Olivier Mosset

by Peter Scott

Issue IX

     Despite the frenetic pace of new offerings in personal technology, the one feature that Apple or Microsoft will unlikely ever consider is an “introspection app.” While some might feel overwhelmed by relentless upgrades in our means of communicating with one another, and others are eager to consume any innovation that appears, the option to suspend the ceaseless production of new technologies to grab each other’s attention doesn’t exist.

     Based in immediacy and efficiency,the pressure to keep pace with so many new interactive formats promotes a rejection of the “here and now,” which is regularly penetrated by the PINGS and CLONGS of incoming texts and emails. Demanding constant notice from one another as we send or await the next communiqué, where we are becomes irrelevant, forfeited in favor of our engagement within the digital stream. With no limits or barriers to incoming information, real space is increasingly taken for granted and abandoned, while real time is sliced up into smaller and smaller fragments. Texting our way along the sidewalk we bump into one another, as the space we inhabit disappears into the peripheries beyond our screens.

     Moving towards a kind of collective of isolates, we’ve arrived at a state where we are often “alone together,” lacking awareness of the spaces within which we exist. But given the significance of shared space (public parks and squares) to the possibility of social transformation and agency (Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, Taksim Square), the idea of being in constant touch yet, for the most part, physically unaware of one another, could be seen as technically sophisticated but socially regressive. One possibility for art in an era of increasing distraction and remoteness is to momentarily assert the significance of the space we inhabit. While this too may be a fleeting option due to the increased experience of art online, we still exist in a world where art objects can be seen and interacted with in a physical place. 

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Resolutely inhabiting the space within which they’re exhibited, the paintings of Olivier Mosset often seem inseparable from the architecture of the gallery or museum within which they’re presented. Occasionally employing a scale and format reminiscent of the Hudson River School painters Church and Bierstadt, some of the work has the enormous presence of a large scale landscape painting, but rather than transport the viewer somewhere else, they assert in a very visceral way the space in front of and around them, activating the room and calling attention to its dimensions and architectural details.

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     The relationship of most artwork to where it’s displayed is tangential, a condition which initially developed around the time of the Renaissance. As capitalist economies in the west displaced feudalism and the church, the work of art was “liberated” from religious narratives and patronage. Where frescoes were site-specific and intended as a permanent part of the architecture, easel painting and freestanding sculpture were free-floating commodities with no particular allegiance to any site or locale. Like a currency that required a guarantee of its value, the signature and persona of the artist became a crucial factor in determining worth. As the intrinsic relationship of artwork to site disappeared, the artist now stood in as a guarantee, putting the issue of authorship and authenticity at the center of the experience of the art.
     In Olivier Mosset’s paintings, the unique imprint of the artist is less important than encountering the concrete reality of the paintings themselves. Working over many decades within a series of precise frameworks which call into question the insistence on the uniqueness of artwork and author, Mosset’s paintings are meant to be taken at face value; paintings on a wall, in a space, in front of which viewers may find themselves. While this may sound simplistic, it’s worth remembering that art intended to grab our attention is in some ways yet another distraction, often relegating us to passive recipients of the artist’s intent.
     In a 2010 installation of Mosset’s paintings at Leo Koening Inc., the gallery space was filled with 4' x 4' black monochromes. Painted with a rubberized industrial material, the paintings were hung in grids, with the black squares seeming to alternate between voids and solids, creating a resonating affect with the white walls of the gallery. Through the intensity of the black and white contrast, the paintings and the space reverberated, insisting on the inseparability of artwork and gallery infrastructure. While this interdependence is something that most artists would reject, preferring to see an exhibition space as a neutral backdrop for their art, in the case of Mosset’s work there is a liberating quality to highlighting the gallery space’s physical conditions, putting the viewer much more squarely in the room.

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Considered a key component to modern and contemporary painting, an artist’s identity and authorship weigh heavily in determining the aesthetic merits as well as value of an artwork. Although few artists are unware of the significance of being associated with a signature style, the pressures to conform to a self-imposed, recognizable aesthetic goes mostly unaddressed within art circles. As a result, a viewer may be perplexed when visiting a one-person exhibition of a dozen or so paintings that possess just the right degree of sameness and difference to make each painting feel unique, yet are all undoubtedly “from the same hand” of the show’s author.  
     This contradiction might be the result of an uncomfortable divide between the rigorous tenets of modernist tradition, which insisted on a ceaseless exploration and pioneering of new aesthetic terrain, and the more mundane expectations and demands of a market, which requires a predictable outcome. Sometime in the mid-1960s, at a moment that this contradiction may have been more keenly understood, Olivier Mosset began making the exact same painting of a circle, which he then produced over two hundred times. Less the work of an obsessive compulsive or outsider artist, Mosset’s aggressive repetition came out of a period of radical questioning of the uniqueness of the art object. Repeating essentially the same painting over a period of years negated the significance of the artist’s gesture and asserted the art object’s basic characteristics. Removing the author allowed the painting to “speak for itself.”
     Coming during a period of political and social unrest that proposed challenges to established orders, Mosset’s “zero- sum game” was to be followed by his involvement with the four artists known as B.M.P.T. (Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni), a “non-group” that staged a series of events in Paris in 1967 which offered a highly skeptical response to the singular identification of artwork to author. In one museum event, each of the four artists made a painting after which they then signed one another’s work. In another they invited an audience into a theater and presented a set of their four paintings to be "watched" for an hour so. Leaflets were then passed out which read, “Obviously there was no question of looking at the canvases by Buren-Mosset-Parmentier-Toroni.,” after which a fact-based description of the work the audience had seen was read aloud.
     Combining playfulness with intellectual rigor, Mosset’s work is unusual in the history of painting. While many artists have their breakthrough and then go on to repeat it, Mosset’s work poses a challenge to the notion of a programmatic response to a set of aesthetic problems that come out of an artist’s “struggle.” For Mosset, the personality of the artist is beside the point. A painting exists for itself. This view contradicts much of what we assume about art and authorship.
The artwork is produced by an individual with certain unique qualities which are assumed to be manifest in the work.
The painting affords us a view into the uniqueness of this individual, whose achievement is evident in a set of aesthetic choices. The identity of the author and the “look” of the painting are inseparable, linked by the particular habits of one to arrive at the other. In this view, the artist is a kind of hero, not bound by the rules of the game, but forging his or her own path to arrive at a unique, never before seen solution.
     While artists like Duchamp, Warhol, and Elaine Sturtevant have parodied these mythologies, they keep coming back. This is perhaps because they are not entirely creations of artists themselves, but the system within which their work is viewed. It seems quite clear by now that we need artists to be “artists,” meaning that the symbolic necessity for a class of persons who embody individualism is essential for society as a whole. The existence of artists reminds us that we, too, can stake our claim and express our uniqueness. As the ultimate representative of a unique self, the artist’s individuality exists to be emulated, while at the same time market pressures demand conformity to the identity they’ve fashioned for themselves, placing them in a contradictory position, which ultimately undermines their option for true dissent.

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     Side-stepping what is essentially an exercise in bad faith, Olivier Mosset has steadily chipped away at the rigidity of subject-author position, at times in fairly audacious ways. In 2009, Galerie Andrea Caratsch in Zurich had a show of Olivier Mosset’s paintings, which was to be followed by an exhibition of the artist John Armleder’s work. Rather than “collect his work and go home,” Mosset’s show became Armleder’s. The work of Olivier Mosset remained, but now bore the artist John Armleder’s name. Forgetting for a moment the practical considerations (who gets paid if a work sells?), the conceptual gesture suggests a genuine ambivalence towards the idea of the autonomy of the artist, while also wreaking havoc with an art system that demands to know “who’s who” in order to assign credit and therefore value.
     But the point of all this is not to play games, as much as it is to change where the emphasis lies. For all of Mosset’s “adventures,” he seems to be constantly circling back to the same thing, which is that a painting is fundamentally a material plane, existing in a space, and that the artist’s presence in the work may be in fact a distraction from the experience that the painting might provide. And when we find ourselves in front of a Mosset painting, we are not looking through a window, or transported by what the artist wants us to think, but are confronted by the work in it’s material reality, and by extension the reality of the space within which it exists, and ultimately by the reality of “ourselves,” a condition that may or may not be welcome, but one that refuses to engage in myth, or indulge the egos of either the artist or viewer.

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All works in this story: Untitled, 2010, polyurethane on canvas. All images in this story are installation views of Olivier Mosset's self-titled 2012 exhibition at Indipendenza Studio in Rome. The show was organized in conjunction with Campoli Presti galleries in Paris and London. photography Giorgio Benni

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