Bernar Venet’s Arcs: By Carter Ratcliff

February 15, 2017

This exhibition of recent work by Bernar Venet contains three sculptures and six drawings.  All nine share a single title—Arcs—and display the same curving forms.  In the drawings, we see groups of four arcs; one of the sculptures has four of these elements, another has five, and in the third there are six.  To recall terms crucial to the series of Mathematical Paintings Venet launched in 1966: an arc is “any portion of the circumference of a circle.”  In these new works, that portion is extensive enough to produce a noticeable curvature without eliminating completely the impression of a straight line.  Made of steel bars and oriented vertically, the sculptures stand firmly on their platforms.  The drawings appear to be equally stable in their upright positions; less certain, however, is their scale. 

All six drawings are on sheets of paper over seven feet high.  In each, the arcs reach from the lower edge almost to the upper one.  Rendered in oil stick and graphite, these forms look monumental—a quality intensified by the visual echoes they find in sculptures that are also taller than we are.  The ratio of our height to that of the works in metal is of course fixed.  In the drawings, that ratio is variable for we are free to imagine these arcs at any size whatsoever.  They could be two or two-hundred times larger than the sculptural Arcs.  Yet we tend to see them as roughly comparable in size, in part because Venet drew the two-dimensional arcs with an accuracy that defines them as counterparts to the three-dimensional ones—members of the same family, so to speak.

Venet’s art has long been appreciated for its formal elegance and refined materiality.  Even conceptual works like his Mathematical Paintings, with their equations crisply extended across pristine surfaces, have been acknowledged as impressive objects.  Inevitably, upright forms like the Arcs are described as symbols of the human figure, and critics have read gestural impulses into Venet’s Indeterminate Lines.  It would be too harsh to dismiss interpretations of this kind as simply wrong, and yet it is important to note that they stand in the way of understanding his aesthetic, which is so radical that even now, more than half a century after he began to stake out his unique position, it is not widely understood.
The most direct path to an understanding begins with a focus on a point usually ignored: however abstract an artwork may be, it nearly always represents or at least evokes something: a mood, perhaps, or an ideal of utopian order. Turning to the arcs in Venet’s drawings, we may well conclude that they have their meaning primarily as representations of the metal ones.  Yet they do not and seeing why not will take us a long way toward a grasp of his aesthetic. 

The first step is to note a contrast.   Whereas the surfaces of the free-standing Arcs are uniform, those of the oil-stick-and-graphite arcs show a richly modulated interplay of shape and texture, especially in their middle regions, which are enlivened by grainy mixtures of black and white signifying reflections.  And along the edge where two sides of a four-sided bar meet, Venet sometimes traces a bright line to indicate an extended highlight.  The clarity of these highlights gives them a similarity to the remarkably precise outlines of a drawing’s clustered forms—for these are collages.  Venet draws a set of four arcs on a large sheet of paper, removes the background, and then pastes the arcs to a new sheet.  Collage often generates ambiguity.  Here it is used to avoid even the faintest blurring in the transition from form to background.   

Readily overlooked, the edges of the collage elements endow the drawings with a physical dimension so nearly imperceptible that, once discovered, it has the effect of intensifying the frank physicality of the Arcs built of steel.  The evident weightiness of these metal forms did not, it would seem, weigh on the artist.  Moving with ease from four to five to seven metal arcs, Venet convinces us that, however many parts a sculpture might contain, it would still display the balance of simplicity and complexity that provides the works in this exhibition with their impact. 

There are infinite possibilities for arranging the arcs, yet we feel that Venet is undaunted by his options.  Each piece in this series is clearly and distinctly itself and something more: a template establishing the criteria for all images of this type in whatever medium.  How, then, do the sculptures in this exhibition stand in relation to the drawings?  Again, it is easy to make—and to leave unquestioned—the assumption that the drawn arcs represent the sculptural ones.  Yet we could just as reasonably say that it is the other way around, for Venet sees each of his mediums as equal to all the others.  A drawing is an end in itself, not merely a step on the way to realizing a sculpture, nor is a small sculpture of any less importance than one of the artist’s immense outdoor pieces.  In recent decades, Venet has used photomontage to visualize projects so large that, in his words, they “verge on the utopian.”  Moreover, these images “are full-fledged works of art, as concrete as the sculptures that have been produced.”   But how can a graphic image have the same status as the three-dimensional object it proposes?  Venet has dispensed with the familiar hierarchy of genres and that raises a question: why?  To answer requires a look at certain of his early works.

In 1963, Venet exhibited a heap of coal as a sculpture.  This heap had a form, of course, and yet it was inadvertent, not the product of a sculptural intention.  By exhibiting coal in and of itself—or, as the artist puts it, presenting “a material as form per se”— he achieved the further goal of excluding much that is thought to be essential to the very idea of art: personal style, expression, and compositional order.   The last of these is particularly important, for the visual harmonies imposed by traditional composition subordinate large elements to small and thus introduce hierarchy as an aesthetic ideal.  As long as hierarchies of form, medium, and subject matter are respected, art is securely ensconced within a tiered realm of accepted values.  When those values are ignored, the hierarchy collapses, boundaries between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic become ambiguous, and the possibilities for art undergo a sudden expansion. 

This was the effect of Venet’s coal sculptures and of his tar paintings, also from 1963.  Laying stretched canvases on the floor, he would cover them with a layer of tar and then hang them on the wall.  As the viscous material oozed downward, the paintings acquired their images—rather, their unintended textures.  Again, he had deployed a material “per se,” toppling hierarchies and erasing boundaries in the process.  Occurring a bit later in the United States, similarly anti-hierarchical initiatives were labeled Minimalist and by the end of the 1960s had evolved into process art, performance art, and more.  Many of these developments were anticipated in Venet’s early work.  However, one innovation from that period is his alone. 

Adapting the theories of cartographer and semiologist Jacques Bertin to the field of art, Venet identified three kinds of visual imagery: pansemic, polysemic, and monosemic.  Each refers to a different measure of referential ambiguity.  In principle unlimited, the references of an abstract image exhibit pansemy.  Polysemy is the corresponding quality of a figurative image, with its multiple but limited references.  And we see monosemy in graphic systems that convey singular meanings—as in, for example, the equations that Venet inscribed on the surfaces of his Mathematical Paintings.   With his coal sculptures and tar paintings, he had already made monosemy the implicit foundation of his aesthetic.  Now the implicit had become explicit, and from this moment on every aspect of his art—every material, every form, every inscription—was to be understood as neither more nor less than itself “per se.” 

Under the regime of monosemy, each element of each work in Venet’s oeuvre has an equal complement of meaning or, if you like, being.  Consequently, there is no question of elevating any of these elements to a superior plane.  Equality prevails, making it impossible to define one medium as more significant than any other.  So nothing prevents us from seeing the sculptural Arcs as representing the drawn ones.  Nor is there any necessity to see them that way.  Venet allows us complete freedom here, though it might be noted that the invitation to see sculptures as representations of drawings gives this installation an unusual degree of interest.

Though works on paper are tangible, their imagery is not.  Focusing on the intangibility of the arcs in Venet’s drawings, we might see them as hovering midway between concept and matter.  In this view, the drawings occupy a central point around which works in other mediums organize themselves—an analysis not entirely in accord with the most extreme implications of monosemy, a semantic condition that undermines all organizational principles and sets the artist’s various mediums adrift unanchored in a field both indeterminant and unbounded.  Here, then, is a contradiction of a kind that would be insoluble if Venet himself had not anticipated it nearly a quarter of a century ago. 

In an interview from 1993, he says, “The best theories become dogmas which we have to be wary of if we want to move our own theories along.”   Insisting on monosemy, he found his way beyond the limits of individual style.  This opened the way to the extraordinary range of his art, and yet he has not enforced the monosemic principle with the rigidity that would prevent risk and block the possibility of surprise.  With style no longer an issue, he found his way to “a vaster concept, that of ‘the context of work.’”   By acknowledging context, Venet allows an artwork’s primary meaning—the monosemic content that would persist in all contexts—to be inflected by meanings generated in specific circumstances.  And that general point brings us back to this installation, where a single form is persuaded to display an astonishing versatility and the medium of drawing acquires a new and unexpected relationship to sculpture.  Thus, the play of concept at the highest level of abstraction charges the immediacies of our experience with rich—and unprecedented—significance.


.  Bernar Venet, “Projects,” Thierry Davila and Erik Verhagen, Bernar Venet: Sculpture, Paris: Les Editions de Regard, 2013, p. 179
.  Venet, interview with Gilbert Perlein 1993, La Conversion du regard, Geneva: MAMCO, 2010, p. 81
.  Venet, “Réponses récapitulatives à des questions de base,” La Conversion du regard, p. 34
.  Venet, “Interview with Henri-François Debailleux, La Conversion du regard, p. 97
.  Venet, “Interview with Enrico Pedrini, La Conversion du regard, pp. 190-92