4 July - 30 August 2008
Opening Thursday, 3 July 2008, 6:00 pm
The Canvas is a Half-Open Window onto Painting
To describe the method that Bernard Piffaretti perfected towards the end of 1985 (although some 1984 paintings already contain the essence of the vocabulary), let’s use a sports metaphor. Let’s say the canvas is an athletic court: it could be for handball, basketball, or tennis or even be a ping-pong table since all these surfaces are divided centrally by one median line. Sometimes the action takes place on the right side, sometimes on the left. The match can thus begin. Of course its outcome is unknown. No one play resembles the preceeding one. It even happens, although rarely, that the game is interrupted by the referee. On the canvas, Bernard Piffaretti draws a vertical line that divides it in half. The line is suficiently thick to be very visible; its color varies from one painting to another; its thickness, on the other hand, remains ostensibly the same, so that a small painting by Piffaretti is never the reduced version of a large one. Next, the artist paints one of the halves, sometimes the left one, sometimes the right, (most frequently the left). When he judges this surface to be sufficiently painted (and the criteria vary, from one simple spot of paint to numerous adjustments of often complex pictural situations), he proceeds to duplicate it on the remaining half. Duplication does not mean a strict copy or an exact clone. Piffaretti is not trying to be his own copyist. No, it’s enough for the viewer to realize that the right half sufficiently resembles the left half (or inversely) for there to be no doubt about the deliberateness of the duplication. But a method, as we well know, necessarily has a purpose: to learn English, typing, or the guitar. And the finality of the “duplication as method” has little to do with that of Hantai’s “folding as method.” In fact, as we have said, Piffaretti’s method is not very strict (much less, for example, than those used by Morellet). One can even detect a few cracks in it, as if show that the artist is not obsessed with the exactitude of the duplication. In one small 1998 canvas, the separating vertical line is red, as are the two parts where seven small soft white squares appear, as if flying through the air. The red of the line is the same as of the surfaces. Thus, in order that one can discern the line, Piffaretti separated it from the lateral parts by two fine white lines, one on each side, which created symmetry (of chiasme, so to speak) but not of duplication. The same is true for the 1993 pink painting which belongs to the Foundation Cartier, as well as for a few others. One can see there a desire to destablize the strict ordering of the painting, as if one had sacrificed the ostentation of the central line to the unity of the whole. And then there are all those paintings in which both parts contain vertical lines that compete with the central dividing line, that indeed camouflage it within a forest of similar ones. It is like in an Alexandrine line, when the caesura to the hemistich does not exclude the possibility of making other smaller breaks that divide it on either side of the axis. The viewer’s attention is flustered for a moment, but then, once the disturbance has passed, he sees with relief that yes, in fact, everything is there, it was only a false alarm.
The principle of duplication includes some variations that are less the gages of virtuosity than tentatives of complexification of the questions it generates. For example, there are the small canvasses that include only a black vertical line; there is no trace of paint on either side (except, as in 1995, when a stroke of white appears, or most frequently, different hues of collage papers, that make many different kinds of white), however, obviously, there remains always the duplication of this “nothing,” the most perfect duplication possible. Few, these are made from strips of canvas leftover from that year’s paintings. The thickness of the central marking varies from one painting to another. These works almost always follow a period of intense production, as if the artist needed to take a break. The artist describes them as “sub-products”, or even as “by- products for personal use.” Their varied shapes – square, rectangular, round, oval – correspond to the typology of paintings available on the market. In this way, they seem like a vaguely ironic window, an escape towards the real world, its objects and their movements. In a certain way, their function is similar to that of drawings.
The questions that duplication, seen in this way, raises for painting are countless. To those quickly discussed above, let’s add several that address as much the emission as the reception of the canvas, and first and foremost, this boring antiphon: what to paint? Piffaretti, like Opalka, answers: “I paint the painting process.” So be it. But the question of the motif remains, as well as that of the representation, and in the end, of the form that one gives to all that. I gladly contend that duplication resolves half of these questions, but only half. What about this other half that one must “invent”? Within the required minimum, Piffaretti displays some treasures of subtlety, and, it must be said, of know-how, when even though the reiteration constitutes, in itself, an attempt at mastery.
Within an abstraction that flirts with several recognizable signs (however attenuated) of the visible world (a head, clouds, rain, houses, etc.), the artist, like other great painters who preceded him, Richter first of all, fills simply and wisely his space: the space of the plane and the suggested space of the layers, the plane of the painting’s depth. He does not choose to use these signs of the visible world in any premeditated way. It happens that one brushstroke might vaguely suggest a recognizable shape. It happens that therefore the artist emphasizes its identification (since it’s there, let’s go). However, it is, once again, the duplication which confirms these figures: a cloud that is repeated is more identifiable than one cloud alone. In the end, Piffaretti is right, he only paints the painting process. The signs of the world are not winks or kinds of caricatures, and in the end, they have no other functions than of rhythm and space. And if the color acquires such importance here, as Bruno Haas shows, it is because Piffaretti operates within a full system of color and not within a logic of color signs (the link to the referent that characterizes representational systems). And if one can speak of gestural organicity (in counterpoint, sometimes, to the orthogonality induced by the vertical separation), it is in the strict economy of the painting, in its frame, in the impact of the brush and the surface that its movement covers over, in the materiality of its constituent elements.
It is for all these reasons that Bernard Piffaretti’s work, in its first half at least, is neither abstract nor figurative, neither geometric nor gestural. As can be seen in an older painting, (4) it is firmly located in this “neither nor” that, in doubling the negations, continues to produce affirmation, better yet, revendication. As for the second half, obviously, it is repainted with the motif (painting the painting process, once again, all over the field, as they say in soccer).
Jean Marc Huitorel, 2002