Bernar Venet began as an assistant decorator at the Nice Opera from 1958 to 1960. He spent a rapid symbolist period where enigmatic figures occupied the center of an abstract painting whose coloured backgrounds were superimposed, reflecting the influence of Paul Klee.
While walking one day in the vicinity of Marseilles, at the time of his military service, then aged nineteen, Venet fell on a cliff where a load of tar had been dumped. This first flowed down the cliff before cooling and solidifying. The young artist captures the event through photography, evoking the surface of a painting natural random.
Military service brings him to Tarascon. A workshop will be allocated to him in an attic of the barracks where he approaches, when he is barely 20 years old, a uni-chrome abstraction at first, that is to say using a colour standing out against the background – the white of the paper or the ocher of the cardboard – then monochrome – abolishing the distinction between substance and form – where black imposes itself. In the same city he will realise his first performances, Performances in the garbage, 1961, icon of the transformation of late modernism into postmodernism.
From 1961 to 1963, he shows canvases covered with tar5 because “black is the rejection of easy communication”. His notoriety began during this period with the creation of a sculpture without specific shape composed of a pile of coal poured on the ground5. His faculty for intellectual abstraction and his taste for mathematical reasoning and experimentation led him to what would soon be conceptual art8. Marcel Duchamp said of him: “Venet, you are an artist who sells wind. »
In 1962 as part of his military obligations he was sent to Algeria for ten months. Returning to Nice in 1963 where he had taken a year of drawing and painting lessons at the Villa Thiole in 1958 (before being expelled, caught defending Picasso’s work in front of other students), he set up a workshop in old Nice at 18, rue Pairolière. He continued his work on tar, and produced Tas de Charcoal, 1963, a conceptual work. That same year, he met several representatives of New Realism, César, Raymond Hains, Jacques de la Villeglé and befriended Arman.
In 1964, on the proposal of his new friends, he took part in the Salon Comparaisons at the Paris Museum of Modern Art, exhibiting his abstract cardboard reliefs in the New Realism and American Pop Art room. He would repeat the experience the following year (as well as at the Paris Biennale) and in 1967.
Following Arman’s advice, he went to New York in April-May 1966. His friend hosted him in his studio at 84 Walker Street, formerly occupied by Jean Tinguely. In December he settled permanently in New York. In France, Claude Viallat organizes the exhibition Impact, at the modern art museum of Céret, bringing together very young artists including Venet3. He sends the plan of a tube, in the form of an industrial drawing. He explores mathematics and the pure sciences which are for him a recurring source for imposing the “monosemy” in the artistic camp9,10 his research led to the presentation of his first mathematical diagrams. He designed the ballet Graduation, with vertical scenography, created in December 1988.
In New York, in 1967, he entered into a relationship with a researcher in the nuclear physics department of Columbia University in New York, Jack Ullmann, so that his conceptual works were based on scientific developments. He makes sound recordings without visuals, only the content counts. He will meet the minimalist artists of the Dwan Gallery and set a four-year program after which he plans to stop production.
In 1968, he stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. He took part in Prospect 1968, at the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf, alongside Joseph Beuys and Marcel Broodthaers. That year, museums began to acquire his works, the Museum Haus Lange in Krefeld, Germany and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Columbia researchers are collaborating with him for a performance at the Judson Church Theater. He will design his own steel furniture, models of chairs, sofas and tables in a very minimalist spirit. He met Ella Bogval, whom he married in 1971 (they separated in 1982).
Between 1969 and 1970, he moved into a loft on Broadway, in SoHo. He participated in the Conception-Konzeption exhibition in Leverkusen, at the Art by Telephone at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He stops all artistic production as planned, Paul Wember (de) organizes a retrospective of his works at the Museum haus Lange in Krefeld. He will lecture in Europe, the United States and Japan. He participates in the series of multiples published by William Copley under the label “The Letter Edged in Black Press”, and in the Artists and Photography portfolio published by Maria Goodman. His works are exhibited at the Dwan Gallery, at Leo Castelli and at Paula Cooper.
In 1971, after a collective exhibition Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects, at the New York Cultural Center – organized by Donald Karshan who will publish a catalog raisonné of the conceptual works of the artist – he exhibited alongside Daniel Buren, Robert Barry, On Kawara.
From 1971 to 1976, he paused in his research, ceased all artistic practices and returned to France where he wrote and taught at the Sorbonne. Between 1972 and 1973, he moved with his wife and children to Paris. The cessation of his artistic production leads to a period of reflection on his own work. He explains his own work with the aim of rectifying the comments of art critics who do not seem relevant to him, introducing the notion of monosemy borrowed from Jacques Bertin (cartographer). He participated in the exhibition “72-Twelve years of contemporary art” at the Grand Palais.
In 1974, Venet gave courses at the Sorbonne, on art and art theory, as well as in many universities in France, England, Italy, Poland and Belgium. Catherine Millet publishes her first monograph with Editions du Chêne in Paris and with Giampaolo Prearo (it) in Milan. Jean-Pierre Mirouze devotes a film to him entitled Works finished, work interminable, followed by a personal exhibition of his conceptual works at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. He represents France at the XIII São Paulo Biennial with Gottfried Honegger and François Morellet.
He returned to his studio in 1976. The line, in all its mathematical variants and physical manifestations, takes a prominent place in his work. Paintings, success in the United States5, then wooden reliefs, he quickly moved on to sculpture. He resumes his work, the first canvases of the series of Angles and Arcs present elementary geometric figures. A retrospective of his conceptual works is held at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Sebastien Adler.
Bernar Venet having resumed his artistic activity, the modern art museum of Saint-Étienne exhibits his latest creations. That same year he exhibited at Documenta VI in Kassel.