In November I interviewed the wonderful French abstract artist Bernard Frize. Check out the full article below, published in the December issue of Hong Kong Tatler magazine.
In an era when painting has seemingly been left for dead in the wake of installations, new media and conceptual pieces, Bernard Frize has been applying himself to the application of paint on canvas in its simplest and most-reduced form since the 1970s. And the decade’s romance with abstractism carries on in his work. Although clearly influenced by theories of conceptual art, and the minimalism and colour-field works of artists like abstract expressionist Barnett Newman, there is also something reminiscent of the Process painting movement in Frize’s work. His colourful geometric paintings have not only developed a loyal following but have also influenced the discourse of contemporary abstract painting.
Now 63 years old, Frize has been getting on quietly with his work, refining and pushing the boundaries of a style and sensibility that is instantly recognisable. Splitting his time between Paris and Berlin, the artist paints works that have become a fixture in more museums and collections than can be listed. Frize once stated that his intention is “to express clarity and straightforwardness – to be very simple.” To be sure, there is no clear narrative in his works; the paintings are purely colour and line. But there is a complex and rigorous process, coupled with a sense of movement within the forms and brushstrokes he employs.
The paintings are ribbons and mazes of colour, entwined and unfolding in bright passages across the canvas until the brushstroke is exhausted of colour. Interweaving patterns resemble mind puzzles, seemingly without beginning or end. The eye is made to wander, searching for the origin of the stroke or a join, until all that is left is a hypnotic contemplation of the visual riddle. Some of Frize’s paintings are uniform geometric patterns and grids in a Derwent-box variety of colours. Others recall fractal imagery and organic patterns – art as mathematics. The question that most often arises when staring transfixed by a Frize painting: How are they made? Despite the kaleidoscopic explosion of colour in his work, it is the action of the stroke, the fluid application of paint and the physicality of the process that are of most interest.
The other question that frequently comes to mind when viewing a work by Frize: Why? “A painting is the result, which keeps in balance formal and metaphysical reasons,” says the artist. “Often, there are no words to express; often I don’t even know why I have painted it, except for the desire to meet it in person and be surprised.” He describes his approach to working as “like walking in a long corridor of an unknown house. There are many doors, and one tries them, one after the other, to find the exit. Sometimes doors lead to other corridors. One closes or opens them to choose what seems the most promising path. The criteria are what appear at the moment, in hopes of finding a way. They are mutable – relative.”
Paintings are produced in series, and often Frize works with the same motifs and patterns. In their various knots, permutations and undulations, these seem guided by a musical rhythm in your head. “When I look back at the works, I have produced a series, sharpening and exhausting the possibilities of change,” says Frize. “When the series ends, normally I already have in my hand the thread to a new, unknown journey.” Working with up to three assistants on any one painting, Frize employs a physical process requiring a remarkable level of coordination and choreography. This approach is not to speed up the output of work, but rather because the collaborative nature of the process allows for the continued application of paint without the brush once leaving the canvas. Frize likes to see what can happen when another pair of hands is thrown into the creative process; this is the playful element of his work. It is this journey of discovery and philosophical enquiry that is his ultimate reward, and the reason Frize has continued painting for as long as he has. “The process of searching is gratifying, whatever the result. Sometimes, an old painting is suddenly illuminated by a new one, and emerges from the past because of the light cast on it by the new development,” Frize writes. “Results, such as a particular painting, are only the ephemeral steps, the visible pleasing surface of a profound movement, which drives me and give me existential reasons in my life. They are like stepping stones on a lawn.”
Despite the fluid, flowing layers of paint and the appearance of spontaneity, Frize’s work is very much controlled, with little room for error or improvisation. Sometimes faint traces of pencil outlines guiding the brushstrokes can be seen in his work, betraying the apparent immediacy of his technique. “I am painting alla prima, in one move, to inscribe the paintings in a real space – and I never retouch them,” he explains. The level of precision required seems unfathomable; Frize has the demanding eye of a draftsman, so anything less than what the artist intended will never see the light of day. “It is easy to see the failures when painting. Then I just start again on another canvas. When they are finished, paintings are sieved through several times, considered in relation to others, compared, then kept or discarded.”
For his November show at Simon Lee Gallery, ‘Fat Paintings’, Frize presented a series of oil-on- canvas works, moving away from his traditional acrylic-on-canvas for the first time in years, to rework his iconic motifs. “The results yielded are quite different from acrylics,” explains the artist. “There’s still a kind of illusion involved. But here it is a more traditional one. The oil gives the possibility of an illusion of three-dimensionality to each of the bands of colour, hence the title, Fat Paintings.” Frize adds, “To the optical effect of the combinations of colour across the bands is added the spatial effect of depth, and the illusion of the differential reflection of light.” Filling the gallery to the brim with a delirium of colour, the results are nothing short of a visual delight.
Published in Hong Kong Tatler, December 2012