New York

Bernar Venet

Robert Miller Gallery

In 1973, Bernar Venet wrote an essay in which he disclaimed any connection with “Duchampian style or Nouveau Réalisme” and instead connected his art to the theory of French semiologist Jacques Bertin, which grouped signs into three categories. The first set of signs, called the pansemic, were associated with music and nonfigurative imagery in art; the second, the polysemic, with words and figurative imagery; and the third, the monosemic, with mathematics and graphic imagery. For Venet, there was an overabundance of nonfigurative and figurative imagery in the visual arts. Indeed, he thought that they had been done to death, and that the only way to rescue art from itself, from entropic redundancy, was by basing it on the mathematical graph—which for Bertin was the only true monosemic image. It is a completely rational model, Venet wrote, arguing that art must become “solely a place of manifestation of a code.”

Is it correct, then, to consider Venet’s sculptures and drawings in this exhibition as illustrations of this code and, as such, conceptual? Are they a kind of applied mathematics? Not entirely. Each of Venet’s “Arcs,” 1976– (not included in this show), is a measurable segment of a circle’s circumference, usually accompanied both in the title and work itself by the mathematical formula that “describes” it. But Venet also makes “Indeterminate Lines,” 1983–, which he regards as “free” and “not definable mathematically”—thus wittingly subverting his own premises, as though to signal that rendering a code artistically is implicitly irrational. Reified, the graph line becomes convulsive and eccentric, seeming to lose its bearings. It becomes playful and unpredictable, gaining in force what it loses in reason; and what the work loses in intellectual hauteur it gains in material grandeur. Indeed, it becomes a grand gesture—an eloquently dramatic expression of space. As Venet says, “randomness is one of the rules of the game,” which produces at least the appearance of absurdity, “freeing sculpture from the constraints of composition.”

But Venet’s lines seem at once random and composed, as though a graph line were unraveling but not yet at the stage of collapse, with some self-deconstruction still in process. The epic line, in other words, seems to be showing its lyric underside. Process is particularly evident in the drawings; atmospheric charcoal constitutes the line, giving it a density that adds to its monumentality. The monumentality—indeed, stateliness—of the three-dimensional works is explicit. Venet regards this current group as “brutal” compared with his earlier ones, which he calls more “elegant.” There is now a greater sense of “density,” which has to do with his use of a thicker metal. In this show, they threaten the static grandeur of the large Chelsea gallery space with their own grandeur and movement. There is something oddly vertiginous about them. They seem to swirl through space.

Venet’s works are abstract expressionist in spite of themselves: They are nonfigurative and “musical,” for they depend on mathematical language even when they negate it. They may be bound to theory, but the drawings suggest that however much they may be what Duchamp called “intellectual expressions,” they are also subliminally “animal expressions.” The mathematical may suppress the instinctive, but the suppressed makes itself felt indirectly, vitalizing the whole work. Indeed, Venet is not Duchampian, but perhaps not for the reasons he believes.

Donald Kuspit