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Interview with Arman: "I do not want to end up in my own mausoleum”

The French artist on playing chess with Duchamp and collecting his own work

Arman is the sort of artist whose fame, relative wealth and established success over nearly 50 years of very hard work has obscured the sheer radicality, the adventurous anarchy and ceaseless experimentation of his oeuvre. The passage of the decades, the demands of production and, as he himself admits, a certain temptation to commercial compromise have somewhat obscured Arman’s eminence.

But for anyone with half an eye, the direct comparisons between Arman’s works and those of today’s hippest young stars are astonishing.

In 1969 Arman boxes in plastic the rubbish from the ultra-fashionable restaurant La Colombe d’Or, and in 2000 Damien Hirst makes a display of the rubbish from the ultra-fashionable Groucho Club. Arman freezes for eternity fresh flowers in a block; decades later Marc Quinn preserves his own fresh flowers, the same tulips, in another transparent display. Arman slices everyday objects down the middle, cutting them in sculptural halves; 30 years later, Gabriel Orozco slices in a very similar manner a French car from the same period as Arman’s original cross-cuts. In 1984 Arman creates a tower of supermarket shopping carts; 15 years after that Maurizio Cattelan created his own version of this common metal cart. Those silver-plated novelty objects by Jeff Koons seem direct cousins to Arman’s coffee pots and tea sets.

Sometimes it is hard to determine which current modish art owes more, consciously or not, to Arman’s earlier work: the shelf-displays of Haim Steinbach or the gathered detritus of Rirkrit Tiravanija. Arman seems relatively invisible but his unacknowledged influence is enormous.

So discreet is the maestro that many New Yorkers do not even realise he has lived in the city much of his adult life and continues to do so today. Arman and his wife Corice live by the Hudson river in a converted pickle factory filled with their collections of African art, Oceanic objects, Tiffany lamps, Japanese arms and armour, books, his own art, and art from friends and contemporaries such as Picasso, Warhol, Cragg, Klein, Christo, Judd, Duchamp and Bertrand Lavier.

Arman’s own talents are almost as various as his tastes. Not only did he serve in Vietnam in 1950 with the French marines, he also worked in their medical corps. He was an early Judo master, opening a school in Madrid with his closest friend, Yves Klein, and went on to become an authority on several other martial arts including Kung Fu. He is a champion chess player of world-class standing and a high-ranking Western exponent of the game Go. He used to play the piano and has always done his own welding. In his 74 years, he has travelled around the world several times, in great poverty and high style; he has worked as an antique trader, a furniture restorer, a scuba diver, has built his own buildings, fathered seven children and created his own books and multiples.

A mini-retrospective of Arman at Marlborough this month will provide a welcome reminder of just how unexpected, aggressive and authentic his work has been.

The Art Newspaper: This show at Marlborough is gathering together a lot of different styles of work from various periods of your life, including very early pieces from the Fifties.

Arman: The last time I had a big show was at the Brooklyn Museum back in 1992. People forget that I and some of the Pop artists, some of the Nouveau Realistes, were really the forerunners of what is happening now. Some artists are doing things that we were doing. Damien Hirst had a show at Gagosian and they had a kind of dinner party. At the end of the party he glued the things on the table just like Spoerri and put all the trash in a transparent bag and hung it as a work of art, like mine. But it’s all right; I consider that it’s not the same thing. Even if it’s close, it’s not the same; it doesn’t disturb me.

When Andy [Warhol] started to work with cumulative images, I received at the time, in 1962, all these letters from my friends in New York (I was not here; I had to be in Europe for a show) who said, “There is a young artist—in fact exactly the same age as you—a young artist doing a lot of accumulations with dollars, with Campbell Soup cans. When Sidney Janis comes to your studio in the South of France to pick up the next show, you should do some Camembert, some bottles of wine or something.” They were very excited that someone else was doing accumulations like me. I said, “Listen, it doesn’t disturb me. It’s different; it has nothing to do with my own accumulations.” I would like the viewer to remember that we did something in the same direction years and years ago, but I don’t like to say we were actually copied. That is not my feeling. Sometimes they just don’t know; it’s a lack of information. I’ve also been influenced by a lot of things for sure. When I was very young, the first influence was Van Gogh, then Picasso and Braque, and all the Dadaists, especially Marcel Duchamp. And I was lucky enough to meet Duchamp and become very friendly with him, if only for the reason that, among the artists, I was the best chess player—that was the only reason we became so close. That was, as we say in French, “sa raison de vivre”: chess was everything.

I met him at a dinner organised by Bill Copley, his closest friend. Bill was a collector of mine and asked me in 1961 when I was coming to New York whom I would like to meet. I said Marcel Duchamp. They organised a dinner with him for me. I sat across the table from him; he was very nice, but did not speak much. My English is still not very good, but at the time it was non-existent. He asked me, in French, if I was coming from Paris and I said, no, I was in Nice—I used a chess term, the bishop’s move. He looked at me and asked “You push wood?” I told him yes. “Often?” Yes, a lot. “What is your strength?” I told him that in the club in Paris I played Series A, but if I worked a little bit, I could be a master. I asked him what he was doing Thursday afternoon. “Oh, if it’s to play chess, I’m free.” He realised I was good, but he was more than just good: he was Grand Master in game by correspondence, master in the normal game, and, in endgame, he was incredible.

Did you often win against Duchamp?

Not often, maybe once every ten games, but that was something. I also played against many other champions and famous Russians. Through Marcel I got access everywhere. He was a benefactor of the American Chess Association, for which each year he did a show of his Surrealist friends for their benefit. He was very generous to them.

Did he speak about art?

Very little. I remember one day, before we had got to know each other well, he asked, “Are you going to accumulate alarm clocks all your life? It’s boring in the end.” He did not go to shows by himself. His wife, Teenie, was curious; she would go to every exhibition and when she thought it was interesting, she dragged Marcel along. He liked the young artists like Rauschenberg and Johns. They came to visit him, but I was the closest to him.

Do you manage to see current exhibitions?

Not as often as I used to because time is for me a precious commodity now; I have been very ill and do not have time for most shows. In July my doctor, who is a close friend, came here at 11 in the evening after a full day at the hospital and told me I only had maybe three months to live. Well, I am still here. I have been dying for so long now, I am bored by it. For me, the past ten years have been an extra, an unexpected bonus. But recently, a phenomenon occurred which is quite important and changed a lot of things. You know, I have been—it’s my fault—more or less prisoner of an enormous production of very commercial small paintings in contract with dealers in Belgium, in Italy, in Portugal...everywhere. I was overdoing these little things. So then, this summer, I could not do it any longer, it was ad nauseam, even though I had some to deliver which had been paid for. I didn’t want to end up like Salvador Dalí—his last years were a catastrophe. I’m conscious that if it’s too easy and too commercial, it is no good. Instead I started immediately a production of paintings I liked, on easel, with brushes, really post-Cubism, post-Fauvism.

Some intermediary versions of these paintings are at Marlborough.

The problem with doing a show at a commercial gallery is that things must be for sale, and many things I am very reluctant to sell, for example the garbage piece of 1959—no way! I have some splendid broken objects on panel, but I don’t want to sell them. I am very busy with museum shows, and the past 20 years I’ve been busy buying back pieces. I now have a wonderful inventory of my own work. We are going to have one, “Robot portrait”, in the show, of Andy Warhol. As you can see I did a lot of trades with Andy: he had a big garbage piece at the entrance of The Factory; he had a lot of pieces of mine. I made two portraits of Andy, the large one at the Warhol Foundation and a smaller one I gave as a gift to Fred Hughes, and, after Fred died, it came up at auction and I bought it back. It is in the show now. I am not so much in Andy’s diaries because I rarely went out at night, especially not clubs like Studio 54. My wife, Corice, liked it very much, but I only went maybe once every two weeks. Andy and I went together to see previews of auctions. He was buying jewellery, but he didn’t know jewellery. I know jewellery quite well; I know stones quite well. I gave him advice, but it was difficult because he preferred big stones, even if they were not very good, to smaller, perfect stones.

How did you come to know about precious stones?

My father was a sort of brocanteur, an antique dealer and sold jewellery. I learned a lot of things through him. Collecting helped teach. My father bought certain types of furniture at auction, Japanese and Chinese material. That helped me with other types of collecting. I sold my earliest collection of Chinese porcelain when I started to collect African art. It was only in 1954 when a friend took me to a show organised by the great expert Charles Ratton. I didn’t want to go, and suddenly I saw masterpieces never seen before. And there are not that many masterpieces. But now I’m more inclined to collect my own work.

You are a great collector.

Yes. I collect my own accumulations. Maybe we can look together at some of the things?

The Picasso is very fine.

All my life I dreamt of having a Picasso, a good one, and I traded an African art piece for this. I’m missing it, but love the Picasso. I knew Picasso personally. For me, the story of the art of the last century was like the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I was so lucky to have known most of the great figures. I played chess with most of the Surrealists, all of them. I played often with Man Ray, who was not very good, with Max Ernst; Tristan Tzara was very strong.

A few months after Marcel died, I gave up chess and took up Go instead. But I had to give up Go also because when I do something, I do it too passionately, too completely, and have no energy left to do anything else.

What will eventually happen to all this accumulation of your own work and your other collections?

My wife will have the bulk of everything, because there is no tax between husband and wife. Also, every year I have given works to my children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. After I die I have a committee of seven people who will lend 50 or 60 key works to museums for shows. And if after 30 years, my reputation is not so good, they will give these works to museums. I am very practical; if my reputation has gone bad, there is no point in still paying for this committee. Many cities are prepared to make an Arman museum—Geneva, Seoul, one in Japan, one near Nice and Wichita. But I refuse to have an Arman museum because I’m too ambitious and proud. If a museum for me happens, it will happen by itself. I don’t want to take care of it myself. Museums need money to function and usually ten years later they are abandoned. Nobody goes and they end up selling key pieces to pay for their costs, which defeats the whole point. I prefer to have good pieces in the best museums rather than have my own. I visited Tàpies in his foundation and I started to laugh. He was not so happy, he was in his very grand private office and I said you look just like a businessman in his bureau. I do not want to end up as the curator of my own mausoleum.

Biography

Born: 1928, Nice

Currently Showing: Marlborough Gallery, New York (9 January-1 February)

Selected solo shows: 2001-2 Boca Raton Museum of Art, Florida, 2000-1 Ludwig Museum, Coblenz 2000 Fundaciò “la Caixa”, Barcelona, National Museum of History, Taipei 1999 Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Museu de Arte Moderna de Rio de Janeiro 1998 Musée du Jeu de Paume, Paris 1996 Modern Art Gallery, Taichung 1994 Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche, Faenza 1991 Contemporary Sculpture Centre, Tokyo, Brooklyn Museum, New York and Detroit Institute of Art 1986 Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Kansas 1985 Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo 1984 Museo Civico delle Belle Arti, Lugano, Museo d’Arte Moderna, Parma 1982 Kunstmuseum, Sammlung Sprengel, Hanover, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Tel Aviv Museum and Musée Picasso, Château Grimaldi, Antibes 1981 Hessisches Landesmuseum 1979 Centre d’Art et de Culture, Flaine 1978 Veranneman Foundation, Kruishoutem 1977 Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University, Kansas 1976 Artcurial, Paris 1975 Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris 1970 Modern Art Museum, Stockholm 1969 Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Kunsthalle, Berlin, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf and Moderna Museet, Stockholm 1967 Palazzo Grassi, Venice 1966 Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Musée de la Ville, Saint-Paul-de-Vence 1965 Museum Hans Lange, Krefeld 1964 Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam