Bernar Venet: ‘In another life I would be a saint’
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My personal style signifier is simple: I avoid having one. I look at artists like Pierre Soulages, always dressed entirely in black, or those who wear white in summer and black in winter, like Daniel Buren or Joseph Kosuth – maybe they think they need to look like an artist. I don’t want people to recognise me as an artist. So I don’t have a style at all. You might see me dressed in black, yes, but then the next day you’ll see me in yellow and red, like David Hockney. I change all the time.
The last thing I bought and loved was a little ink drawing by Matisse from 1904. I saw it on Gagosian’s stand at the FIAC [art fair] in Paris and I could not resist. It’s a nude on two pieces of paper. He often started drawing on one piece of paper and finished on another. It’s a real beauty; in fact, the Musée Matisse in Nice exhibited it.
A place that means a lot to me is my home in Le Muy, Provence. After visiting Donald Judd’s foundation in Marfa I kept thinking that I should create a similar, appropriate setting for my work. So I did it… Something less serious was my dream to have a “cabanon” [hut] where I could isolate myself away from visitors and assistants. I found it last year – it’s tiny, only 6ft by 7ft, but I built a bed in concrete with just a mattress, and I sleep there some nights during the summer. On the wall is written a quote from Voltaire: “Tout vouloir est le désir du fou, la modération est le trésor du sage.” (“Wanting everything is crazy. Moderation is the treasure of the wise.”)
I never listen to podcasts, I never listen to the radio. I did do a podcast recently in Berlin with König [Galerie], but I won’t listen back to it. I have to create, remain active, not look back. There is too little time for it. I am now 81 and so much remains to be done…
My style icon, and I’m going to be criticised for this in the art world, is George Clooney. First of all, he’s a very good actor and director, but also who doesn’t want to look like him? And on top of that, he bought a property 20km away from me so he clearly has good taste. Brad Pitt also lives close by and he has bought my work.
In my fridge you’ll always find champagne or rosé for my guests, but what will never be missing is a box of sardines to satisfy my appetite when I am alone. It’s such a pleasure to eat them straight out of the tin, without having to behave.
The last music I listened to was by David Tudor, an artist from the ’60s who we are exhibiting at the Venet Foundation in Le Muy this summer. Normally, I don’t listen to music. It really disturbs me. I have to have silence all the time. In my family, when I was growing up, there was no music – and no art. I was born in Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban in the south of France where there was nothing cultural. But, of course, I had to listen to some David Tudor. It’s crazy stuff.
I have a collection of contemporary art. It started with exchanges with friends in the early ’60s, when I was in Nice – artists like Arman and Ben [Vautier]. Then I went to Paris and started to exchange with the new realists: Jacques Villeglé, Gérard Deschamps, Mimmo Rotella, Daniel Spoerri. But it was when I went to New York that my collection became more important, with work by Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt. And so now we have a substantial collection that we exhibit in the south of France. I also have sculptures by British artists: Anthony Caro, Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon. I have a major Anish Kapoor. And Richard Long, two big pieces – one inside, one outside.
The thing I could not do without is difficult to pick, because if I lost everything tomorrow, I’d be OK. I enjoy having beautiful things around but I’m not attached to them. That’s the idea of the foundation: everything I have, I am giving away. It doesn’t belong to me, to my kids, to my wife – it’s going to be for society.
Although one object I would never part with is a little African Senufo sculpture in steel. It’s old and rusted, but I’ve had it on my night table since 1972. Sometimes I think that when I die – if one day it happens; it could happen – I would like to have it with me. But I know that’s not a nice thing to do; it has to belong to everybody.
An indulgence I would never forgo is my afternoon nap. When I wake up in the morning, I’m so speedy. It’s like I’ve taken cocaine all night – something I’ve never done in my life. There’s no time to have coffee, and I don’t need it anyway. So I work until noon or 1pm, and then if I take a nap, the afternoon is the same: full of energy.
I recently rediscovered pictures of Sol LeWitt and me together. I found them when I was looking for photography for my new biography. My friend Alain Bizos took them. Nobody has pictures of Sol LeWitt; it’s impossible. He never wanted to be photographed. They remind me of spending time together in the south of France, and how I introduced him to a very beautiful girlfriend. They travelled to Italy together and when they came back, she said to me, “Oh, you know, he’s very nice, but he’s very stingy. We went to the worst hotel and the worst restaurant.”
An item of clothing I recently added to my wardrobe was a pair of Brunello Cucinelli trousers. I saw them in a window when I was in London, and they’re just the right fit.
My favourite room in my house is my bedroom because I’m surrounded by artworks, one on top of the other. The bed itself is by Donald Judd, and I have the little Matisse and four Picasso drawings – studies for his famous painting Still Life with Skull on an Armchair. Then there’s a de Kooning, a Ryman, a Tinguely, a Sol LeWitt and an Indiana – a big painting. It’s like my own museum. My dream would be to spend the night at MoMA in New York, in the room of paintings by the abstract expressionists – a huge Pollock, a huge Barnett Newman, a huge de Kooning. Each time I’m there, I think, “I should come and put my bed in here.”
My grooming guru is my hairdresser, a woman called Jennyfer who lives around the corner and comes to my house to cut my hair. When I was 10 years old, I read in a magazine that Picasso’s hairdresser came to his home, and I thought, “My God, if one day I am famous, I will have my hairdresser come to my home to cut my hair.” And that is what I’ve done for the past 20 years.
In another life, I would be a saint. When I was a kid I wanted to be the Pope. My family was very religious, but, very quickly, I understood that you have to study a lot to become the Pope, so I wanted to be a missionary. There was a missionary called Charles de Foucauld, who I had a book about. I would wear my nightshirt, put a rope around my waist and pretend to be a saint. But honestly, I would like to give myself to people to do good things.
The work of art that changed everything for me was a book. By the time I was 11, I knew I was going to be an artist. I was obsessed. I was making a painting a day and selling them to the people in my town. Then a lousy local painter told me that if you are an artist, you have to paint with oil paint. So I took a bus with my mother to the big city – Digne in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence – and we bought oil paints: one red, one green, one yellow, one blue, perhaps a white one. But in a window there, I saw a book with an image of a painting – a woman washing her feet in the river – and on top of it was a word I didn’t understand. So I asked the man in the shop what it meant. And he said, “Renoir? Renoir is a very famous artist. His works are in museums all over the world. His paintings are worth a fortune.” And that was the day that I realised you could actually make a living from being an artist.
The best books I’ve read in the past year are by Edgar Morin, a French sociologist and philosopher. I’ve had the same two books – Penser Global and La Méthode – on my night table for at least the past 20 years. Maybe something by Nietzsche, too. But I’ve never read a novel in my life. I read biographies when I was younger and today I read philosophy and scientific books. I love Morin because his writing has helped me to explain some aspects of my sculpture, where I mix order and disorder to create something new.
The best gift I’ve given recently was to my wife on Valentine’s Day. It’s a sculpture – a torso in marble from the first century. I bought it in Galerie Chenel in Paris, where they have very serious archaeological pieces.
The best gift I’ve received recently was from my son, Stéphane, for my birthday. He sent me a USB key, and on it was a movie of me in 1963, in colour, in my apartment in Nice. It was incredible; the best gift I’ve received in 20 years, because it was such a surprise. I don’t have any memory of seeing it before. It was filmed by Alain Fleischer, a young artist in those days.
The one artist whose work I would collect if I could is definitely Ad Reinhardt, a painting, 5ft by 5ft, or bigger – why not? I like things that are extremely sober. I don’t like colour or anything crazy. When I was about 20, I was making black paintings, and one day a friend of mine came to me and said, “Oh, Bernar, you think you are doing something original, but look” – and he showed me a double-page ad of an Ad Reinhardt show. And I looked, said, “Damn it”, and stopped right away.
My favourite building is the Louvre-Lens museum, in the north of France. I had an exhibition there last year; it’s an incredible place, designed by the Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. Outside it’s very simple, very minimal – you just see an outline. But it’s the inside I really love and the stainless-steel walls, which are 8m, maybe 10m tall. And then you see this collection of art history, from the 4th millennium BC all the way to today.
The best souvenirs I’ve brought home are memories. There is the day that the director of the New York Cultural Center told me I was going to have a retrospective in New York, when I was 29. And the second one is when Jean-Jacques Aillagon, then president of the Palace of Versailles, invited me to show there in 2011. These are my real souvenirs. Objects: they don’t matter.
The best bit of advice I ever received was from my mother when I was making my paintings and not succeeding too well. She’d say, “Try again,” and remind me of Louis Blériot, who tried many times to cross the Channel in a plane before he did it. So success comes with a lot of passion.
I get my best ideas from accidents. Like when I was making my black tar paintings in the ’60s, and happened to see a pile of gravel mixed with tar on the streets of Nice; the day after I did the Tas de Charbon [Pile of Coal] – a radical work. Another time I was making a small edition of my indeterminate line sculptures, and my assistant had just piled them up in a box, and this was the beginning of disorder in my work. But I have a new idea every five minutes or so. Of course, not all of them go into production. But I like Gaston Bachelard’s philosophy, la théorie de pourquoi pas, which is a way of saying, “Why not?”
Hypotheses by Bernar Venet is at Waddington Custot gallery, London W1, 28 September to 12 November