Arizona-based artist began repeating the same painting over and over again—a
provocation to the bourgeois
ideal of the creative
Arriving in the US when postmodernism and
were all the rage, he cultivated his taste for abstraction and an interest in biker culture, anchoring his paintings in the reality of the street.
INTERVIEW: GIANNI JETZER
PHOTOGRAPHY: ALESSANDRO BARTHLOW
GIANNI JETZERIn the mid-1960s, at the age of twenty, you moved from Switzerland to Paris with the firm intention of becoming an artist. What were your expectations?
OLIVIER MOSSETThe idea from the very beginning was to make abstract paintings—but then I went through that Pop Art thing, so what happened was something in-between. People called it “Minimal Pop,” but I just think things are sometimes in the air, and there's a logic in the way you react to it that keeps you going.
GJIn 1966, you did about 150 of your signature “zero degree paintings,” each one measuring one-by-one meter, with a black circle placed in the center of a white canvas. Repeating the same painting seemed like a provocation, a challenge to the bourgeois ideal of the genius painter who creates spontaneously.
OMYes, but I was not the only one. The idea of repetition was already in the air, because of Andy Warhol’s soup cans or whatever.
GJBMPT, the artist group you formed at that time, was very short-lived ,but it was a key experience for you—and possibly the impetus for your solo career.
OMWe never called ourselves BMPT—that came from the press. We were [Daniel] Buren, Mosset, [Michel] Parmentier, [Niele] Toroni. We first showed in January '67 and ended one year later—although of course we were in contact with each other, before and after.
GJAs a collective, you rejected traditional modes of authorship and presentation, to the point of mounting shows that featured nothing at all.
OMYes, but it was more the idea that a painting can be reduced to anything through repetition, which is a criticism of the idea of novelty and inventions. So we did a series of “Manifestations.” First, we painted in public, so you could see how easily it's done. The second step was theater: somebody asked us to do a “happening,” so we just installed a painting on a stage; there was nothing to do but look at it for what it was. Then there was the 1967 Biennale in Paris, where the paintings were shown with audio: a tape that repeated, "Art is false. Painting begins with Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni.” It went on from there.
Eventually, Buren and Toroni did a show on their own, where they asked the public to create the work themselves. There's two different readings of that process: anybody can do the painting, but not everyone will do it the same way. My position was, "Of course somebody else could do a circle—but it's his painting, not mine."
GJYour and Buren’s animosity towards each other became a fruitful tension, mutually nurturing and challenging the other’s artistic brain. Did it begin with your using his stripes in 1972?
OMWell, it's complex. I was still doing paintings; Buren painted on a striped canvas, so it's a different approach. My problem was that the circles in my paintings were always in the background, in a way. The ones we did in public were two-by-two meters; the one we showed in the theater was larger, but the center was the same. I realized, “I can do the same circle and not care about what the background is." But then it started to be a problem. The circle became a kind of signature, where people would immediately say, "Oh, it’s a Mosset." That wasn’t the idea. I was also thinking about foregrounds and backgrounds—and what's interesting with stripes is that you don't know what’s background and what's painted. That’s why I began using them.
GJTwo years later, you participated in the Biennale de Paris, where you exhibited a red monochrome painting.
OMYes, after the stripes. I’d tried different approaches: the first stripes were gray, then off-white; there were stripes on beige, or even on a pink background. But the last ones were monochromatic: white-on-white, gray-on-gray. So I’d got interested in that kind of feeling, and when I was invited to the Biennale, I made a big painting, red-on-red—but it fell and was pierced by a brush, so I had to redo it. This time, instead of painting the stripe, I drew it.
GJHow important was this piece in relation to the monochrome paintings you did in the following years in New York?
OMIt was important. After the Biennale, I left for New York, where I actually started to do stripe paintings again—only instead of drawing them, I did them with tape. But when I got a new studio on Crosby Street, I did another big red monochrome and thought, "You know what? I can just paint the background on the canvas and it looks like a painting."
GJYou arrived in New York at a time when New Wave had started to overwrite disco and the 1980s were about to kick in.
OMNot only that—it was also Schnabel, Salle, post-modern, neo-expressionist, Baselitz, Kiefer. I saw that and said, “I'm going to be in trouble. I might have to teach." But I only had a Swiss baccalaureate, so I actually went back to school at Columbia.
GJYou studied art history?
OMNo, visual arts—but the department wasn’t very good, and the art history department was great, so I did a double major.
GJWas this when you discovered Rodchenko’s early monochromes from the 1920s?
OMI knew about them, but I hadn't seen the pictures. But then I met Marcia Hafif, who had written an article for Artforum called "Beginning Again," where she talked about different people who did so-called monochrome or semi-monochrome paintings. The gallerist Annina Nosei, who was a friend of mine, said I should call her, and I suggested that we do a show somewhere.
GJIn fact, you once again became the member of a collective, when you and Hafif co-founded the “Radical Painting Group.”
OMYes. In 1983, we had a show at Sidney Janis's called “New Abstraction.” I was still at Columbia at the time; I remember some teacher in our department saying, "Oh ,you sold out to the system." I said, "Why?" “Because it was reviewed.” Then we had a second show at Williamstown, which [Thomas] Krens curated. That's when the idea for the name came up. The press release for the Janis show had said, "This is a more radical type of abstraction"—but in discussion, we’d say, "No, it's not abstraction, it's concrete.”
GJBut soon there was a shift from neo-expressionism to a kind of neo-Pop, a neo-Minimalism fueled by artists who came from CalArts, many of them students of John Baldessari. That’s when you became close to the East Village scene around Nature Morte Gallery, with artists like Steven Parrino, Sherrie Levine, Cady Noland and Peter Halley. How did you connect with this much younger generation?
OMThings had changed. First you had the so-called “Neo-Geo,” which was Peter Halley. Peter was interested in French theory—particularly Foucault—and I'd read all these people. In fact, Baudrillard was a friend. He did a lecture at Columbia; there were drinks afterwards at the Maison Française, and I went and met him. Then I had to go to a club to see somebody, and he asked if he could come along.
GJYou were also probably Steven Parrino’s first collector, as you bought Slow Rot (1985), a canvas soaked with motor oil.
OM Yes. I met Steven because somebody told me that he was doing these monochromes with the names of motorcycle gangs, which sounded interesting. But in terms of collecting, what happened is that the gallerist John Gibson owed me money, and he wasn’t able to pay. He said, "You know, I have other people's work. Do you want these instead?" I accepted, and it got me interested in buying more pieces and making exchanges. So I started to have a little collection, but it was always people I knew.
GJFor Slow Rot, did Parrino simply put a canvas under the motorcycle as he changed the oil?
OMYes, he painted with oil and drew a little frame on the canvas. He was struggling at the time, so I bought that painting as a way to help him. I mean, I liked it and I was impressed by that, but the idea was to try to help him a little bit.
GJIn the mid-‘80s, you began to give titles to your works; the first was ironically named A Step Backwards (1985). Why did you decide to begin using titles after almost twenty years without?
OM I was bored with monochromes; I was looking for something new. One day, I saw a painting in my studio and noticed a shadow on it. It was interesting, because although it was a one-color painting, there were now actually two colors there. I was preparing for a show in Geneva at the Centre D’Art Contemporaine, and I ended up making these new paintings with geometric motifs. I was moving away from monochromes, and now going back to something more traditional: abstract painting.
GJ At the end of the ‘90s, you created your first sculptures: the “Toblerone” series, named after anti-tank barriers used by the Swiss during World War II. What motivated this shift from the canvas to three-dimensional work?
OMI’d done something on the facade of the Centre d’art Neuchâte: a big bar made from honeycomb aluminum. Because of that, I was included in a sculpture show in Moûtiers, where I did a chimney and tube in concrete. Then I was supposed to do a show in Sion, and I got this idea to recreate these Swiss end blocks. We did forty out of cardboard first…
GJ…and then materialized them in a variety of materials, like concrete, wood and ice.
OMYes. The ice was quite interesting. Anselm Kiefer had come to the Sion show, and it was a very hot summer. I said, "Art Basel should have these, only made of ice"—and a year later, we did it! It collapsed very quickly, of course, but it was interesting, because we’d taken the ice from a glacier—we just carved a chunk. You couldn't do that today.
GJYou were always interested in the culture of customization, and became close to artists like Vincent Szarek and Jeffrey Schad, both of whom worked with art and motorcycles. Are there any parallels between geometric abstraction and vehicle customization? Is a great painting similar to a great bike?
OMYes, but it's still an object. You can still use it as a motorcycle, but it has this other dimension. It all really started with [legendary bike customizer] Indian Larry. I saw one of his motorcycles and said, "You should show these in a gallery in Manhattan." He said, "Yeah, sure. Why not?" Then, of course, he had an accident and passed away, but the shop went on; I'd pass by, and we’d talk about him. They said, "Well, we still have the motorcycle, we can do that." So we had the show at Spencer Brownstone (New York) in 2007.
GJWithin your practice, biker culture seems to be an anchoring of street reality in the art space, a way to root your paintings in the real world.
OMI would agree with that. The art world is real, but it might not really be the real world. For a long time, my paintings didn’t have much on them; it was a way to make people look at what's not the painting: the wall and so on. So when I use a motorcycle, maybe it's a way of telling the people, "Look at the painting, too."
GJYou then took up residence in Tucson, Arizona, where you’ve lived since 1996. There, you discovered Rhino Shield paint, which is normally used to protect truck linings. You were literally producing your art in a truck workshop.
OMRight. I knew this guy, a friend of friend; he was a musician and he used this paint on guitar cases. I asked if he could do the same thing on canvas, and he said, "Yeah, of course." The first one was black, but he said he could do any colors. So I did a series of those.
GJCan you tell me more about the different ways that you’ve applied paint onto canvas throughout your career?
OM It was always kind of matter of fact. I just try and put the paint on the canvas. They're not perfect, because they're handmade, but I try to do them as good as I can. It's complex, because when they're too well-done, it’s no good: I did some in New York that were mechanically sprayed, and they were a little bit too nice. I would like them to be normal, but still handmade. That's the idea.
GJSo what makes a painting good?
OMIt changes: you can find something very interesting, and then you forget about it. I'm interested in the painting of the 19th century, like Manet, Courbet, even Monet. I just like to look at paintings—though my taste is abstraction. As I said, I think abstraction was a good idea.