Bernar Venet – a giant of steel

[06 Mar 2012]


Bernar Venet is one of the rare French artists to have achieved international recognition. The fact that he has settled in New York since 1966 is one of the keys to his success. Not long before he moved there, his work was close to conceptual art and radical objectivity, based on mathematics and science. As of 1976, he devoted himself to the first of three series of monumental structures: Indeterminate lines, Sharp angles and Arcs. The line was studied in all its mathematical variants and then it became more free and expressive. Venet was not trying to take a position or to apply any recipes, but was always exploring, from the abstract logic of mathematical data to random and disorderly experiments.

One of the most in-demand French artists
Recognised abroad, Venet was long ignored in France. The best platform he has ever received from an auction company was not in France but in Florida. In fact, between January and April 2008, the American auctioneer Sotheby’s organised for the first time a major solo exhibition for the artist in Isleworth. Twenty-five sculptures by the artist were presented for private sale by Sotheby’s. This was indeed a sign of market recognition. Several months after this major exhibition, Sotheby’s generated a new auction record for the artist when it sold a sculpture from the Indeterminate Lines series in Doha: the massive structure entitled Four indeterminate lines (346 x 282 x 415 cm) reached its high estimate of $600,000 (c. €462 000) at the 18 March sale in 2009.

That was the only piece in 2009 to sell for over €100,000. Nevertheless, strong demand for the artist’s work generated other sales and above allowed him to generate his best-ever auction revenue total that year. On the back of a total of €923,500 for 39 works sold, Bernar VENET became the fourth best-selling living French artist in the world in 2009 and that was before his exhibition in Versailles (4th position in the Top 5 along with Jean-Pierre CASSIGNEUL, Robert COMBAS, François-Xavier & Claude LALANNE, Georges MATHIEU, Pierre SOULAGES and Sam SZAFRAN).
After a career spanning 50 years and having achieved global recognition, the artist was finally consecrated by the art market. At the same time he received numerous public orders from all over the world – Germany, the United States, Switzerland, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, etc.- and his private order book became so full that he was obliged to set up a workshop of 17 people in Hungary dedicated to the production of his sculptures to meet the demand.

The impact on his prices was impressive and over the last decade his price index rose by 135% (between January 2001 and January 2011).
His second-best auction result was signed in New York by an imposing piece (144.7 x 191.7 x 259 cm). Consisting of steel arcs, this sculpture entitled 209.5 Arc x 14 went under the hammer for $281,000 (€205,000) at Christie’s sale on 21 September 2011. Venet’s third best result was actually generated in France: in May 2008, his Ligne indéterminé n°3 demolished the estimated range of €40,000 – €60,000 when it fetched €200,000 at Christie’s in Paris. That was his first 6-figure result in France after two similar results were scored in New York.

For most people, Venet is a sculptor. For those who know his work he is also a painter, a performer and a proteiform multi-disciplinary artist. The eclectic nature of his œuvre and the diversity of the scales on which he works mean that there are numerous and varied opportunities to buy his creations. For example there are small sculptures for less than €10,000 (approx. €20 centimetres), lithographs for between €600 and 1,600 and some drawings for Indeterminate Lines at between €4,000 and €35,000.
Moroever, his paintings are especially affordable in the light of his reputation: a 1980 painting entitled Position of two Acute Angles of 44.5° Each Each was actually bought in against a low estimate of €12,000 in August 2009 in Cannes (Marc-Arthur Kohn) and his record in painting is equivalent to only €16,200, for an early work entitled Mathematics Drawing, dated 1967, which fetched $25,000 (Bonhams & Butterfields in Los Angeles, 5 May 2008).

Bernar Venet’s art is almost as monumental as Richard SERRA’s (whose auction record is equivalent to €1.45m for Palms, 7 November 2011, Phillips de Pury & Company NY) and as majestic as Pierre Soulages’s (whose auction record stands at €2m for Peinture 130 x 162 cm, 31 May 2011 at Sotheby’s in Paris). Already an unavoidable figure in the Contemporary art landscape, Venet’s current projects will undoubtedly further extend his footprint and contribute to a substantial redefinition of his market.