Bernar Venet was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Sculpture Center in 2016. For a full list of Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, click here.
When 26-year-old Bernar Venet met Marcel Duchamp in New York in 1967, he boasted that his works were more radical than those made by the father of the readymade. It was another artistic luminary, Christo, who introduced the pair, having described Venet as “the new Marcel Duchamp” to Duchamp himself. It seems that a generous Duchamp was charmed by the cheeky young French conceptualist and wrote a playful recommendation, twisting an ambiguous but usually derogatory French idiom: “Le vent du vent est l’event du Venet” (“The sale of the wind is the event of Venet”).
Venet’s youthful arrogance has long since mellowed into an assured confidence that lends him the air of a man who might be able to achieve anything he desired. And his art, which he insists is still rigorously conceptual, has developed from works that might once have been as ephemeral as the wind into sculptures that approach monumentality in both scale and choice of materials. In 2014, Venet inaugurated a foundation in the south of France that showcases his work and that of his contemporaries, and this year, he was awarded the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Venet’s entry into the art world was an unlikely one. Despite an early interest in and talent for art-making, his was not a conventional route, and he was largely untrained. Growing up in rural southeast France, he mainly saw art in reproduction, and at the age of 11, he developed an interest in Renoir. He was later conscripted into the French army, but poor health kept him from active service. Instead, he managed to convince his superiors to allow him to use the attic of a military building as a studio, where he made his first paintings. He used tar, often applying it with his feet, on cardboard and other inexpensive supports. These works would later associate him with the Nouveaux Réalistes, when he moved to Nice and began to move in those circles. Later followed a brief spell designing costumes and sets for the Nice Opera in the late 1950s.
Although Venet’s French roots are undoubtedly an important part of his make-up, his formative years as an artist were spent in the United States, where he developed connections with a group of artists who would become his friends as well as important influences. In April 1966, he traveled to New York and met Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Frank Stella, among others. Venet tells a somewhat romanticized tale of arriving with nothing but $150 in his pocket and nowhere to stay. He spent three weeks at the YMCA before asking Arman if he could stay in his studio. Freezing cold and hungry—this is true “starving artist in garret” stuff—he slept on a chaise longue that he later discovered was part of a Keinholtz sculpture.
Arriving at Le Muy, Venet’s estate just north of the village of Le Muy, it is hard not to reflect on how far he has come since that studio at 84 Walker Street. At first, you might be forgiven for thinking you were in an unassuming but picturesque 19th-century mill house. But just inside the door, instead of a doormat, is a Carl Andre floor piece; and where you might expect to find a hat stand, there is a César sculpture. Venet explains the significance of the place like this: “This is actually the ‘work of my life’: you come here and you know who I am. You see what I can do. You see what I love, what I collect, my environment; everything.” He purchased the rundown mill of Les Serres in 1989, and its careful restoration, as well as the addition and renovation of several buildings on the site, has been something of a labor of love. He has transformed a former industrial building (it was used to make railway tracks) and commissioned a new building from architect Charles Berthier, which dramatically incorporates one of Venet’s steel sculptures, Diagonal 74.3° (2006). Venet and his wife have also significantly transformed the landscape around the Nartuby river, which runs through the estate, planting approximately 500 trees. Venet even designed a site-specific bridge across the river, while Frank Stella contributed a chapel.
The foundation—designed to showcase Venet’s work, in addition to that of his contemporaries and friends—tempts comparison to Donald Judd’s Marfa. Venet acknowledges that “I was very close to Donald Judd. We were good friends. We lived just two blocks away from each other in New York, and I was seeing him all the time. And I remember Judd telling me that he was doing something incredible at Marfa and showing me slides. And he said, ‘Why don’t you come and spend a few days and I’ll show you what we’re doing.’ I never did go. At that time, Judd was just a friend, and I had my own work. It was in 1979 or 1980.” Venet eventually made the pilgrimage to Marfa with his wife after Judd’s death: “I looked around, and I thought ‘My God, this is what we should do.’ Do something, not just make a work of art. And then we came back and decided to make a lot of improvements at the foundation.” The foundation now houses an important collection of works by artists who were part of Venet’s network, including Stella, LeWitt, and Robert Morris. Describing his collection, Venet says, “It’s like a memory from that period that I’ve put together here. And it’s also my aesthetic. It’s what I like.”
The location of the foundation is also important to Venet. He says, “I am from here. I grew up in the south of France. I know everybody; this is my territory.” But Le Muy—the artist’s brother found it on a scouting trip for suitable properties—is not only an appropriate location because of its proximity to his childhood home. It is also an accessible location for an art foundation. Venet chose it with an eye on the international art world and luxury tourism. It is close to the highway and 45 minutes in each direction to Nice, Aix-en-Provence, and Saint Tropez. The Matisse Chapel is in nearby Vence, and Majid Boustany has since opened his Francis Bacon MB Art Foundation in neighboring Monaco.
Despite the display of Venet’s own works in the four hectares of grounds, he insists that this is not, in fact, his preferred way of presenting his work: “I prefer to see my sculptures inside rather than outside. The landscape disturbs the view. It’s distracting.” The distraction of the outside world is, however, something that Venet has used to his advantage, not least in the presentation of his works at the Palace of Versailles in 2011. His signature arcs in 85.8° Arc × 16 (2011) deliberately framed Pierre Cartellier’s famous statue of Louis XIV on horseback in the Place d’Armes. In Marseilles, 84 Leaning Arcs/Disorder (2013) takes advantage of its surroundings in a different way. In the Pharo Gardens outside the Aix-Marseille University, it forms a dramatic cliff-top presence that can be seen across the port.
Considering Venet’s fascination with line, it is suitably contradictory that his career trajectory has been decidedly non-linear. Describing his creative process, Venet says, “To be a creator, you have to be attracted by something that you don’t understand but which you ‘know’ somehow, that appeals to you.” In the late 1960s, his interest was piqued by the idea of mathematics as art: “Figuration is polysemantic, abstraction is pan-semantic, and a mathematical diagram is mono-semantic; one signification only.” Inspired by a desire to find an art that was rigorous, non-representational, and non-referential, his paintings of mathematical formulas chimed with the work of Joseph Kosuth and so-called conceptual art. When I ask Venet how he feels about the label, he is non-committal, saying only that he has “no reason to resist it.”
In the 1970s, Venet took a break from art. Disillusioned by making “stuff,” he spent a period reading and lecturing across Europe. But by 1976, he had what he calls a “visceral need” to start making art again. And what he made was the start of his sculpture exploring the particular kind of line for which he is best known today. As Venet explains, “My work is about line. You have straight lines. You have arcs. You have angles. And then you have something that is not geometrical: what I call an ‘indeterminate’ line.” This exploration arguably reaches its zenith in the arcs of Venet’s immense and beautiful Effondrement: 150 tonnes (2014), currently displayed in the gallery at the foundation.
Venet is uninterested in most current contemporary art and instead turns to the past for inspiration. When visiting the Prado as a young man, he was most touched by Rubens’s famous Three Graces: “It was so powerful, so strong—those volumes. I always think that if Rubens was alive today he could have made the sculptures I have made, only better. It’s the Baroque, the diagonal, the dynamism, the energy—totally Rubens. There are many works of mine where you can see this influence.” It is interesting how Venet locates himself within the European canon, despite the heavy debt his work owes to artistic developments in mid-20th-century America. His literal legacy will be to France, since he has already made arrangements for the transfer of his foundation and its contents to the French State on his death.
Venet is celebrated in his native country, where he has had numerous prestigious public commissions, and relatively wellknown in the U.S., where he retains a studio in New York. But he is much less recognized in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. He explains that this might be because he has never sought to manage his career in this way: “I don’t have a sense of strategy. I work a lot, and I just think that my work will deserve attention, perhaps for a short or a long time. I’m not thinking, ‘I must show in London.’ People contact you and ask to have a show; so someone asks me from Spain, or from Mexico, and I do it. In Korea, I’m better known than anywhere else.”
Many high-profile international gallerists would love to see Venet join their stable, yet he remains suspicious of the market: “I hate to sell my work to be honest. It has to go to the right place.” Not promising exclusivity to one dealer means that he retains a high degree of control, albeit at the expense of the increased profile that international representation can bring. Joining the prestigious list of artists awarded the ISC’s Lifetime Achievement Award is sure to bring him to an even wider contemporary audience.
Jonathan R. Jones is a writer based in London (jonathanrjones.wordpress.com).