Whitehot Magazine

Olivier Mosset: Looking Beyond the Painting

Olivier Mosset, Tanque Verde, 2019, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the Artist.


Tucson Museum of Art

October 14, 2021 through February 27, 2022

By VICTOR SLEDGE, October 2021 

Olivier Mosset’s art somehow leaves nothing and everything to the viewer. His work – and the world around it – is whatever one wills it to be.

On the one hand, Mosset’s work is straight-forward and self-evident. In a way, the face value of his work is so direct that it limits subjectivity and challenges, or maybe interrogates, our ideas behind creative and artistic merit.  

Opening at the Tucson Museum of Art on October 14, 2021, OLIVIER MOSSET is a major and comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s equally “contemplative and mystifying” body of work throughout the decades, offering viewers both a retrospective of past works and a thrilling collection of new ones. 

A Swiss-born, Tucson-based artist who is well-recognized for his monochrome, shaped, minimalist paintings, Mosset is inspired by abstract, conceptual and minimalist art and has amassed a very accomplished career as an artist in places like Parisand New York City. Since the mid-1980s, after establishing himself as a forerunning international abstract painter, Mosset’s work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions around the world including the prestigious 44th Venice Biennale in 1990 and the Whitney Biennial in New York City in 2008. He eventually moved to Tucson, AZ in 1995.  

As a member of the BMPT painting group in the mid-1960s, Mosset’s work challenged more avant-garde, expressive work with a stark commitment to neutrality, patterns and maintaining a tension between his work and the historical grounding of art.  

BMPT was a late Modern art collective created by Mosset and other artists, including Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier and Niele Toroni. The Paris-based group was at the forefront of French minimalism at the time, and they were known for challenging tradition and things taken as assumptions in art at the time. These ideals can still be seen in Mosset’s work today. 

Olivier Mosset, 2021. Courtesy of Simon Photographic, Tucson, AZ.

On the other hand, somehow, his forthright approach to art delivers the viewer to more philosophical questions behind his work and behind art in general. The paintings don’t take a full inspection to gather any buried elements or cryptic meaning. They don’t inherently demand that the viewer have any prerequisite understanding of technique or theory in order to fully experience the work. 

However, the simplicity of Mosset’s work is a bit confounding in itself, but only because of the viewer and the world in which the viewer exists. 

“If there are ‘thought-provoking ideas’ in the work, they are the ones provoked by the conditions we're in or the organization of the world,” Mosset explains. 

With work so bare in a world so garnished, the exclusion of gratuitous complexity leads viewers to search for and maybe synthesize that complexity themselves within the painting. However, that’s not Mosset’s aim.

“What these reduced paintings may say is: look at what is outside of the painting,” he says. 

Within the BMPT collective, Mosset and his colleagues also challenged ideas around artistic authorship. In one of their exhibitions titled manifestations, one of the artists introduced their work as decor for a performance that never actually began, which left the audience no art except the “decor” for the duration of their wait time.  

This meant that the viewing experience itself was changed from something intentional to something more unassuming, taking out the element of criticism in the experience and, instead, adding an element of inquiry. They were left questioning what exactly was the art in that exhibit, and that was exactly the point. 

“These paintings were certainly questioning what gives value to art: self-expression, the unique or the new,” Mosset explains.  

Olivier Mosset, Untitled (Yellow Apostrophe), 2013, polyurethane on canvas. Courtesy of the Artist and Spencer Brownstone Gallery, New York, NY.

What viewers were expecting to see outside of the art hidden in plain sight was, in fact, a way of forcing them to look outside of the art. Even with the actual art in their faces, the awkward tension and built-up frustration of playing the waiting game influenced their experience with the art without even really having to notice it. 

Maybe what Mosset’s paintings reveal, or at least suggest, is that sometimes the depth and lure of art is not in the art itself, but rather, in the beholder’s collective experience in that moment. Mosset has worked along that line for years, forcing viewers to question celebrated, decorated forms of art and artmaking and look to different ways of conceptualizing the role of art in our society. 

For example, between the mid-1960s and 1970s, he produced a series of over 200 oil paintings that were all identical, which was the pinnacle example of BMPT’s approach to art, but likely the antithesis of the accepted forms of art surrounding the series at that time. At its core, Mosset’s work often serves as an abstraction of sorts that lets colors, shape, scale and pattern articulate themselves through whatever exists around them in a given moment.

In this way, the beauty of Mosset’s work is that the viewer becomes the artist. Every thought the viewer has around his work in relation to the world around them, every question they ask and every critique they make becomes a part of the experience of his art. A viewer has the option to bring as little or as much to the work as they so please, but whatever they choose is independent of the art itself, and it’s surely independent of Mosset.  

“A painting has to be seen to exist, but in my involvement with painting,” he says, “I never gave too much thought about its possible audience.” 

Mosset does have work that invites the viewer to focus on the art itself, however, and some of it will be shown in OLIVIER MOSSET. The exhibit also includes, surprisingly, Mosset’s 1964 Chevrolet El Camino, 1954 Harley Davidson 45 motorcycle, a time-based ice sculpture, and an untitled photograph of an “adoring museum professional’s actual tattoo of a Mosset work.” 

“I have done some of these things before,” he says. “Ice sculptures in Switzerland, painted cars, a Galaxie shown in NY and Miami, a Bel-Air shown in Paris.” 

Mosset is no stranger to some of the different styles of work he’s showing in this exhibition, but they do create a bit of a different experience for his viewers. 

Olivier Mosset, Untitled (Black Apostrophe), 2013, polyurethane on canvas. Courtesy of the Artist and Spencer Brownstone Gallery, New York, NY.

“If my paintings are telling you to look at what is not the painting,” he says, “showing these vehicles might have been a way to ask you to look at the paintings.”

The paintings Mosset is showing include works from the 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s: large-scale modular paintings, monochrome canvases, minimalist site-specific works, and “objects rooted in Dadaist impulses.” 

Ultimately, Mosset’s work is whatever his viewers make of it and the sometimes mystifying freedom that entails. Meanwhile, Mosset the artist has nothing to do with whatever life viewers breathe into the work, and he likes it that way. 

He says, “The way people engage with this work is more or less their problem.” 

OLIVIER MOSSET exhibits at the Tucson Museum of Art, October 14, 2021 - February 27, 2022, in the James J. and Louise R. Glasser Galleries, Earl Kai Chann Gallery, and Lois C. Green Gallery. 

For more information about OLIVIER MOSSET, please visit here. WM

Victor Sledge

Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia.  He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic. 

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