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Michel Frére
Untitled, 1995


Michel Frére
Untitled, 1995


Michel Frére
Untitled, 1995


Michel Frére
studio view, 1995


Michel Frére
studio view, 1995

puff the magic 

(or, breaking the 
terrorism of 

by Richard Milazzo
Richard Milazzo: In many ways, the 

strengthening or rehabilitation of abstract 

painting in the 1980s (at least in 

America) had a great deal to do with 

abstraction moving closer to the modality 

of Pop Art (and some might even argue, 

popular culture). It was this drift that 

could summarily (and somewhat brutally) 

describe the varied practices of a whole 

generation of "conceptual" painters -- 

Jonathan Lasker, Peter Halley, Ross 

Bleckner and even Philip Taaffe. At least 

for the moment, I am denying these artists 

the dialectical strain in their work. But 

why should the domain of criticality be 

denied the same access to cruelty that 

animates the perennial subversion of the 

transcendental axis and theater of painting 

and art? Why should we deny the critic the 

same axiological rhetoric that is the bread 

and butter of the artist? 

O.K. I was originally talking about the 

relation between Pop Art (and its more 

"recent" permutations through picture 

theory, photography, the re-surrealization 

of Madison Avenue, etc.) and abstract 

painting during the last decade and a half 

-- a "relation" that has always been 

troubling to abstraction since the 

inception of Pop. While I originally 

supported this counterrevolutionary 

subversion (and, to a certain extent, still 

do), one also cannot deny the encroaching 

academization of this impulse (not only 

among these artists themselves, but among a 

younger crop who were influenced by that 

generation, such as Fiona Rae, Juan Uslé, 

and even an artist as good as Stephen 


It was the erosion of this relation that 

intuitively attracted me to your work in 

the early `90s. In fact, I think it was a 

show I curated sub rosa for Tony Shafrazi--

I believe it was an "Invitational" -- that 

afforded me the opportunity to get more 

closely acquainted with your work. As I 

recall I intentionally positioned your 

painting, which was the most thickly 

impastoed in the show, next to the 

"thinnest" work, which happened to be a 

"surveillance" photograph by Sam Samore. 

Your work was not only massively built up 

(and yet subtle), it was under glass (which 

necessitated its own kind of 

"surveillance") and encased in a frame. 

Unlike the Samore photograph, which was 

pinned directly to the wall, accentuating 

its provisional agenda, your painting 

seemed to underscore its status as 

painting, as a work of fine art, as 

something other than a postmodern 

"examination" copy. As something more 

inflexible and less "plastic" or temporary. 

I think the juxtaposition of the two works 

was already a comment or observation about 

the evolving relation between abstract 

painting and photography in the art world 

at the time, which I guess I must have felt 

had become erosive, not only toward 

painting but perhaps even toward 

photography in a mutually internecine way. 

But this relation has always troubled 

abstraction since the inception of Pop. I 

guess the question I'm asking you here has 

something to do with what your thoughts 

might be about this recently accelerated 

drift or re-assimilation of abstract 

painting by a Pop sensibility. I'm also 

asking you this question obviously in the 

context of the fact that your paintings 

seem to be going against this grain, and in 

fact may never have been comfortable with 

this alliance at all.

Michel Frère: I don't think my paintings go 

against the grain. They just don't match 

Pop issues. I guess for me, Pop has to deal 

with a kind of irony or critical statement 

about art and culture, and I decided very 

early on that my work would not be about 

that. Belgium, where I grew up, had a very 

strong tradition of criticism and irony in 

art since the 19th century (Ensor, 

Magritte, Broodthaers). I thought irony and 

criticism were too easy, and that I would 

not use predetermined contemporary art 

schema to build my work. I tried to resist 

using over-intellectualized, referential 

methodologies, and not to use any meaning 

or ideology of any kind. But, of course, 

the danger is you wind up producing boring 

paintings that are not recognizable as 

contemporary or that we no longer take to 

be modern.

Naively I thought maybe I was over all 

these problems, that everybody understood 

them, and that it was not necessary to 

speak about them again. I think irony is 

the worst thing that can happen to a 

painting. It is like asking a painting to 

be intelligent. I have never heard of that, 

but I have heard that some paintings are 

beautiful, amazingly beautiful, unspeakably 

beautiful. Of course, we can speculate 

about what beautiful means, and I guess 

everybody has an opinion. Some people even 

think that some Duchamp ready-mades are 

beautiful (although he personally didn't), 

or that a Ryman or a Buren is beautiful, 

that statements about art are beautiful. 

Which is fine, but then we are dealing with 

this "about" and not with art anymore. Nor 

does this mean that statements about art 

are not interesting or important. I 

personally think they are highly 

interesting, as statements.

RM: As a result of this overcooked relation 

between Pop and abstraction there has 

arisen a new kind of hyper- or over-

plasticized abstract painting -- a New 

Plastic abstraction -- which seems to have 

lost its facility to express any 

psychological depth or subliminal value. 

Witness most of the work in the recent 

Corcoran Biennial in Washington, D.C. To 

take as an example one of the best artists 

from the latest generation of abstract 

painters, Fabian Marcaccio, one could say 

that initially he seemed to be able to 

negotiate this form of mannerism. Of late 

his work seems to have relented to the 

contours of abstract painting as a 

representational image. In my view this 

externalization of abstraction is generally 

attempting to contend ironically with mass 

culture's internalization of the 

abstraction of need through the super 

(monster) signage of the commodity. An 

"externalization" that has very little to 

do with universal values, and an 

"internalization" that has everything to do 

with the exaggerated values of the self -- 

even where the "self," at best, is 

modulated through the self-reflexive 

history of abstract painting. How does an 

abstract painting, how does human 

consciousness, not become categorically 

absorbed (re-victimized) by this state of 

affairs and yet also avoid the 

psychological trap of false depth?

MF: I like the idea of depth, or false 

depth, especially in the art world today 

where making sense, having a message, is 

the big issue. I think work made this way 

is a little thin and easy to produce. When 

other people's problems become a 

dialectical resource for fame and making 

money, for looking brilliant, intelligent 

and sensitive, well, then, this in itself 

becomes a new problem. When you put the 

word "AIDS" on a canvas chances are that 

everyone will say "What a sensitive guy he 

is," "That's not superficial," "I'm a 

sensitive guy too, actually," etc. On the 

contrary, I think you have to have a highly 

developed sense of vulgarity to do this. 

Those sociologically correct artists make 

me sick. In France, Boltanski made a very 

nice work based on the "Shoah." 

There is a school in the U.S., especially 

in New York, of abstract, clean, well-

executed paintings. The "best" of it is 

possessed of a little of this and a little 

of that, a little irony and a little Pop. 

But for me, all of this is very formal. 

What I don't understand is why the artist 

(even I) falls prey to these patterns and 

categories which represent how art is 

supposed to look. We have mental standards 

that tell us what is okay and what is not. 

We always try to make stuff that looks 

like, that we can recognize as, 

contemporary art. I remember a few years 

ago the "body" was a criterion for making 

art. Everyone was into this stuff about the 

body. What the hell does it mean? Are we 

all silly?

RM: The "body," as well as abstract 

painting as an enterprise that is reflexive 

to its own history, are still the working 

models. This is why we have so much 

mortuary art and why abstract painting may 

no longer be possible except as a finger 

exercise. Anyway, is there any place in our 

lives for illusion, let us say illusions 

that are not predetermined by the 

subversion of a given set of aspirations?

MF: I used to have some illusions when I 

started painting ten years ago. My 

paintings were filled with certain kinds of 

difficulties and I thought that with 

experience the work would become easier. 

Unfortunately, the exact opposite has 

proven to be true. It went from bad to 

worse. I've never been a very good 

technician. It was only after a few years 

that I was painting when I discovered that 

if you mix yellow with blue, you get green. 

Unfortunately, it's true. I deal with a 

high degree of difficulty when I am 

painting. And by this I mean it is 

impossible for me to accept as inevitable 

even the simplest realities of painting. 

This attitude only compounds the problems. 

This is one of the reasons the paintings 

are so thick. They are an unending 

accumulation of errors and 

disillusionments. But, I guess, always done 

with a certain kind of Utopian spirit.

RM: Does a landscape painting ironically 

insure our subjectivity today? Conversely, 

do our pictures of reality today depend too 

much upon the non-existence of a figurative 


MF: I don't know how to answer your 

question, or if I even understand it. All I 

know is why I choose to make the kinds of 

landscape paintings that I do -- the image 

is very low in reference, but at the same 

time it is not abstract, or at least it is 

not 'abstract' as we commonly understand 

such things to be. Perhaps this is because 

I don't understand what is meant by 

abstraction anymore. I know a white wall is 

abstract, an idea could be abstract, 

mathematics, but paintings? If I remember 

correctly, some Russian artists once did 

some abstract stuff a long time ago. I even 

think they stopped doing it after a 


RM: Some people will say that your 

paintings resemble the works of Milton 

Resnick or those of Malevich [sic]...could 

you address the issue of lineage, not only 

in terms of history but in terms of image?

MF: I have been attracted to 

"materialistic" (highly built up) paintings 

since the very beginning of my work. I 

remember the first time I went to buy oil 

paint in Brussels. I bought ten or 15 of 

those 32 oz. cans of Amsterdam oil colors, 

and I made a large series of small 

paintings, very thick, with my hands. In a 

way, what may draw me to painting is the 

desire of physicality instead of something 

more mental. I consider a thin layer of 

paint almost virtual. But it's inevitable 

that one day I will confront this 

virtuality as another kind of difficulty. 

Perhaps it (this thinness) will become a 

more worthy opponent with time.

I personally like Resnick a lot. I 

especially like the idea that he is doing 

figurative work now: it breaks the 

terrorism of abstraction. I'm waiting for 

Mangold, too, to go figurative. I heard he 

is collecting Old Master paintings. And 

what about the story I heard that Ryman, to 

entertain himself, paints self-portraits 

and landscapes with his country house in 

them. Is this true, Richard?

RM: I don't know. But what I do know is 

that abstract painting right now is very 

tired, very exhausted -- and that we cannot 

even take this boredom, this exhaustion (á 

la Bleckner) to be its proper subject 

anymore. And we certainly should not so 

easily accept the industry of menu art 

anymore, of studied, over-calculated, 

ingredient abstraction as prescriptive, and 

even as cutting edge. The blade has become 

rather dull, blunt, hardly capable of 

inducing "terrorism" of any kind at all. 

Not even in a teacup. The mixed metaphor 

and tautology are probably our only hope 


Do you believe there exists an active 

distance between the viewer and the paint 

manufacturer? Or do you think that the 

audience deserves the bullet that is 

periodically shot into it by the 

revolutionary artist? Perhaps these 

questions are one and the same. Do you 

believe in this division, in revolutionary 



MF: In the early `60s, the big issue was to 

react against painting which was considered 

passé and bourgeois. I remember really well 

some interviews Buren gave about that. This 

engendered a situation in which painting 

was considered politically incorrect, even 

then. Minimalists, conceptual artists, and 

who knows what, supposedly constituted a 

terror, an intellectual terrorism, against 

painting. We are still paying the price of 

those `60s positions. You can see this in 

that one of the only kinds of painting 

allowed today is a kind of early `60s, 

banal, Euro-Pop, Richteresque approach. If 

you do that, it's okay. If you don't, it's 

over. At least this is the situation in 


I don't understand why contemporary art is 

still living in this particular past and 

continues to subject itself to this 

reactionary situation, where absolutely 

everything is a reference to the past -- 

Minimalism, Conceptualism, Richter, 

Duchamp, etc. Why is there nothing new? 

Where have all the intelligent and radical 

people gone? I guess they are dead. Puff 

the Magic Dragon. Maybe then the error and 

misunderstanding is about the idea of the 

new itself. Maybe we are at the point where 

the new is not possible anymore. Maybe we 

are at the end of the idea of modernism, 

and we should stop considering modernism a 

rupture of the tradition because the 

rupture is or has become the tradition. In 

any case, I think we should get off the 

treadmill of modernity. And, in this way, 

we could stop the postmodern reaction, 

which only makes the wheel go in reverse, 


I think Richter is a good example of 

someone who started with referential work 

and ended up with the most amazing, pure, 

painterly work (the abstract paintings). I 

think he understood the necessity of a kind 

of purity, a low profile work made with 

high profile intelligence. Those paintings 

speak about nothing. They are a non-

dogmatic concentration of intelligence. But 

this concentrated intelligence does not 

dead end. It continues to expand its 

possibilities, unlike those who have 

followed in his path.

RM: Do you have any personal values? I know 

that you consider yourself a "difficult 

artist," both in the sense of the work and 

difficult to deal with. Do you consider 

this posture to be "hip" in any way or to 

constitute a personal value? Do you 

consider being hip of some consequence?

MF: I don't consider myself to be a 

difficult artist, although I remember I 

told you I was when I asked you for money. 

I know that's something gallerists all over 

the world hate. Although I know you are not 

a gallerist or a critic or a curator in the 

usual senses. (By the way, what are you?) 

But, on the other hand, if you make work 

that is difficult to produce, which is my 

case -- heavy, expensive to make, etc. -- 

there will always be problems. The 

paintings are made with an enormous amount 

of oil paint. A year ago I bought a three-

roll mill, which is the machine that 

industrialists use to manufacture oil 

paint, and now I am making my own paint. 

So, to respond to your question, I think 

not being hip is a personal value.

RM: I'm an auto mechanic who hates cars and 

I like to bowl even though I hate the 

apocalyptic sound of bowling pins 

constantly confronting their own mortality 

so loudly. Do you have any favorite colors 

or agendas or axes to grind? Do you think 

selling your soul to God (being politically 

correct) is qualitatively different than 

selling it to the devil? Do you have any 

favorite flavors? Could you tell us a 

little about your early monochromatic off-

white paintings? Do you like shiny surfaces 

more than dull ones? Do you arrive at a 

sense of structure, order, meaning or image 

through the convalescence of material? Or 

do you think the earth, the soil, the 

profanities we utter are nothing more than 

images, alien substances, abstract sounds 

transmitted back to us from outer space? 

What does it mean to be a Belgian artist 

today, especially in New York? Do you 

believe in metaphysical substances, i.e., 

in art that questions the definition of 

itself, in art that hates itself?

MF: No.

RM: You have said that "the origin of the 

thickness of my paintings lies in 

dissatisfaction. By restarting, the 

accumulation of paint happens in spite of 

myself. It's a technique which stands 

opposed to virtuosity." Are you unhappy?

MF: Yes, I'm unhappy. But now that I'm here 

in the United States, I'm going to do 

something about it. I'm hesitating between 

God and Prozac. I think I'm going to take 



RM: Are you an accumulationist? Are you a 


MF: No, I'm not. No, I don't think so. 

RM: Perhaps I'm the monster. In the past 

you have spoken about the function of 

contrast and tension in your work -- about 

vibration. Do you use a vibrator?

MF: Actually, I think I should get fucked 

more often. You get really quiet after 

that. I think heterosexuals should all get 

fucked more often, too. Maybe that would 

reduce criminality in the U.S. I'm going to 

speak about that with Rudy [Giuliani].

RM: Talking about criminal practices, could 

you say something about the state of 

criticism right now?

MF: In the 19th century, the idea of the 

critic was to give an opinion about the 

work, a good or bad one. Right now this 

idea has completely vanished. Critics just 

give reports, a general opaque description, 

generally of a highly boring nature, about 

shows they like or are supposed to like. 

You'll barely find negative opinions in the 

art magazines. I heard the New York Times 

is sometimes disposed to negativity ... I 

think because critics don't criticize 

anymore, we should change their names.

RM: I have no opinion about the matter. 

(Actually, I have a very strong one, but 

I'm tired right now.) One of your recent 

critics has written in relation to your 

work that "the origin -- earth as initial 

landscape -- is on the contrary a work." 

Does it follow that the copy lends itself 

to the expression of last things? I 

personally find both sides of this 

reasoning fallacious. What do you think? Is 

art's relation to death necessarily 

subsumed by the practice of appropriation? 

MF: I am trying to do simple paintings with 

a lot of "no" -- no image, no irony, no 

flattering stuff, no colors, no sentiment, 

no ego, no soul. But the mixing of all 

these no's give something full of those 

no's. I believe in a way that painting is 

always dealing with contradiction.

New York City, December 1995 - 1996

RICHARD MILAZZO lives and works in New