Bernard Pages

Galerie d’Art Contemporain des Musées de Nice

Bernard Pagès belongs to the generation of Claude Viallat, Louis Cane, and Jean-Pierre Pincemin. An exhibition of the New Realists in 1967 was the point of departure for his current work; the geometric qualities he had borrowed from Constantin Brancusi and the abstract lyrical sculpture of the postwar period gave way to an occupation with the rural terrain of his childhood. Pagès systematically made use of its mining materials: branches, bricks, cord, wire, corrugated iron, pipes, boards, and metal rods (a relationship to Arte Povera has since been seen here). Out of these media were created series of succinct combinations or “arrangements.” Here we must, as did Barthes in the ’60s, speak about “structuralist activity.” Like some painters of 1967–69, Pagès aimed at reconstructing an “object”—in other words, at making apparent and intelligible the rules of construction that, up until then, had been mostly an organic part of sculpture.

The first operation was that of cutting out. In order to make unities/differences apparent, Pagès placed objects in certain relationships of affinity and dissimilarity (bricks and logs, for example). The common characteristics (the modulating traits) and the distinctive characteristics (the natural vs. manufactured) produced an initial division.

The second stage of operations was the arrangement. Once the materials were in place, Pagès fixed the rules of their organization and, to avoid chance, took stock. In this way, from 1970 to 1974, Pagès created “nomenclatures”—kinds of dictionaries from which his sculpture has since drawn structures and formulations. The combination of materials not only reveals inherent differences in objects of the same volume, but also delineates a formal arrangement. The resulting constructions visibly stem from the events of labor, which have been transformed, by the simple fact of arrangement, into a system of meaning.

Since the group exhibit “New Painting in France” at the Musée de Saint Etienne in 1974, and his first one-man exhibit at the Eric Fabre gallery in the same year, Pagès has accorded his sculpture a less concrete role. One sees an escape from the initial associative constraints. Olive-tree stumps in tumultuous forms, curled-up rubber straps, and pieces of masonry exceed, in their polymorphousness, mass, weight, and color, the joining function assigned to them by the wooden beams they connect. Three large assemblages of wood and masonry exhibited at the Paris Biennale in 1975 incarnate this excess. It was at this time that Pagès emerged as an artist of the first rank.

He then undertook a series of sculptures that no longer evinced the assemblage in its entirety, but rather one of its aspects—for example, the ridge drawn by a beam at the edge of a rubble of bricks and colored mortar. The porticos Pagès did in 1979 were a monumental way of exploring this confrontation; the same can be said of the outdoor pieces and the brick installations of 1978 and 1980.

The current exhibit in the gallery of contemporary art at the Musées de Nice consists of columns. As did the porticos, pillars, and walls, they derive from architectural figures; but the diversity of the processes of execution remains first and foremost. The columns are fashioned, for example, of an olive-tree stump, carved out and painted at the base and top; of alternating ridges of colored cement; of rough-cast cement; and of bricks pierced by the shaft of the column. One consists of a succession of boulders coated by wine-colored pebble dash on two sides, separated by charred wood, split vertically by a groove perforated with holes, and terminating at each end with a mass of ochre concrete which has in turn been punctured and the holes filled with tarred shadows.

The verticality of this work involves an appropriation of height that is not seen in the earlier sculptures. It is also an affirmation of the unitary object. These columns are sometimes reversible, destroying the possible symbolic or religious references; they are fully defined by the almost furious explosion of their colors and the luxuriousness of their textures.

Pagès is the only sculptor in France who, having extracted a radically new object from structuralist language, has gone on to lay the foundations of an original formal work. With him, for the first time since Arman and César, French sculpture manages to escape obscurity. He is among the great sculptors of the last decade, in tune with a mode of thought all the more unusual for being outside Parisian culture and American influence. Here we are faced with a feeling of baroque profusion—mobile, consistently critical, and quite different from the exhausted products of postminimalism or from the mise-en-scènes of recent years.

Xavier Girard

Translated from the French by Jamey Gambrell.