PRINT October 1993


It is a contemporary cliché: the painter who frenetically switches modes, so as to undermine the ideal of stylistic identity. Bernard Frize’s paintings, at first glance, give the impression of this kind of extreme heterogeneity, but while his work may follow no regular, easily parsed progression, neither is it animated by a kind of Brownian movement that deprives it of all structure. Rather, this work reveals an order that is both branching and discontinuous, like a network of echoes and resurgences.

The principal difficulty of Frize’s oeuvre derives from the fact that the kinship among individual paintings or groups of works is not one of appearance but of method. To take a simple example, consider the works in the “Lacquers” series (begun in 1990) in relation to the paintings from the 1980 “Suite Segond.” To make one of the “Lacquers,” Frize blends paints of various colors in a box, lets the surface dry, then sticks this hardened skin to a canvas. Wrapped around the deep stretcher bars, the sheet of congealed paint fits the canvas in one piece. In the second series, Frize opens cans of paint, waits for the surfaces to dry, and applies the hardened disks that form there to canvas in random accumulations. In spite of their procedural similarities, the two series could not appear more different.

Here we find the principle of disjunction characteristic of Frize’s work. This attraction to visual oppositions corresponds to a taste—sometimes indulged to the point of absurdity—for the displaced or incongruous. For Frize, a good painting is one in which something that “doesn’t work” is conserved in all the power of its irresolution, in all its interlocutory tension. The recent large-format paintings combining the immiscible media of ink with acrylic bear witness to this idea. It’s this kind of incongruity that is close to Frize’s heart, as he admitted in the following conversation, recorded recently in his Paris studio, among works being packed up for his current exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zurich.

JEAN-PIERRE CRIQUI: Your first works appeared in 1977. These deeply paradoxical objects were painted with “traînards,” very fine brushes traditionally used for painting ships’ rigging in seascapes. But you used them to produce allover surfaces composed of thousands of tiny multicolored strokes. How do you see these early pieces today?

BERNARD FRIZE: I’d have to say that they were much more connected to the material conditions of their production than my current work is, in that I had to make do with very limited means. I only had a small room to paint in, and the amount of time the works required was really well suited to my schedule. Every layer could dry while I was working at my job as a printmaker. I had stopped painting when I left art school, but I got back into it somewhat, after coming to terms with my political uncertainties regarding the viability of the practice, by looking for an activity in painting, in the most literal, down-to-earth sense. Since I worked weekends, as a sort of a “Sunday painter,” it was logical that I would choose a tool typical of those painters who sit and paint boats on the beaches in Brittany. It was great to discover that these very specialized brushes were made by fishermen during the winter when they weren’t going out to sea. So everything was absolutely amateur.

JPC: In that attitude, I see one of your favorite working rules: carrying out one operation according to the modalities of another with which it has nothing in common. For example, it seems obvious that the traînards are not made for working on surfaces as large as a square meter. . . .

BF: Not only that, but I took a lot of care to make the strokes go slightly beyond the painting’s edges, forming little hills of paint on the sides of the canvas as it overflowed, so that one could see both the rule and the overflowing of the rule simultaneously. And all this for a painting that ultimately looks like a piece of cloth, for a surface that does nothing more nor less than reiterate what it literally covers. Several polarities come together here: the idea of the vanity of a “professional” with the will to carry on an activity that is plainly materialistic, and the requirement of enormous labor with the decision to pare the decision-making down to the minimum.

JPC: To get back to the present, it’s striking that of 40 or so canvases you’re showing in the Zurich exhibition, not a single one is “figurative,” in the strict sense, although you’ve returned repeatedly to a diverse range of images from nature.

BF: I’m not hiding those works, but it’s true that I didn’t want to show them on this occasion, maybe because I want to cloud the issue a bit. The figurative paintings I’ve done, the ones that are paintings in the strict sense—not the photographs or scanachromes—are, it seems to me, even more ambiguous than the abstract ones. In the figurative paintings the images function as a sort of primary material that I use without worrying about their references, or else they are used to play with the idea of hidden figuration, of double meaning. In any case, I have never invented an image, I can only paint one in order to put it to use in a demonstration of pictorial order. When, for example, I returned periodically to painting images of pots, I did so in order to work on the idea of “failure,” to accentuate, via the image, a certain exploitation of accident that I was trying to get to. So, for example, I would cover the surface of the painting with “crazing” varnish, or I would paint the image itself out of register. I was trying to represent in the cleanest way possible a certain inadequacy, the fact that nothing fits in these pictures.

JPC: Beyond the current increase in exhibitions devoted to contemporary painting—I’m thinking of the “Broken Mirror” show currently traveling around Europe, in which you have some work, or of “As Long As It Lasts,” mounted this summer by Witte de With in Rotterdam—what do you see happening with painting? Is the practice not yet something entirely of the past?

BF: Well, painting is always passé insofar as it requires—more than other practices, I think—a knowledge of art history. More than installations, for example. Things that seem new appeal more readily to a public—spectators as well as artists—that doesn’t necessarily have an extensive historical culture. But with painting, one must return to everything that could have been painted beforehand; its roots are very deep.

JPC: Barthes said, “To be modern is to know what is no longer possible.” Do you subscribe to that notion?

BF: “Modern” is a terribly dated word. It’s almost as bad as “post-Modern.” I imagine that it was still valid in the ’50s; now the problem of being Modern is a historical one. But what is not possible for me is to do the same thing as others or to keep redoing the same thing. Obviously there is a huge paradox in affirming this when one has chosen a so-called conventional medium with a long history and a long tradition. Especially if I add that I consider both “expression”—in the sense of the truth of a subject, or of feelings, in some way translated through one’s art—and direct quotation from the works of other artists as absolutely to be avoided.

JPC: So what is it that motivates you to paint?

BF: What interests me is not the picture as absolute object, as essential aim. I’m trying, rather, to set up an operation or a series of operations, of which the picture is simply the outcome or by-product. Every time I tell myself, as I work, that I know how something will finish, it turns out differently. This is why I try to avoid any projective or virtual model that the real work would wind up coinciding with: when I mix colors in a can, so that I can take the skin that eventually forms on the surface and stick it onto a canvas, it seems to me that through this process, I remain in the real, or, at any rate, involved with a sort of realism. Indeed, it’s an operation that is rather close to photography. All this could lead you to think that the paintings produced are a kind of “process art,” but I believe they are moving away from that, at least insofar as I’m concerned with absurd bits of evidence: the state of mind of my work is indebted to authors such as Lewis Carroll or Laurence Sterne. In the last Carnegie International catalogue, I reprinted, in the guise of commentary on my work, the end of Book V of Tristram Shandy [he takes a book from the shelf, leafs through it for a moment, then reads out loud]:

If I never have, can, must, or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted?—described? Have I ever dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?

—Is the white bear worth seeing?—Is there no sin in it?—

Is it better than a BLACK ONE?

JPC: Several of your works invoke what I might call the paradoxical effects of speed. On the one hand, a unified, immediately graspable visual motif has been produced by the unfolding of procedures in stages, and on the other, an apparently complex and varied surface can be created “in one stroke,” or at least very quickly. This gives the spectator the feeling that he or she is facing some kind of loop or short-circuit. I’m thinking, for example, of the monochrome painting that you dried by turning the surface downward, so that it ended up being covered with dripping concretions of paint, like stalactites.

BF: I believe, in that particular case, the short-circuit effect occurs because the work, although a monochrome, doesn’t present a calm surface that absorbs the gaze, but instead literally comes toward you: when the painting is hung upright, all the drops point toward the spectator in a chaotic, agitated way. The process that resulted in the picture was very simple.

JPC: You often speak of Barnett Newman, whose retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1971–72 was, you say, a turning point in your own development.Yet considering your painting, it’s a rather curious reference, don’t you think?

BF: It’s not only his work that I admire, but also his ethic and his political attitude, which I find exemplary—and the memory of a period when one could really take painting seriously, maybe. . . . I mean, I take painting seriously as a spectator, but as a painter it’s really impossible for me to have the same kind of rapport with the medium that Newman had such a total rapport, so full of faith.

JPC: On the other hand—and this surprises me almost as much—I don’t get the impression that Picasso has played a major role for you.

BF: None. I’d say Courbet, more. The Courbets at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier; I’ve always liked those. Also the pasty side of Rubens—buttery paint, very tactile, very physical. I never paint like that but I like it a lot. I take similar pleasure in Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings of cakes. In a very different sense, I’ve mentioned Baldessari for the spirit of his work. Courbet, in any case that’s beautiful painting. . . . And also it could make me die laughing.

Jean-Pierre Criqui, an art historian, critic, and curator who lives in Paris, is a member of the editorial board of Les Cahiers du Musk National d’Art Moderne. He is working on a book on the history of assemblage before Modernism.

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.

Bernard Frize’s exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zurich will remain there until 17 October.