Bernard Lamarche-Vadel interview with Jean-Michel Sanejouand

This interview was published in 1986 in the catalog of the « Qu'est-ce que l'art français ? » exhibition at the CRAC Midi-Pyrénées in Labège-Innopole and in the catalog of the « Octobre des Arts » event in Lyon.

BERNARD LAMARCHE-VADEL : What do you think are the reasons why painting is still credible as an art form in 1986?

JEAN-MICHEL SANEJOUAND : When I stopped painting at the end of 1962 I was convinced that it was the final break. For the previous few years I had painted abstracts on white backgrounds, as I do now. To a very superficial observer today they might appear quite similar to my current work. My painting was confined to a fairly naive, purely imaginary space. The Charges-Objets, my arrangements of pieces of striped awning canvas, metal grating, strips of printed linoleum and so on which subsequently replaced the paintings reflected a sudden and compelling need to experiment with real space, a tremendous urge to confront this space. They were also an acknowledgement of the derisory nature of existence itself. After 1967 there was a logical progression with these arrangements opened the way for my work directly on concrete space in what I called my "organizations of space." The space of various locales -- a courtyard, a building site, an exhibition hall -- became my raw material. Everything seemed to be going just fine.
Yet in 1969 I began to conceptualize my work with space more by drawing plans and I felt an urge to hold a paintbrush again, to dip it in ink and draw figures, generally grotesque and aggressive ones.
For nine years I had to struggle onwards with both activities: my work with actual space and then these Calligraphies d'humeur, as I call them, which in a way were my painting resurfacing. Of course, they were not only and not entirely that -- far from it! My distrust of painting still ran very deep.
I would take a canvas that was ready to be painted on and would just draw a few lines in ink. It was a difficult, even a painful experience, but I truly had no choice. I did not then understand that I only needed these calligraphies because they gave me an opportunity to work with imaginary space.
The sense of the ludicrous, inaugurated in my Charges-Objets was very apparent in these 'figurative' drawings, but also in my carefully elaborated plans with their undertones of a contained frenzy and in my organization of the planet Earth using the Tables d'orientations that I worked on from 1974 to 1977.
In any event it was in 1977 that both my Calligraphies d'humeur and my Tables d'orientations became pictorialized.
What had happened? Quite simply, I had never stopped looking at painting all those years. Gradually the conviction that I had underestimated it took hold of me. Of course, I do not mean just any painting! Painting in general seemed to me then -- and still does today --to be a rather pointless exercise. All those surfaces covered in what is often just filler bore me and even irritate me most of the time.
However, l began to realize that painting, if handled with stringent discipline, could be a gateway opening towards a different consciousness. It was also a way of not skirting the fundamental issue of transposition, which is the nobility of art. Anyway, after 1978 (which was when I accepted that I would start painting again), I have felt a lot happier, relieved, as though freed from the exhausting, two-fold course, which I had had to pursue until then.
I was, however, unable to apply the analytical discipline I mentioned to my own use of the brush immediately. Not for technical reasons alone -- that wasn't much of a problem -- but because I could not shake off my distrust all at once. I had an absolute need to wipe my brush regularly over the canvas.
It is only over the last two or three years that I have been able to dismiss my last reservations on the subject and that I have at last been able to rise above the derisoriness of life itself with a smile.
The reason that I've told you so much about my past as an artist in attempting to answer your question is that I do not mean to suggest that painting is the only credible art form. It has merely become the only one for me, that's all. Painting as I understand it is a form of prospecting, an exploration of unknown regions of sensibility. It is the complete opposite of the current move back to painting, which to my mind is no more than the triumphant return of nostalgia.

BLV So in 1962 you gave up painting. Is it possible to really give up painting once you have started? Following on from there the work you went on to do seems more like that of a whole group of artists than of a single individual; then there was this investigation of materials and the complexity of relations between forms and modes of materiality from 1962 to 1967. What were the underlying concerns of that work as compared to those who have drawn from your work, who ranges from the Supports/Surfaces group to contemporary English sculpture?

JMS : The first symptoms of my giving up appeared in the summer of 1961, which was when I set about constructing balancing structures of large pebbles on a broad sandbar in the middle of the Ain River. The slightest gust of wind would topple the whole thing over. You had to mind your feet!
I resumed this exercise the following summer and that autumn I destroyed most of the abstract paintings I had done over the previous four years. I carefully cut them up and just kept a few select pieces of the original paintings. These I stretched onto smaller stretchers. With all the confidence of youth I believed that I had discovered the limits of painting. At the beginning of 1963 I used some of the stretchers that had originally held the destroyed abstract paintings. I stretched canvas over them, raw, black or white in color either white or black in color, and then added a mirror of the identical size to each canvas make them into diptychs. From then on I just kept going -- few alignments of stones, a single series of metal bars and then straight on to the arrangements of any ordinary objects that I had on hand: chairs, a wardrobe, kitchen furniture, and so forth.
I also managed to borrow other objects including the prototype of a motorboat and a chain saw.
Many of these Charges-Objets thus had a brief artistic existence before returning to their ordinary life. I would deliberately put on an optimistic attitude -- the raising of the new object to a higher plane -- to convince my generous suppliers. My real reasons were far grimmer: I was driven by a kind of calm, complacent pessimism. When these objects become scarcer I turned once again to my stock of old canvasses, covering them completely or partially with striped awning canvas, bits of plastic material, linoleum and other goods bought cheaply by the yard. It was a kind of clean Arte Povera.
You stressed the diversity of these works. In my view they all have a single and unique purpose: to disrupt the concrete space in which they stand through their questioning of forms and materials. To take pleasure in contemplating them was in fact a way of falling into the trap they set.
What appealed to me was their makeshift precariousness, their haphazard geometry at odds with the puritanical geometry our minds favor. Above all, I wanted to avoid making this chance find systematic, then to claim it as a style.
By 1967 I had already entered the stage of the Charges-Objets so quite naturally I did not feel very concerned by the Supports/Surfaces movement that I only encountered later and even then only superficially. As for recent English sculpture, the little I have seen of it has left me feeling rather dreamy and somewhat sentimentally tender, but you are better informed than I and therefore are a better judge to determine the relationship of the issues these movements raise to those raised in my own work.

BLV It seems to me that although you wanted to operate in real space through its organization in 1967, your work at that time was in contrast, though not in any obvious way, to Land Art as practiced by Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer.

JMS : I did indeed feel encouraged to pursue my particular scheme when I discovered their work in 1968 in New York. But the real reason I spent three months in New York was mainly because I entertained the absurd hope of being able to organize the space of a building site when work was halted because of the snow. The state in which I found the site most moving was when the building had barely begun to emerge from the ground; when it was just a hole with the beginnings of concrete and metal sticking up. Probably this emotional awareness is akin to that of Land Art. However, I felt that in Land Art the movement of the works was out from the center, the scene of the monumental gesture, towards the outskirts which, being geographical, were out of proportion. The direction of movement in my work was intended to be the opposite. I wanted to soak up a clearly defined space, one distinguished by its limits and its content, and then to intervene in a specific way each time so as to make this one space discernable in all its distinctive originality.
The phase of absorbing the space was particularly important because more often than not I could not choose the site, but just had to accept it. Finding a space was the first challenge.
It took me a year and a half of trying before 1 was given the opportunity to do something in the École Polytechnique courtyard for the very short duration of this college's annual celebration. The second challenge was finding the right materials and the means to put them in place. Thus, I could not get hold of the metal tubes I wanted for this first spatial organization.
In September of that year the 100 transparent plastic wineskins two-thirds full of distilled water went particularly well with the oddly patterned pavement of the courtyard of the Lund Museum in Sweden, but it was only by arranging and combining them with utmost care that I could get them to interact with the glass walls and the open sky.
Despite their weight, the metal crane parts I used in 1968 had to be carefully positioned to the exact half-inch on the parquet flooring of the room in the Galliera Museum that had been turned over to me. In 1969 I had been given permission to take possession of the Ducal Courtyard of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, but I did not manage to find the right materials.
I was more fortunate at Piestany in Czechoslovakia where I used pieces of metal and wood shuttering painted a dull black in a space 400 meters long and just 40 wide. The intrinsic constraints of this type of work were heightened by my refusal to use one technique or a single material all the time, for that would have enabled me to stake out a territory and to be identified by it.
That was certainly not my intention.
The space was primordial and the nature of my intervention had to bow to what I thought was best able to reveal its hidden meaning. The exhibition and organization of space I did in 1973 at the CNAC in rue Berryer in Paris clearly reflected the various facets of this investigation.

BLV How can anyone carry on with two works at once - in your case, these organizations of space and then, as from 1969, your Calligraphies d'humeur? What connection was there between these two aspects of a single current of activity?

JMS : Don't forget that it was several years before I could make up my mind to show anyone my Calligraphies d'humeur. And then, I pretended to find this dual activity perfectly normal, even exciting. I flaunted my pleasure with this ambivalence, proclaiming it to be an overture of the mind, a hard-won freedom. By way of explanation I said quite simply that it was the twin aspects of a method of knowledge! Well, I justified myself as best I could. In fact, as I have already said, it was a painful experience.
The two aspects were is some way complementary but true complementarity is never simply two poles. There has to be something more, other directions, even minor ones, to serve as subterranean links. The radical character of my behavior at that time ruled out any such wise suppleness.

BLV What actually drove you to execute the Calligraphies d'humeur? What aggressive urge initiated this vision of an explosive sexuality?

JMS : There was no drive as such, because the work was not an outpouring of repressed feelings. It was more a kind of game. I kept my distance just as I had with my Charges-Objets or my conceptual projects, although the same obsession -- the space between things as an entryway to an invisible truth -- ran through all these explorations. But to advance further in this direction I would have to give up this discrete distance. It was only in 1978 in my Espaces-Peintures that I dared to.
As for the sexual imagery, I did indeed wish to unmask sexual fantasy as the frustration-generating waster of energy that it is in an aggressively ironic way. But there was also, on the contrary, the representation of a still-infantile, polymorphous sexual attitude, superbly ignorant of the "sins of the flesh" -- a notion that is not simply religious, but also broadly secularized. From my adolescence onward I could never understand it.
But what was most important was the black line running along the bottom of each calligraphy and which was perhaps a recollection of the railing of the stage in a Punch and Judy show. It contrasted with the discontinuity of the characters even in their respective sizes; they were big or small and not near or far. This line meant that I could achieve a total absence of perspective. What mattered to me was spontaneity, improvisation, the rejection of precautions and calculations, in sum, the speed of execution.

BLV Over these successive periods your work overlapped at times with the interest of certain groups in parallel investigations. Whether New Realism, Land Art, Pop Art or Conceptual Art, was it your character that made you back away every time your paths crossed?

JMS : I'm not well placed to be the judge of my own character in the manner you imply. It is true that I am a loner, but in the way one might imagine a solitary sailor who knows there is someone waiting for him back at the harbor. You could say I am a loner with a craving for affection. As for the famous groups you mentioned, the times and places they formed in at never coincided. Besides, I couldn't see myself trying to leap on a moving bandwagon and push my way as far to the front as possible, just to be able to identify with that one movement. At the exhibition "What is French Art?" you yourself noted that the current situation in art, and not just in France, is one of a constellation of individuals. For some time now that has been where the great originality and the true adventure of twentieth century art have been.

BLV In 1977 you were once more seized by the temptation of picture making. What does a painting, or the act of painting itself, mean to you?

JMS : I have no idea what a picture is. That is what I am trying to find out. Each of my paintings raises that very question.
All I can say is that in my view a picture, if one looks at it long enough, is not a window opening to an exterior, but a door that opens inwards into the mind.
As for doing a painting, it is a series of acts. Each act springs from an intuition and is then sifted through the finest mesh of lucidity possible. It is this constant interplay between intuition and lucidity that forms the discipline that painting is to me, just as one talks of spiritual discipline or discipline in sport.
What I get out of it is the sense of pleasure from the hard work and discovery. My reward is when the picture suddenly lights up showing that it is born and also that it can go no further. To pursue that course, a new path of access is needed - that is to say, yet another blank canvas.

BLV Between permanence and mobility, randomness and geometry, regulation and free gesture, your pictures are deeply dualistic in organization. Is this dualism a method or a result?

JMS : For me it is the acknowledgement of the obvious. Everything I perceive or understand seems dualistic to me. That does not worry me at all. In fact, I would find the opposite more alarming - if black and white were to merge into a permanent grey.
I should add that although everything is separate on the level of form, of signs, on the level of space everything is linked. Space is the glue binding the signs together. Perhaps the sole purpose of the signs is to inflect or to dent space by giving it qualities.

BLV The faux masks inserted into the spaces you present arouse curiosity. What purpose and meaning do you ascribe to them?

JMS : You are quite right to call them faux masks. I find that notion very helpful and it fits. These faux masks can under no circumstances mould to a face. They are solid forms only pretending at crudeness, a reference to the archaism that thrives in us all, generally without our knowing it.
These faux masks are guardians that demand that the toll be paid. Perhaps they serve merely to suggest we go beyond them and enter at last the contradictory spaces of the picture. The induction they propose is diametrically opposed in type to that offered by all the other elements of my vocabulary.
It is this opposition, this tension, this hiatus that enable me to penetrate and let others penetrate into the area of consciousness I am interested in: that rarely explored zone of sensitivity in which a calm of surprising mobility seems to prevail.

BLV Over the last few months you have started using paper again, using black acrylic in a series of bold brushstrokes that are on the borderline between pictograms and the figures dotted over your pictures. Are you Chinese? Or tempted to become so?

JMS : I like doing small studies of spaces, although I realize they tend to be appreciated mostly at first glance, like the studies of forms, as elements of my vocabulary. What matters most when I am painting them with the brush is the way I can bring the geometrical white space of the paper to life.
As I attach prime importance to space and have always done, I may of course seem Chinese. In any event, it is amusing to see the way in which if you draw with a brush you are immediately referred to Chinese calligraphy, whereas if you use a pencil you are classified as belonging to the true Western tradition. With a Burgundian father and a Savoyard mother I am under no delusions as to my Chinese-ness, although I admit that even when very young I felt much at home with Chinese thought, at least in as far as 1 could grasp it through translations. In any event, it is not the fidelity of these translations that matters now, but rather the Westernization of this philosophy that I consider worthwhile.

BLV For the Lyon exhibition you wanted to do something specially intended for the place where your work will be exhibited in the form of a picture consisting of three triptychs forming a single representation two meters by ten and a half meters in size. Since the Second World War, modern art has often been tempted by the challenge and also perhaps at times by the facile character of sheer monumentality. What is the intention behind your conception of a monumental work?

JMS : I have not completed this work, so I don't really like talking about it. The general thrust I wish to get across is the idea of the painting governing the architecture. Here the architecture will be reduced to its most basic expression: a room defined by three walls. Each of these walls is four meters by seven and will be constructed to hold up in the middle a triptych measuring meters by three and a half. The relationship between these three triptychs will be both pictorial and spatial in the most concrete meaning of the word. Together they will form a single work that the visitor will physically enter into. I should add that I have always had an interest in the symbolism of numbers, even if, generally, I have paid it tribute in a rather off-hand way. So here, I shall in my own way be materializing the number three: but I would rather discuss this scheme again later when it has been completed.

BLV In a recent interview broadcast on France Culture radio you likened painting to sorcery, but without giving any explanations. Could you expand on that comparison?

JMS : I pointed out that an artist is a person possessed, but certainly not in any romantic way. He is possessed by a demon that he has summoned with all his might and that he needs. And from the demon he draws his strength and knowledge. For I rapidly set straight the idea that art is a matter of taste, even very intellectualized taste. It is not. Rather, it is a matter of wisdom. To my mind the painter is a man possessed who is no longer a horse, but who has become the rider. That is a tale of power, but wisdom today can only be conceived in pragmatic terms. It is defined by a non-knowing.
The more I learn, the more I learn that I do not know and the more I take that into account.
This sort of wisdom may take on a form resembling sorcery. If so, it is because it has deliberately chosen an effort of will and the conservation of energy.

BLV Your paintings reveal the effect of a tightly controlled awareness over the arrangement of the elements in the composition. How and why do you insist so much on composition as such?

JMS : My own experience of reality compels me to use a heterogeneous vocabulary. Obviously, the black gestures, the abstract constructions, the trees, the faux masks, and so forth tend to cancel each other out against the white background. Only a very strong composition can hope to bind all these elements together and, as the technique I use leaves no room for second thoughts, you might well have an impression of extreme control. Especially as each brush stroke is no sooner irreversibly traced thon it is immediately questioned. Despite this, strangely enough, if I am to have any chance at all of winning in the game of composition I have to trust what I would call a feeling for space that has grown within me over time.

BLV What do you think is art's role towards those for whom it is intended?

JMS : Perhaps to provide an opportunity of greater individuation and hence to further the conquest of independence for those who have the patience and the nerve to expose their sensibilities to question rather than reinforcing their prior judgments. But perhaps we would do better to speak of those for whom this interview is intended. We should not hide from them the fact that, despite the subtle insight of your questions and my sincere desire to respond to them, my answers can at best be hasty approximations. For painting itself begins where words fail you, and moreover, precisely because they have failed you.

Interview Jean-Michel Sanejouand & Bernard Lamarche-Vadel
May-August 1986
Translated by Clore Donovan Cagigos 1986
Translation revised 2006 by Philip Walsh, Ph.D.