BY talia Abbas
A retrospective of 80 works by the late French artist Bernard Aubertin opened at De Buck Gallery in Chelsea on September 22. Titled “Red,” the exhibition is Aubertin’s first solo show in New York and marks the gallery’s representation of the artist’s estate.
Aubertin, who passed away last year at 81, was known for his all-red paintings in formats of different sizes and materials, which he regularly set on fire and then displayed the results: a partially burnt book, burnt matches, a guitar, even a car.
His work is rooted in Zero, a post-war movement founded in Germany in 1957 that broke the boundaries of traditional painting and sculpture – particularly the dominant mid-century art mode Art Informel, or Abstract Expressionism in the United States.
Although Zero gained international momentum, it was most influential among western European constituents who set out to reinvent art in the aftermath of World War II.
“Red” has been a year in the making, and it follows Guggenheim’s 2014 exhibition “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow” that featured 180 works of Zero artists such as founders Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, Gunter Uecker and French and Italian avant-gardists Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni.
With “Red,” the gallery hopes to bring Aubertin’s work to a broader audience. “His work has been widely recognized in Europe but not enough in the United States,” Kathryn McSweeney, the gallery’s sales director said of the artist’s work, half of which had been sold prior to the opening.
“It’s hard for me to imagine how someone can be important in Europe but not share that presence here in the U.S.,” said Isca Greenfield-Sanders, a New York-based figurative painter who attended the gallery opening. “It’s the first time I hear about [Aubertin] but as a third generation artist I appreciate how hard it is to achieve renown.”
Some of the show’s highlights include the 1960s “Tableaux clous,” which appears as a series of red-painted wooden panels with nails hammered into them, and the 1970s “Parcours d’allumettes,” a trail of burnt matchsticks geometrically placed on red or grey paper or cardboard.
Many Zero artists have established secondary markets, some commanding auction prices up to $20,000,000. Two works from Aubertin’s “Tableaux Clous” series realized $24,082 and $30,963 at a 2014 Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art auction in Amsterdam – comparatively modest, though well above Christie’s $12,000-$17,000 estimates for that sale.
Aubertin indirectly discovered his affinity for red after a visit to Yves Klein’s Parisian studio in 1957, where he observed Klein’s trademark deep blue hue applied in thick coats to single-colored canvases. This led him to experiment with monochromatic painting, where he discovered an instinctive pull to the color red, and its strong symbolic value.
Aubertin introduced flames in his work in 1961 and revisited them for the rest of his career. Gallery owner David De Buck described it as “replacing the paint brush with fire and smoke.”
While the opening drew a crowd of young artists, industry insiders and gallery-hoppers, Jonathan Raferty, a recent art school graduate, struggled to make sense of Aubertin’s work. “You have to think outside the box,” said Raferty, a painter, “I’m still trying to figure out what he’s trying to say.”
Zero devotees tend to be older, De Buck explained, and to be familiar with the historical narrative. “If you talk to your parents or grandparents about WWII it was something they lived and breathed.”
A surge in rental prices around the High Line triggered an exodus of Chelsea galleries last year. Amid the blue-chip behemoths, De Buck’s eight-year old gallery is one of the surviving strongholds. McSweeney credits the gallery’s resilience to its position in Chelsea’s established art gallery scene; the accessibility and visibility the neighborhood offers, and the clientele it attracts.