Bernard Frize - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction Hong Kong Tuesday, June 8, 2021 | Phillips
  • “Ideas take improbable paths… And I am sometimes amazed myself by their own logic.” 
    — Bernard Frize

    Bernard Frize at Galerie Perrotin in Paris in 2019
    Photo Courtesy Claire Dorn


    Toky, by French painter Bernard Frize, entrances the viewer with its hypnotic surface that blends senses of dimensionality through chromatic texture and shape. Viscous, jewel-toned brushstrokes vertically layer the entirety of the composition, with overlapping stroke edges that offer no indication as to which met the canvas first. Interspersed across this background are splashes of Tiffany-blue abstract forms that seemingly float in varying distances up above the geometric coating below. Curiously, however, they are at the same time entirely intermixed, as fortuitous points of pigment bleed in within the artist’s sweeping motion that we can almost envision being executed in real-time.


    Juxtaposing the rich texture and illusionistic depth is the fact that when looking at the painting from side-on, it becomes overtly apparent that the surface has been rendered almost mechanically flat, a result of Frize’s choice of medium: a concoction of acrylic paint and synthetic resin. To formulate such an eye-catching effect, Frize first mixes paint with a white resin that dilutes the hue. Then, working under the skylight of his studio, he paints meditative strokes onto the canvas over and over, one by one, before stepping away to leave the thick mixture to flatten and settle. The final composition thus only emerges once the paint dries, and as the liquid paint is pulled by gravity, the result is ultimately open to chance as unintentional intrusions disrupt the predetermined execution approach. 


    The Painting Paints Itself

    For Frize, however, the painting paints itself, as his wildly diverse sets of abstract works are based on different pre-set rules that the artist establishes before he commences a series, their outcomes largely left to fate and variation. Though his oeuvre bears similarities to that of prominent artists working under movements and styles including Colour Field painting, Minimalism, Fluxus and Conceptual art, the methodological manner he follows further aligns his work with other process-painters, including his contemporary Stanley Whitney, whose own technique follows a system whereby colour dictates structure. 


    Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 2017
    Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York



    Whitney starts at the top left corner of his canvas and paints his way down, allowing one colour to command the next. Whilst similar, Frize’s method does contrasts Whitney’s, however, as all decisions are choreographed beforehand instead of during the process, and the role of the creator is understood as simply the developer of systems under which painting is reduced to the mere physical act. 


    "This flat surface with not very many possibilities [has] been the place for so many paintings before me and probably so many paintings after me that it’s just amazing because the number of decisions are very reduced. It’s like a game: there are rules and you can’t bypass the rules, but still you can continue to play." 
    — Bernard Frize

    Moreover, Frize’s application of paint onto a canvas lay flat as opposed to on a wall also recalls the working method of esteemed Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, who too, largely embraced the nature of chance. But whereas Pollock wished to convey a certain feeling or create a particular impression with his abstract application of colour, Frize’s methodological system works to eradicate every intuitive personal decision from the process.


    Jackson Pollock, Number 27, 1950, 1950
    Collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


    Further distinguishing his unique practice is Frize’s claim that ‘one failure provokes the next painting’i, as he only decides a set of works are complete once he has exhausted all possible options at that time. And yet, although categorised into series, there is a strong sense of continuation that threads through the various stages of his body of work. Indeed, in speaking about how one series leads into the next, Frize has explained: 
    “I try to make paintings that one can look at least twice. I would also say that I try as much as possible to articulate the processes amongst themselves, to recycle the remains of one series for the benefit of another. The monochrome that is drying over there is an example: at one point I put a canvas beneath it so that the drops that fall from it provide me with the beginning of another painting.” — Bernard Frize


    He does, however, regularly return to various explorations of his past practice, thereby continuously pushing it forwards. But at the same time, forty years on from the start of his career, his remarkable creative force and dedication to his craft is showcased in his continuous invention of new processes, schemes, grids, chromatic combinations, and various other methods of painting that drive his acclaimed oeuvre to new places as it continues to develop in seemingly improbable ways. 


    Executed in 2018, Toky is a triumph of Frize’s mature style, portraying a full spectrum of colour selected by the artist not because of each colour’s aesthetic quality, nor the mood each hue evokes, but because of how each tone contains varying properties that can be considered as distinct ingredients within his overall system of production. In visible, sweeping motions, Frize vertically drags his brush across the canvas surface, mixing different pigment tones in the same stroke of the brush from one end to another, leaving a visible mark of the artist’s hand that is not too dissimilar to the visual effects caused by Gerhard Richter’s long bladed squeegee tool, as seen in Lot 13 – Gerhard Richter, Absraktes Bild (940-7)


    Lot 13 - Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (940-7), 2015
    Estimate HK$75,000,000 – 95,000,000
    US$9,620,000 – 12,180,000

     But whilst embracing no orderly direction in his multi-layered technique allowed Richter to create paintings he had not planned at all, Frize’s fluorescently vivid abstract works differ in that their execution methods are pre-determined, only allowing for coincidence to disrupt his strictly regulated approach. The cyan splashes are where this is most perceptible in Toky, as like Claude Monet’s Water Lillies, the light washes of pigment seemingly float above the patterned background, but yet, at the same time, the paint succumbs to gravity and chance as it bleeds out in places to mix in with the lines beneath. Simultaneously controlled yet spontaneous and determined yet free, Toky is full of paradoxes and there is an undeniable beauty that arises in Frize’s strictly governed mode of creation, despite being unintentionally evoked. 



    Claude Monet, Water Lilies Agapanthus, 1914-1917


    Frize titles his works only for cataloguing purposes so as not to restrict his audience by guiding them to one particular meaning. Instead, as each new viewer engages with the work, unique and personal interpretations arise in the details that resonate most strongly with them. When considering his archival method of titling, there is a strong allusion between Toky and the exhibition it was unveiled at in 2019, at the Kaikai Kiki Gallery in Tokyo. A major exhibition that ran concurrently with his solo show Galerie Perrotin’s Tokyo venue—in advance of his mid-career retrospective at the Centre Pompidou - Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris—the exhibitions marked the return of Frize in Japan, 13 years on from his featuring at the group show Essential Painting at the National Museum of Osaka.




    The present work installed at Tokyo, Kaikai Kiki Gallery, Bernard Frize, 22 March - 8 May 2019, as featured on the artist’s Instagram 


    Bernard Frize in Conversation

    In 2019, ahead of his Centre Pompidou retrospective, Frize discussed the creative inspiration that drives his practice in an interview with Jennifer Sauer for CR Fashion book.

    Jennifer Sauer: You have said that painting is the only medium to ever interest you. What is it about the art form that has held your attention for four decades?

    Bernard Frize: When I started to get interested in art, I was drawn to painting because it has very reduced rules and there are few creative limits. I quickly realized that every time you put art on a canvas, you connect to art history.

    JS: Across your varied painting styles, what are the principles that guide your practice?

    BF: Rules help guide the practice, otherwise the world of art is too open. You cannot play the game without limitations, and most of the limits are materiality.

    JS: You have said that the artist should make as few decisions as possible in creating artwork. Why is it important for the work not to be personal?

    BF: The non-choice mainly concerns colours. Mostly, I work with chance—inside pre-set rules—in the process of making paintings. Leaving some art process to chance is inspirational, and often triggers other ideas.

    JS: Each series of your paintings is distinct. What connects the phases of your work?

    BF: Many times, it is the same idea with different solutions. I am trying to find new angles, but in fact, what is within the paintings is often the same. (It is mainly form and correction of form.) I try to put a problem on the canvas and find a way to describe the problem at the same time.

    JS: How do you feel about colour in your paintings—is it a trademark feature or a chance evolution?

    BF: Ideas and subjects cannot be made with colour. When I started, everyone was doing monochromes. Colour was mostly used to distinguish one work from the other. Now I see it as part of the process, and I like to include as much colour as possible.

    Read the rest of the interview here




    Detail of the present work


    Collector’s Digest

    When Frize was awarded the Käthe Kollwitz Prize by the Berlin Akademie der Künste in 2015, Jury members Ayse Erkmen, Mona Hatoum and Karin Sander wrote in their statement: ‘He strives with the utmost sophistication toward the advancement of contemporary painterly abstraction and the development of a topology of painterly gestures and structures’ii. This statement upholds just as much pertinence today, evidenced by his ever-growing international reputation as a prominent figure in the contemporary art world with exhibitions hosted in prestigious venues worldwide, as well as his top auction result, which has been newly set three-times over in the past three years, and is currently held by his painting Wir which sold by Phillips Hong Kong in Association with Poly Auction in December 2020. 

    Represented by the Simon Lee Gallery and Galerie Perrotin, this includes at Simon Lee in both Hong Kong and London, and Perrotin at their New York, Tokyo, Paris, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Miami and Seoul locations. Most recently, Frize was honoured with a solo exhibition at Perrotin, Shanghai, with The Other Side (From Right-to-Left or the Reverse), which ran between 2 April and 29 May 2021, and a well-received retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, in 2019. An upcoming exhibition at Perrotin in Paris is scheduled for Winter 2021.  

    His work is represented in more than 45 public collections around the world, including the Tate Gallery, London; Centre Pompidou, Paris; MUMOK, Vienna; Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sofia, Madrid; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; and the Kunstmuseums in Basel and Zurich, amongst others.


    Overview of the Bernard Frize retrospective at Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2019
    Courtesy Arthur Blet



    i Bernard Frize, quoted in Jean-Pierre Criqui, unpublished interview, Perrotin, Summer 1993, online
    ii Paul Lister, ‘Bernard Frize at Galerie Perrotin, New York’, White Hot Magazine, May 2016, online


    • Provenance

      Galerie Perrotin, Tokyo
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Tokyo, Kaikai Kiki Gallery, Bernard Frize, 22 March - 8 May 2019



signed, titled, numbered and dated '2018 065 "TOKY" Bernard FRIZE' on the overlap
acrylic and resin on canvas
180 x 255 cm. (70 7/8 x 100 3/8 in.)
Executed in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,000,000 - 1,500,000 

Sold for HK$2,646,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Head of Evening Sale, 20th Century & Contemporary Art

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Association with Poly Auction

Hong Kong Auction 8 June 2021