As a young boy growing up in the coal-mining town of Saint- Etienne, France, the sculptor Jean-Michel Othoniel spent hours in the local museum. It didn’t have much of an art collection back then, but it did have a bold young curator who brought little-known artists to live and work there. One of them was the sculptor Robert Morris.
“I saw his exhibit when I was five, and I can still remember where each work was placed in the room,” says Othoniel, now 53 years old. “His work was a little austere, but it was a huge shock for me. This is what inspired me to enter the world of art, which for me is a world of freedom,” says Othoniel.
In the half-century since then, both Othoniel and the museum have prospered. Saint-Etienne now has the second largest contemporary art collection in France, thanks in part to works left to it by resident artists like Morris (France’s biggest collection is in Paris’s Centre Pompidou.)
Meanwhile, Othoniel has won international renown, mostly for his joyful coils of large glass beads. In 2000, he covered a Paris metro station in a gaily beaded cupola. The metro station sculpture, known as the Kiosque des Noctambules, put Othoniel on the map. From then on, he was everywhere. In 2015, he strung 1,751 gold Murano glass baubles into three fountains for an abandoned grove in Le Notre’s gardens at Versailles. In its own effervescent way, it’s as rococo as anything the Sun King commissioned. Othoniel is a playful artist, and he doesn’t get offended if you call his stuff pretty—which is refreshing and also true.
Sometimes, what goes around comes around in a nice way. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of its new building next May, the Saint- Etienne museum invited its native son back home to show what he could do. To mark the occasion, Othoniel is working hard to finish perhaps his most ambitious project yet: a massive wave fashioned from more than 12,000 glass bricks. It’s not the first brick wave he’s made. He produced one for an exhibit in the French seaside town of Sète last summer—one of two big Othoniel retrospectives in France. The Sète wave measured approximately 50 feet wide by 20 feet high; the new wave in Saint-Etienne will be one-third bigger.
“It’s going to be a monster—all black and gray with colors that change in the light, like an Egyptian scarab,” says Othoniel. “It’s extraordinary that the museum invited me back. I get very emotional when I think about it.”
We were sitting in Othoniel’s Paris office in the Marais, just around the corner from the Picasso Museum. (He also has a gigantic studio near Bercy to house his monumental pieces.) Iridescent glass bricks were lying around everywhere, and yes, their oily sheen does indeed recall Egyptian scarabs. It took Othoniel seven years of looking before he found the right factory to make them in Firozabad, India, just down the road from the Taj Mahal. The whole town lives off glass-making, much of it for the beaded bracelets that Indian girls wear as a rite of passage (according to local custom, when the last bead has broken, the girl becomes a woman.) “They have a tremendous mastery of technique—one they’ve been using since the 19th century,” says Othoniel.
From the beginning, he has been drawn to materials that change their form as he works them. Early on, he took a trip to Sicily’s volcanic Aeolian Islands to seek out native sulfur, which he used in his early works. “Sulfur becomes liquid when heated and then becomes solid again. I have always liked this idea of metamorphosis.”
That trip also introduced him to obsidian, which eventually led to his work in glass. But glass has metamorphosed Othoniel as much as he metamorphosed it. “I knew I could never master the technique of making glass objects myself, so I had to delegate it to others. That changed my life completely. I left the studio where I had shut myself in and started moving towards others, all thanks to the technique of glass-making. It’s a journey that has taken me 25 years.”
Today, Othoniel thinks of himself as an orchestrator as much as an artist. Fourteen full-time assistants buzzed around us as we talked in his office. He oversees production around the world (the glass beads come mainly from artisans in Murano, Italy and Basel, Switzerland). In March, he’ll have his biggest gallery show to date with Emmanuel Perrotin—with whom he’s worked for the last 10 years—that will also inaugurate the dealer’s new Lower East Side space in New York.
The gallerist met Othoniel through Sophie Calle, another of his artists. “One day, on a beach, he showed me some preparatory drawings for his upcoming show at the Cartier Foundation,” recalls Perrotin. “I was really impressed—this was truly a turning point in his career. I decided to help him on this project, and we’ve been collaborating since then. It’s led to ambitious projects on a scale that very few other artists can commit to.”
The art market’s cold-hearted culling of the haves from the have-nots has made life very hard for artists just starting out, and Othoniel says he’s lucky he came up in an earlier, more forgiving time. But the market’s been very good to him, and he knows it. “Working with Perrotin has allowed me to do the kind of monumental things that were beyond my reach before— things that have absolutely no commercial possibilities. It’s given me my freedom,” says Othoniel.
Still, every artist sometimes likes go to his studio, shut the door and just draw something. Over the past few years, Othoniel has been painting again, not just to sketch ideas for his projects—he’s always done that-— but as finished pieces.
“I said to myself, the atelier has gotten so big, with so many people. I need to come back to things that I do myself from start to finish—the gesture that I can master on my own.”