A Collection of Friends
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
Sue Hubbard, Sunday, 1st July 2012
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.
When he and his wife, Diane Venet, a jewellery curator, first visited Le Muy in 1989 they fell in love with the place, which had been owned by the inventor of a machine that improved the precision of railroad switches. The estate is divided into two distinct spaces: Le Moulin, the 15th-century ivy-clad sawmill, is the main house; while L’Usine, or the factory, is a 2,100-square-metre space that has been converted by the couple into studios, a gallery and a stunning summer residence, with a roof of galvanised steel and large glass windows.
With panoramic views over the lawns, waterfalls and river, L’Usine is home to Djoget and Djinat, the pair of exuberant works by Frank Stella, both dated 2007. Each is an assemblage of stainless steel tubes, with drum-like skins of RTP nylon sprayed with bright orange paint. Fixed to the wall they face, in perfect contrast, Tony Smith’s sober parallelogram Seed (1968), fabricated in black painted steel, which sits on the polished steel floor. Crouching in a far corner is Jaume Plensa’s Tattoo III (2004), a larger-than-life illuminated seated man in polyester resin that stares out across the lawns at M. Venet’s own sculptures (Fig. 7). These sensual, lyrically muscular works in Corten steel – an alloy that contains chromium, zinc and copper, and rusts to a beautiful reddish hue – have been strategically placed on the lawns among the sinuous palms. All are constructed at the same steelworks in Hungary and combine weight with lightness, straight lines and curves.
In 2011 M. Venet was invited by the Château de Versailles to show seven of these large steel works. The minimal sobriety and industrial aesthetic of his work stood in marked contrast to the baroque statues that fill the garden, creating a debate between the tradition of the grand buildings and the neutral geometry of M. Venet’s sculptures.
The laws of mathematics and science have always been a major influence on the artist’s thinking, and it was in the 1960s that he started to place mathematical equations in his paintings. In this way, the expressive language of art was replaced with one that was neither abstract nor figurative, but sober and analytical. ‘My aim,’ states M. Venet, ‘especially back in the ’60s, was always to create the maximum degree of neutrality and eliminate any possibility of interpretation.’
It is this objectivity that drew him to artists such as Flavin, Judd and LeWitt. He claims that he never set out to become a collector. ‘I am an art enthusiast,’ he tells me with Gallic charm, in an accent that has only been slightly moderated by American vowels. ‘I love to be surrounded by significant works, and enjoy the way that certain pieces change my thinking and ideas over time.’ In Nice he and Arman started to swap art, and exchange forms the basis of much of his collection.
In the early 1970s his finances were very limited, but when he began to make money from selling his own work he bought pieces from friends; it is just that his friends happened to be among the most significant artists of his generation. He was buying work by Dan Flavin for $1,000, and often paid less than that for other minimal and conceptual artists. ‘I’ve been lucky,’ he says, ‘I didn’t make too many mistakes.’
He goes on: ‘Exchanging a work with another artist is above all a sign of mutual respect. I started my collection by exchanging because I didn’t have the money to buy. I used to play ping-pong with On Kawara. The entire month of December 1969 he sent me postcards that read “I got up at…etc.” I also did several exchanges with François Morellet, who offered me a Relâche. Other works I’ve had to pay for or made exchanges with dealers who owed me money.’
Exchanging, M. Venet explains, gives a feeling of belonging to a family of artists. Although he respects Damien Hirst as a collector, given the price his work commands, he doubts that Hirst makes a habit of exchanging pieces with younger artists. When he began to collect it was, he says, easy to know who the good artists were: the ones with the most radical ideas. One of the few French artists to be on really good terms with the top American artists of the 1960s and 1970s, M. Venet arrived in New York at just the right time. Gradually he acquired pieces by Jean Tinguely, Lawrence Weiner, On Kawara, Art & Language, Dan Graham, Jannis Kounellis and Richard Serra, to name a few of those who make up his collection. ‘It never came to my mind to think that it was possible to buy for investment,’ states M. Venet, ‘but I did try to acquire mainly museum-quality and historical pieces.’ He is also not a dealer and never sells anything – with one exception. When renovating his building in Chelsea, New York, he sold a Judd to a friend who had done him a big favour. But, he jokes, he still gets to see it when he sleeps over at his place.
Many of the works in M. Venet’s collection have been made especially for him. His first Donald Judd cost in the region of $3,000 and today is estimated at significantly more. Above his bed in Le Moulin is Untitled, 1972, a beautiful series of anodised rectangles by Judd, while in M. Venet’s summer bedroom in the factory is another untitled Judd from 1972, in anodised aluminium and galvanised iron. In this piece, a shiny horizontal steel bar creates the sense of a horizon line against the stippled rectangles beneath.
Placing contemporary art in Le Moulin rather than the factory posed more of a problem with its traditional terracotta tiles. These were all painted white and some of the windows filled in to give more hanging space, while the beautiful oak staircase, which originally came from a castle in northern France, was stripped back to the bare wood in order to create a showcase for the spectacular collection – as you walk through the front door you immediately step onto Carl André’s square arrangement of flat zinc panels, 49 Ace Zinc Square (2007). Housed in the basement galleries are M. Venet’s own tar paintings, which owe something of their spareness to Japanese art, and his cardboard reliefs that emphasise his minimal aesthetic. And on the ground floor, in the dining room, is the long table designed by Sol LeWitt in 1991. This was commissioned to accompany his spectacular wall mural, Asymmetrical Pyramid Drawing #428 (1985), which was also specially created for the house (Fig. 6).
Arriving in the main living room you virtually trip over the huge stones of Richard Long’s Minus Twenty Spiral (2007). This circular arrangement of craggy boulders echoes the dimensions of Jannis Kounellis’ untitled work from 2005, created from sacks of coal and a steel girder, which is situated on the white carpet on the floor above (Fig. 4). Just behind Richard Long’s installation is one (and perhaps the most beguiling) of several works by Dan Flavin. Untitled (to Lucie Rie, master potter), dated 1990, is a wall-mounted arrangement of neon tubes in cool white, warm white and daylight that read as blue, cream and almost green. Its luminosity contrasts with a huge work by Robert Morris in brown felt from 1976. Pinned against a nearby wall, this untitled, mattress-shaped sculpture features two flaps cut into its surface, which fall open like the front of some giant Beuysian overcoat.
In the lower-floor sitting room (with its painted white walls and steel sofas with white and cream cushions), is Relâche Venet (1996), the stunning white-on-white geometric wall sculpture by the French artist François Morellet (Fig. 2). Constructed of aluminium and neon it hangs over the large fireplace with its steel surround to create the perfect dialogue with the Flavins. Here, too, is one of the most beautiful works in the house, A la Pintura no. 7 (1974) by Robert Motherwell; a monochromatic painting of Zen purity with a comb-like, black calligraphic shape that hovers at the top of the canvas. There is also a maquette by Anthony Caro; the vitrine of ‘rubbish’ created as a gift from Arman in 1972 on M. Venet’s marriage; and a Kenneth Noland. On the opposite wall is one of the finest Frank Stellas in the collection, Parzeczew III (1972).
With its muted colours, primitive African sculptures and piles of precious art books, the room has a quiet serenity. I ask if his interest in African art is influenced by Picasso and Modernism. ‘No,’ he replies. ‘I just have a friend who is an African art dealer, and I made some exchanges with him. Some of these are authentic pieces that were used in ceremonies long ago.’ Indeed nowhere demonstrates more than this room that this is not just a formal collection but a home – the home of someone who has picked each work with precision and passion. What makes it so special is that the choices echo his personal relationship with the art and the artists. ‘I can’t really get to grips with many younger artists,’ he says. ‘I feel rather at sea with much of their work simply because I don’t belong to their generation.’
Placed diagonally across the upper-floor space is Carl André’s Belgica Blue Cliff of 1989, a line of abutted blue Belgian limestone blocks (Fig. 5). This monumental piece stretches across the room for more than seven metres and directs the eye to another LeWitt mural which, sited opposite a sofa, creates a still point for contemplation. Entering the master bedroom you encounter the witty, kinetic and rather less minimal work by Jean Tinguely entitled Le Lion de Belfort, made around 1989–90, complete with movable rusting machine parts and snarling lion’s head.
Although M. Venet has principally lived in New York for many years, it is at Le Muy that he is creating his foundation which will eventually be handed over to the nation. At the moment the foundation still only exists as a legal entity in the United States, and the actual process of handover is still being worked out. But M. Venet and his wife have worked tirelessly for 20 years to create a very special artistic environment that although, at present, is closed to the public, welcomes groups from museums such as the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Centre Pompidou.
‘I very much hope that this place, which has been a historic site since the 15th century, will live on after I have gone.’
In the far corner of the grounds is a shimmering steel and glass gallery, designed by the young architects David Llamata and Charles Berthier, and completed in the summer of 2006. Here M. Venet has housed his abstract wall paintings of mathematical equations, along with the sculptures he does not wish to place outside. ‘As part of the foundation’s activities,’ he says, ‘I hope that in time other artists will do summer shows here.’
He is also planning a new development, a Frank Stella chapel to house six enormous and brutal, tough yet poetic pieces, whose rough surfaces are covered in industrial detritus. This, of course, will not be a conventional religious space but like the Rothko Chapel, one dedicated to the contemplation of art.
He has not yet chosen the architect, but insists that the building will be ready by 2014, in time to celebrate his 25 years at Le Muy. ‘When I decide on something I do it very quickly,’ he says, and you know that, without a doubt, it will be finished in time and form yet another aspect to this exceptional place.
What does the future hold for the foundation? ‘I believe in entropy since order and stability are ethereal,’ M. Venet replies enigmatically. ‘But I am an optimist as well as a realist, and the years to come will determine the interest in this place, and decide whether or not the works deserve a niche in history. But I still have another 20 years’ work ahead of me,’ he jokes. As I take one last look around this beautiful place with its waterfalls and sculpture garden, before braving the rush-hour traffic to Nice airport,
I have no doubt that this future foundation, which is such a generous showcase for so many artists, will be much visited and valued by future generations.
Sue Hubbard is an art critic, award-winning poet and novelist.
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