Jean-Pierre Bertrand

Jean-Pierre Bertrand has steadily moved to the fore of the French contemporary art scene, but his role, like his work, is difficult to categorize. Coming from the world of films (he was an assistant movie director in the ’60s), Bertrand began to make art objects and show them in gallery exhibitions in the early ’70s. Strictly speaking, in purely formal terms, one cannot call him either a painter or a sculptor, although his work has at times resembled simple sculpture, or, more often, large abstract monochromatic paintings; he is no longer a filmmaker, in spite of the small experimental films and video works that he continues to make; and he is not an installation artist or a photographer, even though he never leaves the installation of his work to chance and will occasionally include a photograph.

Far from ascribing to any particular contemporary issue, Bertrand has centered his approach to art making around a mystical relation with certain elements, which continue to inspire the various forms his work takes. These elements are mainly salt, lemon, honey, and, for a while now, brass. Take, for example, the Boîtes à sel (Salt boxes, 1980–85) that were shown in Bertrand’s large exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 1985, which seemed to fall into the category of Minimalist sculpture or arte povera. These two piles of boxes were a “living work,” as the salt continued to corrode the white iron, turning it brown and covering it with blisters, which caused it to lose its reflective quality—a sort of metaphorical display of the progressive death of light.

Bertrand’s show here was comparable, in that at first glance it appeared to be a simple exhibition of paintings. Certainly it involved flat, colored surfaces, framed and classically hung on the wall, and therefore, in one sense, they were paintings. However, even at a distance, one could see that more was involved. There were nine works, each work consisting of three vertical panels (“plaque” is the word used by the artist to designate these objects), which Bertrand had arranged with great care and precision to create a rhythm of visual correspondences. Each plaque is composed of three monochrome squares stacked one above the other, with the color of the top square repeated in the bottom square (red/beige/red, for example), the whole thing covered with a sheet of clear plastic and enclosed by a simple frame. In each triptych the first two plaques are always red/beige/red and beige/red/beige, with the third one alternately yellow/beige/yellow or gold/beige/gold. (The only element of variation is the spacing of the three plaques in each work: in six of the triptychs shown here they are arranged close together, while in the other three they are spaced further apart.) Such regularity produces an effect of ritualized order, transforming the experience of seeing the exhibition into a meditative stroll that always returns the visitor to the same truths.

This impression is confirmed and deepened by a closer look at the plaques. What from a distance appear to be simple monochromatic paintings reveal themselves to be something else entirely, something much more unusual and a bit disconcerting. One sees, behind the clear plastic, not “paintings” but active surfaces that seem to want to burst through their protective covering, surfaces treated with those elements of Bertrand’s predilection. The red is in fact a mixture of acrylic and honey; the beige—this word only approximates the actual color—is the result of the action of salt on the paper; the yellow comes from lemon; and the gold turns out to be brass. It is the living, fragile result of a true alchemy that seems to have been mysteriously imprisoned in each plaque and that awakens in the viewer a unique sensual and emotive experience, more magical than esthetic in nature.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.