Collaborative Reduction: Q+A With Olivier Mosset

Installation at Leo Koenig


“Artist as Collector: Olivier Mosset,” a new show at the MOCA Tucson in Arizona, introduces the pioneering artist’s spirit of generosity and collaboration. The exhibit showcases his extensive collection of once and future emerging artists—acquired through barter for his own work.

Collaboration has been central to the Swiss-born, Tucson-based Mosset’s work at least since he co-founded BMPT (Buren, Mosset, Parmentier and Toroni) in Paris circa 1966. That group sought to radically challenge notions of authorship, uniqueness and exchange value by signing each other’s paintings and using de-skilled compositional techniques that could be repeated anytime.

Over the past five decades, Mosset has slowly moved between bodies of works composed of reduced painted forms. He made upward of 200 paintings of circles between 1972 and ’76, before moving on to monochromes paintings, first on squares and then in various but simple geometric forms. His current dual New York showing—at Leo Koenig, 40 black paintings; at Mary Boone, 10 white paintings—reprises Mosset’s exploration of singularity, the material object and the grand art historical tradition.

SARAH STEPHENSON: You were making circle paintings before you arrived in the United States from Paris in 1977 which you have said in the past was a way of going against the Yves Klein monochromes. How did your change in location have an impact on your work?

OLIVIER MOSSET: When I came to New York there was a return to the Expressionist image and the figure. It was part of a dialectical tradition in recent art history: after Expressionism comes Pop; after Pop comes Minimalism, after Minimalism comes Conceptual and the return to the figure. But the thing that interested me most was learning about Rodchenko’s 1921 monochrome paintings for the first time and meeting people who were making paintings with one color but approaching it in a different way to Yves Klein’s monochromes.

STEPHENSON: The history of Modern painting seems to be something that is engrained in your work. Do you think it’s impossible to make a painting that doesn’t refer to someone else?

MOSSET: It would be interesting to try to do something that doesn’t, especially with monochrome paintings. But I’m also interested in what other people do. I don’t try to compete. I’m also making work to challenge myself not necessarily the viewer.

STEPHENSON: Do you think that non-competitiveness towards other artists makes it easier for you to be able to collaborate?

MOSSET: Yes, that’s very possible. I started with BMPT and later with John Armleder and Sylvie Fleury, we worked together a couple of years ago, and Steven Parrino and I did a collaborative two-panel painting together. I’ve always worked with people I respect so it has always been a very interesting process. Even with this show actually- Vincent Szarek has a solo show next door at Leo Koenig Projekte but he painted the motorcycle for me in the current show at Christopher Grimes Gallery.

STEPHENSON:  How did the motorcycle collaboration come about?

MOSSET: I made a sculpture of a motorcycle, which was a nice motorcycle but in the biker world it’s nothing special. Vincent said he could paint motorcycles so I thought it would be interesting for him to customize a real one. It actually also ended up being in a real motorcycle show as well so it brought my two worlds together. I’ve had motorcycles forever but before it was always a separate world now everything is mixed up. The thing with the motorcycle is that it’s really considered a commodity. Painting is supposed to have another added value, beyond commodity. And I think a motorcycle can have that value too and by placing the two things in the same space I want to play with these kinds of concepts.

STEPHENSON: Industrial paint is also something that you’ve been working with for a while…

MOSSET: I’ve been using vinyl coating paint for a couple of years (also in the works in the 2008 Whitney Biennial), which is used to coat truck beds. The texture is particularly unique and I started with metallic colors on canvas, then did some in the shape of stars and pentagons-something I had done before but using a different kind of paint.

STEPHENSON: Painting black and white monochrome paintings seems to go back to the reductivist tendencies of BMPT and the simplicity of your circle paintings…

MOSSET: I think it’s more a reflection on Modern art. There’s Ad Reinhardt, there’s Robert Ryman, there’s Kazimir Malevich, and I wan to create dialogue with art history. The monochrome is obviously Yves Klein but, for me, the monochrome doesn’t really exist.

STEPHENSON: How important is it for you to create works in a series?

MOSSET: I think the two New York shows highlight my interests. One painting always follows the last, so there’s an inevitable relationship between the works. If something is considered valuable because it’s unique then that’s exactly what I’m trying not to achieve. A second painting might be a repetition but it can never be a replica. In terms of the objecthood of each of the paintings in the series, I don’t tend to paint the sides of the canvases because when I did that in the past they became too much like objects. I like the idea that the painting stays on the surface because the object is basically the canvas on the stretcher and the paint is the paint. I still see it simply as a material object but-because of the situation, the discourse, the history—it’s also inevitably something else.

STEPHENSON: How do you see your work fitting into the history of appropriation?

MOSSET: I didn’t invent the circle, or stripes, but painting those has the potential of becoming a kind of signature and this is what I am always trying to question. I guess the monochrome paintings came out of that because I made some white on white stripes but then I questioned that and went back to more geometric abstractions. Now I’m back into monochromatic paintings, so I’ve really gone back and forth between these different issues. But I always made a point of saying that I never painted monochromes, they’re just paintings.

The thing with painting is that if you take a ready-made object it’s basically still just an object, you can say it’s art, sure, anything can be art. However, painting in itself defines a certain kind of object which has a long tradition, which is painting, and just because it’s a stretched canvas you don’t even have to explain that it’s art.