Tribute to Ben… aphorisms and total art

[14 Jun 2024]

Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Oscar Wilde, quoted by Ben

For more than 60 years, Ben celebrated life by signing both objects and ideas. He passed away on 5 June at the age of 88 in his home in Nice. His famous painting-writings – often aphorisms painted in white on black with a distinctive round and naive writing style – have made him one of the most popular artists of our time. The breadth of his work, aiming for artistic totality, is recognized in France and internationally.

Everything is art”

Born on 18 July 1935 in Naples to a mother who was half Irish and half Occitan (Southern France) and a Swiss-French father, BEN, whose real name was Benjamin Vautier, became a very prominent figure of the French Contemporary art scene, particularly in his hometown Nice. At the end of the 1950s, when he was just 20, he transformed his small book and stationery shop at 32 rue Tonduti de l’Escarène in Nice into a second-hand vinyl records shop with a highly flamboyant facade, overflowing with protruding objects and slogans. This boutique-laboratory became an exhibition space and a rallying point for the main members of what would become the School of Nice: César, Arman, and Martial Raysse. Reconstructed by Ben, the iconic Nice boutique was purchased in 1975 by the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Center Pompidou and is regularly presented in its collections.

The Fluxus Movement

In the early 1960s, Ben joined the Fluxus movement, drawing inspiration from the legacy of Dada, Marcel Duchamp, and John Cage. He subsequently spread Fluxus’s ideas and spirit throughout France and became a defender of ‘art with an attitude’. It was at this time that he developed the notion of ‘appropriation’, signing everything that had not yet been signed: “kicks, death, mystery, absences, imbalances, everything, nothing, life, holes”… because in art, everything is possible, especially appropriating life.

He went on to sign ‘truths’. ‘Objective’ truths, when signed by Ben, initially allowed him to ‘appropriate’ absolutes: “Un et un font deux (One and one makes two)” a ‘truth’ that immediately became a work of art. After that, he focused on ‘subjective truths’ like “Je veux la gloire (I want fame)” or “Je suis jaloux des autres artistes (I’m jealous of other artists)”. His comments on current events, observations on the human ego and jibes aimed at the art world imbued with both humor and a good dose of self-deprecation helped Ben’s signature to reach beyond the boundaries of art, to the point of appearing on school diaries and children’s pencil cases. The mutation of Ben’s observations into popular logos went beyond marketing, giving material reality to his claim to be an artist for everyone and his desire to challenge the domination of cultural bodies defining what is art and what is not.

The House of Nice

In the early 1970s, Ben acquired a house in the hills above Nice with a panoramic view of the Bay of Angels. He transformed the house into a creative whirlwind, accumulating objects and artworks on the walls and in the garden with jubilant abundance. His living space effectively became a total work of art, covered with his witticisms, vibrant colors and all sorts of objects.

Main facade of Ben’s Bazart. Source: artist’s website

Exhibitions

In the early 1970s, Ben began to be known and to exhibit his work. In 1995, his first retrospective was hosted at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Marseille, followed by a second one at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Nice six years later. His most notable exhibition remains the one organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon in 2010. “Ben, strip-tease intégral” brought together more than 1000 rarely seen works from major collections in Europe and North America, retracing fifty years of creation over more than 3,000 m2 of the Lyon Museum. The exhibition’s curator was Jon Hendricks, art historian, artist, consulting curator for the Fluxus Gilbert and Lila Silverman collection at MoMA in New York, and agent for Yoko Ono. In his introduction to the catalog he wrote: Ben’s gestures, which he began to perform in the late 1950s, now have their place in the pantheon of performance. His writings are radical, revolutionary works. His work on social attitudes and conditions reveals tremendous humanism. Ben has inexhaustible energy, producing a strong output of information, opinions, books, essays and Internet documents. He is not the clichéed artist locked in his ivory tower, but rather a street artist (… ) whose work spanned all fields of art and life with joyful abundance.”

Ben’s works in collections around the world

Ben’s works are held in the world’s largest private and public collections, including: MoMA in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna, the MUHKA in Antwerp, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Solothurn Museum, the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris, and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice.

Geography of works sold at auction

Demand for Ben’s work on the auction market is global (copyright Artprice.com)