Art Criticism

Michael Govan
Pacific Time in LA

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Michael Govan

But it is Pacific Standard Time that he is interested in talking about on this trip to London, a collaboration of more than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California that are coming together for six months in October 2011 to tell the story of the birth of the visual arts scene in Los Angeles in order for the city to claim its rightful place within the international art world. Getting out his i-pad he shows me photographs of LA in the 1920s when it still looked like a sleepy village. It was the introduction of the railroads, the discovery of oil and the emergence of Hollywood that changed the city’s fortunes. “Free of all that European history of war there was a huge investment in science, technology and education”, he explains. It was, he suggests, part of the American Dream, a rebirth of a modernist utopia where designers such as Charles Eames felt able to make their mark.

Now supported by the J. Paul Getty Trust, Pacific Standard Time aims to explore the cultural significance of the crucial years after World War II, through the tumultuous period of the 1960s and 70s. It will encompass Pop to post-minimalism, modernist architecture and design, as well as multi-media installations. There will be films from the African-American L.A. Rebellion and the feminist activities of the Woman’s Building, exhibitions of ceramics, Japanese-American design, Chicano performance art and the work of pioneering artist’s collectives. “There has never been a project like this, anywhere in the world, where virtually all of a major city’s institutions come together to tell a single story” Govan insists. Southern California gave birth to many of today’s most vital artistic trends, yet the story of how this came about through cultural innovation and social change is still largely unknown. By the 1950s the cultural and ethnic melting pot that was Los Angeles was developing its own art forms of assemblage, sculpture and hard-edged painting, throwing up names such as Ed Kienholz and Ed Ruscha who have since become art superstars.

Although concentrated in Greater Los Angeles, Pacific Standard Time will transform all of Southern California, extending as far as San Diego in the South, Santa Barbara in the north and Palm Springs in the east. It will involve institutions from the Getty Museum and LACMA to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, as well as galleries, movie houses and restaurants. In the words of Govan’s colleague, Deborah Marrow, the interim President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, “What began as an effort to document the milestones in this region’s artistic history has expanded until it is now becoming a great creative landmark in itself.” With no government involvement, Pacific Standard Time is lead by the Getty Foundation and LA’s leading institutions. “This is about a city finding its identify. We’re making a little bit of history”, Govan insists before rushing off to his next meeting.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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Art Criticism

Sam Keller
Apollo Personality of the Year

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Sam Keller

From the Medicis through to Peggy Guggenheim and Charles Saatchi, larger-than-life characters-patrons, collectors, dealers and the like – have long exerted a profound influence on the direction of art. One such is the dynamic Sam Keller, former director of Art Basel and its offspring, Art Basel Miami Beach. Born and raised in Basel, Switzerland, where he studied art history and philosophy, Mr Keller has spent most of his working life involved with art fairs. So it came as a surprise when he announced, in June 2006, not just his resignation from Art Basel but also his plan to take over, in 2008, as director of the Fondation Beyeler, one of the world’s finest private museums of 20th-century paintings and sculpture, situated just outside Basel on the edge of open countryside.

Built up over five decades by Hildy and Ernst Beyeler, the art dealer son of a Swiss Railway employee, this impressive collection was transferred to a foundation in 1982 to make it permanently accessible to the public; nonetheless, it was not until 1989 that the collection was publicly exhibited in its entirety, at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. The Fondation Beyeler, designed by Renzo Piano, finally opened in 1997. Nowadays comprising some 200 works of late-19th- and 20th-century art, the collection reflects not only the artistic tastes of the Beyelers but also Ernst’s keen eye for a neglected Picasso or an undervalued Impressionist – a talent that helped establish him, up until his death in February this year, as perhaps the greatest art dealer of the post-war age. Underlying this talent, of course, was a deep sensitivity: ‘Art must touch you and leave a strong visual and mental impression on you,’ he once said.

Taking over the collection at the age of just 41, Sam Keller certainly had a hard act to follow. What, I wonder, attracted him to art in the first place? His family was of modest means, and not especially interested in art. Nonetheless, the young Sam Keller, constantly curious and eager to experience the world through his own eyes, proved immediately responsive to art, guarding ‘like a treasure’ the first example that he came across, a portfolio of reproductions by Vincent van Gogh. Moreover, an abundance of great art was virtually at his doorstep, Basel being home to Europe’s oldest public art collection along with many other fine museums, architectural landmarks and public sculptures, not to mention the world’s leading modern and contemporary art fair. Epiphany struck at the age of 11, during a school excursion to a contemporary art exhibition being staged in an old factory and featuring installation artists associated with the Nouveau Realist movement. He was fascinated in particular by the kinetic machines of Jean Tinguely. (Tinguely’s Carnival Fountain, 1977, in Basel’s Theater-platz, remains one of Mr Keller’s favourite pieces of public art.) As a student he worked for various art magazines and galleries at the Basel art fair. In 1994, by then a graduate, he began working for Art Basel itself; this was his gateway into the international art world.

I ask Mr Keller what he feels he has gained from running art fairs. ‘Many things – different things from different art fairs,’ he replies. ‘It’s important to have a passion for art and people, as well as a high level of curiosity and creativity. At Art Basel we were convinced that focusing on quality was key: there was a strict selection procedure for galleries. We also believed that art is both universal and attached to its cultural context. So it was important to go where the art you were showing originated from in order to fully understand it. Our goal was always to offer the best in contemporary art and to present it in the best possible way. This sometimes meant creating platforms for new forms such as video and film, installations and performance. The involvement of artists was crucial. We also introduced an educational element by collecting experts together and setting up round table discussions. The aim was to make Art Basel a forum that brought together the commercial and cultural aspects of art in order to promote and sell the work of particular artists and provide an atmosphere in which networking and cultural and professional exchange could take place in ways that were both educative and enjoyable. When running an art fair it’s crucial to listen to your clients – not only the galleries but also artists, collectors, curators and even the critics.’

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2010

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Art Criticism

Eadweard Muybridge
Tate Britain

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Eadweard Muybridge Galloping Horse

For a nobody from Kingston upon Thames Edward James Muggeridge reinvented himself as a remarkable somebody, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge. His life reads like a nineteen century thriller full of derring-do, exotic travel, narcissism, showmanship, technical brilliance, trickery (he painted moons and clouds onto his photographs) and even murder (he shot dead his much younger wife’s lover, though was acquitted by the jury of mostly middle-aged married men). Born in 1830, the son of a grain and coal merchant, he left London in the early 1850s in search of a new identity in America. There he worked as a sales agent for the London Printing and Publishing Company that produced books, maps and engravings. An inveterate adventurer, he sold sheet music, lithographs, photographs and, for a spell, was a money lender. He even invented a prototype for an early washing machine. Now Tate Britain has brought together over 150 of his works to demonstrate his pivotal role in the emergence of the art of photography.

The name change was gradual. Edward mutated to Eadweard, taken from the Coronation Stone of a Saxon King that stands on the High Street near his childhood home. Muybridge wanted to be famous and photography was his chosen medium. Readiness was all, for in the 1870s and 1880s the United States was evolving from a remote, provincial nation, slowly pushing forward its western frontiers with the help of the railroad, to embrace the rapid shifts in science, technology, economics and art. Nature, in all its raw sublimity, was about to be tamed. Muybridge’s career took place on the cusp of this revolution. Through his spectacular landscapes of the American wilderness and his motion pictures that revealed what had, hitherto, not been visible to the naked eye, he was responsible for changing visual perception. His time-stopping, interval-based studies of movement made a conceptual leap from working with a third dimension in space to a fourth in time, thus becoming precursors to the modern cinema.

Eadweard Muybridge Wrestling

Following the success of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s daguerreotypes and Fox Talbot’s photographs in the early 1800s there was a significant public interest in photography. The Impressionists had largely left the recording of objects to the photographers, whilst attempted to capture the feeling of light. Though as photography matured it, too, became capable of translating both reality and illusion.

Muybridge’s photographic experiments would turn him into a hero for the modern age. Duchamp credited him as the inspiration for his Nude Descending a Staircase, while the Italian Futurists, along with Francis Bacon and Philip Glass all appropriated aspects of his work. His emphasis on process would, in the late 1960s, be taken up by American and European minimalists and conceptualists, as well as filmmakers. After Muybridge the world would never quite look the same.

Eadweard Muybridge Stairs

The nineteen century was the age of taxonomy. By cataloguing and naming the world’s constituent parts, rather as a colonial explorer might conquer a new land, it was believed that it might be controlled and understood. Darwin, with his barnacles and finches, was probably the greatest exemplar, though the inclination to create categories ran through the portraits of the French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne, who charted human expressions simulated with the use of an electrical probe, and Alphonse Bertillon’s mug-shots of Parisian criminals that, supposedly, allowed for the identification of ‘criminal types.’ This was the defeat of the ‘primitive’ and the chthonic by the ‘rational’. It was against this backdrop that Muybridge worked.

Time and motion were his passions and his studies sit somewhere between objective science, visual poetry and voyeuristic inclination. Hollis Frampton has described his vast catalogue of human and animal motions as an “encyclopaedic enormity.”(1) Without doubt Muybridge made visible ordinary events that had previously gone unobserved such as the movement of an arc of water thrown from a bucket or the exact sequence of a horse’s legs when galloping. Yet from a twenty-first century perspective there is something disturbing and uncanny about his images. The Victorian obsession with classification also had its dark side. Apart from animals Muybridge photographed athletes, labourers, boxers, middle class and working class women, nudes and those with physical disabilities, including an amputee and a child walking on all fours, in order to study their movements. By the early twentieth century such scholarly voyeurism would be taken up in the anthropological studies of Bronislaw Malinowski with his publication in 1929 of The Sexual Lives of Savages. Malinowski, like Freud and, indeed, Muybridge, saw himself as a pioneer into the unknown territory of human behaviour. Yet to a modern sensibility there is something slightly salacious, prurient even, about this vision. Why, for example, did Muybridge’s water-throwing woman or those doing the ironing have to be photographed nude? Why were his images of women always accompanied by titles such as ‘spanking a child’ ‘throwing self on a heap of hay’ or ‘getting into bed’, while men, in contrast, were shown as virile athletes and labourers? That Francis Bacon picked up on the homoeroticism of Muyerbridge’s images was not simply due to his particular sexual preferences but because homoeroticism is implicit in the presentation of Muybridge’s sinewy blacksmiths hammering at the anvil or in the photograph of a muscular, well endowed black man climbing a flight of stairs naked. Muybridge also liked, given the opportunity, to shed his kit and strike heroic manly poses. As Marta Braun has claimed “The photographs objectify erotic impulses and extend voyeuristic curiosity in language we now recognise as taken from the standard pornographic vocabulary.” (2)

Eadweard Muybridge Blow

Ordered hierarchically from nude males to nude females, through semi-nude males and females to children and those with physical handicaps who are observed displaying ‘abnormal’ movements, to horses, domestic and wild animals and birds, it is difficult not to see this as a possible model (conscious or unconscious) for the popular nineteenth century ‘science’ of eugenics. Muybridge’s figures are photographed from too far away for them to have individual identity. They are types, often placed in front of a grid, a tool used for anthropological categorisation and measurement.

Since 1887 his Animal Locomotion has never been out of print in one form or another and The Human Figure in Motion has been reprinted many times. Yet for all his idiosyncratic brilliance Muybridge’s photographs sought to categorise the world through the establishment of a hierarchy in which women were subordinate to men, the working to the upper class, blacks to whites and animals to humans. It is a vision that would come to have disastrous consequences during the first half of the following century.

Eadweard Muybridge at Tate Britain 8 September 2010 to 16 January 2011

1  Frampton, Edweard Muybridge: Fragments of a Tesseract, Artforum, 11 March 1973
2  Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), University of Chicago Press, 1992

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

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Art Criticism

Gabriel Orozco
Tate Modern

Published in Apollo Magazine

While Europe and America have been suffering the trauma of recession and the euro has become as unreliable as the weather, Latin American art is on a role. Recently the Pompidou Centre created a Latin American acquisitions committee, while the Lyon Biennale appointed an Argentinean curator, Victoria Noorthoorn, for 2011. The Istanbul Biennale is to be co-curated by a Brazilian, Adriano Pedrosa and the Arco art fair in Madrid has a three-year focus on Latin America. Even, here, in London, where we do not have obvious Latin American links, seven Latin American galleries took part in this year’s Frieze and Latin American artists were visible at every turn. Marian Goodman heavily promoted Gabriel Orozco and the Deutsche Bank lounge had a dedicated display of his work.

Gabriel Orozco
Mobile Matrix, 2006

More democratic politics have helped, of course. Latin America has always had a tradition of producing art, but political turmoil did not encourage it to flourish. Now more established governments and a degree of economic security are changing that. Brazil is one of the most thriving economies, predicted to grow 7% this year. With a more globalised art community, Latin American curators and critics are being appointed to key positions in museums, biennials and galleries in global art capitals.

The term ‘Latin American Art’ is, though, somewhat contentious. It seems to refer to pre-Colonial, Colonial, and Independence period art along with twentieth-century muralists, as well as emerging new talent. The label has been spurned by a number of contemporary artists keen to emphasize more local developments within their own countries. The term is, therefore, complex and covers many different regions so that it is not really possible to speak of a homogenous style. But an interest in South American art in this country is not without historical precedent. There was a surge in the 1960s when many artists were forced into political exile and, as a result, opened up new dialogues and debates.

Gabriel Orozco Four Bicycles
Four Bicycles (There is Always One Direction). 1994

The Tate has proved to be one of the biggest catalysts of this renewed interest. A quarter of all works in the Tate collection made by artists born after 1985 are from Latin America. Now in its eighth year, the Tate’s Latin American acquisitions committee is one of the world’s largest, numbering over 40 members. In 2008 the Tate staged a show by Cildo Meireles and their Gabriel Orozco exhibition, on tour from MoMA, opens this January.

Gabriel Orozco was born in 1962 in Jalapa, the state of Veracruz, Mexico, to Cristina Félix Romandía, a student of classical piano, and Mario Orozco Rivera, a mural painter and art professor at the Universidad Veracruzana. When Gabriel was six, the family relocated to the San Ángel neighbourhood of Mexican City so that his father could work with the artist David Alfaro Siqueiros. This included assisting on his final and largest mural The March of Humanity on Earth toward the Cosmos, 1964-71. A third generation muralist Orozco elder belonged to the grand tradition that spawned Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera. Art and the breaking of received shibboleths, therefore, formed the backdrop to Gabriel’s childhood in his intellectual left-wing family, where he was encouraged to eschew all forms of Americanism, including the English language. As a teenager his summers were spent in the Soviet Union and Cuba and, as a student in the late 1980s, he led a group of radical young artists in rejecting the predominance of Neo-Mexicanismo, art that dealt in gaudy commercial neo-expressionism and cultural stereotypes of a nationalistic sub Kalho-esque nature.

Gabriel Orozco Empty Shoebox 1993
Empty Shoebox, 1993

Since 1991 he has lived a largely peripatetic life, eschewing the studio as his primary work place, for the street, the beach, even his apartment. This has meant much less separation between his everyday life and art. Orozco positions his art on the boundaries where the two arenas haphazardly meet. Robert Rauschenberg is, arguably, one of his most important precursors. It is in Rauschenberg’s early photographs that striking parallels can be seen. Orozco’s abandonment of the studio grew not just out of financial necessity but also from an ideological position. Rejecting the vision of the studio as, variously, a laboratory, office or factory, he preferred to make work from ‘a common place’, which was wherever he happened to be living. What he produced emphasised his nomadic existence: the drawings made on train tickets and the, now, extinct carbon-paper of airline tickets, traced the artist’s journeys employing the bricolage and ephemera beloved by Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Beuys and the arte povera movement, for whom such materials emphasised a democratisation of art. The implication was not, simply, as Joseph Beuys claimed that ‘everyone is an artist’ but that all materials, however base, or incidental, could be used to make art that mirrored a rich heterogeneity of object and material. The provisional unmonumental, unheroic nature of the works, many of which may or may not have been finished, perfectly fitted with Orozco’s emotional, political and aesthetic predilections.

If you are keen on cryptic crosswords, playing chess or the oriental game of Go, or are a fan of Borges’ labyrinthine short stories, you will enjoy his work. Orozco is a conceptualist, what one might call a ‘visual philosopher’ who employs whatever medium seems appropriate to a particular work – paint, photography, sculpture, collage – to explore his obsessions. As with Arte Povera skill is not the point. Rather Orozco conducts a Duchampian investigation into the nature of the physical universe – its oddness, randomness and idiosyncrasies – with whatever materials happen to be at hand and take his fancy. Though he seems less interested in searching for ‘the meaning of life’ than trying to establish a series of self-constructed systems to impose on the random chaos of the material world, incidentally highlighting its synchronicities and discrepancies, its small beauties and banalities.

Gabriel Orozco Yielding Stone 1992
Yielding Stone, 1992

The work in his 2004 Serpentine show appeared rather arbitrary, inchoate even; a bit of painting here, a collage or sculpture there, until one realised that there was a conceptual and intellectual thread running through all his work. Grids and formal structures were obviously important and if one paid attention – for Orozco is an intellectual artist who demands the involvement of his viewer – it became apparent that there was an interplay between the rational and organic, the structured and the intuitive, between the Cartesian mind and the sentient body; though it seems that in Orozco’s universe the mind usually wins. His is not so much a world of poetics but a laboratory of optical and phenomenological experimentation.

His Yielding Stone, 1992, a plasticine sphere embedded with dirt, grit and other detritus acquired from rolling it through New York Streets demonstrated the importance of the process, not only of making, but of time. This surrogate body, standing in for the artist’s own, was continually subjected to change, wear and tear. Thus every speck of dirt that adhered to it became a part of the work. He has made drawings of dried spit and toothpaste, and in the Venice Biennale showed Empty Shoe Box, 1993 – an object that has gained something of the iconic authority of Duchamp’s urinal. The emptiness, of course, was the point. Both as metaphor and physical object it forced the viewer to ask questions not only about the gallery space and what it does or does not contain and why, but about absence, about what it is that is missing from art and culture and what we would want to place in that vacuum.

Gabriel Orozco Black Kites 1997
Black Kites, 1997

Black Kites, 1997, has also become iconic. Over a period of six months he worked out how to create a seamless graphite grid across the surface of a human skull. Here the organic object – the skull – is overlaid with a geometric pattern which metaphorically suggests the structures of logical thought. The mark-making also implies the rituals of body decoration and tattooing that for many ‘primitive’ peoples have a spiritual and religious significance. Orozco’s skull looks as if it might have been dug up from some ancient Aztec site. This would be appropriate, for the found object or ‘ready made’ is a dominant motif in his work. The skull is, also, a very Mexican symbol in a society where death carries so much cultural weight and is, therefore, embedded within ritual and custom in a way that Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted version could never be. The ideas explored in Black Kites were extended in his Mobile Matrix, 2006. Extracting a grey whale skeleton from the Isla Arena in Baja California Sur the bones were fitted to a metal armature on which it was to be suspended. Orozco then drew a series of concentric rings on the bones that collide and overlap each other. Six thousand mechanical pencils leads were used in the drawing and the finished piece was displayed in the Bibliotheca Vasconcelos, Mexico City. Later that year he created Dark Wave, which was shown at White Cube. Here the drawing was much darker implying not only the element of water, but evoking sailors’ tattoos and map making – elements in the infamous whaling industry, particularly in the 19th century.

Gabriel Orozco Mixiotes 1999
Mixiotes, 1999

Mixiotes, 1999 (the term refers to a traditional Mexican dish in which rabbit is cooked wrapped in cactus leaves) are at the other end of his creative spectrum from Black Kites. Small coloured rubber balls, clear plastic bags and dried transparent cactus leaves – suspended from the ceiling float like sea birds or fish, the flimsy ephemera of leaf and plastic held in place by the weight of the rubber balls. Among his oddest objects are Lintels. Swaths of fluffy grey lint collected from New York laundromats were strung on wires across the gallery, like lines of surreal washing. Joseph Beuys comes to mind, but Orozco’s lint was not imbued with magical or mystical properties. Rather with this human detritus – the skin and hair that form the lint – Orozco invited us to see its possibilities as sculptural material, and to note, what we might very well not otherwise see, its varying textures and subtle vestigial colour. The verbal word play around something as insubstantial as washing machine effluvia is typical of his games playing inclinations. The soft ground etchings made from pressing the lint onto printing plates in Polvo Impreso (Lint Book), 2002 were surprisingly beautiful; with their subtle grey-black tones they might have been describing the surface of the moon or the bark of a tree, whilst demonstrating Orozco’s predisposition for non-art materials.

Since 1994 he has been dividing circles and ovals into two and four quadrants with perpendicular lines, and then filling in the sections with primary colours. The placing of the colour and their relationships is based on the moves made by the knight on the chess board. The results look like molecular structures – 3D models of DNA or proteins – depicted on a flat surface. He has used this same intersecting devise with collected ephemera – from airline tickets to paper currency – to create works influenced by that master of detritus, Kurt Schwitters.

Gabriel Orozco Penske Project
Penske Project

Games are at the heart of much of Orozco’s work. Often they are displayed on ‘working tables’, a field of action that functions rather like a blank sheet of paper on which new scenarios can occur. His Game Boxes, 1998, are constructed of plasticine ‘pieces’ – balls and ‘submarine-like’ shapes – fitted into ‘found’ boxes that once contained educational film material and, therefore, dictate the shape and size of the plasticine objects placed in them. The games invite the viewer to pick up the pieces and engage in a match without any apparent rules, where the system and methodology can be constructed by the players and either brought to an abrupt end or continued indefinitely. These were made around the same time as the Penske Work Project when Orozco drove round SoHo and the West Village in New York collecting whatever detritus turned up, arranging and photographing it on the street, and then transporting it to the next site in a removal truck rented from the Penske company. The vehicle thus became a sort of mobile studio, allowing serendipity to play its part within the tightly constructed framework that defined the ‘rules’ of the project.

Orozco might be described as something of a ‘postmodern surrealist’ – for in his work chance, beloved by the surrealists, meets the mood of eclecticism that is so much a feature of postmodernism. He is an artist who not only lets happenstance have a free rein, but one who knowingly sets up well-defined systems only to allow them to be subverted by accident and chance. For him art can be anything – a photograph of a mosque made from sacking and timber poles set up in the scrubland of Timbuktu, Mali, which seems to have attracted his attention because of the pattern of circles cut into the fabric to let in light, or a series of found yoghurt carton lids pinned to the gallery wall, or the endless lines drawn on a scroll of paper with a ruler, where an ‘accidental’ bulge has developed because his projecting finger disrupted the flow.

It is almost impossible to think of Orozco’s works as single units, for what he has created is an idiosyncratic schema of the world, one which poses questions about the nature of art, about how we see the everyday and the marginalised, and the differing values we place on what is ‘found’, compared to what is manufactured or simply discovered. But he is not some neo-Romantic making a new organic whole out of the detritus of postmodernism; rather he is an artist who simply re-arranges that detritus in order to see and experience it from a different and new perspective.

Gabriel Orozco at Tate Modern from 19 January to 25 April 2011

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011

Images © Gabriel Orozco 1993-2006. Courtesy the Tate

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Art Criticism

Bernar Venet A Collection of Friends

Published in Apollo Magazine

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Bernar Venet

Bernar Venet’s remarkable collection of modern masters grew out of his friendship with some of the leading artists of his generation. The conceptual artist is in the process of creating a foundation, which will safeguard his extraordinary home and collection for the future

The French conceptual artist Bernar Venet doesn’t quite move mountains but he is in the process of changing the course of a river; the Nartuby in Le Muy, Provence, with its cascade of waterfalls that once powered the old sawmill that he has made his home. During a recent flood much was damaged and swept away. Now bulldozers are creating dams, while the banks are being reinforced with tree trunks and sacking and planted with hundreds of shrubs and trees. It’s not quite the building of Versailles, but it is a major project. Set back from the road in the sleepy French village, a hive of activity goes on unseen behind the property’s satin steel gates, in the four and a half hectares of sweeping lawns, minimalist buildings and displays of contemporary sculpture.

M. Venet spent many of his formative years in New York and has an unconventional background. Born in 1941 in the village of Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban in Haute-Provence, he moved to Nice in 1963 where he met Arman and the artists involved in the New Realist movement. ‘I came from a very poor family that hardly knew what art was,’ he says, yet by the age of 11 he was displaying a precocious talent for drawing, and by 14 was already selling his work. So it came as a blow when he failed to get into art school. However, a stint as a scene painter at the Opéra de Nice when he was 17, before his military service in Algeria, thrust him into a new cultural milieu and taught him not to fear working on a grand scale.

But it was New York that was to cement his aesthetic preferences. ‘My taste is very sober, very Zen,’ he says. ‘I don’t much like old things. I like things that are new and different, which is why I design my own furniture.’ In New York, in the 1960s, when he didn’t have much money, he made lightweight geometric furniture from plywood. At Le Muy he has fabricated it all from sheets of steel. Each chair weighs 60kg, he says, as I struggle to move one. ‘They don’t come to you – you go to them.’ It was in New York that he became friends with Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella and Donald Judd, excited by an art which, unlike that of Europe, was not based on intuitive compositions but on concepts. He tells me, when I visit his extraordinary home, which is part gallery, part sculpture park and part artistic laboratory, that whilst his thinking is very philosophical and ‘French’, it was the power and physicality of the Americans that attracted him.

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
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