Photograph by Ambroise Tezenas.
If you’ve been to Paris in the past 18 years, chances are you’ve had a close encounter with the best-known artwork by Jean-Michel Othoniel. Granted, you might not have realized that the piece was Othoniel’s, or even that it was art. Le Kiosque des Noctambules (2000), a glass-and-aluminum installation on the Place Colette, next to the Palais Royal, doubles as the entrance to a Métro station. With its whimsical arches of interlaced Murano orbs, the work seems to owe a major debt to Dr. Seuss or Lewis Carroll. In fact, Othoniel, 54, conceived it as a layered commentary on suffering and deliverance—partly inspired by the suicide of his first boyfriend, a seminarian who threw himself in front of a train. It took the artist four years to complete Kiosque, and in the process he worked with city architects to redesign the entire plaza that surrounds it.
There’s often a lot more to Othoniel’s work, and to the artist himself, than first impressions suggest. Soft-spoken and sincere, he is the kind of man who can easily blend into a crowd, even at his own openings. In a city where nice guys are often dismissed as inconsequential, he’s an avowed optimist. Still, slowly but surely, he has made himself into a quiet powerhouse, with increasingly ambitious, architectural works that appear to defy the laws of physics. “Jean-Michel is actually a tough cookie, and a radical artist,” says the architect and collector Peter Marino, who’s worked with Othoniel on multiple commissions, most recently an extravagant four-story sculpture for Chanel’s newly renovated Manhattan store on 57th Street. Lisa Small, the Brooklyn Museum curator who oversaw Othoniel’s 2012 solo show there after its debut at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, believes that many of his sculptures have a rare ability to work both on abstract and deeply personal levels. “Standing in front of them, you can almost have a body-to-body reaction,” she says. His latest pieces also include a colossal gilded glass fountain on the grounds of Versailles—the first permanent art installation commissioned for the château since the days of Louis XVI.
At an 8,500-square-foot studio in a former Parisian railway depot, a staffer inspects a shipment of gleaming blue bricks ordered from a glass workshop in India while Othoniel explains why fragile, changeable materials—substances that can go from solid to liquid and back again, usually with the help of fire—have long been his signature. “A material shows its greatest vulnerability at the moment it changes form,” Othoniel says. “And I’ve felt the same way about myself. I’ve responded to these materials at times when I was sort of changing, unsure, undefined.” His early interest in sulfur led him to an obsession with volcanoes, which in turn led to the discovery that volcanic pumice rock, when re-melted, can be transformed into obsidian, a dark, marblelike substance. Alchemy? He was sold. “I went to a lab in Marseille and told them, ‘I have this crazy idea for a project, to change white stone into black glass,’ ” he recalls. After two years of experiments inside 2,800-degree furnaces, he produced a series of obsidian sculptures, and then turned his attention to glass; since the 1990s, he’s been developing new techniques with glassblowers in Italy, Japan, and India.
One constant through line: Othoniel’s pieces tend to be unapologetically, glowingly gorgeous, a fact that’s caused him some problems, especially early on. At art school in Paris during the mid-1980s, when Minimalism and neo-Expressionism still dominated the scene, Othoniel’s teachers warned that his art was just too pretty. “Beauty was taboo, because people thought it was not radical enough,” he says. For years, Othoniel battled with his own doubts about shiny, happy objects, until he decided to embrace them and to relish the complexities that they could both conceal and reveal. He credits fellow artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres with helping to dissolve long-hallowed boundaries between Conceptualism and emotion. “Felix was talking about AIDS and the death of his friends, but with such beautiful materials and in such an elegant way. I think he’s the most important artist of the past century, and he really changed people’s minds. Today, if you talk with young artists about being against beauty, they don’t even understand what you’re talking about.”
For Othoniel, attractiveness often serves as a kind of subversive seduction tool, a means of luring the viewer into deeper, messier undercurrents of melancholy, fear, and dark eroticism. It’s no accident that his black necklace sculptures make some viewers think of anal beads as much as couture jewelry, or that his Glory Holes series (from 1995 onward) featured finely embroidered cutouts on silk-and-cotton wall hangings. There’s often a layered political message too, as in The Precious Stonewall (2010), a tower of yellow glass bricks that simultaneously references extreme poverty in India and the 1969 Stonewall riots.
Othoniel was also ahead of his peers in embracing the ties between the art and fashion worlds, which most now take for granted. He remembers being uncomfortable with it himself back in the early ’90s, when he first visited Japan. “In a lot of Asian cities, there weren’t great contemporary museums, so the place to show art was in stores. Shiseido and other brands had galleries in Tokyo, and for me, as a French artist, that was a shock. But 10 years later, when I started taking fashion commissions, it was fully accepted.”
Othoniel describes this year’s Chanel project as “a necklace that turns into an abstract sculpture.” Fifty-six feet high, the chain of glass beads flecked with gold is all about the interplay between strength and fragility: You can’t help imagining the whole thing crashing to the floor, even though you know it’s held together by solid metal. Marino says the piece is the latest outgrowth of “an almost medieval game of one-upmanship that Jean-Michel and I have with each other with our successive commissions—like, ‘How big can you really get?’ ” Since the piece was too large to be assembled in Othoniel’s Paris space, his team built a four-story tower to house it in Basel, Switzerland, before it was taken apart and transferred to New York. “I love this idea of using this very fragile material on the scale of architecture,” Othoniel says, adding that it’s precisely glass’s problematic aspects—the technical challenges, as well as the lingering decorative associations—that have made the medium his favorite. “It’s a material you always have to fight with, in order to get the meaning to be strong.”
Last year, for his solo show at the Centre Régionel d’Art Contemporain, in southern France, Othoniel devoted one room to a terrifyingly cantilevered, cresting wave, made of 10,000 dark glass bricks, that weighed 25 tons. (He had been in Japan in 2011, when the country was hit by the massive earthquake, followed by the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear accident.) These days, the artist can’t help but notice that his vision has been getting increasingly somber. He insists that his innate positivity remains intact (“Being optimistic is a way to not be afraid of the world”), but admits that our planet seems loaded with “pressures and worries and catastrophes.”
At his two Paris studios (in addition to the main space, there’s a smaller one in the Marais), Othoniel works with a close-knit 14-person team that eats lunch together every day. For him, the highly communal system is essential not only to prevent creative isolation but also to manage the huge complications of getting his pieces made; the staff includes engineers and architects, as well as assistants. “We are really a small factory,” he says. Othoniel’s financial success has allowed him to pay his production costs himself, and like many artists, he now has his own employees handle many of the business and branding duties that were once taken care of by galleries. He actively “collects” his own work, setting pieces aside with an eye to the future. “It’s important for me to be free to do what I want with my work—to give it to a museum, to give it to France, or to keep it for myself,” he says.
At a time when Othoniel’s pieces seem to be getting more monumental by the month, he says that one of his most meaningful creations is the tiniest he ever made—a 1986 photograph measuring about one-and-three-quarter inches by two-and-three-quarter inches. In the black and white self-portrait, he stands at the base of a frozen dam with his back to the camera, dressed as a priest in a linen robe. The image is partly an homage to the seminarian lover mentioned earlier, whose suicide Othoniel discussed with virtually nobody. “This tragedy was so difficult to resolve by myself,” he says. But it pushed him to commit himself completely to his work, “which, in fact, helped me to survive. Today, 30 years later, I’m still very shy about it. It’s still a scar. But it’s also a scar that makes me an artist.”
For most of those three decades, if you’d asked Othoniel if he believed in God, he would have said no. Still, over time he’s become more fully aware of the higher powers that works of art can possess. “There is a spirituality in art—that’s something I believe now,” Othoniel says. “Art is not just objects. It’s something that helps you to look at life in a different way. You can even find it to be more interesting than life.”