Art In Conversation
Bernard Piffaretti with Raphael Rubinstein
“With Rauschenberg, one plus one equals two, but for me one plus one equals one.”
New York CityLisson Gallery
Bernard Piffaretti: Pick Up
May 4 – June, 11 2022
In early May, French painter Bernard Piffaretti was in New York for the opening of his exhibition at Lisson Gallery in Chelsea. On the morning of the opening, Bernard and I sat down at the gallery to talk about his work. In preparing for our meeting, it struck me that even though I have known Bernard for a long time—we met in Paris around 1990 through Shirley Jaffe—I knew very little about his early years, so that’s where we began. The interview was conducted in French, which I have translated. A few brief written passages, also originally in French, were added later. Only the last four-word sentence, which clearly evokes Kerouac but maybe also Canned Heat and Willie Nelson (I didn’t ask), was originally in English. One more linguistic note: the word “poncif,” which Piffaretti applies to one body of his works on paper, turns up in one of Baudelaire’s notebooks: “Créer un poncif, ‘c’est le genie. Je dois créer un poncif” (To create a poncif—that’s genius. I must create a poncif.). In his recent edition of Baudelaire’s nachlass (Charles Baudelaire, Late Fragments, Yale University Press, 2022), scholar and translator Richard Sieburth explains that “A poncif is a pouncing pattern (or stencil)—or, more broadly, any trite, worn-out, or stereotypical expression lacking originality.” For nearly forty years, now, Bernard Piffaretti’s self-generating paintings, always begun with a central dividing vertical line that gets flanked by two identical compositions (sometimes called “the Piffaretti System”), have been raising difficult questions about originality, yet originality itself is never lacking in his work, and neither is genie.
Raphael Rubinstein (Rail): Most of the interviews you have done focus exclusively on your work. I certainly want to talk about that and about the Lisson show, but I’d like to start by asking you about your beginnings. You were born in Saint-Étienne. Did you go to art school there?
Bernard Piffaretti: Yes, but when I was finished, I went to Paris. At the end of the 1970s, the artistic landscape in France was pretty limited. There was a small exhibition space at the museum in Saint-Étienne, but all the galleries were in Paris. It’s always like that in France. Unlike the US or England or Germany, there weren’t significant museums and art scenes in multiple cities. So, for me it was necessary to go to Paris. I arrived there in 1981 and found a basement studio so I could start working right away.
Rail: Where was this studio?
Piffaretti: Near the Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement.
Rail: What was the art scene like in Paris?
Piffaretti: In the early 1980s, the galleries were full of paintings by the Italian Transavanguardia artists, and German and American Neo-Expressionists and the French artists in the Figuration Libre movement. Their emphasis on themes and myths from history and on personal mythologies didn’t engage the questions that seemed to me essential, questions like: what is a painting [tableau]? What is painting? Little by little, I found my way. I looked at what had happened in France in the preceding generation, in particular Supports/Surfaces and BMPT. I also paid attention to the American Abstract Expressionists, and to American Pop art, which found a way to very efficiently create images and figures. I was struck by how some Abstract Expressionists took details and enlarged them to make painting, and how the artists of Supports/Surfaces and BMPT deconstructed painting by analyzing its constituents.
Rail: I can see how you were influenced by the critical stance of BMPT and the deconstructive approach of Supports/Surfaces, and why you rejected the Neo-Expressionism that was so fashionable in the early 1980s, but all the same, you were making paintings. Your choice to be a painter occurred at a moment when painting became acceptable again. You participated in that generational movement. Yet you had mixed feelings. You were skeptical about the “return to painting,” even though not everyone could see this aspect of your work.
Piffaretti: It’s true that in the 1980s my painting was misunderstood [mal vu] because it was seen as backward-looking. It can take time to be understood. For me it was necessary to set myself apart from the questions of the moment. Instead of looking at Neo Expressionism, it was artists like Shirley Jaffe who were important to me because the fundamental questions that I cared about were present in the work.
Rail: I assume you met Shirley when you began showing at Galerie Jean Fournier. I have always wondered how you came to show with Fournier, which was already one of the most established galleries in Paris. It was your very first gallery.
Piffaretti: I’ll tell you how it happened. At the end of 1981, I mailed photographs of my work to various French museums, the Musée de la Ville de Paris, the Musée de Marseille, maybe the museum in Saint-Étienne, and to the CAPC in Bordeaux. It turned out that the CAPC was preparing an exhibition curated by Jean-Louis Froment titled Fragments et Figures. Two days after receiving my photos, they invited me to be in the show. Jean Fournier saw the exhibition, which opened in May 1982, and apparently my work interested him. The next year I went to see him at his gallery. Then he came to my studio. I had my first solo show at the gallery in 1983.
Rail: The artists showing at Fournier at the time were Americans: Shirley Jaffe, Joan Mitchell, Sam Francis, and the Supports/Surfaces veteran Claude Viallat and, I think, still, Simon Hantaï.
Piffaretti: Actually, this was the period when Hantaï had already decided to withdraw from exhibiting. I ran into him several times at the gallery and it was very demoralizing. He would say to me: “There’s no point in working. No one understands what one does.” When I went back to my studio, I was very dispirited because of this negative attitude toward everything.
Rail: The main artists of the gallery were all significantly older than you. In 1983, you were 28.
Piffaretti: Yes, that’s true, though there were some artists of more or less my generation who came and went, like Stéphane Bordarier and Christian Bonnefoi. Still, it was with older artists like Shirley that I had the closer connection. Some people were bothered by the fact of someone of my generation working with Fournier. In the French art world, people are put in boxes right away. For many critics and curators, the fact that I showed with Fournier meant that they wouldn’t look at my work. The poet-critic Marcelin Pleynet had an interesting position on painting, but I think he found my work too “designed,” a little too Duchampian.
Rail: Who were the critics who did look at your work?
Piffaretti: Jean-Pierre Criqui supported me, and also Yves Michaud. At the beginning, Michaud wrote some good texts about my paintings, but I later took distance from his positions.
Rail: Why was that? Michaud wrote engagingly about many of the artists at Fournier.
Piffaretti: In the beginning I found his writing on Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell, and Shirley Jaffe to be perceptive, but slowly he became antagonistic toward contemporary art, and he made artistic choices that didn’t seem to me good ones.
Rail: I’ve noticed that. In his most recent book, he proclaims that art is totally finished, killed off by too much money. But to go back to the 1980s. You emerged around the same time as Neo-Geo and Appropriation Art. Like Peter Halley and a number of other painters, you brought a certain notion of critique to abstraction.
Piffaretti: I was aware of American appropriation artists like Sherrie Levine. Their work confirmed ideas that I already had, that’s to say, if you look at the history of art, at the history of painting, things are always being reprised. Those artists made choices, they engaged in what I call the “pick up,” which happens to be the title of this show. I arrived in a more indirect manner. For me, it is only through working on the painting that images and situations could appear, rather than defining them at the start, as artists like Levine and Halley did. Halley established his vocabulary of cells, circuits, and prisons, which obviously referred to the art of a preceding generation, to Minimalism and serial repetition. I didn’t decide on any visual lexicon. I focused on the practice of painting, rather than on any set of images or forms. Let me give you an example of what I mean. There’s a 1999 painting of mine that will be included in a show this summer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC on the theme of the Double. In this painting I used black paint to cover up what had been on the canvas before. As I was doing this, I thought of the double door Duchamp had installed at his apartment on Rue Larrey, and also of Matisse’s 1914 painting Porte-Fenêtre à Coullioure where he used black paint to completely cover the view of a landscape through an open French window. My painting is by no means a conscious “pick up” of Duchamp or Matisse, but the relationship is there.
Rail: You didn’t plan this beforehand?
Piffaretti: Absolutely not. It’s an apparition, not an appropriation.
Rail: For me, a crucial aspect of your work is the absence of direct references to actual objects. There are no images or forms that refer to the world outside of the painting. I believe that as an artist you are aware of the world around you, the everyday world, and that sometimes details in the paintings may take inspiration from something you’ve seen. But as with Shirley Jaffe, they are never recognizable. Another important thing is that your work is always distinctly handmade.
Piffaretti: Exactly. Figures always appear, whether from the history of art or from the real world of the street, of architecture, of billboards, but for me they arrive through the “petite porte,” that’s to say through the practice of painting. This is what interests me, rather than paying homage to Matisse or Duchamp or Piero della Francesca. As for what you say about my work looking handmade, when you are in front of a painting, evidence of the hand is always visible. It happens equally in front of a painting made in the twenty-first century or in the sixteenth century.
Rail: It has recently struck me that one result of dividing the canvas at the beginning is that you are obliged, as you work on the first half, to make a composition within a narrow vertical space. This means that conventional compositional strategies, which assume a wider support, aren’t available to you.
Piffaretti: Yes, that’s true. But the narrowness is also necessary for a very practical reason. When a large canvas is too horizontal rather than vertical, there is too much distance between the two halves. There’s a large painting of mine in the Centre Pompidou (it happens to be on view now concurrently with the Shirley Jaffe retrospective) that is almost fifteen feet wide. As I was painting it, I noticed a perspectival effect that was problematic. Because there is so large a gap between the first and second parts, the elements on either side became new forms of expression, even though they resemble each other. This horizontal gap revealed the size limit of this format.
Rail: The Pompidou painting tells us something about the function of space in your work, but time is equally important. I love how you refer to the two halves of your paintings by the phrases, “le premier temps” and “le second temps.” But those “times” are not distinct, any more than the two halves of the canvases are. For instance, while you are working on the first half of a canvas, you must be aware to some degree of the second half waiting for you, and of course while you are painting the second half, you are quite aware of what you have painted on the first half. One consequence of this is that while you are working you are always elsewhere [d’ailleurs]. There’s a kind of Deleuzian deterritorialization that happens.
Piffaretti: Exactly. The structure of my painting with these two parts, these two times, is a montage. For me it’s important to say that ultimately all paintings are montages of different elements. Since the beginning of painting, whatever the civilization or period, whether it is Cubism or Italian Mannerists of the sixteenth century, the viewer in front of the painting must reconstruct two times of painting, which means taking an active role.
Rail: As Duchamp famously said, it is the viewer who completes the work of art. But even though this completion or, as you put it, “montage,” happens in front of any work of art, your paintings make the viewer who is completing one of your paintings hyper-conscious of this process.
Piffaretti: It happens to me as well. I always say that while I am working on the first half, this situation that I am placing on the canvas is already a memory of what will happen afterwards on the second half. This is why I am not at all in the same situation as the Abstract Expressionists who engaged all the canvas. Nor is my work like Rauschenberg’s mythic Factum I and Factum II (both 1957), which was a direct criticism of that generation. People often cite Factum I and Factum II in writing about my work—interestingly, both Factums will be in the National Gallery’s The Double show—but I think there is a fundamental difference. Clearly, Factum I is the original and Factum II is a copy. That’s not the case with my paintings, where you can’t know which side came first. With Rauschenberg, “1 plus 1 equals 2,” but for me “1 plus 1 equals 1.”
Rail: Well, I guess I have to declare mea culpa, since I’m one of those who has compared your work to Rauschenberg’s Factum paintings. But it’s quite clear that you refuse the idea of the origin. This to me seems closely connected to the efforts of philosophers in the 1960s and 1970s to question the concept of origin, to reject foundationalism. I’m thinking primarily of Jacques Derrida. One thing I have always found striking about your work is how you engage with deeply conceptual issues, but you do so through paintings that are full of painterly invention and visual energy. It’s certainly visible in this show, which has both older and recent paintings. This raises another important point. Even though I’ve known your work for a long time, it’s very hard to tell whether a painting is new or old. In your oeuvre, there are no “development,” no “periods,” no “series.” I can never say, “oh, that’s from the 1980s, that’s from the 1990s.”
Piffaretti: For the last five or six years, I’ve mixed older and newer paintings in my shows because finally, as I often say, there are no such things as “recent paintings” in my work. It’s true that these stories of origin or of completion are seen as fundamental to the history of painting. But, as I said earlier, in front of a painting of the sixteenth century, if you look at and understand how the painting was made, it becomes completely current. Often when people look at my work, they begin by trying to figure out which side was painted first, the left or the right. In fact, this is totally unimportant because for me the painting has already begun before I start painting, and it’s not finished when I re-paint on the second side. It’s the same with an ensemble of paintings. They do not constitute a series. Each is a rupture. There is a continuum, because of the similar format, but it is a continuum with many gaps. Of course, you could define an evolution, a chronology, in order to identify older and newer work, but I think it would be less useful than it is with many other artists.
Rail: I know that you have what you call “derivative products” [produits dérivés], works that are by-products of the paintings. Could you talk about those?
Piffaretti: Certainly. One group are the colored-pencil drawings that I make after the paintings. I first started doing this in the 1990s. These drawings after the paintings arrived in a natural way. At the time, I was making sixty or seventy paintings a year. A moment came when I felt the need for a pause, so that I could look back and see what had happened in the studio. So, I hung some finished paintings on the wall and used colored pencils to copy them onto small sheets of paper. Remaking the paintings on paper had nothing to do with the duplications in the paintings. These drawings were a little like wall labels. They include the year the painting was made and its dimensions, and of course an image of the painting. As well as reversing or negating the habitual chronology, it shows that in my work there are no preparatory drawings. And it gives me a break from time to time. While the paintings are still in the studio, I stop painting and make drawings for a week or ten days. There’s nothing systematic about it. It is just when it becomes necessary for me.
Rail: What about the “petits tableaux”?
Piffaretti: These are paintings I make on leftover scraps of canvas that I stretch on small standard wooden stretchers—square, horizontal, or oval. I add the central mark in black, but nothing else. Like the colored-pencil drawings, these can only exist because the painting is already there. If the painting didn’t exist, there would be no scraps, so these works couldn’t be made. Usually, derivative works are made in multiples, but all of mine are unique objects. It’s a way of reemphasizing the fundamental question of the work. I also make what I call “Poncifs,” which are halftone digital images of the paintings, printed on plain standard paper like you use in everyday life. In art-historical terminology, poncif refers to the traditional technique of reproducing drawings and decorations by pushing charcoal dust through perforated paper. But in spoken French, it means something that is a cliché, something everyone uses.
Rail: When did you begin making the “Poncifs”?
Piffaretti: I think around 2000. These by-products aren’t produced systematically. Some years I make them, some years I don’t. They follow the rhythm of exhibitions.
Rail: I realized that I just did something problematic by asking when you started making Poncifs. I was seeking to impose a chronological narrative on your work. It’s just the kind of question that critics and art historians often ask because they feel a need to tell a story of beginnings and development and periods. Talk about clichés! With you, chronology is not only difficult, it’s useless. Conventional temporal structure, whether in a single painting, or across the ensemble of works, is something you always try to resist. It just occurred to me that it might be better to approach your work in a synchronic fashion, for instance, cataloging the many ways that drips function in your work. I’m especially fascinated by how they work in the “green painting” at Lisson where they offer hints about the almost invisible circles underneath the green paint.
Piffaretti: Before I answer your question about the recurring role of color in my paintings, I’d like to add something about how I use clichés. There’s a kind of paradoxical paradox at work. The duplication visually doubles the first pictorial situation, but in fact it annuls it, it denies everything that I have placed on the first half of the canvas. A similar negation happens in the fourth category of “derivative products,” which we haven’t mentioned, the “tableaux en négatifs.” These are tondo canvases that seem to feature details from larger paintings. But if a viewer tries to find the original painting, this attempt is destined to fail. These apparent “details” don't correspond to any existing work. I affirm the painting in denying it—the circle is completed!
Rail: A real painting that cites a fictional painting. They’re like those apocryphal bibliographical references that Borges slips into his stories.
Piffaretti: Coming back to the role of color in my work. You know that common and banal thing that happens to almost every painter: when you are working on a canvas, especially when it’s placed vertically, the paint will sometimes run and drip. In my work, this “accidental” dripping is an index of the differences between the two “times” of my paintings. When it comes to reproducing drips, there’s no symmetry, no precision of duplication. The drips are reminders of how far I am from any kind of mechanical reproduction. I think of the “second” drips as a kind of controlled skidding [dérapage contrôlé]. They can also provide clues about the making of the painting. The painting we were talking about where some circles have been covered up with green brushwork is a good example of this. In one area, there’s a particular blue drip on the white ground. Visually, it automatically attaches itself to a circle a little bit above it that has been covered with green paint. Here again, the viewer is given the possibility of remaking the painting.
Rail: Yes, I noticed that, and puzzled over it. At first, because of the green overpainting, you can’t tell what color that circle is, but when you connect it to the blue drip, voilà, you know the circle must have been blue!
Piffaretti: On Saturday, I went to MoMA to see the exhibition around Matisse’s Red Studio. In one of the galleries there’s a documentary about the restoration of the painting. I think it illustrates what I’ve been talking about. Why so much red? In the film, the conservators stress the fact that when the painting was removed from its frame, the colors blue and yellow were identifiable around the edges of the canvas. That’s an interesting discovery, but I would go further. When Matisse painted The Red Studio, his studio was surrounded by a large garden dominated by the greenness of trees and plants. Now, Matisse once stated that even though his model was wearing a purple dress, if the painting demanded that he change the dress’s color, he changed it. I would dare to say that the green environment around the studio pushed Matisse to paint nearly the entire canvas in red. Why red? If you combine yellow and blue, those colors around the edge of the painting, you get green, and the complimentary of green is… red. It’s color that explains this painting. Those yellow and blue “drips” retrace the genesis of The Red Studio. In the same way, to the tenth power, that Pollock’s drips magisterially record the figure of the artist at work. But since his body is absent, this figure is a negative one. It’s remains up to us to follow the path of his drips. On the Road Again!