Artists may not have the infinite resources of oligarchs, but they can nonetheless build formidable collections through the time-honored practice of swapping works with friends. The French abstract sculptor Bernar Venet, who will receive a Lifetime achievement award from the International Sculpture Center later this month, managed to amass a sizable collection of Minimalist art in this way; living in New York in the 1970s, he became acquainted with Frank Stella, Donald Judd, and Sol LeWitt, among others. As Venet remembers, “When I was young and my work had not sold yet, I was giving my pieces away and exchanging them with other artists.”
Until recently, however, Venet did not think of himself as a collector. “It’s only when Espace de l'art concret in Mouans-Sartoux asked me to do a show with my collection,” he says, recalling an exhibition at the gallery in 2009, “that I gathered pictures of everything I possessed in France and New York and realized it could indeed be called an art collection.”
A few years ago, Venet opted to restore a former mill on his estate in Le Muy, in Southeastern France, to better display his holdings. He had owned the property (which is known as Le Moulin des Serres) since 1989, but had left it untouched for decades. “Bernar decided to paint the terracotta tiles white, and boarded up the windows to hang his favorite Minimalist artworks,” Alexandre Devals, the director of the artist’s Venet Foundation, explains. The whole estate has mostly been converted into an exhibition venue; it now includes a gallery, a sculpture garden, and a chapel designed by and devoted to Stella.
Together with Devals, Venet gave Artspace a tour of his Minimalist-meets-Provençal home and collection.
Venet: “I began hanging out with some interesting artists in Nice in the ‘60s. Martial Raysse was one of them. The first artwork I traded with a friend was with Ben Vautier (a.k.a. Ben), who wasn’t famous yet and had a record store at the time. In 1963 he gave me a black wooden door with ‘God’ written on one side and ‘Ben’ on the other. I loved it! Unfortunately when I moved to New York in 1966, I left it in my apartment in Paris with friends and I was robbed of everything. Another very significant piece I had in those years was a portrait Arman had made of me.”
Venet: “When I would develop a crush on a piece I could not afford, I would sell some other pieces that weren’t as essential to me. Therefore I had no hesitation trading the 70-by-39-inch Warhol painting I had in exchange for a Tony Smith and an Ellsworth Kelly! I’m more interested in the artistic load than the decorative aspect that lures most people. And I only really love abstract art and Minimalism. This is why I sold a sculpture of a hand by Rodin: it helped me buy this Motherwell! The Arman in my living room is a wedding present he created for me and my wife Diane in 1971.”
Devals: “The black face silhouette on a blue background is a Marcel Duchamp self-portrait (Marcel Dechiravit, 1957.) Just as a small anecdote, when Bernar met Duchamp in 1967, the iconic French artist wrote in his notebook ‘la vente de vent est l'event de Venet,’ which means ‘selling air is Venet’s event’. The sentence is made of three anagrams of his name.”
Venet: “No one was interested in Judd’s work when I started collecting him. I loved what he was doing and I saw that one of his pieces was listed at an auction. I called him and asked him if he felt it was a major piece, because I was about to sell a small Ad Reinhardt painting to buy it. He told me ‘Don’t move, I’ll be at your place in 2 minutes.’ We were neighbors in Soho. When he got to my loft, he took the painting and drew me a wonderful piece that we then had the Bernstein brothers produce. The second Judd I bought, I paid for with $3000 in cash, one of my sculptures and an African sculpture. To us, at the time, $3,000 was a lot. I still remember how he stared at the bills.”
Venet: “This ‘Lion de Belfort’ by Tinguely always strikes visitors. I found it in Brussels in 1990. It was Tinguely’s opening but the Swiss artist told me very sincerely that he had made this piece for the sake of art and for fun but was sure it would never sell. After taking a few pictures of my wife and him in front of the animal I purchased it to everyone’s biggest surprise. To me it’s a New Realism masterpiece."
Devals: “The bed in the master bedroom has a funny backstory. When Venet arrived in New York in the 60’s, he was the roommate of Peter Bonnier for a while. The famous art dealer left this bed when he moved out of the apartment, so Bernar kept it. It’s only when Donald Judd came to Bernar’s place years later that he told him he was the one who made the bed his friend was sleeping in.”
Venet: “I see my home as the antechamber of the foundation. As I grow older, I find it more difficult to say goodbye to my sculptures and paintings. Now, I prefer buying from artists, rather than trading with them. And I’m lucky because since most of them are my friends, they offer me very good prices! But also, they know their artworks will end up in the foundation, so this benefits everyone.”