Béatrice Josse

In search of the
invisible masterpiece
A tale of non-Euclidian
and symbolically genuine adventures

‘Destruction was my Beatrice.’

Searching for the world’s highest mountain, somewhere in mid-ocean, aboard the Impossible, those René Daumal characters may be relevant to our own quest: the doubtful search for the invisible masterpiece. A tall order, you may say. The twice impossible quest: for the masterpiece and for the invisible. Actually, if it really were that, we could have nothing to say about it.
Tinged with doubt, as is reflected in this work overall, for all that, the quest is not a vain one, for only doubt prevents us from becoming disillusioned and avoids us the unfortunate observation of Thomas Bernhard’s protagonist2 who, having spent his whole life contemplating a forgery he has taken for a masterpiece, feels abandoned by the Old Masters, whom life always ends up defeating, without their ever managing to achieve perfection in art.

There is no disappointment for there was practically no illusion. Thomas Struth Kunsthistorisches Museum III, Wien. The man is facing the painting, and we the viewer are looking from behind the man facing the painting. Our place seems to be immutable. We are and shall remain outside the works. They make orphans of us, period.
If the collection is the reflection of a thought, let us then invite critics to challenge and question it, so as not to become trapped by our single view and personal convictions, however committed and legitimate they may be, but have differentiated interpretations come to the fore; such are the preliminaries to the invitation made to art critics in residence, whose texts are brought together here. So! In the manner of Bartleby, saying ‘I would prefer not to,’3 we shall attempt to propose some vanishing lines (sorry!), from motivation to acquisition of various pieces which have already become so many ‘heirlooms’. When possession falls in with doubt and play, and the relativity of values and convictions, we can’t be far from Mount Analogue, can we?


The collection, a fairly recent heritage after all, started in 1984, has been built up drawing a distinction between photographic works and ‘plastic’ artworks, the former to make up the collection of a Photography Centre in Metz, the latter in the safe keeping of the Musée départemental d’art ancien et contemporain des Vosges.4
This first period, which ended when the Metz photography project fell through, led to the presence of a large collection of images (John Coplans, Patrick Faigenbaum, Joël-Peter Witkin…) and other pieces more for a museum (Daniel Buren, Niele Toroni, Frank Stella, Sigmar Polke…). Also, the will to support creative work by French and more specifically regional artists determined the acquisition, during this same period, of many artists working in the area (Bertrand Gadenne, Bertholin, Etienne Pressager…), with painting well represented, all currently housed in the Pierre Noël Museum at Saint-Dié-des-Vosges.
In 1992, the Frac purchasing committee was renewed. The arrival of Jean-Hubert Martin, Michel Gauthier5 and myself in 1993 was an opportunity to enrich the collection, to the extent afforded by a fairly slim budget, with numerous works to rebalance the trends of the earlier period: volume works (Basserode, Thomas Huber, Wim Delvoye, Pascal Convert…), outdoor works (Tania Mouraud, Thomas Hirschhorn, Jan Fabre), and video works (Philippe Parreno, Douglas Gordon, Pierre Bismuth…).
The Conceptual and Minimal heritage also received fairly broad coverage during this phase, with the purchase of pieces by Claude Rutault, Élisabeth Ballet, Didier Vermeiren, Karin Sander and Ann Veronica Janssens. While the work of very young artists was being purchased on a regular basis (Mathieu Mercier, Nicolas Floc’h), the Committee nevertheless favoured a representation in the collection for certain historic figures like Mario Merz, Gina Pane and François Morellet.


Unquestionably the collection became tinged with a degree of militancy starting in 2000, with the appointment of Chris Dercon, Michel Ritter and Didier Semin,6 notably asserting an exclusively conceptual, feminine orientation. This previously unexpressed will to purchase the output of historic women artists thus came out into the open and this involved a critique of notorious French universalism which in denying differences adds further importance to already dominant positions.
Thus the collection abandoned its stated general approach in favour of specialization, which enabled it to show its militant commitment towards forms not often found in public collections. For in addition to the feminine slant, the collection was heading towards a questioning of the limits of any purchasing policy. The pieces were mostly purchased in the form of straightforward protocols as they involved buying performances (Dora Garcia, Esther Ferrer), cinema film diffusion rights (Marguerite Duras, Chantal Akerman) or ‘just’ conceptual works (Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Ceal Floyer).
These protocol pieces, coming under the ritual of appearance and disappearance, also lay claim to the place of the sponsor or interpreter, while committing the artist through his or her renewed presence needed for any reactivation of their piece.


Meanwhile, a different analysis may also win acceptance as many of these works take issue with our modes of perception, which tend to arise from Cartesian mind/body dualism. Our life experience and our view of the body are subject to the tyranny of the visual, the result of a long tradition originating well before Descartes in Plato, where the space for physical action is given short shrift.
While the artists we are interested in seek to avoid this split between the body and vision, the devices and structures they develop are open ones. They construct something like labyrinths, spaces between the social and architecture, short-lived places that transform the energy of the real body and seek actively to involve the viewer in the same space/time. No doubt these works are in line with a certain phenomenological definition, but this reading cannot be viewed as the only key to interpretation; likewise, the conceptual veneer is not enough to interpret the pieces by Tania Mouraud, Vera Molnar, Ann Veronica Janssens, Joëlle Tuerlinckx or Ceal Floyer.
The artists are not content to have the work and viewer intermingle. They place him/her in the presence of a real space, following minimalist principles, but also seek to distort and unfold the relation to time. Doubtless we tend to speak of a felt space when trying out these works, although in actual fact it is a ‘lived’ space.
The impression of self, the mark on the environment, is a privilege reserved to those who have the power to produce and modify space: erection and invisibility (Andrea Fraser, Tracey Moffatt). It is the male body that most often impresses the space (from the white cube to the public area), all that is left for women, as they see it, being the home or private space (Annette Messager, Gina Pane, Marina Abramovic).


Despite the ‘traditionalist critiques’ and the ‘queer critiques’, the purchase of works by women artists of different generations (from Meret Oppenheim to Su-Mei Tse), of performances (Dora Garcia, La Ribot) and films (Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras), for a public collection can be construed as a commitment to pull down walls and push back limits. However, for all the statements of intent and other claims, a collection is the reflection of an instant ‘t’ around a thought that is all ready to be brought into question. It will always be in the process of becoming, finiteness is its aim and its non-accomplishment. The collection can only be like a space for reflection around the genealogy of doubt and the relativity of all discourse. This book attempts to reflect this permanent casting of doubt practised by artists and works on what we know, presuppose and sometimes prejudge.


‘In the aesthetics of disappearance, things are all the more present for escaping us.’ Paul Virilio7
Like some Oulipo game on this Bartleby concept, let’s make a vain attempt at temporarily organizing all or part of the collection, knowing that there will always be a missing work.
Not so, it actually exists and we recently bought it: Untitled (Missing Piece) by Mario Garcia Torres. This missing piece so symbolic of our collection finds in it a special echo mentioned by Giovanni Carmine (on the subject of the disappearance of a historical piece). So, when reality catches up with fiction, when the lost work recovers its place, we are not far from the invisible masterpiece8!

1 Stéphane Mallarmé, Letter to Eugène Lefébure, 27 May 1867, in Œuvres, tome I, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, 1998, p. 717.

2 Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters: A Comedy, University of Chicago Press, 1992.

3 Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener, 1856, in Billy Bud and other classics, Penguin Classics, 1985.
Enrique Vila-Matas, Bartleby and Co, Vintage, 2005.

4 Structures in both cases directed by Jean-Luc Tartarin and Bernard Huin, members of the purchasing committee from 1984 to 1991, in conjunction with Gabriel Diss, adviser with the Drac/Direction régionale des affaires culturelles.

5 Jean-Hubert Martin, heritage curator general, has been director of the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris; of Château d’Oiron; of the Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, Paris, and, since 2000, director of the Kunst Palatz, Düsseldorf. Michel Gauthier, an art critic, joined the DAP/Délégation aux Arts Plastiques, Ministry of Culture and Communication, in 2000. He has authored, among other things, L’Anarchème, Mamco, Histoire à l’essai, Geneva, 2002.

6 Chris Dercon, director of the Witte de With and later the Boijmans Museum, Rotterdam, director of the Haus der Kunst, Munich, since 2003. Michel Ritter, founder and director of Fri-art, Fribourg, and director of the Centre Culturel Suisse, Paris, since 2002. Didier Semin, director of the Musée de l’Abbaye de Sainte-Croix, les Sables d’Olonne, curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and later at the Musée national d’Art Moderne. He has been teaching art history since 1999 at the Ensba, Paris. He has authored, among other titles, Le Peintre et son modèle déposé, Mamco, Geneva, 2001.

7 Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance. Semiotext(e), New York, 1991.

8 Hans Belting, The Invisible Masterpiece, Reaktion Books, London, 2001.