The first time I saw ‘Contemporary’ was when I was seventeen, in a painting by Bernard Frize at the City of Paris Museum of Modern Art.
Back then, the story of Modern Art led inevitably towards the muscular Neo-expressionism of Anselm Kiefer, Georg Baselitz or Julian Schnabel. Perhaps in another universe this thread still continues. But in Frize’s work there appeared a disruption. The artist’s concerns (and I wasn’t immediately sure there were any) seemed at odds with those of the artists around him in the museum. Instead of history, existential anxiety, or the story of the painter, the work seemed to simply spurt out data relating to its own creation.
I later learned that these paintings’ chaotic forms grew out of a simple trick: physically distorted canvases, brushed with paint and resin, produced convincingly mountain-like forms, when stretched flat. Similarly illusory was the painting’s sense of ahistorical nonchalance. Frize had developed this approach after exhaustively studying what it meant for an artist to be in keeping with their time, through a study of the work of Bazille, Fluxus, Gutai, and Conceptual Art.
Ironically, it is often remarked how contemporary these early 1990s works still appear today - that they could be lifted from a Chelsea show from last September. Frize’s practice certainly has become an exemplar of the approach known as Process Painting - a form that became uniquely suited to soak up much of the surplus capital of the early 2000s art world. When Frize began his work in the 1970s, however, it was for now almost forgotten, essentially political aims.
His work arose out of a very 20th Century problem: whether Modern painting could coexist within a Marxist revolution that was surely just around the corner. Given the current choices that were then available - bourgeois decoration, didactic Social Realism, or what was seen as an increasingly academic late Modernism - it was a philosophical problem that saw Frize halt painting for a full ten years.
Frize’s ‘out’ came from his experience as a physical worker - pulling silkscreens in a workshop - whilst painting speculatively by himself on Sundays. His realisation was that the production methods of factory workers, rather than their superficial representations in paintings and photographs, could offer a solution. If he worked according to preordained templates and rules, like a sheet metal worker or a dressmaker, and abandoned aesthetic hierarchies such as personal colour choices, it would remove some of the distance artists kept from the proletariat. Solidarity could further be improved by the removal of affectations like the artist as a unique genius.
These early works took about a year, and involved the mechanical filling in of canvases, first horizontally then vertically, each one with the smallest brushes available. The works were both nonsubjective and nonpersonal, and reduced the artist’s actions to perhaps the bare minimum of what a painting could be.
It is important to note that this approach was different to Andy Warhol, who was happy to not only set up a factory, but to become one of its robots. Frize’s idea of a factory worker was essentially human, endowed with sensitive insights, and who sought to make sense of their world. Combining materials with forces of nature, and compiling visual puzzles that relied on the curiosity of a human observer, similarly anchored his practice to humanity. Whilst materials were not separate from Frize’s intentions, the process was also not merely a fetichized subject. It was a communal and communicative act, through labour.
The work almost teleologically led to the involvement of painting teams. In one series, assistants moved brushstrokes in skilled coordination, akin to train drivers passing across each others’ tracks. Speed was also a sign of tradesmanlike skill, with sophisticated handiwork being done in as little as ten minutes. Colour, too, was employed not according to aesthetic values, but to keep track of events, similar to how an electrician might use different coloured wires. Assistants began to title Frize’s works, just as construction sites might communally name a cat. And just like the underside of a handmade cabinet holds a story of its production, there were no reasons to remove the pencil guides that remain visible beneath the paintings’ translucent glazes.
All of this was transformative to painting, but became theoretically more complex when the works’ relationship to its previous cultural foundations started to crack. This was not due to a change on Frize’s behalf who, without repetition, still continued his experiments, each according to his unceasing and steadfast rules.
The change instead appeared in the changing relationship between painting and the market, and art’s relationship to the world of finance. Painting was no longer a cultural irrelevance, and working collaboratively on a $70,000 object involved a greater number of prosaic tensions than a marginal, largely conceptual activity did. Within rising inequality in the West generally, furthering social revolution was no longer an easy context for the work to inhabit.
For Frize, still sweeping his floor and washing brushes as an essential part of his studio practice, other problems were also present. His decision to not consciously choose colours had itself become a signature, and were now as recognisable to the market as International Klein Blue.
It could be argued, however, that the artist’s work remained interesting, in part, because of the artist’s vocalised and constant awareness of these changing implications. Frize’s continual dissatisfaction with cultural irrelevance, and artistic stagnation, remains felt in a way that is not often present in the flimsier artifacts of Zombie Formalism. Just as Frize’s Marxist underpinnings began to wane, something more valuable perhaps for the present moment arose - an awareness of the essential nature of paradox, and self contradiction.
For Frize, a contradiction is not simply a flaw in practice. It can also act as a fuel. A paradox within a position is a tension that drives an action forward, consciously or not. This is equally true for oneself as it is for a society.
Just as he had always refused to see himself as a robot, it is complex human attributes that push against, and experience, materials. Self criticism, and a lack of complacency for stasis, remain a rare and isolated achievement.