Nice, September 1963. My studio on Rue Pairolière. The Fluxus artist, Ben Vautier, visited me and, delighted with what he discovered, showed me in the magazine Arts an ad from the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles, which was exhibiting an artist whose name was not familiar to me: Ad Reinhardt. Several black paintings were reproduced in the ad. Ben took pleasure in pointing out to me that my own works were not very original because an American artist had already been working in this vein for years. Ben obviously reveled in provoking me. I was truly surprised and my reaction was immediate. I had been working with canvases with black tar, a process that became systematized in 1963 in my studio in Nice, and I rejected everything: the paint, the brush, representation, the composition, the anecdote, and the symbols. The tar was there as it is: matter in itself, for itself, self-referential, and without ambiguity. Without trying to find out more about this artist, without knowing anything about his technique, his life story or his intent, I thought that if, visually, the all black works presented resemblances to the black tar paintings I was doing, it was now out of the question for me to continue working this way. So, I started doing something very different: cardboard reliefs, painted with an airbrush using alkyd lacquers. Monochrome color once again came into play, replaced by another after a while. I called these works “industrial paintings” and I created them until 1966, the year I moved to New York.
In January 1967, I went to see Ad Reinhardt’s exhibition at the Jewish Museum. At that moment I realized the full extent of his importance for the artists of my generation who were reacting to the Abstract Expressionist school of New York, with which he had been paradoxically associated. He now served as an intellectual guide, a guru of sorts.
In front of his canvases of great formal economy, in which the spectacular is rejected in favor of an extreme negativist reasoning, I found the same preoccupations as my own. As much as I was able to perceive it and find solutions for it, the main objective of my works from 1961 to 1963 had been to evacuate everything that, before me, constituted the nature itself of a work of art. I wanted to highlight everything that was absent from my paintings. By reading and comprehending Ad Reinhardt’s statements, I recognized for example in “what is not there is more important than what is there,” obviously similar to my ideas from the Nice period. The almost imperceptible variations of his black canvases, in square format and presented like a series on the museum’s walls, made me think of my similar works in which the ideal format was completely the same. (I also couldn’t stop thinking of the rejection by the critics and institutions to which Ad Reinhardt had been victim, and the fact that no one ever bought one of my canvases from that period.)
But there was that question mark that separated us: the cross. And I wondered about his possible spiritual nature, or if it was just a matter of a dematerialization of Malevich’s constructivism, or Mondrian’s legacy pushed in the extreme, but with an impeccable symmetry to that black space where nothing can be distinguished anymore.
New York, 1967, Broadway (near Washington Square). The sculptor Arman and I had just come down the stairs from his studio when on the sidewalk he greeted a person, much older than we, dressed in black. He introduced me. I could not follow their conversation because my English at the time was very poor. Still, the conversation lasted some time. Arman was making wide gestures and seemed to be asking something. Suddenly I realized that we were invited to follow this man who curiously had a studio right there on Broadway, in the building next door to Arman’s. I had already noticed on the outer façade the word “piano” written in big letters between the large windows of the ground and second floors.
I followed, a door finally opened, and to my immense surprise I realized that I was with Ad Reinhardt himself, going into his legendary studio. The temple to asceticism, to the negation of everything that, upon looking at a painting, inspires immediate pleasure. There were dozens of canvases there in front of me on the studio’s longest wall. Black, a majority five feet by five feet, definitive icons of emptiness.
The shock was enormous. I would never have thought I would meet and experience the presence of Ad Reinhardt. Arman explained to me later that he owned a small painting in which the paint had slightly peeled away and that he had finally obtained that day the promise that it would be restored.
Unfortunately, Ad Reinhardt passed away shortly after and I got the painting in a swap with Arman in the state it was in. Later when I was able I purchased a Reinhardt for my collection of the art that inspired me. Ad Reinhardt, more than any other artist, remains for me an unequivocal paradigm.
In one sense, Yves Klein originally opened the doors for me to a freedom of expression, allowing me to go beyond the pictorial stage at which I had always been before. However, I couldn’t subscribe to his argument full of metaphysical concerns. I wanted to situate my work at a pole opposite to that modern tradition that still respected a certain esthetic hedonism, formal and symbolic articulation, emotional expression, and fictional construction. To his blue, pink, or gold monochromes, I countered with the black matter of tar, the physical presence of a material. To his transcendental affirmations, I countered with an examination of the possible immanence of a work of art. And this is what I found in New York in Reinhardt’s work.
ContributorBernar Venet, translated from the French by Sandra Bieniek
BERNAR VENET is a painter and sculptor who lives and works in Paris and New York.