Vieilles écritures, by Alice Wilke

The first paragraphs from page 112 of Ben Vautier. Is everything art?

©2015 Museum Tinguely, Basel, Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg Berlin, authors, artists and photographers [and translator!]. ISBN 978-3-86828-649-6

Vieilles écritures

“Je fais des peintures écrites depuis 1958. Quand j’ai peint des écritures c’était le sens qui comptait et non pas le graphisme. C’était pour dire la vérité. C’était des vérités objectives, des vérités subjectives, etc. Ceci étant, la vérité n’est pas facile à trouver.”[i]

Ben began with the very first written images in 1958, which means that they arose [about] simultaneously with and alongside the Bananes series. There is one anecdote that a decisive turn was taken when Yves Klein visited “Laboratoire 32” in Nice, Ben’s store and gallery space: Klein reputedly asked Ben to put his written images on show instead of others, as the purposeful use of writing and language meant that these made a stronger statement and had more reference to “the real,” Klein said. Ben reportedly reacted promptly to his artist friend’s suggestion – the paradigm shift within art in about 1960 was, in any case, hanging heavily in the air over Nice. It was the first joint appearances by the Nouveaux Réalistes group, freshly titled by art critic Pierre Restany, its renewed artistic approach to life and everyday objects, which ultimately heralded the end of the predominance of Abstract and Informal Art as sublime art, almost set in stone, in France. And, possibly, it was no lesser man than Yves Klein who pointed to the new potential of the written images and thereby affirmed and strengthened Ben in his own interests.

In contrast to the representatives of Lettrisme, foremost of them artist and contemporary Isidore Isou, Ben deliberately paid no particular attention to the aesthetic qualities of print characters and wording. Instead, he began to experiment with writing at a very early stage, as can be seen, for example, in the unfinished image Le Bon Lait of 1958 (Fig. p. 125). What counts for him, though, above all else, is the meaningful content of words, their actual statement and not so much their purely graphical appearance – and definitely not the free onomatopoeic print composition that was so extensively practiced among the Dadaists. This may perhaps be one reason why Le Bon Lait ultimately remained unfinished.

In addition to the executions, clearly dominant in terms of numbers, in his own handwriting, there also exists a smaller group of paintings which Ben commissioned from professional sign painters (Fig. p. 121). Here, the letters are painted in precise block capitals and lose any form of individual character, so that these paintings directly focus on the content and statement of words. Ben’s experiments with printed letters can definitely be considered in the context of the discourse, virulent toward the end of the 1960s, surrounding the often-cited “Death of the Author.” At the same time, there were multiple endeavors by other artists to remove the individually expressive gesture from the work, such as, for example, in the series of Anthropometries by Yves Klein. Yet, after these typographical intermezzi, Ben Vautier always returned to his personal handwriting.


[i] Ben. Je cherche la vérité, exh. cat. Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain Nice, Nice, Paris 2001, p. 50. “I have been making written paintings since 1958. When I painted texts it was the meaning that counted and not the writing style. I did it to tell the truth. They were objective truths, subjective truths, etc. That being said, truth is not easy to find.”