Established as a foundation by conceptual artist Bernar Venet in 2014, the sculpture park in Le Muy is the result of a life’s work and is a haven for those who love contemporary art and sculpture. The collection reads like a ‘who’s who’ of modern talent and our handsome host himself is one of France’s most important living sculptors.
Bernar Venet has been active since the 1960s, not only creating powerful works, but also collecting and exchanging his pieces with fellow artists. This concept of sharing has enabled him to build an enviable collection that includes works by Frank Stella, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, César Baldaccini, Christo, Daniel Buren, Tony Smith, Richard Serra and Donald Judd to name just a few. What makes this collection so special is that Venet has made the selection and curated the pieces, and he has done so with incredible elegance of mind. Only a talented collector and artist would have the confidence to choose these pieces at the time that he obtained them. In hindsight, the collection reads like a dream list, but it is important to remember that Venet is part of an avant-garde movement; he could not have predicted the art market and had to rely on his own taste and ability.
It is a rare treat to see such a magnificent private collection in a context such as this. The four-hectare site combines a pre-Revolution water mill, which houses Venet’s stunning domestic collection, with contemporary and industrial art spaces. The garden setting makes the works feel much more available and light-hearted. There is no sense of a strict line and cordon between the visitor and the works so you can enjoy the art on your own terms. It is, perhaps in this respect, a little bit like how the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice was when Ms Guggenheim was still in residence.
Every summer, the Venet Foundation hosts a temporary exhibition and this year's show is Pedestrian Spaces by Fred Sandback. Sandback’s work explores the transition from two to three dimensions through the mind's eye. Imaginary, three-dimensional structures are created using coloured cord to build up lines in the gallery space. your mind is then left to construct the structure between the lines.
Asking clever questions about presence and absence is James Turrell’s beautiful Prana from 1998, which is shown in the gallery next door (Prana means life-breath in Sanskrit). This work ingeniously achieves the exact opposite, again using the mind's eye, but this time with a beautiful pink-coloured light. What appears to be two dimensional is in fact much deeper. As you get closer to the work, you can almost fall into the rose loveliness of the piece, once again entering a new dimension.
Out in the sculpture park, the most important piece by far is Frank Stella’s Chapel, which follows on from the grand tradition of the Rothko Chapel and is built in pavilion form, linking these very contemporary works with classical gardens. Other outstanding pieces include James Turrell’s elliptic ecliptic and Venet’s wonderful bridge, which, when crossed at the speed of a golf cart as I do on my tour, contains many peep holes that offer tantalising flashes of the green mill pond and house.
Presenting a fragmented vision of the past through this modernist framing device — perhaps playing with the idea of movement as the dots join together — is great fun. Personal favourites include The Labyrinth by Robert Morris (2012); a very tight maze made out of hard wire fences, the kind that are used for crowd control. It is a harsh metaphor for life that is considerably softened by its context. The most recent addition, Something Green by Larry Bell (2017), questions and delights the spectator in equal measure by placing large green glass cubes in the countryside. Inside the gorgeous mill house, which is the artist’s winter home, the collection takes your breath away.
There is a Donald Judd bedroom and works include Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella, Carl andre, Jasper Johns… The names fall casually off the tongue of my guide, but this collection is priceless and being able to visit it is a genuine privilege.
The Venet Foundation seems to float between the present and a romantic past. are there echoes of other great French pleasure gardens here? Perhaps Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon or Monet’s Giverny?
Guided visits to the Venet Foundation are offered on Thursday afternoons and all day Friday during the summer by appointment only (entrance 10€).