, 1998, p. 38.
2 Sans Titre, no 45, Februar 2000, Lille.
3 Michel Parmentier (1938–2000) died after
this interview had been completed.
Lionel Bovier, born in 1970, is an art historian and directs
the MAMCO of Geneva since 2016.
born in 1969, is an art historian and the Robert
Lehman Foundation chief curator of drawings
and prints at the MoMA, New York.