Bernard Aubertin. Pictorial situation of red
1962 is the turning point, when Bernard Aubertin takes part in the "Tentoonstelling Nul", inaugurated on March 9th at Willem Sandberg's Steldelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Coordinated by Henk Peeters, the exhibition consolidates the essential part of the different experiences shaking the European world of art at the end of the 50's.
Aubertin displays his paintings with Armando, Bury, Castellani, Dada Maino, De Vries, Dorazio, Fontana, Goepfert, Haacke, Henderikse, Holweck, Kusama, Lo Savio, Mack, Manzoni, Mavignier, Megert, Peeters, Piene, Pohl, Schoonhoven, Uecker, Verheyen, so as to outline (for the public) and endorse (for the activist world of the avant-guardes) the eruption of the new generation that was started in 1957 by Yves Klein and evolved through the forging inspection of monochromy rather than through the distinct objecthood of the Nouveau Réalisme: the one that went through the line of "Monochrome Malerei" homologated by Udo Kultermann on 18th March 1960 at Leverkusen Städtisches Museum, rather than the new realism undersigned by Pierre Restany on 16th April 1960 for the May exhibition at Apollinaire Gallery in Milan where the question is about the "thrilling adventure of reality sensed in itself and not through the prism of conceptual or imaginative transliteration".
The exhibition takes the title "Nul", instead of "Zero" (that was the title chosen in autonomous parallelism both by Mack and Piene on 24th April 1958 in Düsseldorf and by the group coordinated by Hans Sonnenberg, Manzoni and Schoonhoven that on 1st July 1959 opens an exhibition at Rotterdamsche Kunstring in Rotterdam) and is videotaped to create a nice documentary film, 0x0=kunst, directed by Gerd Winkler for Frankfurt Hessischer Rundfunk, that is broadcasted on 27th June 1962. Aubertin is filmed while he prepares and fulfils a Tableau de Feu, operation in which are involved both the situational and spectacular aspect and its sedimentation into a work existing in itself and not as simple remains of a fact.
Aubertin, being the only French artist of this area who immediately senses the drastic capacity of Klein's work (who was even flanked by Mathieu at the first Zero exhibition), becomes his disciple, 6 years younger but highly sharp from the beginning, exploring the conceptual involvement of his work and assuming some of his operational indications to develop them autonomously.
The monochromy at first and the pictorial intellect of fire immediately after, occasionally announced by Klein in 1957 in Feux de Bengale - Tableau de feu bleu d'une minute, displayed by Colette Allendy (now at Menil), will take a leading role in January 1961 in "Yves Klein: Monochrome und Feuer" at Haus Lange Museum in Krefeld.
The main attraction area in this first season, for him just like for his older friend - whose cooperation with artists like Werner Ruhnau and his future brother in law Günther Uecker and whose work in Gelsenkirchen are symptomatic - is the German world, which is, the Dutch area alike, the soundest in its organizational structure and the most efficient in terms of reception. For these reasons Aubertin starts participating in the matters of Zero: he already belongs to "Zero - Edition, Exposition, Demonstration" on 5th July 1961 at the Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf and his fundamental Esquisse de la situation picturale du rouge dans un concept spatial, signed September 9th 1960, appears in the "Zero" issue on that occasion; on March 30th 1963 he is in Berlin at the Diogenes exhibition where the manifesto Zero, der neue Idealismus is disclosed, and still he participates in many other situational exhibitions. As from 1990 his personal events will take him to permanently settle down in Reutlingen.
The "pictorial situation of red", recalled by the title, when located in a "spatial concept" is the declaration of intellectual charisma referred to Fontana by all the artists and clearly represents Aubertin's position.
"The aim of monochromy is to soak the painted surface with a pictorial Essence. Monochromy confirms the powerlessness of lines, shapes, colours, compositions, etc… to reveal the pictorial Essence as the only quality of the picture. Psychological references are abandoned and they only play a role as intermediary, they belong to the past. The problem of substance is now of primary importance: is it the preparation of a divine mortar? […] The colour. Features: aesthetic attraction, fascination, motion, light, vibration, psychic effect, tactile appearance. Monochromy preserves the absolute value of colour. The use of an only colour summarizes the rules of space. Space is the result of an only colour. […]
I am not as much interested in the world of violence released by red as a psychological energy. The motion and the light implicit in this colour are the evidence justifying its use to me. In my opinion, the simple belief in a poetic significance of dynamism validates the continuity in its use. […] the monochromatic 'à plat' is an empty space full of emotions where you can find unconscious, subconscious and magnetic fluids".
Once the intrinsic values of colour are fixed, at an essential level of symbolisation but also of aesthetic experience, Aubertin clearly discriminates his position from the predominant ones of Klein on the one side, who reiterates in his Manifeste de l'Hôtel Chelsea of 1961 that his adoption of Antropometrie also implies, in the choice of direct impression of the models' body, the solution to the "problem of detachment while I keep myself at a well-defined and compulsory distance from the surface to be painted" and of Manzoni on the other side, who argues that " new solutions, new methods, new measures" envisage the objectiveness and the physicality of substances, the incongruous formal indifference of the artistic object, the physical nakedness of an unwilled gesture.
According to Aubertin, "the way of colour-substance is the result of a conscious use of the psychic automatism of painting as a gesture that reveals the interior world. The interior world is in my opinion the psychanalytic aspect of the automatism in the gesture of painting": i.e. "a permanent flow of pure vitality, a dynamic ecstasy which is essentially euphoric, in short, an absolute interior reality".
He reclaims the pictorial fact and at the same time its ability to develop into the sediment of a sense of substance-colour, devoid of any intention and self-destiny being brought to concentration and identification as a starting and end-point.
Aubertin doesn't have a talent as a preacher of a special position in art, unwilling to overexpose his socialite aspect and concentrated on the burden of work, he is reluctant to abandon his attitude to investigate his identity through his own work, which is the result of an "emotional" performance and of a possible "feeling of ecstasy".
According to the requirements of his time Aubertin eludes the execution and at the same time the rhetoric of ability and of the expression of one's own intimacy (in which he recognizes a "poetic significance") while he finds in the use of red an authentic dynamic sensation, an energy arising from genuine distilled vitality. Like blue in Klein, red in Aubertin bears its own history as a whole, made up of the idea of blood, of love transcending its physicality, of an immaterial and powerful energy. Paracelso argues: "each element has its own colour: earth is light blue, water is green, air is yellow, fire is red". He has a sort of "lyrical obsession for a unique colour", finding expression in identity rather than in separation.
The development process of distilled primacy of pictorial red leads Aubertin to the adoption of combustion - as the focal point of the material metamorphosis produced by fire - as a procedure in which the operational immediacy at its highest level intersects the symbolic lacework at its highest level. Hence the Tableaux-feu, in perfect compliance with an environment - including artists like Burri, a captivator of the intimacy of substance, Klein, Peeters, PIene and Latham - where combustion ambiguously means both destruction and recreation: disregarding the mythology of Egypt when it calls itself Kemet and comes to life through the blackness of slit that destroys and engenders, the black created by fire in Aubertin has a deeper meaning than the suggestion of a simple procedure. He declares: "there are two colours in my work, the black of fire, of caramelization, of cremation and the red of the monochrome painting": they are different but coherent stages of an extremely squeezed process, where the red of the flame becomes the creator of the black as its antithetic partner, so Aubertin explains "I tried to endorse both sensoriality and spirituality", performing an art of reality, physiologically tangible and accurate in timing, disregarding prosaic accomplishments and theoretical edicts, but rather considering the basic diversity of painting as a condition enabling a further level of senses.
In the works of the young Aubertin and in those of Klein, the old gap between the concept of a work as "representing object" and that of a work as "represented object" gives way to a short-circuit in the connection between the work of art and the senses rather than in the connection between art and life. The work of art is no longer an individual with an implicit sacredness and a socialite diversity, neither does it get lost in the ocean of ordinary events. Indeed, its declared qualification as physically belonging to the world emphasises its nature of concentration and sedimentation of senses, since no system of conventional clauses can protect it.
The act of doing is a full and exclusive experience of the creation of senses, intellectually concentrated and totalizing. The work of art is the final moment - in terms of conclusion and not of fulfilment - of the intellectual and physical time of the sense's activity, where the spectator finds the conceptual focus and achieves a state of mind harmonized with the work itself.
"Hammering 3.000 or 5.000 nails in a tableau-clous, burning 8.468 holes for a tableau-pyropoème, overlaying 100 layers of red paint upon a canvas: all these actions prove my will to use the utmost diligence. In doing so I didn't want to showcase the enormous amount of work. I tried instead to neutralize the arrogance of the artist".
In the Tableaux-feu the rules establishing that the pictorial colour is a medium to be converted in something different from itself in the appropriate place of the picture are definitively neutralized. The work here is represented by the combustion, not by the burnt object, by the process and not by the result, by the radiative array of intellectual and emotional frequencies activated by the thought of the acting fire and not by the modest, inactive, static contemplation.
All this helps clearly disclosing the proper way to understand Aubertin's practice. His making the fire operate in perfect suitable identity as a substitute of the author's artificial action does not correspond to a luddism oriented and ideologically destructive project: it is not the artist that burns something, it's the fire itself that converts the object into another object, that indefinitely replicates the flow of vital energy whose secret and power it received from nature. Whilst in the monochromes the author grants his body and his craftsman identity to a process that becomes other from himself, here he turns into a simple master of ceremonies preparing the occurrence of the work.
In the atmosphere of upswing of the dada lesson - the confluence Tinguely-Klein turns crucial as from 1958 with the two-artists' exhibition by Iris Clert and with the Zero activities of 1959, and the additional significant involvement of Arman and Spoerri in "Zero 3" - which, in the interpretation given by Restany in the 1961 Paris exhibition at the Galerie J, shows "a way to put the feet back on the ground but 40° above the Dada zero" where "the anti-artistic gesture of Marcel Duchamp is charged with positivity", Aubertin employs combustion as a suggesting factor, representing the work of art, unrelated to the subversive and "épatante" urge generally and inevitably considered obvious and prevailing: rather he accepts its spectacular manifestations as reception triggers, and in particular he sketches out its "aided" unintentional components and the objectivity of such poor and anaesthetic tools as matches and conveniently addresses the emotional and symbolic inspirations of the spectator.
So, the cold brightness of metal, its powerful and again anaesthetic surface, becomes a possible environment for Aubertin's physical construction per signa.
The artist explores and tests, in extremely compact and coherent internal subseries, a kind of alienated inflexible rituality of shaping, whose recreational side is not mere ostentation and suggestion, but distilled awareness of the problematic urge to do.
Matches are orthogonal to the surface at regular intervals just like the series of the Tableaux-clous, in a different way and in the same dates: perfect harmonization and particularly non-imitating contribution to the structuring minimalization scenery that in different ways outlines the setting for the so-called "Serielle Formationen"", as precociously and sharply pinpointed by Peter Roehr and Paul Maens in the 1967 memorable exhibition at the Studio Galerie in Studentenschaft der Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität in Frankfurt. So Aubertin: "the main feature in my work is the serial composition and the regular organization of the paintings".
Alternatively, they are arranged according to elementary and closed geometric shapes, thus solving the contradiction of the abstract perfection by means of a combustion generated appearance which is poor, barren, irregular, imperfect.
Still they can be laid down horizontally to build different shapes like the painted background of a self-evading painting act: they phase, share and set a rhythm to the given square, like graphic cells used to create with a technique close to the logic of geometry with no pretence of different identity or unappropriated presence.
Aubertin proceeds in this way - by stages and iterations, exactness moods and deep unintentionality - exploring a world of visual objects that, in the full physicality they represent, open up to further intellectual and expressive perspectives at different levels of the aesthetic experience.
The concept of series is both implicit in defining the intrinsic quality of the single action - neglecting relics of the past like the concepts of completeness and diversity of the painting - and explicit in the use of compact problematic series, where he employs contextually and conceptually lively aspects explored in his works through a plot assessing both the necessity of the process and its possible limits. These series have an intellectual evolution similar to the musical value of variation, where each theme is scrutinized and imagined up to the full deployment of its intrinsic potentiality: each work is perfect and complete and at the same time it belongs to a wider whole, the series, that is contextualized in the continuous action of the artist, who understands his course as an intimately unitary act, beyond any chronology and modal variation: series typically open up and they never close down in the course of time and of experience as they are theoretically limitless. Micheal Butor well focuses in his essay emblematically titled The sequence of images that "the acknowledgement of a work as a group of works and of a painting as an involvement of other paintings around it has grown so essential to the artist that even an isolated picture turns into a particular incident of a whole". So Aubertin just like others - Castellani or Schoonhoven, just to mention a few - conceives the series as the predominance of the action over its result, in a theoretically undetermined sequence where in reality the series that we differentiate per type are just strains arising from an inflexible and continuous intellectual unicum, full of energy and proliferation power just like the existence.
Still Aubertin: "I hope the spectator will understand that I do paint pictures that are the result of an inexhaustible iteration. I wish the spectator will go beyond the pleasant appearance of the picture, the emotional shock caused by the vision of the monochrome, in short, I wish he won't conceive like a finished work something that as a matter of facts is nothing more than a moment of painting".
Aubertin the "Monochrome"
Aubertin is a "monochromatic artist" just like others have been Impressionists, Abstract artists, Expressionists. He belongs to that sphere of art which justifies the pictorial gesture through the colour in itself: artists like Malévitch - or rather Giotto, argued Yves Klein - Manzoni, Klein, Robert Ryman represent different variations, expressions, ideological demands of the monochrome history and Malévitch's ambitions are not the same of Manzoni, Yves Klein or even less those of Bernard Aubertin. This History could be traced back to the history of Abstraction or of Conceptual Art, both far from being true organized movements with specific reference artists. It is much more a trend, a condition of the spirit, arising at the beginning of the 20th century and that can be traced back to Marcel Duchamp's ready-made.
"Abstract", "conceptual" or "concrete"? Bernard Aubertin describes himself as a "Realist", but his Realism is atypical and unclassifiable and his art remains unique, like his tenacious and solitary research through the history from the beginning of the Sixties to the present day. Although his work is always compared to that of Yves Klein, whom he met in 1957 in Paris establishing a lasting relationship and proximity, he has been able to diversify his interests remaining faithful to his ideal of freedom. The discovery of the monochrome permanently affects and marks his painting technique, characterized since the beginning by the exclusive use of red: "A picture means intensity to me. Red is intensity, it's blood, life, dynamism, vitality, energy…" maintained Aubertin, identifying himself with this colour that he will keep on using obsessively for many years, as a symbol of blood and at the same time of the element Fire.
In 1958 - the year after the discovery of Klein's monochromes - he realizes his first four red monochromes. Here starts a painful course. Ostracized by critics and Parisian artists that refuse to take him in consideration and indeed reject him, Aubertin invents and dreams his work - red monochromes, fire-paintings, nail-paintings, smoke-cages, burnt books, performances like levitating fire… that he connects with an appropriation of reality developing his "theory of reality" and of freedom. "What I was looking for - he used to say - was freedom, a complete opening. Just like Malévitch's white square on a white background that is completely open. I was trying to reach the same thing by means of fire, as fire is monochrome and transcends the limits of the picture."
Nonetheless Pierre Restany permanently excludes him from Nouveau Réalisme, perceiving in his work a reducing trace of Yves Klein's work. Although the two artists do share some similar aspects, they also differ from one another, considering the different perceptions of art's emotional value.
The transcendental and expressionistic immateriality of Klein's gesture equals Aubertin's methodical, concrete and recurring action, aiming at capturing the world's objective reality through discipline and rejection of any kind of sentimentality and emotion. His "Conquête du Réel" confirms his theory of realism that understands "the distance in the execution and the concealed identity in the technique as the basics of his work". He approaches Klein in his idea of depersonalization of the creative act but on the other hand he diverges from him in his concept of concealed identity. Aubertin aims at representing as neutral a reality as possible through self-oblivion, whereas Yves Klein asserts himself as the main character of the work. Aubertin's transliteration of reality reveals a much-sought objective detachment.
Aubertin's monochrome painting was very well structured since the beginning. The artist used to lay down the colour with his hand-palm and he organized the substance in a serial way using fork teeth or the back of a spoon. In 1960 the first red "nails" arise from this "materiality", as he explains: "I put nails on the canvas in order to organize the surface and add a vibration to the monochrome. But then I told myself that nails are made to be hammered and I hammered them". Nails have been the aim of different significant experiments: nails randomly spread, in anarchic order, followed by nails at regular intervals on a prearranged chequer (the nail hammered at the weave's intersection) and again nails moving on the surface, like waves, changing colour as well. Aubertin introduces outstanding variations in the technique and in the substances. The first "tableaux-clous" are spread with paint, they are rich in substance and the nails' head is visible, whilst in the later "tableaux-clous" the nail completely passes through the wooden board: the canvas' surface doesn't show the nail's head any more but its tip, the nail is upside down. The work has two faces, on one side the red monochrome with the nail's tip, on the other side the wood covered with nails… then the artist changes the process allover again, pushing aside the creamy oil red and starting with the use of oil red, but this time fluorescent, thus obtaining a vibration. The fluorescent red nails-painting are "bright, triumphal, passionate", maintained Aubertin. With the help of light the nail casts a shadow and this phenomenon creates a vibrational state. When the spectator steps aside, the surface starts shaking and the red appears detached from its support. The air, the atmosphere, become part of the picture, permeating the space in-between the nails. The work becomes three-dimensional, the air impresses an invisible thickness on it, makes it immaterial, though it is extremely material. Aubertin used to explain: "my work stands between materiality and immateriality… I wished to achieve something lively. The opposite of what Yves Klein did. Yves Klein's works were beautiful but they had too much an atmospheric side, in my opinion: the blue, the sky… the emptiness has never been of interest to me. My work stands between materiality and immateriality. It is philosophically different from that of Klein. It doesn't aim at emptiness.
In 1961 he creates his first fire-painting, faithful to his urge to "draw the ego from the picture" and as a consequence of his use of red in painting. "The fire-paintings, maintains Aubertin, express the concealed identity of the creational means and of the artist at an absolute level. The desired distance between the author and its work, is completely fulfilled. The fire forces me to distance. The reality is absolute: light is real, warmth is real, noises - the matches' sizzle whilst they are burning - are real, the colour of the fire, its motion, the smoke, the ashes, all this is extremely real". The artist does not identify with the author anymore, he becomes actor, he manipulates Realness and drowns in a whole called reality. Under this point of view he's a realist and affects the reality at a phenomenal level. He aims at overcoming material and visual data in order to draw nearly unsettling physical, emotional and psychological sensations, achieving a query of psychic and philosophic nature, "expression of pure spirit".
The nail seems to have opened the way to the match that takes fire. After the solidity of the nail, Aubertin moves to the transience. Before the lighting up, the fire-painting is a three-dimensional work. Its wooden support is covered by an aluminium plate that isolates from fire. The plate is pierced at regular intervals of 3 centimetres to fix the matches. Like in the nail-paintings these works produce a vibrational effect approaching the Op-Art. The fire is subtle, elusive and at the same time real. It is similar and concurrently different. It can be revived here and there as a result of a simple contact or friction, conversely the substance it burns off is permanently cancelled. We are invited by Aubertin to assist to this double performance of fire, renewable and destructive. From the red monochromes of 1958 to the ash floods created ten years later, the sequence of his gestures corresponds to a spirit of dematerialization making the work more vibrant, lighter, fragile, in a word more elusive. As from 1968 he starts with the burnt books that require the public's participation. They are manufactured in the workshop and conceived to blow up amidst the public. Aubertin explains: "the spectator is invited to read the book and meanwhile burn the pages lighting up the matches stuck thereon, and add further matches to reduce all to ashes in the end". Fire actions reveal an important and inseparable part of Aubertin's artistic, utopian and performing message. These public actions, that are often linked to his exhibitions, have been performed in France, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and, as from 1965, in Italy too.
Aubertin'art and life are marked by orderliness and strictness, phased into very precise dates: 1958, red monochrome; from 1960 to 1971 "nail-paintings"; 1961-1971, "fire-paintings" and "burnt books"; 1969, "flood"; 1975, "paintings with wire"; 1983, "fire mark"; then again "nail-paintings" in 1984-85; then "Embers" (pastel paintings on paper) and so on…. In 1987 Aubertin moves to Germany where he concentrates on monochromes: black monochrome, black monochrome concealing a red monochrome, black paintings, brown monochromes, grey paintings, white paintings, golden-coloured paintings… all created through overlapping layers (up to 100 layers in some cases) and in series.
His studies, ignored in Paris, will find wide appeal in Germany where he takes part in the adventure of the Zero Group in Düsseldorf founded by Mack, PIene and Uecker and as a consequence his works will be displayed with those of the Dutch group Nul=0 - including Peeters, De Vries, Handerikse, Armando Schoonhoven - thus joining a family in which he will find understanding and acknowledgement. In his work Bernard Aubertin develops his affinity with the basic concept of "tabula rasa" fostered by the Zero Group; through his monochrome obstinacy he achieves common concepts like infinity and nothingness revealing a sharp ambiguity between a new start and historical continuity: "The artists belonging to Zero, maintained Aubertin, wanted to sweep away all that used to exist before them. But their new concept of painting was obviously part of historical continuity, it came from the Futurist cultural heritage that promoted the colour emancipation and continued the tradition of plastic arts. Through monochromy we practised the pictorial silence, mutism was a fact and could not be confused with mysticism and metaphysics. Given the existence of a law of silence, likewise a law of noise and clamour should logically exist. Highlighting this law would give significance to the law of silence. The uniformity of the monochrome would be followed by an explosion. After all what I was looking for in my work was an innovation in continuity". The Zero revolution investigates on modernity, on the artist's role in the society and on his action in the lively world. The same investigation portrays the late Fifties and Sixties trends in European art, according to the tradition of the period after the second world war. Modernity was by then synonymous with freedom and conveyed a universal coherent spiritual structured and hierarchical romantic view of the world, where the artistic fact acquired a well-defined role. As highlighted by Lazio Loser, the notion of art was undergoing a transformation: "What really matters is not the individual realization, which may count as much as an example, but rather "modernity", as a phenomenon representing for the public a global encounter with the "new"". Aubertin was certain about it. One of Aubertin's first important participations in the Zero group is the exhibition at Schmela Gallery in Düsseldorf, in July 1961, where all the main artists of the group are represented: Arman, Aubertin, Burry, Castellani, Holweck, Klein, Lo Savio, Mack, Manzoni, Mavignier, Peeters, Piene, Schoohoven, Soto, Spoerri, Tinguely and Uecker. Aubertin experiences this acknowledgement with the enthusiasm of a shared adventure but at the same time with the disappointment generated by the Parisian loneliness that will soon force him into exile.
Aubertin has always been claiming through his work a world renewing force, a purification achieved through violence and the creating action of fire, a collective therapy that would dignify the concept of art; in his writings he states: "art in my opinion can only be considered a therapy for the community, that generates human fraternization and dignifies the smattering of therapy relevant to art. We, as artists, should yearn for plenitude, deprived from the contradictions of human nature. In this way, man will always be able to foresee and satisfy the needs of mankind. When we act for the community, we disentangle from nature and from our nature itself. We should strive to keep our distance from nature, if we want to establish ourselves as a specific human species". This idea embraces the concept of control and of individual participation to the work. This interaction is intended for humanization, that means, in the artist's opinion, "inventing, manufacturing, spiritually and physically identifying man with the created work, i.e. with nature". Aubertin suggests a regenerative view of art, in so far as it bears a creative reality; but at the same time it is subject to the natural reality magnified by the creative act. The work becomes quantified, "represented" space-time, in response to the urge of capturing the evanescent reality in a spectacular way. Aubertin's art is the physical materialization of pure abstract phenomena representing "the acceleration of the moment".