New York

Bernar Venet

Hal Bromm Gallery

As everyone must know by now, there are artists who “simply” stopped bothering with an “art style” and present “science,” not as “science as art,” but as “thing.” I write “art style” because it is not art which is eliminated (never is art more present than when it has been done away with) but the seduction of its style. BERNAR VENET has always seemed to want to be as little the artist as possible, and in this ambition he succeeds quite well. However, in Jan van der Marck’s “Bernar Venet and the Rational Image” (Artforum, Jan, 1979), one can learn that Venet is in the process of taking “a second chance at art”—the operative word, however, being “chance,” not “art.”

Venet exhibits two pairs of black metal arcs (at least they felt like metal) with their respective measurements underneath (294.5° and 258.5’). In each pair, one of the strips is incompletely inside the other because the arcs are less than 360° and small openings make enclosure impossible. Now, there is no real science here, although there is the “look” of it behind the mask of feigned precision. The measurements tell us nothing about the arcs—they only impose a known artificial constant upon them. No viewer can ascertain whether or not the arcs are the degree Venet says they are, and it probably doesn’t matter (as in “chance”). The measurements are not “abstract” either—they refer to the thick black strips, so the question of precision as such is not posed. Venet doesn’t even bother with the central issue of measurement (scale) because the two strips are the same size.

There is also very little art—although, again, there is the “look” of it—in the context of the gallery. One knows that this particular cribbed-from-elementary-math-book style can become art, but one expects the emphasis to be on the becoming. The reason Venet’s objects-plus-captions are so dismally uninteresting has to do with his thoughtless confusion of a content (not uninteresting in itself) with a stylistic affectation of the most traditional “art” type—irony. Using “mathematical” images as “objects of art” without performing any transformation (intellectual, scientific, esthetic, intentional) on the content or the style or their interaction cannot be “simply” excused by an unwitty Duchampian detour.

Van der Marck’s essay on Venet emphasizes the relationship to Duchamp and Mel Bochner. In the reigning art historical/critical methodology where everything can be seen as already everywhere in anything by virtue of some reductive formalism, an artist’s work becomes nothing more than an image of itself as evidence in a prefabricated patriarchy of precedent. Having finally seen Venet’s objects in person, I cannot imagine how Duchamp, Bochner and Venet got stuck together; the formal, philosophical and esthetic preoccupations could not be more different. Bochner attends to the derivation of image from body—counting fingers and counting numbers, physical extension and accumulated shapes, five-fingered hand and five-sided pentagon, eye height as a template for shape placement. Duchamp never ceased to pun the body: the urinal as torso, the coat rack nailed to the floor which would trip the body. Venet’s work fits squarely into a discredited category of painting—it stays on the wall, isolated and inert; it expresses no relation to the space it inhabits or to the viewer. The black strips might as well be bare, round stretcher bars.

Venet’s dead giveaway is the small drawings (the saleable items) he showed along with the big black arcs. Here the curves were drawn in pencil, with indications like “76.5°” below them. The bow to art, and Venet’s big mistake, concerned the obvious, elegant, offhand, draughtsmanly chiaroscuro cushioning the arcs, which, if nothing else, showed how reactionary even the most Minimal/Conceptual art can be. I may be wrong, but Venet’s second coming seems like a (European’s) uncreative misunderstanding of a (ten-year-old American) Conceptualism, an attempt to invest an empty visual image with the values of the “Old Masters” in order to show the bankruptcy of both. The irrationality of every choice in Venet’s work, of its very style, cannot be avoided by its severe exterior. A dull outmoded Existentialism hangs over Venet’s misjudged cheap shot at the technical resources of science (reducing them to chance, to the arbitrary) and the inventiveness of art-an attitude which projects a “nothingness,” a self-serving, self-defeating absurdity onto anything it doesn’t understand.

For me, the two high points of this season were both part of the Guggenheim’s “Planar Dimension” show: Balla’s enchanting, exuberant, chromatic pink-and-green Chinese-puzzle “flower-bush,” and László Peri’s small gray and earth red reliefs. Peri’s eccentric, concrete objects held their own even in a very large room full of all kinds of strange things. Although internally articulated by deceptively simple color divisions, the reliefs contained very complex perspectival illusions—ones usually associated with architecture. Not by chance were they meant to fit into a new all-encompassing scheme of architectural, “functional” ornament. Peri’s art represents a particularly fecund cross-breeding of painting and sculpture, both physically (as pictorial surface and as object with volume) and allusively: placed very high on the wall, like capitals without columns, they were extraordinarily expressive, like birds in flight, escaping from the stability of the room, from their own boundaries.

Because Peri’s work had not been shown before in this country, the question of influence cannot be raised, and the problem of complex interactions in the history of art tackled by the Guggenheim show was admirably sane—not linear. Peri’s reliefs seemed to me to combine a great variety of influences with a precise, abstract frugality. Strong overtones of thick-paint painting, thick-stretcher object-painting, shaped canvases, abstract-eccentricism, and certain kinds of intensely illusionistic abstraction mixed with the post-Minimal issues raised by artists as diverse as Benglis, Rockburne, and Serra reverberate backward toward Peri, without the question of debt falling on either side of history.

Jeff Perone