Charles-Henri Monvert and Philippe Cyroulnik
in Charles-Henri Monvert, MACC, May 1992
PC: What made you decide to move towards abstract art in your painting?
CHM : It became essential right from the way I looked at the art and paintings in museums and exhibitions. Through a meeting with a Polish artist who played a decisive role in my decision to paint? There was also Mondrian. My work has centred a lot on him. Then American Art and Support-Surface. As regards American art it is especially Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhard. I could mention Frank Stella, Robert Ryman and Brice Marden. I had a shock encounter with Newman at Stedilijk and I admire Reinhard; his obsession; his way of painting; the flashes of inspiration of his brushwork. That fascinates me; the brushwork can be seen and then it disappears, buried under numerous layers of paint. While in Mondrian's work it is perceptible we see it, we can really see the material. There is also Strezminski and through him Malevitch. I was brought up on Russian Avant garde and De Stijl.
PC: To be more precise, how did the relationship with the pictorial work of the artists around Support-Surface effect you?
CHM : It was a form of deconstruction of painting. How to deconstruct the pictorial work so as to get the most obvious and basic forms. Having said this I am very much a painter, very much ''paintings'' and the aspect of medium did not interest me much... I have, however, worked a great deal on frames, and this is quite close to the ideas of Support-Surface as regards deconstruction. It also involves working on the monochrome: it was a way of getting rid of all the references to the image of painting, the imagery of painting. These things were transmitted visually above all, i.e. by thinking about the paintings and the artists, who do this kind of work.
With this experience and way of looking at paintings I began to put some work together on a series and I explored the possibilities which enabled me to move on to another question. The idea of questions about a painting comes from Martin Barré : he played an important part in my development because his method was an investigation which corresponded exactly to what l thought about painting.
PC: If you had to take one essential thing from Martin Barré' s work what would it be ?
CHM: The use of pencil and paint and the burying of the paint in the painting, a sort of link between the dissolution and the recomposition of the material which disappears in the strata, in the layers and which reappears in the painting expressed in another way.
PC: When you speak about dissolution, recomposition in the painting what do you mean as regards material ?
CHM: It is the painting, the pictorial material, whatever the colour. The problem of colour is not important but that of the material itself.
PC: In the Support-Surface experience you were more interested in artists such as Pincemin or Viallat...
CHM: Yes, I do not work on the image and Pincemin at the time worked exactly on the problem of the construction of pictorial space. That is was interests me more: the construction of a painting with a minimum of visible means. Because the central question for me was the painting. I went through a phase of explosion, I needed to explode the painting, to assemble, to verify this sort of explosion of paintings, formats which would be worked on separately and which would re-form in their own way.
PC: What part do the notions of series and rupture play in your work, is it as regards a model idea or in the sense of the inflexion of an intention in its variations or in a combinatory logique?
CHM: It must come from the problem of the uncertain. I worked on frames a long time ago and in reperted passages of painting there is an aspect of uncertainty which intervenes: the canvas multiplies, repeats itself (on 6 paintings for example) yet each painting is different having been rigourously made in the same way. This movement interests me. It made me move towards another method of painting, another way of seeing the painting. Or rather another question because each series asks a very precise question about the paint, the format, the articulation and this question allows a new series to be put into place. Each series pushes me towards another series. Each time several elements are used again and reexplored in the following series. It is a very important element in my work.
PC: How do you evaluate the relevance of a painting?
CHM: The relevance is the tension of the painting... The tension and the apparition. The painting begins with a frame and a canvas. From this frame and this canvas the paint braces space and enables it to exist, to detach itself from the person who made it. So from the moment that I can no longer intervene on it, when there is a sort of detachment, distance between the painting and l, the painting becomes independent, I have solved the problem. This enables me to move away and to recheck other points; always points belonging to the previous series, to ask the other series a question again, to explore it, and each time to make it more complicated.
PC: AIl of the colourist and gestural problems or those relating to the expressive responsibility of painting do not seem to be within your work?
CHM: Yes, and what is more I used the ruler so as to avoid gesture, I aimed for the disappearance of gesture. It was an illusory aim as gesture always exists. Whatever we do there is a gesture and there is a trace. My way of thinking amongst other things is based on the tension of space and the real disappearance of my trace as a painter. The brushwork reveals the painting, and in my opinion, the painter is less important than the painting, I think that the painting is in some way ??a being?? which has its own life, not that I do not paint my paintings but I look at them as if I had not painted them. When the painting is finished it has become independent, it exists. It exists outside of me and outside the work that I did in making it. This more or less explains the rejection of the brushwork which we are attached to and which gives a sort of signature to things.
PC: In your work there is a constant passage between the moments when you do the monochromes and then other moments when you return to what could be a structure, a drawing, a form... did you start painting with the monochrome and what brings on the fact that you regularly return to the monochrome in your work ?
CHM: I started with the monochrome. In fact, I think that I do not use the monochrome because the monochrome has become a readymade. I myself do paintings. Further more, the idea of the monochrome in my work is complicated because there has always been something other than that. In the first monochromes that I did there were collages underneath which short-circuited the idea that we do monochrome. There were often two sorts of very close colours (different blues, different reds or different yellows). After that, even in white monochromes there is always work in colour underneath. Each time the question is asked I find another solution to escape from this problem of monochrome.
PC: You said that you had chosen the Painting. Was this choice based on the fact that you prefer to use oil paint ?
CHM: Oil paint because it is a material I am in communication with, but I also work on paper, so I do not work with oil in that case.
PC: I am speaking as regards the painting ...
CHM: Yes, I look for a certain tactility, a certain quality and I think: that now it is with oil that it happens. It can also happen with acrylic. Martin Barré uses acrylic and he obtains the result he wants to, it is not colder, but hotter but for the moment I am absolutely caught up in this problem of oil. I work with layers, I look for the ??aura?? of a painting, a metaphysical presence, but that can exist with something else. The technique is not a very important thing. We invent it depending on our needs.
PC: What is the relationship between form and the pictorial material in your work? You have already said that you work with frames and grids ?
CHM: I work with a grid on its own in the assemblage of a painting, it was the assemblages which formed this grid and formerly the frame was the depth, the infinite passage along the same traces ... which is a reminder of the structure of the frame of the canvas. Today I still work on these problems but there is constant movement; from series to series I do not want to give the same thing to be seen. There is always a new question, a new possibility for the grid. It is a structure which can be used and explored and produce something different to see which is in fact always the same thing; a sort of lure as far as the spectator who is looking and thinking is concerned, seeing a different thing when in fact he always sees a possibility for the same structure. This is in place so as to escape the B.M.P. T. situation in which the paintings are always the same or they always seem to have the same form, the same structure...
PC: By saying that, are you not pointing the finger in fact at what differenciates you from certain ideas within the field of painting which have gone as far as to question the object-painting, the frame and the canvas as privileged media of painting, to reduce painting to its basic material constituant parts and to reduce the gap between art and painting in the building industry as B.M.P.T. stated in 1967?
CHM: Yes, it is important. I left everything which did not interest me to one side because I had a painting destruction way of thinking. I personally believe in the painting and I think: that there are still many things to be said and to be done about the painting and art. l, therefore, refused to follow this direction yet remained very close to it. It is a very thin edge, as is the difference between a successful painting and one that has failed.
PC: What is the relationship between the departure grid drawn on to the canvas, the paintwork and the drawing in your work ?
CHM: I do not think that there is a drawing, unless it is that of the structure, of the line. There is a line, the painting is divided into squares and after that, the format and the series guide you towards a possibility. What will be produced on the painting is determined by the painting itself. It is diffIcult to explain because the painting is a sort of obviousness which has its own laws and its own logical reasoning. From this logical reasoning we can move towards certain possibilities, but in order for the painting to take its place very few of these will be retained. It is a kind of coming and going between me and the painting. It is not a magical thing, it is a reality. I think it is the format which produces this articulation. The format for me represents the limit between one edge and another edge. And it is this limit that I talk about in my paintings.
PC: Yes, but as far as the structure is concerned and therefore the emergence of forms and the material in some of your work (eg two triangles, 1988) there is investigation working to a form and often, alongside the relation between form/structure there is a game of vis-à-vis, of symmetry. The work of covering and erasing generates a form and a game between negative and positive.
CHM: One of the possibilities, but there is always one which is more pertinent and which means that the painting begins to articulate, to take hold of itself and to become tense. Afterwards, there is all the work on the passages, on the choice of colour which is very important because the painting calls for colours which are more pertinent than others.
PC: Colour does not seem to be the first preoccupation in your work?
CHM: No, it is not very important. However, colour is vast, white can also be colour, as can black and in my opinion what gives this quality of colour is the tension. Pictorial work is tension by means of layers and repeated passages, which give this quality of colouring ; I do not think of doing black and white as I do not think of doing red or yellow when I use red and yellow.
What I am labouriously trying to say is that art never shows what it shows when all is said and done. A sort of permanence, proximity, is needed in order to really be able to understand a painting. To see what it is exactly. It often shows us one side which is not always its reality. Ryman does things like that to a certain extent... One day we can walk past a Ryman and see a white painting and three days later in front of the same one we see a grey painting.
That is my relationship with a painting. The painting does not always straightaway give you an idea of what it is. You have to know how to tame it and how to look at it. And that can depend on many things which change daily and perpetuelly. That is why I say that it lives, and that paintings escape us. Of course that is the standard old thing that the person who has done the painting says, but it is true that at some stage the painting is independent and exists before your eyes. It exists by giving you certain things and keeping others.
PC: Could you talk to us about the last two series of paintings, that of 91 and 92 ?
CHM: I wanted to eliminate colour and go back to things which are less noted, ground where I thought I had something to look at with smaller colour gaps. I used these earth colours to eliminate all the colour problems and to go back to black and white; it is important to say this because I coud not pass directly, directly eliminate this colour, done in ac onceptual way in today's sense. I mean, which passes directly by thought and which takes out all the means of production... I had to pass by the reduction of colour gaps so as to solve this problem of black and white and to tackle the last series which had been put into place (207 x 198 cm). The succession of canvases 180 x 189 cm which precedes it enabled me to make the transition in the last six paintings. Black and white really stood out as the most pertinent solution. There is always a coming and going of pertinence between what I can call the painting and what I would like to impose on it. And it that case what happened was that I tried to impose on it and what it had imposed on me was the double. There are series which are built on this principle. The structure reversed itself, there is a sort of positive/negative relationship. In this format it came and transplanted itself above a disturbance of space, a rotation of space, a rotation of the preceding series within the plan of the new format.
PC: As if the old painting became the structure of the painting again ?
CHM: That is it exactly. A sort of reference, an element of the preceding series comes to activate the following series. Between the two there was a series of small paintings in which the line was put into place. A line which goes though space and in this small series there was evidence of this line which moved in the big ones.
PC: In the big paintings of 1992 is what you call the line materialised in these right angles which complete the painting, being incised on the surface?
CHM: Yes, incised, yes it is important, it is to destroy the problem of the plan a little, so that the plan is not the only and sole preoccupation, and it is also the resurgence of the drawing or rather (hat of the pencil; of the paint and the pencil. It was undemeath, hidden, buried and then it reappears and structures the work in an important way. As for the disturbance... this rotation from the old format to the new is to avoid the edge, the restricting problem of the edge. to avoid its repetition.
PC: Is it the paint i.e. the covering work between the very strong structure at the beginning of the departure grid and the genesis of a form, of a drawing or of a cutout ?
CHM: Yes, it is the covering work. It is the pictorial work. The paint produces a tension which for me is the depth. The passage and the repeated work on this articulation produce a tension and tighten the painting which exists because of this articulation. We can very easily reduce the tensions and the passages, manage to tighten a space with three layers of paint or one layer. The painting passes by repeated actions from passage, from covering, from uncovering. And at a certain moment space builds up and it becomes independent. The painting then exists by itself, without accepting another intervention by my hand.
PC: Can you explain the erradication of the curved or circular structure in your work ?
CHM: It is because I work on a grid, even though it allows curves, round-shapes, circles to be made; I am more interested in the right angle, construction in force and repetition.
PC: Does it have the same status as orthogonality in relation to space in Mondrian's work?
CHM: yes, it makes space more pertinent and it affirms it more in relation to the edges. The painting thus acquires a sort of monumentality.
PC: In your work there are relations of symmetry and relations of scale, articulations and line constructives as if the line constructed a form which is itself denied or confirmed by the paint.
CHM: Yes that is exactly the question of drawing. There is first of all a relational problem and then the painting must eliminate it by tightening its space. The forms and the thing which was inscribed must be diluted and disappear to the benefit of the painting, to the benefit of the whole, that is why l always talk about tension, because for me the painting is not - imagining there are five squares on the painting - they are not five squares, it is a whole. A whole perceptible in its totality and its globality, we must above all not just perceive one thing, one element. It is for this reason that there are reductions, constructions, which mean that the whole space is brought into play so as to succeed with the painting. In the 1988 canvases there was a relationship of division so as to complicate the approach even more and to try to be as close to unity as possible. Really my problem is unity. The series of painting which enabled me to pass to the unity of the painting was a painting which is no longer assembled, it was rectangular and square forms, three squares and two rectangles which were assembled, it was a series of six paintings done in 1989. I reexplored the same problems of colour which I had tackled in 1988, but I worked on assembled squares (135 x 135 cm). This assemblage disappeared with the effect of the paint layers; it is monochrome. Because of passages, cracks were filled in which meant that I could take a step towards the unity of the painting, and the elimination of assemblage. What I call assemblage is surely in reference to Elsworth Kelly. I myself do not work on visual things.
PC: You told me before that it happened above all by the visual, is there not a contradiction in your statement?
CHM: I mean a visual that is not a landscape, as Kelly, for me works on shadows, on landscapes, on things which surround us. I work on a visual which is immediate, which is a direct relationship with the painting. That is what happens between me and the painting.
PC: The thing that preoccupies you then essentially is the visual as a pictorial phenomenon ?
CHM: Yes, that is right, the visual as pictorial, absolutely. Detached from all exterior context, that is very important for me the painting suffises itself, it calls for nothing else other than itself. I used this grid to eliminate a visual which belonged to something other than a painting. The visual is only the painting.
PC: How do you define yourself in relation to a whole trend of artistic production today which perhaps never stops affirming that the object painting has become obsolete, outdated, nostalgic.
CHM: I do not believe that at all, the death of the painting has been announced fifty times, each time... the painting is ??killed?? and it ??comes back to life again?? all the time. It has barely started. The history of abstraction has barely started. The problem of the painting today is impossible to solve. This is what has motivated me for quite a few years.
PC: Before you do a painting you do a huge amount of drawings to which you in fact accord very little importance as regards the painting?
CHM: It allows me to check the direction I want to take or to sketch out the continuation of the work between two series, or to note ideas which l verify visually. Each series of paintings has Its own logical reasoning and calls for a certain articulation. The drawings allow me to approach a certain reality, a certain question asked in the previous series. It is also a way of thinking of the format. There is perhaps a question of time. I takes a long time to put a series into place, I need to get rid of certain questions wich are asked. Therefore in my work things are not verified by thinking about them or by noting them down, but by doing them on a piece of paper. I have to work like this; it is only in this way that they are destroyed.
PC: I would like you to come back to the problem of passages in your painting, i.e. the burying, the covering and at the same time the way in which the form is braced.
CHM: It is a system which works on repetitive things, the squares of this grid as well, the lines which generate one another, and form a course. The passages of painting are also a repetitive structure. Everything is incorporated and everything is repeated indefinitely. It is by repeating Itself and by coming back indefinitely to things that the painting is made: I need to pass through this stage of construction. What l ask of the painting, or what it imposes on me, is this form of articulation. In order to seize space to embrace space I need to go through all of these manoeuvres, all of these stages.
Charles-Henri Monvert and Philippe Cyroulnik