Bernard Pagès Lasting Impressions
Sculptor Bernard Pagès draws with the sky or city as background, in great metal ges-tures that defy the laws of equilibrium. Less well known, his work on paper is rich, and of a piece with the experimental spirit that ran through the Support-Surface movement, within which he took his first steps as a mature artist. The Musée Picasso in Antibes has had the fine idea of holding a retrospective of this aspect of his work (March 21 through June 21), which nicely extends the survey of drawing we have undertaken in this issue. He spoke to Catherine Millet. It’s often said that people become artists because they were good at drawing when they were children. Is that how it was for you?
You don’t need any special materials for drawing, so it’s the most accessible medium. I must have been around seven or eight when I got my first sketchbooks, pencils and a box of watercolors. I made weird drawings that got pinned up on the kitchen wall and regularly replaced with new ones. When I ran out of white paint I used white sport polish. I decided to become an artist fairly quickly because I was bored in high school, but also I really wanted to. During vacations I spent most of my time painting and drawing. Sometimes I went with a few friends, who later went on to do something with their life, to paint outdoors. We had two shows at the Musée Henri-Martin in Cahors when we were eighteen years old. We were going down a dangerous path because our paintings very quickly became crude splurges of color. Your drawings of trees and buildings? They’re just on the cusp, but the gaudy side is less noticeable in drawing. [ Laughs.] After I came to Paris and started taking courses at the Atelier d’Art Sacré, my conception of art changed. The key moment was when I visited Brancusi’s studio, because drawing and painting didn’t satisfy my taste for a more manual practice. I was familiar with the unsophisticated tools in that workshop, and after seeing them I believed that sculpture was a path I could follow. They were farm implements and the kind of tools used by a mason or a boilermaker. I lived on the farm until I was seven. During the Occupation, people organized their lives autonomously to survive. We made lots of things for ourselves. I have a very positive memory of that.
Yet you didn’t decide to become a mason.
I liked those tools ever more because they had been used to make revolutionary sculpture. They were like an unexpected link between two worlds. But I didn’t give up my academic practice until after mymilitary service, in 1965. That’s the year I did my last painting, an almost photorealist still life. As a form of self-discipline I restricted myself to house paint to avoid mixing colors on a palette. I wanted to restrict the choice of mate- rials, of colors, as a way of imposing an artificial rigor on myself, but without that restriction being visible in the finished painting.
After that you turned to sculpture, and very quickly met the artists who were to found the Support-Surface group.
I had a little space and time available, and I began to make sculpture influenced by Brancusi. In 1967, a Nouveaux Réalistes exhibition in Nice opened my eyes, and made me abandon carving. That’s when I started remembering the farm and using the materials I knew there and later forgot, like bundles of sticks, wire mesh, scrap iron and straw. Thanks to Jacques Lepage,(1) I met Viallat, Saytour, Dolla, Bioulès and so on. That really saved me, because I had been on my own, trying to make art and giving up one thing after another. All of a sudden I felt I had support.
You first imprints were in the spirit of Yves Klein and Arman. Since you were such a skilful draftsman, it must have taken willpower to renounce that skill. Making imprints felt like being liberated in relation to drawing. I felt they represented a step forward.
How did you relate to Support-Surface? Soon enough, in 1971, I left the movement. I didn’t want to take part in the exhibition organized by Pierre Gaudibert at the ARC in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, because I’d had a problem with L’Abri de jardin (Garden Shed). The Support-Surface artists would show their work anywhere, no matter what that work was, without taking the environment into account. For them, it was all the same if a piece was hung in a gallery or on a cliff. I didn’t agree with that. So I showed work that was related to the landscape, and that provoked a major conflict. There was another difference between us: I take a long time to make a piece, whereas they worked very quickly. That tormented me and I didn’t want to have to adapt myself to their rhythm just to have work ready for any possible exhibition. I spent four years without showing my work, from 1971 through 1974, while I was making the small sculptures I call “assemblages” and ”arrangements.” I’m struck by their graphic quality. [We are looking at photos of a 1971 “arrangement.”] That’s pure drawing! I think there are 47 “drawings” depending on how the laths are arranged on the canvases. The laths are the same length as the canvases, and when they are juxtaposed with them they cover the entire length of the canvas. In one, a stick is arranged diagonally across the canvas. In another, the laths are superimposed on the canvas’s undulations. I tried to exhaust all the possibilities. I have a slightly sly question. When I look at your very detailed drawings for the assemblages—for example, the ones made of two wooden bars— I can’t help wondering if that wasn’t a way for you to keep doing a kind of academic drawing. I don’t much like them, but because I wasn’t showing my work in those days it was a way to lose myself in details without thinking about some sort of giant show and tell. It’s weird; I don’t where they are anymore. Maybe I misplaced them because I don’t really consider them drawings; they’re more like technical sketches. For me the imprints, which aren’t made freehand, are more credible. [We look at preparatory drawings for a sculpture in Arles (1992) and a photo of the finished piece.] The sculpture’s fidelity to the preparatory drawings is remarkable, as is its resemblance to your drawings of trees from the 1960s. Why not? I agree that there is a family resemblance, a taste for things that are scraggy, sharp, cut out from life. In an interview,(2) talking about sculptures that often seem unbalanced, you use the terms “writing” and “gesticulation.” The thing is, these words aren’t appropriate when applied to sculpture. You can say that there’s something disordered and uncontrollable about gesticulation, but you’re taking certain liberties if you use this term for sculpture, in opposition to the imposition of rigidity and rigor. I call this oblique orientation a slant. The sculpture doesn’t move, but it seems to. Paradoxically, the twisted sculptures are in a state of equilibrium. I give them a random shape, stand then up, and then put one small wedge after another under them until they can stand up by themselves. When they find their balance, I trace the base horizontally, with a level, to obtain the definitive cross-section drawing of the sculpture’s base. That way I don’t have to invent a posture. The sculpture finds it all by itself.
These sculptures have very graphic ends with their twisted bars and mesh. When seen against a blue sky they really are drawings on the sky. They also constitute an invitation to see the plant world. They’re like a shoot of grass or a shrub. I think that the environment outside the studio, the scraggy trees and roots coming out of the ground, and the dryness in general, all play an active role in some diffuse way. What about when you’re working on a public commission for an urban setting? For instance, a piece in Saint-Ouen made of three girders standing upright. I noticed their reflection on the facades of the neighboring buildings. [I look at the photos.] The reflections look like paintings! There’s a meeting room behind that bay window. At first this wasn’t planned, but we worked together with the architect to obtain this effect. Another piece I did for the Conseil Général du Lot in Cahors is long and horizontal. At one end is a tinted concrete slab. The cement was mixed with white marble and blue powder, and I carved it after it was cast to bare the constituent elements. At the other end is an upright girder 6.70 meters high. Between the two ends is a sheet of stainless steel 31.50 meters long and 3.50 meters wide with two lines from a poem by Clément Marot written on it in capital letters: “Car tout ainsi que le feu l’Or affine/Le temps a fait notre langue plus fine” (Just as gold is refined by fire, our language is refined by time). These lines refer to the use of fire in the local steelworks, and at the same time to the history of the language, the shift from Occitan to French. The words navigate through a gap in the building, between the restaurant and the offices, and are repeated so that they can be read from both sides. Like a garland, the text winds it way and scintillates as it moves. You’ve mentioned interior drawing in some sculptures. What do you mean by that? I meant that my columns used to fragment. I had to mark the constitutive pieces with indications for putting them back together. This drawing was done around a central axis. The first step was to find a hole in the stone where the axis could go through. Around this axis I placed mortar, bricks, etc. Sometimes the elements don’t match up and I took advantage of this to make a recess. But there was still this major internal geometry determining its fabrication, the putting together and taking apart of the sculpture. I find this invocation of an invisible drawing powerfully poetic. It’s like a body… …that’s kept alive because of its internal organization. What made you start doing work on walls? I met Robert Groborne in 1975, at Catherine Issert’s home in La Colle-sur-Loup. He was drawing on walls, and before he started he worked hard to make sure they were as smooth as a sheet of paper I told him that if I were going to draw on walls I’d do exactly the opposite. I’d choose a damaged wall because that way I could take advantage of its flaws, the ridges, hollows and spackling. After that, I made my first wall painting, all across one of the walls in a room in her house.
CONSTRUCTING TO DEMOLISH
The lines and points dug into a wall that you previously spread paint on were a kind of drawing made with a burin, or in other words, with a sculptor’s tool. Or a mason’s tools. What I was doing was in between the work of a painter and a plasterer. If you want to fix up a wall, first you have to sand it, remove the surface coat of paint, etc., before you can repaint it. In my case, first I had to put on the color, which was important, but it was more gratifying to carve into the surface, and paradoxically, that’s what brought out the color. Exactly like with sculpture. Let’s get back to your work on paper. Some of it is like what you just mentioned—for instance, the monotypes made with engraved stones. Right. Sometimes, conversely, I paint over a previous carved wall and put paper on it to make the reliefs stand out. Your wire mesh drawings of the 1970s were made either by pressing color-coated wires on paper or by using the mesh like a stencil. I put the fencing on a piece of paper and worked inside the mesh. I made a list of tools, because I used a different one every time, and kept track of the width of the different kinds of mesh, the colors (and the degree of liquidity) and the qualities of the pencils (greasy or dry). In the margin I noted the orientation of the brush (from left to right or vice versa, or at a diagonal). Sometimes the scribbling followed the outlines of the mesh; at other times it filled the squares. I set myself a huge task but the pleasure of accomplishing it made me forget all the trouble it took. The point was to go back to drawing within the framework of a highly constraining discipline. And as it turned out, I wasn’t drawing at all. The imprints made with wire, a material I use « Empreinte de grillage triple torsion, maille moyenne ». 1974-1975. Peinture vinylique épaisse appliquée au petit pinceau (10 mm). 65 x 100 cm (Coll. privée ; Ph. F. Fernandez). “Imprint of triple twist wire mesh, medium” a lot in my sculptures, date back to 2000-5. I sprayed the wires with black aerosol paint, laid them down on sheets of paper and pressed down very lightly. That produced a drawing whose precision could not by matched by drawing freehand, and I like that. I remember visiting the Pech-Merle cave in the Lot. There are hand imprints and drawings, but what impressed me most was an ancient mud puddle with a perfect footprint of a child about ten or twelve years old, as if it had been made just yesterday. I must have been about fourteen or fifteen myself when I visited that cave, and the perfection of that imprint is what I remember best. Using wire on paper produced the same sharpness, the same exactitude, the same truthfulness. An imprint is reality sticking to paper directly, with no intermediary. But if you do it too much the effect wears off. What struck me about that footprint was its specialness, its freshness, the way it preserved an act. I want some of that freshness in my imprints, so I can’t make them constantly. As a sculptor, you work against gravity by raising heavy materials. As a draftsman, on the contrary, you use materials that rest on the paper, so that you can walk away and let entropy do the work. The rust imprints left by iron bars are produced by the metal’s deterioration. I wouldn’t call that deterioration. It’s a trace. The oxidation is superficial even if I accelerate it with acid. The bars aren’t destroyed; rust is part of their process of becoming and their immanent nature. You’ve also used very thin plastic film; which seems fragile compared to the heavy, aggressive steel girders you place on it. That was just chance. To make some pieces of metal rust I coated them with an acid solution, packed them in Saran wrap and left them like that. After 48 hours, I discovered that an imprint had been left on the plastic film. I decided to make use of this process, and I’m even going to make stained glass windows with it. The conservator at the Musée Henri-Martin in Cahors plans to renovate the museum, including a chapel, and he asked me if I could handle the stained glass. I would very much like to make them using this film vacuumpacked between two sheets of glass. You use the same objects as part of your sculptures and as tools for working on paper, like steel bars and wire mesh. Since I’ve often used steel bars in my sculptures, it was natural to use them in drawing, although it took some trial and error. For my exhibition at the Musée Picasso, the particular space compelled me to use large format paper, which I’d never done before. I sometimes put wire mesh in a sculpture, but never the same piece I’ve used for a drawing. Nothing is ever used twice. The tools appear and disappear at various points in time. The metal is from discarded rebar crossties. If I put a bunch of them together, that produces a three-dimensional object that looks like a drawing in space. But I can also use them one at a time to print, using a press. There is a constant back and forth between the making of sculpture and drawing.
Translation, L-S Torgoff (1) J. Lepage (1909-2002 was a poet and art and literature critic. He played a central role in the Nice School. (2) “Dessiner, redessiner,” interview with Xavier Girard, exhibition catalogue, Bernard Pagès, Dessins
et Sculptures, 1960-1992, Musée Denys Puech, 1992.
Né en / born 1940. Vit et travaille à / lives in Nice Expositions récentes / Recent shows: 2006 Mamac, Nice 2008 Médiathèque municipale, Contes ; La Winery, carrefour des Vendangeurs, Arsac en Médoc Galerie Hambursin-Boisanté, Montpellier 2009 Bernard Pagès. Parcours de sculptures, Aix-en-Provence et abbaye de Silvacane 2010 Médiathèque municipale, Mouans-Sartoux Jardin des Tuileries, Galerie Bernard Ceysson, Paris 2011 Galerie des Ponchettes, Nice Galerie Catherine Issert, Saint-Paul-de-Vence 2012 Carré Sainte-Anne, Montpellier, OEuvres
récentes, Galerie Bernard Ceysson, Luxembourg 2013 Galerie Bernard Ceysson, Paris Port du Gros-Caillou, Paris 2014 Acrobates et autres sculptures, Château Sainte-Roseline / gal. C. Issert, Les Arcs-sur-Argens 2015 Musée Picasso, Antibes (jusqu’au 21 juin)
De haut en bas / from top: Sans titre. 2010. Centre de recherche L’Oréal, Saint-Ouen. Trois poutrelles HEA de 300 mm effilées, torsadées et peintes. Pavement de briques surdimensionnées bordé de pierres selon un triangle de 700 cm de côté. Hauteur : 1200 cm. “Untitled.” Three HEA beams, twisted and painted
Ci-contre / right: « Le mur d'Antibes ». 2014 Entailles sur peintures. 287 x 260,5 cm Musée Picasso, Antibes. (Ph. F. Fernandez).
“The Wall of Antibes.” Notches in paint
Bernard Pagès dans son entrepôt. Au sol : Empreintes de huit barres d'acier oxydé sur film blanc. 2014. 550 x 50 cm. The artist in his store room