Starting over is not repeating

I am not an intellectual. I come from a workingclass background. The first sculptures I ever saw I found in a cemetery. My family is from Tuscany, and I think that if I had stayed near Carrara and Montecatini I would have become a practitioner: a sculptor’s assistant. Perhaps I would have worked with Henry Moore. Instead I became a sculptor, not a practitioner working for others, because I am manually inclined. My approach to art lies on an instinctual level. I may have gone to school but I am basically an absolute autodidact.

With my experienee and age — I am entering my seventhieth year — I don’t want to delude myself. Coming from where I do, one always doubts, questions. I cannot say I possess the truth. There is no one truth. I understand everybody, perhaps because I am not a fool. And I even understand intellectuals, though they sometimes give me complexes. If their heads are bigger than mine, it’s only from the front, not in profile.

Viewing my work, one realizes that it is purely physical, instinctual, but that there is a whole man behind it, a man with a brain. Because my brain communicates with all the rest. The sense of touch sets the mechanincs of sculpture in motion: the matter itself guides the imagination’s proceedings. A girl excites me if I touch her behind. If I don’t, nothing happens. I did my academic training: I learned the elders’ techniques and I am their heir. But I am also the heir of the moderns, especially the surrealists. A sculptor never makes il entirely on his own.

The people responsible for organizing the major international exhibitions are so obsessed with what the Americans are thinking that they usually fail to discern certain artistic continuities. Coincidentally, it is an Ameriean woman, Margit Rowell, who was commissioner of the What is modem sculpture show at Beaubourg. I’ll skip over the fact that César was represented by only one compression, but I’ll not skip over the fact that great sculptors were knowingly omitted from modern sculpture, like Germaine Richier for example. The show was perhaps interesting as a guide to what the decision-makers are thingking, but in the strict sense of sculpture it was a total imbecility. I like Dan Flavin, but his work has nothing to do with sculpture. I love Jean-Pierre Raynaud, and I helped him when he was starting his career, but he has never claimed to be a sculptor: his approach is very different.

When I see Buren’s installations, I know that something is happening and the artist’s personality touches me, but from the standpoint of sculpture, his work perplexes me. I’m not saying what has often been said in working-class circles, I could do the same thing!, because, even though commissioning a company to manufacture columns may seem easy, one still has to come up with the idea.

After all, Garnier too had companies to build his Opera, as did Gaudi for his cathedral. So, even if Buren only makes drawings and sketches, he is still the author of the great works that bear his name... But sculpture is someting else. It is the contact between man and physical matter, and I say this even if some people will infer that I am a conventionalist.

It could be said that Giacometti made the same sculpture all his life, but I say that he started over each time. And starting over is not at all the same thing as repeating. Giacometti, all his life, started over, and produced something new every time.

As for myself, I weld bronze today, and it excites me as much as when I welded iron. I live with my body, my sensitivity and my intelligence, and everything I do corresponds to a need. It’s really a way of living: what I do is accomplished in response to a necessity.

Going on from there, we can have endless discussions about just what sculpture is. I don’t know. I only know how to establish differences.

When I made my first compressions, I didn’t call them sculptures, I called them compressions. And Arman never said that his accumulations were anything else than accumulations. And Raynaud spoke only of pots when speaking of his pots, and the same goes for Bernar Venet concerning his lines.

But watch out! I’m not saying that sculpture limits itself to statuary. I learned the tricks of statuary. I learned to draw. I acquired mastery. And then, trough life, since I’m an enquiring person, who likes to travel and visit exhibitions, I started to ask myself a whole lot of questions.

Where do we contemporary sculptors come from? We come from Dada, from Duchamp, from the surrealists. No-one ever invented anything alone. We are each other’s heirs. And I, in my own little area, when I claimed my first compression as my own, people were perfectly right to say this is Dada art. I had in fact been closely linked to the movement. I was friends with Man Ray, Max Ernst and the surrealists. Giacometti and I were almost next door neighbours, and I also used to see Miro often... All this is the reality of my life and has shaped my way of perceiving the object. I don’t want to be told that others are virgins. They’re like me: they come from this tradition in one way or another.

All this is to say that, even during the period of the compressions and expansions — which appeared as a quantitative language, I remained a sculptor. César’s compressions are first and foremost the compressions of a sculptor named César. I am a classical artist inasmuch as I intervene, I modulate during the compression process. This is not at all an avant-garde attitude.

     César. "Compression Ricard" (1962)

Those who claim to go’one step further’ do nothing of the sort. They have actually gone nowhere, towards nothing. I don’t go one step further, I remain in touch with the material and I control it. That is why the compressions are truly the work of a sculptor, and I see no reason why I should have stopped making compressions. I have just made a big one on Nîmes for Bob Calle’s museum, and it was a public event. The Mayor and the public were there. Everyone was pleased and so was I. Whoever judges that only my compressions of the 60’s are valid and that I no longer have the right to make anymore is an idiot, that’s all. He hasn’t understood that art is about pleasure and that I feel the same pleasure in creating each of my pieces. For example, I had a lot of fun making my variations on Gustave Eiffel’s portrait.

In the work of the conceptualists and the minimalists there is no contact with the material, no work involved, no savoir faire, and boredom rules. There is obviously neither pleasure nor craft in their art.

I have seen Giacometti and Picasso at work. They accepted the struggle with the material, and thus the risk of failure, and if a work failed, they threw it out. The conceptualists and minimalists cannot fail! Their work is only ideas, possibly even executed by others. Giacometti and Picasso would never have thought of having someone else materialize one of their own ideas: that was absolutely inconceivable.

When a sculpture fails, everyone can see that it is a failure and that it cannot last. The minimalists have solved this problem — their work cannot fail. But it is very unlikely to survive the test of time.

The sculptor needs to intervene himself with the material. As for myself, whether it’s iron, plastic or bronze — which I treat like iron at the foundry —I always derive the same pleasure from my intervention. Naturally, I dont’t take myself for Picasso or Giacometti. In fact, it would create a problem if I took myself for a Great, because it would prevent me from living.

Recorded by Jean-Luc Chalumeau, published in OPUS International n. l20 July-August 1990


César: Ricominciare non è rifare

César: Recommencer ce n’est pas refaire

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