David Ryan

 

 

Talking Painting

Talking Painting

 

Interview with Bernard Frize London 1998

 

David Ryan: I was wondering about the status of the image in your earlier work in the 1980s, which function rather like painted 'found objects' or even found 'objets d'art'....Was this a conscious attempt to re-inscribe a Duchampian approach within the mean of painting itself?
 
Bernard Frize: Well, no, not really. I wasn't so interested in what is said to be Duchamp's issue...it was so fashionable. Everybody was involved with referencing Duchamp and it seemed a good enough reason to avoid it. In the ‘80s, the use of the idea of ready made became over-familiar and predictable. I wanted to find another way...I felt it was important to do so.
 
DR: During this period, there seems almost no distinction between those works that focus or centralise a recognisable image and those seemingly involved with an investigation of a self-reflecting materiality or 'autonomous' picture making. Did you make any differentiation between those approaches at the time? Why did the later approach become a singular preoccupation?
 
BF: No, you are quite right; I did not make any distinction between these different paintings. I see them both as representation - both attempt to result in a representation. What is called ‘abstraction’ became the main course of my work.
 
DR: 'Suite Segond' of the 1980s, where you constructed a painting from the dried skins from paint tins, is often cited as an important piece. Was this the first piece to embrace a chance-oriented process or system?
 
BF: I did paintings with a roller before and also paintings where I laid on more than fifty layers of paint, which I notched in order to see all the colours. I also did some other works where the result, the image, was unpredictable. I think I have been interested in utilising different processes for some time, but not simply at the level of 'process painting'. Do you know the story of the 'Suite Segond'? I had just finished drawing a lovely picture on a new canvas and all that was left to do, was to lay on the colours. As I was reaching for the tins of paint, I felt guilty; I wished I wasn't so untidy and had not forgotten to put the lids back on. Of course the paint had dried. I had to grab a knife and cut around what had become a sort of skin. To get rid of it, I dumped it on a near-by canvas. I did that for the next tin, and in fact for all of them. It was handy because, although one side of the circle was dry, the other wasn't. So the paint stuck easily to the canvas. I tried to choose as many colours as possible. And I was amazed to see my drawing being completed, when I was merely laying paint. I was developing techniques that were adaptable according to the circumstances.
 
DR: In what way?
 
BF: Well, you know, I had a job and painted at weekends - literally a Sunday painter...and this obviously restricted me in some ways.
 
DR: Is this why you have sometimes substituted the word 'necessity' for 'chance' on occasion? Could you elaborate on this distinction?
 
BF: I don't complain about painting with dry tins of paint. Why not use chance as luck? It has always been clear to me that I had to use the quality of the paint, the function of the tools (kind of brushes, grain of the canvas, etc.) as materials that defined paths to follow. Each gesture became specific, each solution, particular. I was surprised and interested that from these restraints, results could still be hazardous.
 
DR: I was recently reading a lecture by the composer, Morton Feldman, where he was making a distinction between himself and Pierre Boulez, “Who...” said Feldman, “...Is not interested in how a piece sounds, only in how it is madeNo painter would talk like that. ”. I was wondering how interested you are in the finished piece, the 'look' of a painting? If your processes are an attempt to abolish taste in many ways, what makes a particular end product acceptable or unacceptable?
 
BF: It is interesting, because in many ways I almost work blind; I engaged processes that often do not require me to look. In some of the large paintings, I have someone who is literally directing me to follow the drawing. As an example, when I use a certain resin, the final colour is not perceivable during the process of making. Having said this, of course, I am interested to know what I have done. Let's say that, generally speaking, I like works that require a second look; at second sight, things are not emptied. So to get back to the point, I operate between the two: processes are raised then I lose a certain control and the surprise provoked is the sign of a complexity that pleases me and makes me desirous.
 
DR: As a means to an end?
 
BF: Process, as a thing in itself, is certainly not interesting for me. I like to figure out strategies. I like to get excited by the desire to make a painting and to look at it like one related to my body work.
 
DR: The work also seems to site itself somewhere between improvisation and system....
 
BF: Yes, that is true, I would suggest a kind of informal system. One can change one’s mind.
 
DR: Feldman also often discussed the relationship between the idea (or concept) and the nature of materials. For him, the notion of having an idea divorced from the material was a contradiction in terms, the starting point always being the nature of the materials themselves, an idea being 'sparked', if he was lucky, by working his way into a piece with direct engagement with materiality. Does such an approach square with yours in any way? I'm thinking here of the fact you suggested that the paintings painted themselves?
 
BF: I agree with Feldman here, for sure. That was what I called 'necessity'. You know, this relationship is defined legally too. I once saw some ceramic plates with coloured circles, identical to the 'Suite Segond'. Naturally, I sought legal advice on this matter...and the lawyer told me that no patent could be given to an idea, but to a technique or a material. An idea does not exist without its materiality. I also can't think outside of the specificity of materials. Most of the time, I even have ideas coming after projecting the use of a material.
 
DR: This brings to mind Tony Godfrey's question in his short text of 1994, "Is Frize an extreme materialist or is there something over and above the material and the process?"
 
BF: Perhaps, it is not for me to say. Tony Godfrey should look at the paintings again.
 
DR: To take the musical analogies further - and I hope you don't mind this direction?...
 
BF: ...No, not at all. It is interesting.
 
DR: It might be said that Feldman's mentor, John Cage, is more relevant to your concerns. I'm thinking of the elaborate stage-managing of chance operations in relation to the 'event' of performance, and the concern with an ego-less position and also with his analogy of photographic processes in relation to indeterminacy; Cage suggested that he gave the means to take a photograph, but that it was the performer who took the photograph via a camera that himself has given instructions to construct. Your work does not provide us with a camera, but does present us with a 'photographic evidence', so to speak. In many ways, because the artist is his or her own performer, the process is reversed - we, as viewers, perhaps are invited to reconstruct the specific device (the 'camera') that enabled the 'event' (painting) to take place. Is such a reading at all relevant to your own analogies with painting as a photographic process?
 
BF: I am very interested in this thought. I think generally that there is a very strong connection between photography and the history of painting - which operates on many different levels. It would be silly to think only in terms of pictorialism, talking about photography or mimeticism, in talking about referential painting. Rosalind Krauss's essay on Impressionist drawing and the impact of photography shows very clearly how it affected the process of painting and monoprint.
 
DR: But I was thinking more in terms of this 'stage management' of so-called chance that we get in Cage's work and its link with the resulting aural image, and also the workshop techniques of a camera obscura. Both these models of producing 'images', for want of a better word, might have a peculiar, oblique crossover with your approach....
 
BF: Yes, maybe. That is certainly an aspect. But it is messier. There are so many ways for chance to happen. There is this analogy with the photograph, the techniques of processing. The relationship between contact, exposure and surface is strong. I like to think of the paintings almost as a kind of 'slice', and a Polaroid might also have this sense of being peeled, a slice of paint and time.
 
DR: The British painter, Ian Davenport, suggested that he develops an idea of tempo while working, that the method he adopted might suggest a particular rhythm of working....Is this the case with you also?
 
BF: No. I don't think really in those terms of a specific tempo. To me, a painting has to be done quickly to be able to show its process, to be clear, without tricks. I don't like the mess of painting; it has to be done most of the time in one go - otherwise I get bored. Ironically, working out the process and figuring out all the preparations for a painting take longer than the actual act itself.
 
DR: You've suggested a kind of ego-less goal to the paintings, another reason why Cage's approach to chance sprang to mind....
 
BF: Yes, it is an important factor. There is a huge difference in terms of work between the artist seeing themselves as God-like creator or simply processing the world. Obviously there are social and political issues that inform both these positions....
 
DR: I'll come back to that point perhaps later. On a more formal level there seems to be a kind of 'perverted' all-overness to some of the more recent paintings, indeed earlier paintings as well, whereby traces of gestures become emblematic, yet symmetrical. How important was the example of colour field painting or non-relational painting of the ‘60s?
 
BF: Chance and non-composition are two strategies to avoid an ego position in painting. Geometrical composition, the principal of the series, automatism, non-relationality, etc....all these are attempts in the same direction. One aspect of the colour field painter's work is dealing with it, the other one is the sublime and I am far from it.
 
DR: Was Morris Louis important to you?
 
BF: I like some aspect of his work: the 'Veils' for instance. I also sensed Greenberg somewhere around in the background and this immediately put me off. I don't like Greenberg's ideology.
 
DR: And Stella?
 
BF: No. I never got the chance to be interested in Stella - even the Black Paintings. I never liked the way he changed the rules of the game as he went along. You know, to suddenly assert shaped canvases and literal space....What did all that really mean and where did it go? We all know the limitations of the rectangle of the canvas and it is a convention. To make 'shaped canvas' an issue the way he did, was not interesting to me and in retrospect, it seems a strange contradiction. Kelly, Warhol, Sol LeWitt, however, are of interest to me, more than Stella or Louis. Kelly is a very interesting artist, the early work he produced in France with its own exploration of chance, is extremely valuable and underrated. You know, you mentioned John Cage, an interesting figure for sure, but also connected with Duchamp. People think, ‘Chance equals Duchamp’. (Especially because Duchamp, most of the time, is considered as an attempt for the end of painting.) There is another tradition that goes right back to Jean Arp, with the torn papers from the year 1916 to 1919. And I think Kelly's work is linked to that. If we discuss chance, then I would link my approach firmly within this 'tradition' rather than the Duchampian one. We can also speak about important figures outside of America and artists of the younger generation.
 
DR: Richter had cited the importance of non-relational painting and having spoken to some of his students, it is easy to see that this formed a core of his teaching. I'm surprised in one sense that you are so dismissive of early Stella...given your concern with symmetrical articulation....
 
BF: Well, Stella's work bores me. I am much more happy in relation to artists with whom I can discuss all that without dogmatism. Painting is always referential. From G¸nther Umberg, Marthe Wery or Adrian Schiess to Lisa Milroy, to David Reed, Klaus Merkel and so on; we all find solutions which inform our work now. At least mine. Concerning symmetrical articulation, many of these forms you are talking about have found sources. The manoeuvres in some paintings are influences by ornamental or other ways to divide a surface. 'Pacifique' from 1991 is determined by all the moves of the Knight on a chess board and I found the figure in a book about mathematics. Of course, I don't like to tell it, to spell it out; it would be ambiguous to see it as important. It is enough to say I did not want to invent a drawing, I needed a pattern.
 
DR: It suffices that these routes look pre-determined?
 
BF: Exactly. I wished to use a bunch of brushes, each with one colour, to follow the drawing to divide the surface. The fact the brushes were gathered in a bunch was mixing up the colours, which avoids any choice concerning the result. As I was trying to reproduce the pattern, the surface was wet so the colours were blurring. The pattern was getting destroyed. This found drawing allowed me to point out many kinds of paradoxes. Inventing the drawing would have been very formal.
 
DR: To what extent is your project concerned with a conscious de-familiarisation of all the formal components of painting?
 
BF: What do you mean by de-familiarisation?
 
DR: Well, I am thinking of the way that the formal elements of the paintings are somehow made strange; they are arrested from simply being 'placeable' within a tradition, like, say the one we have just been discussing. This makes them less comfortable, less easily 'read' in some ways...
 
BF: ...[silence]
 
DR: Following on from that again, a kind of de-familiarisation, Wittgenstein in his 'Remarks on Colour' examines the nature of our language system in relationship to his physical experience of colour. He looks at the inconsistencies of concepts such as light, dark, transparent, etc., and asks, what if we had a completely different 'language game' in relation to the manifestation of colour?
 
BF: Yes, it is an interesting thought. It points to the complexity of colour in the face of any attempt to grasp it with language - or the inverse. In terms of my own painting, I wanted a multi-coloured, chromatic situation to avoid choice. Once you do something in art, it seems that it becomes a trade mark. Ryman's white or Reinhard's black. I wanted something different - for painting to hold as many colours as possible; such a proposition is not always realisable. But it became a specific problem that many of the paintings deal with: how can I get as many colours as possible in one brush stroke? A painting, like 'Boxes, 1996', has a chromatic system whereby each bar's grid is a two-coloured line but is painted with one brush stroke.
 
DR: You have mentioned your due to writers like Lewis Carroll or Lawrence Sterne, what about somebody like Samuel Beckett? He springs to mind for several reasons; I'm thinking here of the crab-like, seemingly inwardly turning, manoeuvres of gesture trails on the canvas in relation to some of Beckett's textual reflexivity. Also the apparent anxiety of something that fails to signify: that is blank, empty. As Beckett said, ‘To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.’ Can you connect with this or do you see it as an over-dramatisation of the situation?
 
BF: No, I could agree with this statement...I think he is right. I always forget about my desire, that's why I always do it again. But you know, Beckett is very trendy at the moment. It's fashionable to quote him to legitimise every practice....
 
DR: Really? I didn't realise he was so fashionable right now....But I think on another level, surely it is wrong to allow fashion to overtly colour our relationship to such an obviously interesting figure?...
 
BF: Yes, I understand what you mean. I have found his work very interesting to me for a long time and especially the later work he made for television, like 'Quad', with its non-verbal and spatial choreography.
 
DR: Like your work concerned with pre-determined routes...mapping out a space in a particular way?...
 
BF: But what I was getting at earlier, was this legitimisation of painting by something else. I think there are many artificial discourses built up and quite frankly, writing and painting are something different....
 
DR: Finally, and I think this follows on from what you were saying just now, you once alluded to Barnett Newman in the context of a rapport of faith with the medium of painting, one which is lost at present. What has replaced faith and rapport? How do you feel painting - if we can be media-specific at all - operates today?
 
BF: Well, I think I was referring to a particular interview between Newman and Rosenberg, where a political stance is discussed....
 
DR: Yes, where Newman in response to a question about the ultimate meaning of his paintings, says something like the downfall - or the end of - all totalitarianism and monopoly capitalism....
 
BF: Yes, he says - and this is an important nuance - if Rosenberg and people like him could understand his work, forms of totalitarianism and capitalism wouldn't exist. I am much too sceptical to argue such a statement but as such, we could give it a second thought. After all, what is interesting, is to understand how art produced in a given context reaches a point where it becomes universal.
 
© David Ryan/ Bernard Frize 1997