The late Bernard Aubertin was a color and performance artist deeply involved in the Zero art movement. While his work was well known in life, its impact will carry on long after Aubertin’s recent death, starting with a solo, retrospective show, titled RED: The Estate of Bernard Aubertin, at De Buck Gallery. Aubertin’s fascination with the manifestation of color, movement, and fire lend themselves to his legendary status as a performance artist.
Bernard Aubertin was born in 1934 in France, though many mistake him for a German artist after his participation in the German-rooted Zero art movement of the 1960’s. He studied painting in Paris before meeting Yves Klein who is often credited with the inspiration behind Aubertin’s work in monochromy. Aubertin once wrote, “It was as if someone had generously opened my eyes, as if the monochrome can be at once Yves’ creation, and also an expression of my own intimate taste” Aubertin began a study of the color red through monochrome paintings; initially working with materials like spatulas or even forks to facilitate movement within the frame. He quickly transitioned into the well-known nail images around 1960; the Tableau Clous series that continued throughout his life. Using nails, light, and red paint, Aubertin created startling images using light to affect the color red. In an essay within the show catalogue, it is said, “According to Aubertin, red possesses the same primordial force as fire, both freeing and regenerating, and is capable of transmitting the artist’s desire to go beyond traditional painting and renew stylistic and aesthetic canons”.
Aubertin’s infatuation with the color red did not end there, though. It slowly escalated from expressions of light impacting the color red in still pieces to moving manifestations of the color by using fire in demonstrations. He explained this change by stating, “The progression of color towards a maximum radiance, the variety of the nails, the play of light amongst the fields of nails, together constitute the materialization of my fire paintings in action”. Often setting his work ablaze, Aubertin toured with the Zero group, advancing to spinning wheels, creating 2D works with fire, matches, and circles, and then onto 3D objects like violins, cars, and books. His contemporaries in the Zero group played with light and shadow, but Aubertin and a few others, preferred to play with fire and ash.
From the very beginning, Aubertin’s work was rooted in action. The act of hammering a nail was crucial to his early work and led to further and more dramatic actions within his future pieces. Soon it wasn’t just the act of making art, but the making of the art that became a performance in itself.
Performance art has an interesting and poorly documented history. Starting in the 1910’s with the Dada art movement and escalating with the Zero and other radical art movements of the 1960’s in Europe, performance art took the stage. Performance work was considered avant-garde, but after WWII the artists in Europe were looking for a deviation from the norm. Sometimes referred to as actionism, performance art at its core is a rejection of the formal traditions of art production, such as painting or drawing. These traditional established methods often aren’t enough to express the artist’s intentions, leading to performance or another nontraditional method of making artwork to accomplish this. However, performance art wasn’t just a fad of the 60’s, it’s still alive and well today. Though different from the well-known performing arts such as theatre, actionism plays an even larger role in modern artistry. Highly conceptual and emotive, artists who put action first are no longer hard to find, like Marina Abramovic, Heather Hanson, and the artist featured in DeBuck’s upcoming show, Shozo Shimamoto. Performance has made its way out of the avant-garde and into the accepted forms of creative expression, thanks to the help of artists like Bernard Aubertin.
Aubertin’s works, in addition to his performances, were a documentation of the actions within performance pieces, unpredictable flammable events. The use of fire made all of his pieces one of a kind. For Aubertin, the ephemeral was reality, resulting in a new discussion in which he claimed, “I have shown a new universe in which everything exists: movement.” To Aubertin, performance was a means through which to free the mind and the body, something that could not be accomplished through traditional painting. The psychological and the physical are linked through performance, “giving birth to life.” By scorching objects, canvases, and matches he did not mean to destroy the materials, but rather wanted to give them new life and a new meaning..
Bernard Aubertin was a key member of the Zero movement, a pioneer of performance art, and a monochromatic man through and through. Red was his inspiration and the single constant in his work. A passionate color, red came alive in his exceptional pieces through the use of nontraditional materials, often including nails and automobiles, or actions, like setting fire to a book. He cleared a path with fire through the art communities in Europe, giving meaning and movement to objects in a manner that no one had before.
Be sure to visit De Buck Gallery to see Red: The Estate of Bernard Aubertin, a great collection in the form of a retrospective show, featuring monochromatic and fire pieces, on view through October 29.
Text by Sarah Sickles