Since he began working in the 1970s the French artist Bernard Frize, 64, has been relentlessly questioning the artistic process and the role of the painter. To him, the notions of work, time, chance, and creative tools are key, and the act of painting has to be demystified. One year ahead of a major retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Simon Lee and Emmanuel Perrotin galleries will present a joint exhibition of his latest works at Art Basel 2018. We caught up with Frize in his Paris studio as he prepared for the show. (This interview was translated from French by the writer.)
How did you come up with this selection for Art Basel?
It was Emmanuel Perrotin’s and Simon Lee’s my gallerists's — choice. Originally, we wanted to present a mix of older and more recent pieces. Afterward, when we really started to work on the show, we changed our minds. It’s not always easy to contrast different periods. In a fair like Art Basel, you need to be loud, obvious. It’s not really the place to explain things. Especially with this year’s setting, on two floors. On the first floor, I was limited on the formats I could display, because the ceiling is quite low. Some of my older paintings are pretty big, so I imagined new pieces for that particular environment.
Did you work in Paris solely for this project?
No. Even though I did some of the smaller pieces here, I have been living in Berlin for nearly thirteen years now, and I mainly work in my studio there. My new house in Berlin has been designed by the architect Philipp von Matt, with a studio on the top floor. To me, the best constructions are the result of a co-creation. Just like the program of a gallery is imagined between the gallerist and the artists.
Do you always get deeply involved in your exhibitions?
Yes, of course. First of all, I study the floor plan of the gallery, the space, the volumes that will be devoted to my works. Then the team comes up with mockups where we position the artwork. It’s much better than working on a computer, because of the perspective distortions. I think about it a long time ahead. Often when we are on site for the hanging, we decide to change this or that. It is important to take the architecture into consideration. But even more to tell a story. We have to take the visitor from one painting to another.
Why is that so important to you?
I feel a need for coherence, though sometimes it might not be visible. That’s why I always find it difficult to talk about an exhibition beforehand. On location, you get to see how things articulate. You cannot imagine how difficult it is to switch from interior to exterior. In the studio, I am at home. I paint and work, and there is not necessarily a logic. When I show my work, I give it away for people to see. At that point, the paintings have a meaning, which is not always the one I had imagined. From then on, the confrontation of viewpoints is more interesting. I can confront my vision with the public’s and get to better understand what I have been wanting to express.
How do you envision the exhibition of your studio work?
I don’t think an exhibition is a way of giving a superficial meaning to a body of work or series of paintings. It just enables me to update the reasons for the choices I’ve made. There are so many reasons why I do what I do. Some of them even might not be good at all! Sometimes things happen on the canvas because it’s just the act of working which has called them, or by coincidence.
Chance, accidents, are words you often use when you describe the creation process. Why?
I jump from one series of paintings to another. Sometimes I go back to a series because it resonates with something I have just done. Other times, working on a series is just a way of depleting a theme, a type of painting, until I find a way out. There are also lonely paintings that are separate from the rest. I am never tired of experimenting.
How do you add a painting to a previous series?
When it comes, when it resonates with it. When I have finished preparing an exhibition, I can go back to complete a series, or open a new one. Many opportunities lay ahead. I am not sure it’s calculated. It just happens. I am not interested in branding my work. I understand perfectly the need for some artists to always do the same thing. But I could never do this!
You have never belonged to any movement and have always kept your independence. Is this a key to understanding your style?
When I started showing my work in the ’70s, minimalism was everywhere. Painting was banned. It was the context. I was never into this, and I’ve always painted my way. Nobody was expecting me, so I felt free to go wherever I chose to go. I remember putting together shows in some of my previous galleries, but nobody showed up for the opening. I am far from being a martyr, but for a long period of time, it was very complicated for me.
Do you feel things are easier today for painters?
For me yes, but not only me. Even for young painters, the whole environment has changed. Today, a painter does not have to prove he is a painter. A few years back, critics, journalists had put a ban on painting. The only thing that they cared for was conceptual art and installations. Intellectually we are still there, but commercially, painting is making a comeback.
Are these some of the reasons you chose to settle in Berlin?
Yes but not only. What struck me in Germany is the fact that people don’t care about whether you paint or not. What interests them if whether good, or not. Exchanging ideas with other artists is easier too. In Germany people appreciate paintings, they understand them. Even the press is more supportive, less superficial.
Why is that so?
After World War II, everybody understood culture was the best rampart against barbarism. Since then, each city in Germany has been given a cultural center. For a long time, this led to glorious moments for German and American art. Now, of course, people, especially outside of metropolitan areas, are becoming more conservative. There are also an incredible number of huge private collections in Germany. You can’t imagine for example the number of Warhol’s works that are kept in private hands there.
How are you working on your exhibition next year at Pompidou in Paris?
In fact, I’m not working on it at all. I have been very busy with other things, and so has the curator, Angela Lampe. What interests me in this retrospective is the vision of the curator, which is not a traditional one. I’m intrigued by her angle, how she sees my work.
It’s quite difficult to imagine you not getting involved?
For now, I want to stay receptive to what she will suggest. Of course, there will be discussions. We still have one year to work on it. Right now I’m focused on Art Basel. Some of the works I have not even painted. I don’t even know what they will be!
Do you listen to what people say or write about your work?
Not really. It really depends who’s talking. I also have an ability to isolate myself from the world when I work. Nobody can distract me from what I’m doing. I usually plan whole days of painting, and since I paint quite quickly, it’s generally pretty productive. When I paint, I can’t stop. I need at least four hours in a row. But it has to be every day.
How do you choose your different formats?
They depend on what I intend to do with them. For each project comes a specific canvas. But since I paint alone, I am relatively limited to the scope that my little arms can cover. Also when I lay the canvases on the floor, I need to use small ones, otherwise I can’t reach the middle. That’s why I don’t paint huge formats.
What do you consider key to the longevity of your career, your persistence?
Mainly because I’ve had the chance to have galleries on my side that have always supported my work. Or else I would have messed up. Since 2000 I have been working with Emmanuel Perrotin, for instance. I was the first painter in his gallery. Before me, he had never shown any paintings. His support has enabled my work to evolve. I am also represented by Simon Lee and naechst St.Stephan galleries. I am not the only one responsible.