Almost 30 feet high and painted bright red, Bernar Venet’s Acute Angle of 19.5 (1986) stands in sharp contrast to the predictably right-angled facade of a nearby office building in Austin, Texas. At La Defense, in Paris, another drama of contrast opposes the inevitable rectangularity of the surrounding architecture and the grandly irregular shapes of Two Indeterminate Lines (1988). Several years ago, a flock of Venet’s Indeterminate Lines settled in the heart of Paris, on le Champ-de-Mars.
Improvised on the factory floor, these large forms are, in their way, as spontaneous as a line scribbled on a sheet of paper or a form the sculptor might have produced by twisting a bit of wire. Thus the unpredictable curves of Venet’s sculpture offered a counter-proposal to the Eiffel Tower, the arrangement of smooth, carefully engineered curves that marks one end of le Champ-de-Mars. This is how Venet’s works of art make themselves known to us—by contrast with their settings, and he has orchestrated these confrontations on five continents. Last year a group of his sculptures was seen in Seoul, Korea. Two years earlier, another group went on view in Shanghai and Hong Kong. He is represented in collections in Tokyo and Bogota, in Caracas, Sao Paulo, and Agadir, Morocco. It is almost needless to say that he has exhibited widely in Europe, from Poland to Spain, and in North America, from Quebec to California. Internationally visible, Venet’s sculpture has engaged an extraordinary variety of sites, always by construing the monumental as one side of a dichotomy which, in its starkest form, comes down to this: there, in buildings and streets and traffic is the world; here, embodied in beams of steel, is art.
This principle of opposition-sculpture against world, art against non-art-is so reliable that it is easy to overlook the oppositions within his oeuvre. These are important, for they generate his forms. Venet advances by going to extremes, one after the next, systematically. Many who know him now as a fabricator of large works in metal have forgotten or never knew that he made his mark during 1967-71 as a conceptualist-an artist whose works were in effect intangible. And not everyone remembers that the monumental improvisations of Indeterminate Lines offer a precise contrast to the carefully measured arcs and angles of the sculptures he made toward the end of the 1970s.
Venet’s newest works are wall pieces torch-cut from slabs of steel. Called Indeterminate Areas, these sculptures find their clearest contrast in the unambiguously determinate areas of the canvases the artist painted—or built—after his conceptualist period. Shaped by such geometric devices as arcs and chords, these works have crisp, regular edges and impeccably smooth surfaces. Though tangible, they seem a bit ethereal—as if Venet had not quite persuaded them to leave the realm of thought and enter the world of physical objects. By contrast, the jaggedly irregular outlines and rough surfaces of the Indeterminate Areas defy us to formulate any coherent thoughts about these works. A metal-cutting torch is not a precision instrument, and in the violence of the artist’s method one senses both hazard and haphazardness. Much of the detail, the texture, of these sculptures is random.
Confronting us with the fact of sheer matter, the Indeterminate Areas are not formless, exactly, yet their shapes elude description. Moreover, their eccentricities of outline do not inspire metaphorical readings. These forms are in no way organic or crystalline or geographical. Referring to nothing outside themselves, not even to the architectural forms that contain them, the Indeterminate Areas don’t seem especially self-referential either. At most, they refer to the idea of area simply by embodying it. Yet their sheer mass attenuates to nearly nothing even that elementary concept.
When he first installed the Indeterminate Areas, Venet mounted them close to the wall. Now he has distanced them from their backdrops. Hovering before us, they are “more sculptural,” as the artist says.1 Or one could say that, in recent installations, the Indeterminate Lines have become less graphic and therefore have moved farther from their origins. For these massive steel objects originate in the artist’s marking-pen scribbles on smallish pieces of paper. Moving the pen back and forth at high speed, he extended and compressed his Indeterminate Line until line became area and the image of a new kind of sculpture appeared. And that is all that appeared. It’s important to stress, once more, that Venet’s forms are not allusive. They are not hieroglyphs to be deciphered or traces of some otherwise invisible mystery. More to the art-historical point, Venet’s quickly scribbled line has only the most tangential resemblance to lines produced by the Surrealist method of automatic drawing.
According to Andre Breton, Surrealism’s leader and chief strategist, automatism would turn the artist’s hand into a seismograph hypersensitive to repressed energies. Eluding the usual considerations of taste and common sense, the pencil would inscribe an image of the unconscious on paper. Presenting themselves as revolutionaries who had extracted and combined all that was valuable in Marxism and Freudianism, the Surrealists promised a utopia of liberated thought and feeling. After the Second World War, promises of that sort seemed, at best, empty. By the early 1960s, when Venet launched his career, Surrealism was not merely old-fashioned but discredited. Like many Europeans of his generation, he cultivates no utopian yearnings. He is dubious of all ideologies, whether prophetic or backward-looking.
“No theory can stand for very long,” Venet has said. Either it is trampled in the rush of new theories, or it survives by “turning in on itself.” Fortified by the reiteration of its own assumptions, theory “begins to show a doctrinal, dogmatic character.”2 Nonetheless, one might suppose that during his conceptual period Venet was, if not devoted to theory, at least somewhat charmed by it. After all, in those years he exhibited blow-ups of algebraic equations, exercises in set theory, charts of data gathered in physicists’ laboratories.
Recycling the analytical methods—and the literary tone—of linguistic philosophy, certain of Venet’s conceptualist colleagues displayed a formalist bent. And there were other variants, other emphases. Sociologically tinged conceptualism had the flavor of Expressionism in an academic mode. Venet turned to hard science and advanced mathematics. Isn’t it possible that he wanted to employ these disciplines as the basis for a new aesthetic? In fact, he paid little or no attention to the particulars of his graphs and charts, which he chose on the recommendations of experts in the pertinent fields.3 These images interested him chiefly because they were such clear instances of “monosemy”—the quality of conveying a single, unambiguous meaning.4
It would be difficult to prove that any image, utterance, or gesture is absolutely unambiguous. The Romantics believed in the inexhaustibility of symbol, and their belief was sustained by many artists of the avant-garde. Though we may not have kept this article of aesthetic faith intact, we do tend to feel that interpretation is never done, that there is always more to say about a work of art. Venet resists this feeling. Suspicious of theory’s narrowness, he is equally skeptical of the expectation that the meanings of art will flow for as long as we continue to seek them. The “monosemy” of his conceptual works brought that flow to a halt, or at least slowed it. And it brought into sharp focus the impatience with ambiguity that had animated Venet from the outset.
With his earliest works—the tar paintings of 1961—he dispensed with color and texture. Oil paint is expressive almost by default. His layers of tar defeated expressiveness, reducing signs of the hand to evidence that flat, rectangular surfaces had been covered with an ordinary material. On Romanticism’s Gothic margins, black acquires a heavy burden of symbolic meaning. In Venet’s tar paintings, black is simply black. And when he introduced color, he kept it under strict control: on a gridded surface, he would paint each rectangular compartment a single hue according to a predetermined pattern and schedule. Next came cardboard reliefs, then tubular sculptures cut from plastic piping ordered from industrial suppliers. At each step, Venet presented as clearly as possible a familiar quality or process: flatness, layering, compartmentalization, color, roundness. He could not, of course, control the responses of viewers, who were free to elaborate the clarities of his art into whatever manifold of meanings they liked. Yet these clarities were insistent, uncompromising, and invited a direct, unfanciful reading. One was encouraged to note color, forms, and textures precisely as they were. Nothing else was relevant, except a sense that one’s experience was unusually plain and direct. And of course it was even plainer and more direct—more efficiently contained within the bounds of “monosemy”—by his works of conceptual art.
When his conceptualist interlude ended, in 1971, Venet wrote commentaries on his own work, taught at the Sorbonne, and lectured throughout Europe. In 1976 he returned to object-making. Though his conceptual pieces were of course objects—large sheets of paper bearing graphs and other notations—their physical presence was incidental. And his canvases of 1976 had the look of illustrations enlarged from the pages of a geometry text. Undeniably palpable, they nonetheless owed much of their impact to the sheer perspicuity of their defining arcs, angles, and chords. By 1978, precise black lines inscribed on canvas had become equally precise forms built of wood and mounted on the wall. Darkened with graphite, they led directly to the earliest of his steel sculptures—forerunners of the vast objects that Venet has installed in public sites throughout the world.
When he made the transition from wood to steel, a new element entered his repertory: the indeterminate line, which he defines as a linear form that departs from regularity according to no particular plan.5 An enlargement of a particular scribble, each indeterminate line has its own character. Each is, so to speak, an individual. Yet this individuality is not offered as interesting in itself. Venet does not encourage us to see his Indeterminate Lines as expressive. He wants us to focus on indeterminacy in general, in contrast to the determinacy—the regularity—of his arcs and straight lines.
Likewise, Venet wants us to see his tar paintings in contrast to his chromatic paintings. In opposition to the random shape of his Heap of Coal (1963) he offers the precisely delimited shape of a Black Collage (1963), for example, or a canvas of the late 1970s. Patterns of this sort are the work not only of artists but of art historians, who suggest that we see the predominantly linear paintings of the Florentine Renaissance in contrast to the coloristic paintings of Venice. Critics count on us to see painting in contrast to sculpture, and it may well be that we understand the verbal in some deep, ungraspable contrast to the visual. Contrast is so fundamental to meaning that we usually take it for granted. It remains implicit. Venet has made it explicit—a subject of his art.
In 1997, at the Musee de Grenoble, he presented an installation of straight metal beams. Suspended from the ceiling on wires, some from their centers, others from one end, these beams restated with monumental concision two elemental motifs: the horizontal and the diagonal. The vertical is the initial theme of Venet’s recent Accident Pieces, which begin as neat arrays of beams propped against a gallery wall. Then, with a well-directed shove, the beams fall into an unpremeditated heap and the reassurances of Euclidean order vanish. The beams are still straight, yet there is no clarity in their relations. Determinate pattern has descended into randomness.
Though precise, the oppositions that shape Venet’s oeuvre have a certain versatility. Every contrast is also an affinity, and if we were to trace them all we would find that the artist’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, and works of conceptual art are bound together in a complex but always perspicuous unity. Thus the Accident Pieces share the clarity of determinate lines with canvases and sculptures from the late 1970s and near-chaos with the Random Combinations of Indeterminate Lines which first appeared in 1991. Faced by a painting with a crisp outline, an Indeterminate Area opposes its clarity while mirroring its flatness. To follow a bit further the interweaving of contrast and affinity in Venet’s oeuvre, any of his paintings, however precisely delineated its shape, shares two-dimensionality with the Indeterminate Areas, which presents this quality in contrast to the three-dimensionality of a work like Heap of Coal. Yet Heap of Coal, in its own way, marks an indeterminate area.
Though linkages through likeness are strong at every point in Venet’s development, contrasts generate his formal repertory and thus seem more salient. His reliance on polar oppositions sometimes gives him the air of an extremist. Still, there is nothing fanatical about his leaps from one pole to the other, no sense that he is driven to his options. At most one could say that he has conducted his analyses of form in such a severe idiom that the contrast between art and the world is never in doubt. Nor is it absolute.
In the fullness of its interconnections, Venet’s oeuvre offers an analogue to the plenitude of ordinary reality. And in a recent proposal for a project at the scale of the globe—a work of art that would embrace the world—he merges the aesthetic with ordinary reality. The Grand Diagonal would consist of two identical parts, one in Paris, the other in Hong Kong. In each city, a pole 300 feet long and 20 feet in diameter would jut from the earth at a sharp angle. Precisely aligned, these shapes would imply a direct connection between two sides of the globe, and in the vicinity of each pole would be television monitors that showed in real time the activity at the other site.
As the formal or, if you like, the conceptual link between Paris and Hong Kong is amplified in an exchange of images, one city sees at least a bit of what the other is doing. Integrating the artist’s characteristic geometry with representations of daily life, The Grand Diagonal suggests that from the beginning Venet’s purpose has been to offer for aesthetic contemplation not only the elements of the real but their interconnectedness. From the fragments isolated in his quest for “monosemy,” Venet has generated a vision of the fullness of being.
Carter Ratcliff is a contributing editor of Art in America; his most recent book is The Fate of a Gesture:Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art, available in paperback from Westview Press.
1 Unless otherwise noted, all remarks by the artist are from a conversation with the author, September 11, 1998.
2 Bernar Venet, unpublished notes, September 1991, p. 1.
3 Thierry Kuntzel, “Bernar Venet: Logic of the Neutral,” Bernar Venet, exhibition catalogue. La Jolla, California: La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, 1976, p. 12.
4 In 1973 Venet contrasted the monosemic image with the polysemic, which is subject to several interpretations, as indicated by its context, and the pansemic, which is “non-figurative” and thus “open to all interpretations.” Because it “offers but one semantic level,” a monosemic image allows the artist “to leave the field of the expressive image and to investigate that of the rational image.” These notes, which credit Jacques Bertin with identifying and labeling the three varieties of image, were first published in 1973, by the Gallery Foksal, Warsaw. See Bernar Venet, exhibition catalogue. New York: Castelli Uptown, 1986, p.8.
5 Bernar Venet, conversation with Catherine Millet, Bernar Venet: Sculptures, exhibition catalogue. Berlin, 1987, pp. 36-37.