Mélangeur (1961) - Pol Bury (1922 - 2005)
Belem, Berardo Collection, Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon, Portugal
Collection: Berardo Collection
THE MASTER OF SLOWNESS: AN ORAL HISTORY OF POL BURY
From sculptures and works on paper to magnificent fountains, the art of Pol Bury defied convention and pushed boundaries. Ten years after his death, we asked writers, collectors and friends — as well as Bury’s wife, Velma — for their memories
François Pinault — Art collector: Few artists in the 20th century embraced all disciplines — science, aestheticism, literature, history and, of course, philosophy — with the same enthusiasm as their illustrious predecessors once did in the Renaissance. Thanks to his talent, insights and temperament, Pol Bury (1922-2005) was one of them.
Daniel Marchesseau — Conservationist, art historian and author: Born in Haine-Saint-Pierre in 1922, Pol Bury travelled a long road before becoming the master of slowness we know today: a path he discovered through his successive encounters, influences, experiments and failures.
Gilles Marquenie — Art historian and author: At first glance, nothing seems particularly surrealistic in the work of Pol Bury. And yet it was Surrealism, a movement at its height during his youth, that shaped Bury for his future career. The young artist discovered Surrealism through Achille Chavée — lawyer, communist, a former Spanish Civil War fighter, poet and founder member of the Surrealist group Rupture — whom he met in 1939.
Daniel Marchesseau: Chavée later introduced him to René Magritte, the dominant figure in Belgian Surrealism at the time. Immersed in this environment, Bury began to paint in the style of Yves Tanguy, then moved increasingly towards Magritte. ‘Whether influenced by Tanguy or Magritte, I had the same concerns: to “render” a sky, a cloud, a volume or a surface,’ he said.
Gilles Marquenie: After the Second World War, the time came to start a new chapter. Bury’s break with the Surrealists was sudden.
Daniel Marchesseau: He joined the CoBrA group in 1948, alongside Pierre Alechinsky and Christian Dotremont… Between 1950 and 1953, he gradually developed his painting, with works in the form of small panels marked by his close observation of Mondrian’s compositions and the watercolours of Miró. He said, ‘I wanted to make a square “smile”, just as Miró did with freer forms.’
Gilles Marquenie: In 1950, Bury discovered the work of Alexander Calder during the latter’s very first exhibition at the Maeght Gallery in Paris. This was a real revelation, and guided him considerably on his own path towards sculpture.
Daniel Marchesseau: Little by little, Bury began to master Calder’s lessons. The works in the Plans Mobiles series that began to appear in 1953 were a crucial starting point for him. Here, on a pivoting central axis, he placed a number of cut-out planes that could move independently of each other. By adding a small, very slowly revolving motor, Bury found an alternative that incorporated motion without requiring any action by viewers or air currents.
‘We are too quick, nowadays, in this particular art form, to equip ourselves with the engineer’s compasses and slide rule’
Pol Bury: I see no point in revealing the technical details of the mechanism that drives the movement [in my sculptures]. We are too quick, nowadays, in this particular art form, to equip ourselves with the engineer’s compasses and slide rule. For me movement is a medium, like colour and line for painters. No one asks a painter for a chemical analysis of his chosen medium. The perception of movement should be immediate and obvious to the viewer; most importantly, the means used to create the animation should be invisible, and readily forgotten.
Daniel Marchesseau: In the wake of their predecessors Duchamp and Calder, and together with their younger colleagues Vasarely and Jacobsen, a group of young unknown artists in their thirties – Soto, Tinguely, Agam and Bury – established themselves as the founders of kinetic art. In 1959, Bury’s participation in the exhibition Vision in Motion/Motion in Vision at the Hessenhuis in Antwerp marked a new direction: this was the starting point for the Zero Group, which also included artists like Günther Uecker, Otto Piene, Heinz Mack, Yves Klein and Jean Tinguely. Bury soon began to produce his first Ponctuations: mobile reliefs mainly featuring the colours black and white, circles and points. With crescent moons and explosions of light, he developed his flat constellations, transforming them into new Érectiles and Vibratiles in 1962, which became the first pieces to include random movement, forming the basis of the Buryian technique.
François Pinault: Where many of his contemporaries opted for transgression, Pol Bury preferred to take alternative routes, which he explored with audacity and panache to ‘sculpt movement’, as my friend Pierre Daix aptly put it.
Daniel Marchesseau: At the age of 40, Bury represented Belgium at the 1964 Venice Biennial alongside the painter Paul Delvaux. Pierre Alechinsky, attending as a friend, brought along his New York dealer, John Lefebre. This meeting opened the way to America. His first exhibition in New York a few months later was a triumph, and all his works were sold by the end of the preview show.
Velma Bury, wife of Pol Bury: I first crossed paths with Pol in New York in March 1966. It was during the opening of his [second] exhibition at the Lefebre gallery. He was standing in the middle of the gallery, surrounded by his fascinating works and a captivated crowd. All of a sudden, our gazes met: it was just the two of us standing in that room. From that moment on, we shared our lives up until his death in 2005.
Daniel Marchesseau: From the artistic point of view, his relationship with Velma inspired a rebirth and a new beginning.
Velma Bury: Pol enthralled the New York art world. All his works had been sold even before his exhibition opened at the Lefebre gallery. The gallery was full of artists and famous collectors. All they wanted to talk about was this extraordinary Belgian artist and his creaking wood sculptures, with drawers that opened slowly and allowed bubbles to escape, which appeared to stay suspended in the air.
Jack Lang, French politician and Minister of Culture from 1981-86, and 1988-92: Pol Bury’s approach stemmed from his desire to involve the onlooker. By this, I mean a sensory experience that occurs as much by sight as by sound, or even touch. In fact, he ensured his presence in our time by introducing movement into his sculpture, turning its slowness into a eulogy, while the almost imperceptible rustling of the sculpture invites our contemplation.
Velma Bury: New York was a source of inspiration for Pol. We often walked around the city taking photographs of fire hydrants, which he was disappointed about because they didn’t move. He wanted everything to move. The Brooklyn Bridge became his favourite subject in New York, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The mirrored reflections that distorted the buildings on 6th Avenue also played a part in the evolution of his cinétisations. Pol had adopted New York.
Pol Bury, 25 œufs sur un plateau, 1969. This work is the AP 1 from an edition of 8 exemplars, plus 4 artist’s proofs. Polished brass, magnets and electric engine. 20 x 50 x 50 cm (7.8 x 19.6 x 19.6 in). This work was offered in Collection Pol et Velma Bury on 8 December 2015 at Christie’s in Paris and sold for €79,500
Daniel Marchesseau: In 1971, [the French collector] Aimé Maeght discovered Bury at the Lefebre Gallery, and persuaded him to return to France. Two years later, Bury set up his studio in a farm in the Yvelines region. In response to President Georges Pompidou’s injunction to support contemporary creation, Bury fashioned the spectacular murmuring wood bas-relief entitled 4087 cylindres érectiles (Musée National d’Art Moderne).
Pol Bury: After all, these sculptures which use geometrical shapes which sometimes behave like props from horror movies are as surreal as any other. Spheres which climb a slope on their own seem to have a surreal quality, given of course that gravity is realistic, even hyperrealistic. Even more so when this sloping plane has a triangular shape which gives the spectator the feeling that he is looking from a distance at the slope in perspective.
Velma Bury: In 1976, Pol created his first hydraulic fountain. Major commissions followed and these fountains became his passion. In 1980, he installed one at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. After that, Jack Lang commissioned a pair of fountains for the Palais-Royal in Paris.
Jack Lang: In 1985, the two square pools with mysterious metallic sculptures rising out of them for the Cour d’Orleans at the Palais-Royal won Pol Bury the recognition and space he deserved in France. The fountains at the Palais-Royal are undoubtedly one of the most beautiful examples of his subtle mirror effect, creating reflections that deconstruct the surrounding secular architecture as well as our own images, revealing who we really are.
‘There was nothing on the outside to suggest what I would find inside [his workshop]. It was complete chaos, with jumbled metal parts filling the yard of the isolated farmhouse’
François Pinault — Collector: It was thanks to my friend Pierre Daix that I met Bury in the early 1980s. I was seduced straight away by his joie de vivre and his insatiable curiosity. The three of us would often meet, riding our bikes down streets in southern France, or over dinner in his workshop in Yvelines. I have fond memories of those years.
Pascal Gillard — Bury’s studio assistant: I was 18 when I first set foot inside the Perdreauville workshop. There was nothing on the outside to suggest what I would find inside. It was complete chaos, with metal parts jumbled together, filling the yard of the isolated farmhouse. I thought I’d be bending metal for the rest of my life. But it didn’t happen like that. I quickly earned Pol’s trust and he involved me fully in his artistic process to create his sculptures and fountains.
François Pinault: Every time I saw him, I was struck by the unique way he combined erudition and humility, irony and humanity, and especially obsessive passion and rational perspective. He wanted his works to respond to nature’s rhythms. He achieved this masterfully.
Pascal Gillard: Pol was always very attentive during our exchanges, and it makes me emotional to think back to that first fountain which he entrusted to me. Our artistic and human adventure allowed me to mix with the biggest names in art, who were often his friends, like Alechinsky, Ionesco and Topor.
Velma Bury: He was a completely captivating man with a wicked sense of humour, and a prolific writer as well as being a wonderful artist.
Gilles Marquenie: Over the past few decades, the ever-increasing volume and speed of information have created the constant feeling that we no longer have enough time. This is probably why all today’s generations can relate to Pol Bury’s work.
François Pinault: I often think about him when I walk past the fountain he designed for our house in the country. It releases a magnetic force through its great simplicity. Stainless-steel squares cover the surface of the water, reflecting the changing light depending on the hour of the day and the sky’s mood. They move imperceptibly, causing a surprising and disturbing imbalance at regular intervals that seems almost menacing. In doing this, he reveals time in all its beauty and all its violence. With his humour and talent for words, he would have said that he simply ‘made Mondrian’s squares smile’.