Bernard Aubertin was a monumental artist who paved the way for performance and monochrome art beginning in the 1960’s. After his recent death in 2015, the works of Bernard Aubertin were consolidated into an estate and formed The Archive Aubertin. We interviewed Bernard Aubertin’s close friend and President of the estate about what it was like to witness Bernard Aubertin’s creations in person and how his legacy will influence artists to come.
How long have you been in the possession of Bernard Aubertin’s estate? How did you come to have it? And what is your intent with the work?
The Archive Aubertin was established in 2007 to the precise determination of Master Aubertin. Our main goal is to promote and protect the contents of his extraordinary work. We pursue this goal by collecting, sorting, and storing all of the materials and the works produced by the Master from the 1960s until his death.
What are the motivations behind The Aubertin Archive when it comes presenting the work?
The Archive is available to museums, galleries, institutions, and private collectors for research and protection initiatives. We are committed to organizing exhibitions for institutional venues and prestigious galleries throughout Italy and abroad. We also monitor the progress of the Master’s works at auctions; making sure that all of the works are endowed with proper certification.
You knew Bernard Aubertin in life. Can you tell us about the first time you met? What he was he like? What was your relationship with him like?
We met for the first time in Brescia, in 1970, at the Studio Brescia Gallery. At that time, the art scene in Brescia was very lively, characterized by a big debate between Realism and Art Informel. Right away, a beautiful friendship began and lasted a lifetime. Aubertin was a charming person, capable of great irony. He devoted himself with great passion to his artistic research and had a deep and gentle soul. I was, for many years, his friend and agent, and our friendship was always solid and sincere.
What was your first impression of Bernard Aubertin’s work? Why?
The first impression I had from watching Bernard Aubertin’s work was of an overwhelming charm. After all, fire is something that fascinates us, and Bernard always presented himself as a kind of tribal chief, a fire wizard – a man who could tame fire and give it shape. But not just this: all forms of expression used by the Master contained a profound poetry that is fascinating to see with each of our own insights.
Can you tell us about a time you witnessed one of his performances? What happened? How did the crowd react? How did Aubertin react?
From the seventies on, I witnessed his performances many times and, especially in the most recent years, I often helped in their execution. Bernard followed some codified rites, which he executed methodically. When it came to burning a piano or a car, for example, he began by wetting everything with pure alcohol; then, when the air was beginning to get heavy and saturated with fumes, he approached the object with his incendiary bottle and set everything on fire. I repeat his words that explain both the reaction of the public and of the Master so well:
All the spectators’ eyes burn, and their noses pinch. On the face of women, mascara starts to leak and make-up melts or turns black. The amount of smoke is such that it creates a kind of fog, so thick that it is necessary to quickly open the doors and windows of the gallery. People panic and run out to breathe some fresh air: the gallery is stifled. Without any doubt, I am sadistic and masochistic.
Did you ever visit his studio or witness him making work? Can you tell us about it?
I often witnessed the work of Aubertin and I helped him in his ateliers in Brescia and in Reutlingen, the German city where he eventually moved. It was thanks to this collaboration that I have become such an expert of the techniques and materials used by the Master – a wealth of knowledge that now allows me to fulfill my task as President of the archive that bears his name. In his ateliers, he always worked methodically. He was very organized, systematic, and he imposed great discipline on himself. On his monochromes, he spread up to a hundred layers of color! This kind of work did not allow for resting or distractions; it had to be done very carefully, and he was tireless.
Bernard Aubertin was a key player in the Zero movement. Can you tell us a little about how the members of this group, often collaborative, influenced Aubertin and his work? Can you shed some light on what it was like to be a part of that group of artists in the 60’s?
Between the late fifties and mid-sixties, the European culture was in an era of profound change, characterized by brilliant minds that deeply marked the expressive modalities. Azimuth, Gruppo T, Gruppo Enne, i Nucleari, Group Null, and the Zero Group are just some of the artistic realities that were flourishing at that time. They were small groups, but with the same dignity of the avant-gardes. These groups were formed by lively and curious young artists; children of the Informal and its revolutionary lessons. They were brave men and women who felt the need to promote a development that was social as well as artistic, and therefore collective. From that need came the idea of The Group. Being part of an artistic group in the sixties meant to share ideals and a poetic. We often met for these discussions in places that have become mythical, like the Brasserie Le Coupole in Montparnasse.
It was thanks to Yves Klein that Bernard got in contact with the Zero Group. Klein sent a series of photographs of the Master’s works to Mack and Piene and one of his texts, The esquisse de la situation du rouge dans picturale un concept spatial, which then would be inserted in the historic volume ZERO 3. When Master Aubertin met with the Zero Group, it was love at first sight. The collective suggestion that bounded them deeply together was the concept of monochrome, which Aubertin liked to recall by the words of Goethe: “Look at the pictures, at the objects, at the landscapes and at your chamber with a lens of a single color. Thus, you reach the mystery of the uniqueness, of spirituality, of universality.”
Aubertin had a strong connection with the color Red and it inspired his work for a lifetime. Do you have some insight into why that might be? What was so special about Red for Aubertin? What is the significance of the color Red to you, as President of his estate?
Red was the spark for Bernard. The creative fire. He said he had chosen this color spontaneously, moved by the immense joy, vitality, and freedom that monochrome painting gave him. For him, the monochrome was a kind of enlightenment, of ecstasy. Red is the color of blood, of love, of fire. Red represents what created life and keeps it alive. In many, even primitive, cultural traditions, red carries a powerful symbolism of life and death. As for me, it is a color that I love and that reminds me of Bernard. Because of this I wear it very often and with great pleasure.
How do you think Aubertin’s work has affected the work of contemporary performance artists and artists working with color?
I think that Bernard has taught, and still has a lot to teach, to the young artists who deal with performance art or work with color. First of all, he teaches them that art requires discipline, a value perhaps forgotten by the younger generations. Moreover, Aubertin, in the act of burning, staged a purifying ritual that everyone was invited to participate in, to come out of it as new, regenerated. It is a collective, social, almost political dimension; a direct involvement that touches the senses in an abrupt way, aggressive at times, but that awakens within us a conscience, a feeling. I think this is an eternal, universal value, a lesson that cannot be forgotten.
Has Bernard Aubertin’s work changed how you view and appreciate art? If so, how? Do you know which artworks were most important to Aubertin? What are your favorite pieces? Why?
Absolutely. Bernard’s work was a source of great inspiration for me, and certainly not everyone can boast such a beautiful friendship and fellowship with a great Master of Contemporary Art. My favorite works are his Tableau Clous, the nail paintings, and they certainly had the utmost importance for him as well. They were, in fact, his first works after the series of the red monochromes. The Tableau Clous are brilliant because they are the plastic structuring of the monochrome in space, a way to make it dynamic. Is it painting? No. Is it sculpture? Not even. Is it a new way to synthesize universe and reality? In fact, let’s never forget that Aubertin called himself a realist: nail, fire, match, paint. His works cut, burn, bind, and inflame, provoking sensations that are definitely real. Every work that Aubertin gave birth to was a key step in his poetry. From the Tableau Clous he went on to the Tableau Feu, in which the nail was replaced by the match. This monochrome goes beyond the boundaries of the picture because it is real fire. Then, there are the wonderful Livres brûlés, which are a kind of a poem, a poem of fire. Well, every work the Master created is a great story. It’s up to us to learn how to read it.
Questions by Sarah Sickles
Interview answers by Mr. Giancarlo Rovetta