Olivier MOSSET (1944)


Olivier Mosset was born in Berne, Switzerland in 1944.

He went to Paris in 1966 where he exhibited a group of paintings: small vertical canvases each representing the letter ‘A’ painted in black on a white ground, shortly replaced by a black circle in the centre of a white canvas of a larger format (100 x 100 cm), in the same mechanical and neutral style.

In 1967 and 1968, Mosset participated in the formation and activities of the BMPT group with Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier, and Niele Toroni. These were rebellious artists who sought to completely deconstruct painting in order to extract its ‘truth’ (following the example of Paul Cézanne; letter to Émile Bernard, 23 October 1905). The latter, first wanted to forget the seen object and let his feelings speak, and secondly, to create an ‘abstract’ and incomplete image, whereby the painting can open to something other than what it is. Olivier Mosset continued to paint canvases with black circles for eight years, achieving two-hundred such works, and thus challenging the concept of a unique and original work of art.

He realised that representing this recurring motif made it possible to identify its author immediately; according to him: ‘it is the viewer who makes the work’, because the function of the painting is to provoke a reaction in the spectator. Painting, thus, conceals something non-objective to be discovered, but the contemplation must not involve emotion or philosophy. While this truth has always existed it is especially poignant during this time: painting must exclude all images so that it can reach the space between insignificance and symbol.

In 1972, Mosset created canvases painted with vertical (sometimes diagonal) stripes 10 cm wide in dull tones, before passing to white or off-white on white, then grey stripes on a grey background, and finally, red stripes on a red background. To prevent these works from being perceived as a programme of a ‘series of subsets’, he made one by ‘leaving the traces in pencil without colouring in the bands’. Exhibited in 1977 at the X Biennial in Paris, and after being installed in the United States, this work paved the way for monochromatic works (usually large format) which would occupy an entire decade. This time, he ensured that each canvas would be different in size, format, and tone, clinging to colour in particular:

‘What interests me is the moment when what we know becomes what it is – this kind of loss of knowledge in materiality.’

In the early 1980s, Mosset exhibited on multiple occasions in the United States with the proponents of Radical Painting (for whom monochrome ‘all over’ and ‘colour field’ painting must be the expression of colour in all its essence). Mosset, however, sees this as nothing but a conceptual given. Then in 1985, he realised that the source had dried up: ‘Following the Williamstown exhibition, I was afraid that my work was becoming “academic”. So I asked, in 1985, the question of monochrome through “constructed abstract paintings”. Paradoxically, because of an emerging academicism, I was moving on to something considered even more academic. I started giving titles to my paintings. The first large canvas of this new series is called “A Step Backwards”. It is a grey painting with a white stripe on three sides.’

With Baldwin, Patricia’s Pillow, CBGB and Dynasty, it was exhibited in Geneva in 1986 on a white wall, such that the canvas still seems to be monochrome. The work thus became the starting point of a new series in connection with the emergence of American simulationism: Mosset devoted himself to paintings made solely from the superposition of two colours.

In 1993, he created his first Cimaise sculpture in five components which catalyses a reflection upon the relationship between painting and the third dimension. ‘One should have the impression that it is something that we have forgotten about, or that has not yet been arranged.’ The artist ‘refuses any notion of installation’ but is obliged to admit that works ‘inevitably exist in relation to their location’.

From 2003, he developed the Toblerone series – an allusion to the anti-tank blocks installed on the Swiss roads during the war from 1939-1945, which had been given this familiar name. He first worked in cardboard and then in ice (which was, after melting, followed by regeneration).

‘I even think I paint against the system, even against the system of art (which is part of it), perhaps even against art or painting. Of course there are contradictions, especially that at the same time, I play by the rules.’

Straddling the two continents, Olivier Mosset embodies all the paradoxes that have animated the artistic avant-garde since the 1960s, whether European or American.

(Martine Heudron)

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