jacques villeglé

Bernard Goy: Can you describe the nature of your intervention in the billboard poster?
Jacques Villeglé: The intervention is at the minimum possible. The game is to find what is in the street. It was during the occupation and the days after the war that I was questioned by modern art through the intermediary of a poor reproduction of a painting by Miro.
I understood then that it is necessary to be informed before learning how to paint. But there was no information available in those years, particularly in a small town in Brittany.
From the start I searched for a vocabulary by cutting out images from catalogues or by using pieces of fabric. I subsequently began to use wire — it was like drawing in space, but I did not have a sculptor's temperament. Finally, there were the torn posters in 1949. I understood that there was work to be done in that area. In 1989 I saw in New York a photograph by Walker Evans that showed a torn poster from 1930 with a caption that said roughly, "It is necessary to photograph the world the way people see it." This is very close to my concern. To do just that — without translating.

Goy: The lacéré anonyme is not a myth then?

Villeglé: It is really a utopian view. You always cheat a little. But the lacéré anonyme exists to a certain degree. After the first exhibitions I thought people would go outside and take posters from the streets, just as I did. That was not so. It is a bitter victory for me, after all, I like to save myself the creative agony. The whole world makes work for me — I only have to collect it.

Goy: In a recent book on your work Bernard Lamarche-Vadel quotes Dubuffet saying, "I like painting to be at the limit of no longer being a painting." It seems to me that in your case it should say, ". . . of not yet being a painting."

Villeglé: Yes. Art used to be made consciously. It was then that our system brought something new. But I don't believe that we are an avant-garde. The avant-garde is a great upheaval, a great NO directed at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On the contrary, in our work there is a reminiscence of what happened eighty years ago. When I arrived in Paris, there was the experience of an avant-garde dating back forty years. But we brought in new techniques. There are now tutors who try to teach young children how to unstick and tear. But that doesn't work. It puts them in an uncomfortable situation.

Goy: Who are you referring to when you say "we"?]

Villeglé: To my generation, which I became aware of in the sixties. Isidore Isou was a little annoyed when I told him that we were the heirs to artists from the beginning of the century, but I believe it's true. Mallarmé inaugurated that research word for word, letter for letter.

Goy: A pun with letters in one of your works currently exhibited in Paris subtly evokes an institution well known to Parisians, the "Office of Found Objects" . . .

Villeglé: I would rather call it the "Office of Lost Property," as you only go there if you have lost something. But the torn poster to which you allude is really a found object.

Goy: How can such a work speak to a for-eigner who doesn't understand French?

Villeglé: A work of art must operate on several levels. The stained glass windows in medieval churches were created under a theological program, but people who knew nothing of theology must have found some sense in them. The plastic aspect of my work is important. Everyone can recognize their decor. For Schwitters typography was a plastic element.

Goy: What do you think of the plastic aspect of the lettriste movement?

Villeglé: That has always disappointed me. For me that's bibliophilism.

Goy: The thematic catalogue raisonné of your work currently consists of five volumes out of seventeen planned. Does this mean that in your present work you will not return to the themes in the five published volumes?

Villeglé: No. I did the first volume entitled Affiches de peintre after having found some posters of an eighteenth-century trompe l'œil painter. I found a correspondence with my work in these representations. The feeling of passed time is very strong in his work and the tear is also that — the passing of time. These artists were also artisans who lived outside the centers of power. You find, for example, in the work of a certain Delacroix who lived in Marseille a torn royal decree painted in trompe l'œil.

Goy: So the publication of these volumes doesn't indicate an abandoning of the themes they contain?

Villeglé: No. The second volume is on graffiti; the third on transparency. The next one will contain newspaper advertisement; however, some of these themes are dead because of changes in billboard techniques.

Goy: Can the political dimension of your work have the same significance today that it had during the war in Algeria or the May of 68?

Villeglé: We were of little importance in the sixties. Only a very limited public made an effort to see our work then. Besides, we were accused of willful ambiguity on our presentations of reality. The artist is not a militant, but his testimony can expose a reality that you prefer not to see.

Goy: Should the artist be the one who accepts to see?

Villeglé: Yes. Here we return to Walker Evans. His spirit is really very close to mine.

Goy: Beyond the aesthetic and political readings that can be made of your work, is it not in the end the anecdote that takes precedence for the spectator? An anecdote linked to the memory of everyone?

Villeglé: Yes, there is a message in the poster, but it's not necessarily anecdotal. I have often said that we have ironically brought history painting back by way of a new technique. Consider, for example, how the little Dutch realists always interest us, although the anecdote is one that does not bother me at all. The important thing is that the work as a whole goes beyond anecdote. In the work of Juan Gris or Picasso, the newspaper cuttings introduced in the collages were often there because of their anecdotal dimension for Picasso or Gris themselves. I do not believe in art for art's sake. That is dictatorship and it's monstrous. When I arrived in Paris, you could do nothing but abstract painting.

Goy: But do you believe in the idea of progress in art? You know, in the sense of "after X you can no longer paint in such a way . . ."

Villeglé: That is something that has always exasperated me because there is no progress in sensibility. For example, Freud named things that were known before, but his analysis permitted us to discuss them in a more precise way. We have no connection with prehistoric men or the artists of Ravenna who created the mosaics, and yet their works speak to us and we try to understand. I believe that today art is too conceptual. There is a lack of sensibility; everyone is into fetishism. The fragment of the poster that I collect doesn't interest me by itself. It has to be constructed in the tearing before it accounts for something.

Goy: Yet some conceptual artists claim you as one of them or, at least, acknowledge you and see in your work a connection with the ready-made.

Villeglé: It is perhaps not that simple, but I believe that we have nothing to do with the ready-made. In China during the ninth century, uncut stones were displayed on carved pedestals, then the stones were described in catalogues; similarly, Japanese painters signed pieces of marble whose natural veins they would liked to have drawn. Coming back to the torn posters. I don't think that the selecting of objects is something revolutionary. It is a question of choosing materials of our era, such as scraps, things that are not rare, although posters are now becoming rare since the advertisers are protecting themselves.
But there is a connection here with the nouveaux réalistes, particularly the use of scraps. Today we forget that Yves Klein's blue pigment was originally the cheapest in Paris . . . It was sold in large vats by color merchants. Afterward he used gold, but in the beginning he had this idea of an economic pigment. It's a shame that we never speak of that.

Goy: You mentioned a profusion of torn posters from the fifties and the situation today. In terms of contemporary art, what do you think of the work of Jean-Charles Blais?

Villeglé: It does not become immediately clear that his paintings are done on the back of posters. He is a painter who needs an original support to correspond with his painting. I think his concerns are totally different from ours.

Goy: What about the graffiti artists?

Villeglé: When graffiti artists appeared in the New York subway in 1972, you could only see four or five of my posters in the city, and about ten in Chicago. I don't believe that the young Puerto Ricans there drew on any particular influence. It is closer to gestural painting. And elsewhere you find the same failure — a certain inability to innovate. These artists develop mannerisms very rapidly, which they find difficult to drop. I would even say with Cocteau that it is "le retour à l'ordre."
In France, Robert Combas is an interesting painter. I believe that he is the Jean Cocteau of our era. He can fill a canvas without any alteration. But like Cocteau he sometimes lacks rigor.

Goy: Do you feel that you create a poetic language by subverting the coded messages that make up the posters on the wall.

Villeglé: We are too close to our work to be able to give it this historical dimension straight away. I could reply yes, but that would be megalomania. Daniel Buren says that what is interesting in our work is the anonymous, the fact that we have decided to use posters, as he has decided to use stripes. But there is a world of difference between Buren's stripes and the torn posters. There was also a world apart between Klein and Arman, and yet they got on well together. As far as I'm concerned, the work is there. It is seen, therefore it exists, but I ignore the importance it can have.

Goy: But there is the desire to find a language in the work itself?

Villeglé: Yes. From the beginning, when I was collecting wire, I was searching for a language. In the fifties, when I had a room in the exhibition "Comparaisons," there were painters there who painted harnesses the way it was done in 1890. We hung pop artists in this room and their influence on the other painters was in terms of subject matter, this is incontestable. Later one could see representations of torn posters but painted. There was therefore, at that particular moment, an influence on the level of subject matter, but that's all.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.