Q&A with Bernard Frize, painter of beautiful, colourful abstract artworks

Among the greatest living French painters, Bernard Frize creates beautiful, colourful abstract artworks, although he has always done his best to avoid having to make choices about colour and to render his canvases as ordinary as possible


Bernard Frize has just turned 7 and may have been painting for the past years, but he still finds each art exhibition a painful experience. For the Berlinbase­d artist, painting is the easy part, but the difficulty lies in having to engage with the general public and to bring his work outside of his world into theirs. 1onetheles­s, his one-man show at errotin allery and a major retrospect­ive at the Centre ompidou in aris have just concluded to great acclaim, where visitors were given insight into his immense technical virtuosity, from his earliest pieces to his most recent creations and little-known aspects of his work. His solo exhibition at errotin 1ew ork is now in full swing from 11 September to October 19.

Colour has become Frize’s signature although that was never his intention. The colours he uses are completely arbitrary – it’s just by chance and he never composes the colour. “I try to practice painting motivated by ideas, but the reception is that of a pleasant painting that, most of the time, people buy to match their curtains,” he says. “The ideas disappear in favour of decoration, but I don’t want to paint monochrome works or use colours differentl­y.”

Full of paradoxes, Frize imposes constraint­s on his art in the form of rules, protocols and systems – whether it’s filling

the surface of a canvas in one stroke using a bouquet of paintbrush­es or several people painting simultaneo­usly and passing brushes between them without breaking contact with the canvas – so that he doesn’t have to make personal decisions and is able to keep going in the constant quest to find a meaning for his practice yet the meaning is never found. By his choice to not make choices and to render himself absent from his works in a kind of autonomous painting in order to depict the creative act as non-personal, non-subjective and free of expression­ism, he has succeeded in crafting a new language for painting.

Frize’s employment of fine, transparen­t and liquid acrylic resin leads to a cold, flat

and waxed painted surface devoid of the painter’s gesture. “I have always wanted to paint in a way that is loyal in its means and loyal with respect to the spectator, who must not feel dominated by my paintings,” he explains. “They can be considered at a human-to-human level. They are neither overwhelmi­ng nor immersive. To do this, I wanted to seal the painting in an almost photograph­ic material. It was important to me that my painting be very distant.”

You were born in Saint-Mandé in 1949. Tell me about your background.

I come from a middle-class family. My father was from a good family, but his father died and they had no money anymore, so he stopped studying and went to the army. He became a prisoner in ermany during WWII, then he did all the French colonial wars like Vietnam, Algeria and Morocco. When he came back, I was 15 years old. I’d never met him before and I didn’t like him, so I went away. I think art was for me a good way to escape. I could create my own work and be independen­t, but it was kind of difficult, especially in France, because we had the Marcel Duchamp trend, and very soon painting was totally dismissed. However, I was interested in painting so I continued doing painting. I was lucky to find a gallery quite quickly, but there were many of my openings where nobody attended and I was not selling my works. I was always doing something else to earn money.

Why was painting the only medium that ever interested you?

I found pleasure in painting and pleasure looking at paintings. What intrigued me also was that this flat surface with not very many possibilit­ies had been the place for so many paintings before me and probably so many paintings after me that it’s just amazing, because the number of decisions are very reduced. It’s like a game: there are rules and you can’t bypass the rules, but still you can continue to play. I find that really interestin­g.

Why did you drop out of arts school in Aix-en-Provence and Montpellie­r?

On one hand, I had a painting professor who was a fantastic man. He was painting like Chardin, the 1 th-century painter, so he was teaching us how to paint in a very classic way and we were copying works in the museum. On the other hand, there were other professors engaged in contempora­ry art who gave me informatio­n that was in discrepanc­y with this way of painting, so I could not find myself. I think I had to wait and stop in order to find what were my ideas.

Then you moved to Paris…

Around 1971. I was a printmaker. I had my own print shop. I started from scratch not knowing anything and I printed for many artists in France like ierre Soulages, but it was not enough to earn money, so in the wintertime, I was a ski teacher. So I had no time to paint anyway.

You had taken a break from painting until 1976 because you couldn’t find a way to reconcile your political engagement with your work. What made you return to your art?

First of all, by being less ambitious, not thinking that I would change the world, which I did not understand, and that my action would be more limited. Before being political, a work of art has to be a work of art. It’s more that this piece of art has to be in conformity with your thoughts, so I found a way that was much humbler and that I could be satisfied with.

Is your work today political?

1o, not a political aspect that you can see, certainly not, but I think that my work is at least morally engaged. I mean I’m more engaged in my own life. I’m not exploiting assistants; I’m not doing all these things that we see today in the art world.

What is the most important considerat­ion when you first start creating an artwork?

First of all, I need to have pleasure, I need to be intrigued and have fun making it. It’s not a duty. I need to find it playful and I need to wish to see the outcome.

Do you paint with the canvas laid flat?

es, most of the time because the paint is very liquid and would run if I were painting vertically. Often, I’m interested in the idea of generation and corruption, so where you master things, but the mastery brings you somewhere else, to the organic.

In Gol, you painted straight lines in parallel, then added green paint…

These paintings are very bizarre for me because a long time ago, I did a painting that was like an Impression­ist painting,

which was made just with splashes of paint. It looked like a snowy landscape and I thought wow. It came about by chance in fact because I had made a mistake. I put water on it and it destroyed it. But then I thought yes, I’d like to destroy it a little bit.

Describe your square abstractio­n paintings resulting from a pouring technique where the media flow together like oil slicks of yellow, pink, blue, red and black.

There were photos by Stieglitz I really liked and then I went to Australia. They say the water spins in the opposite direction, so I thought fantastic, I could do a painting with that. I tried to make a machine to have the paint going out of the canvas, but it didn’t work, so I started to put paint on the canvas and tilt it, and suddenly it looked like a sky or something very natural and organic. I decided to do a series with that and this is the result of it. So it’s not painted; it’s just paint put on the canvas and then I shifted the canvas to get the image. It came about almost naturally, which I find interestin­g.

Does it really take you less than 10 minutes to paint a canvas?

That’s a bit exaggerate­d because sometimes it takes longer, but normally it goes very fast. In some paintings, I just pour a lot of colours on a canvas and then I brush it, like combing.

There’s a logic of material procedures instead of a predetermi­ned compositio­n in your works. Why do you want yourself and your process to be absent from your paintings so that it appears that things happen by themselves – the non-activity of abstract painting?

It’s not my personal life that I’m exposing in the painting. 1obody is interested in my ego, so I don’t think a painting has to do with that. I’m not at all an expression­ist; I always thought that expression­ism was staged, so I don’t feel I have to provide this. I don’t think the artist as a subject is so interestin­g. I want my paintings to have their own autonomy and their own life. One day, I’ll pass away and I hope they will continue to be active.

Do you discard artworks you’re not satisfied with?

I throw out a lot of paintings, because for example, the colour didn’t dry well or the brushstrok­e was not straight. There are all these mistakes.

What do you feel is the role of the artist in society?

I think it’s not very important. I mean we could live without artists. It’s a paradoxica­l situation. Artists are like clowns. Some are going into entertainm­ent. The place of art has developed so differentl­y in recent years. I must say that I’m puzzled when a Jeff Koons is sold for US$91 million. I don’t know what to think about that. eople who like my work probably like not only the colours, but also the fact that there are forces in the painting and that it’s a mental thing to look at.

What message do you hope to convey through your art at the end of the day?

It’s difficult to speak like this. I’m not god. I’ve no message to give from above to the masses. For sure, I want to share something, but if I could express it in words, there would be no reason to paint.

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