Interview | my approach to colour/light is totally different
G.R.L. Critics and art historians seem to have difficulty classifying your work, but you do not consider yourself an abstract painter, is that correct?
J.B. I don’t think I have ever really been an abstract painter. If I use a geometric construction in my work it is certainly not in the way that the constructivists used geometry. My painting has always had a strong relationship with my environment; it was never abstract, it was rather a balance between perception and concept. The geometry was basically a structure, like a window, opening on to the space, a space strongly related to the environment of my studio in the far corner of the Westhoek in Flanders.
G.R.L. After seeing your show in Michigan, Martha Keller compared your work with that of Richard Diebenkorn, in your shared preoccupation with space. Is that an appropriate comparison?
J.B. Yes, I think that Martha Keller was right in referring to Richard Diebenkorn in the sense that I had at that moment the same concerns about space but, as she pointed out, my approach to colour/light is totally different. One could say that even though the composition of certain of my paintings is occasionally very minimal and seems constructed, minimalism and constructivism have never been my concern.
The discovery of new spaces
G.R.L. The paintings in that first U.S. show were strongly geometric, rather formal and, if I may put it this way, contained. The surface was flat canvas or paper, the paint was applied smoothly, without clearly defined brush movement and the delineation was precise. Your subsequent work has seemed to break progressively further and further out of this containment: you moved into the third dimension when you started the works on folded paper and canvas; the movement of brush or pencil is free and sometimes agressive; in your latest oil paintings and acrylic works you have broken completely from the geometric line; and in the “Impact” series, which will be in your show at the International Art Gallery in Lasne, you have introduced another element of three dimensionality in your treatment of the paper. Are all these changes related to your experience of being in America?
J.B. Certainly. The discovery of new spaces, immense spaces, has been very important for my work; also the discovery of an encroaching and aggressive nature which sometimes overtakes us and which seems to me, as a European, very hard and sometimes inhospitable. In this sense, the serenity of my earlier work has disappeared with the horizontal line and the vertical line has strongly reasserted itself in my work. It seems to me that, in America, everything is vertical; vertical in height, vertical in depth. . . .
the third dimension
G.R.L. And is this the reason why you have moved into the third dimension?
J.B. The use of relief in my work is certainly not new. I sometimes think that I work in cycles. There is the working and manipulation of paper today: there was the accumulation of plaster and paint and the introduction of raw materials such as copper and lead in my shows at the Zodiaque Gallery in 1963 and 1967. Relief – and the dialogue between the flat surface and relief – have always fascinated me. It was working with relief that brought me into confrontation with the idea of light and shadow two elements which have fascinated me greatly in the past. They fascinate me less today, although the relief of my latest works on paper has still, nevertheless, a tendency o reflect my concern with contrast. It’s true too that during my travels in the U.S., I ‘ve been strongly impressed by the dimension of depth; that is to say, the geological element has seemed to me very profound and very apparent, and it certainly can be felt in my recent work, in contrast with my paintings from the period just before I came over to the States.
G.R.L. At the same time that you have moved away from a preoccupation with strong horizontal and diagonal lines you have begun to introduce a new geometric form into your work: the circle. Is this form a symbol for you?
J.B. The circle is certainly entirely new in my work, not as a symbol in the sense that it represents the sun or the earth, but as human interference – or inhuman, if you like. It’s an imprint, in nature, which could be made by an underground explosion, or a cosmic impact, or the remains of a dwelling.