I’m reminded of Fontana’s Manifesto Blanco of 1946, where he writes about science without getting to the heart of the matter. N.V.: Because he didn’t really know anything about science. We could take as an example the collaboration bet ween Verheyen and Fontana on Rêve de Möbius (Moebius’s Dream Fig. p. 57). Fontana understood the painting and knew what it was about, not because he had studied Moebius’s mathematics but because he sensed, from his conversations with Jef and of course from his own art, what the significance of infinity could be in a work of art.
End of conversation. That’s the way Jef was. In his paintings, Jef was absolutely naked, which made him inordinately vulnerable. His paintings were very private for him. N.V.: I think for him his paintings were like a secret between him and the cosmos.
So Fontana had found in Verheyen someone who could give rational answers to his questions? N.V.: Yes. Jef came at it through the mind and knowledge, Lucio via the heart and instinct. Fontana also had this strong attachment to Jef because he sensed he was talented. He valued his art and his intellect, and wanted to help him get on. Fontana took an interest in young artists; he was very generous in his support. I remember well how Fontana would make up his mind about people’s work. When I thought I’d like a work, he would tell me, time and again, that I should first look at the man to know whether the art was good and would suit me. You had to know the artist first before you could understand whether the work was right for you. Jef and his art were spot-on for Fontana. But let’s go back to Jef’s character. I think he couldn’t talk about his paintings because they were bound up with his mind and his vulnerable inner self. AV: His paintings were part of his soul, and he hated when people would try to touch them. He’d lose his temper and get furious at the least little damage. He could actually be scary about this sometimes. He insisted that people wore gloves to carry his paintings. In general, it is not the artists but the collectors who are so finicky with the work. It was different with Jef — he had very strict rules about how his paintings were to be treated. N.V.: I remember visiting him in Antwerp, it must have been 1964. He showed me a lot of his paintings. I asked him, off the cuff, to tell me about the light in his paintings. He just looked at me and asked: ‘Do you like my paintings or not?’ I replied that I did like them, and that was that.
All the ZERO artists travelled a lot at that time, meeting up to work and exhibit together. What was the need for that? N.V.: We had the same interests and wanted to swap ideas, and of course there weren’t then the instant forms of communication you have today. So we met up. We often met at the famous Jamaica Bar, around the corner from the Academy of Art in Milan. It was an important meeting place for artists and free thinkers. You’d pick up a lot of news there. The bar was a real forum of information about contemporary art. We generally met around 6pm. We’d have an aperitif, go off together to exhibitions, and then return for a few more drinks before going out on the town. AV: For the Japanese Gutai artists in Kobe the meeting point was the small Metamorphosis bar. In Antwerp, artists used to meet at the café De Muze. Jef was always there. The exhibition at the Langen Foundation is showing Verheyen in the context of his friends. What did friendship between artists amount to in the ZERO days? N.V.: You had friends everywhere in Europe, and we felt like a large family — Fontana, Jef, Piero, Günther Uecker, herman de vries, Heinz Mack, Jan Schoonhoven, Kusama, Christian Megert, Jésus Raphael Soto, Hermann Goepfert, Otto Piene and lots of others. There was a solid basis to our friendship, because we were all looking in the same direction. We were looking at the light. Each of us in our own particular way of course, but we were all looking directly at the light. We had that orientation in common.
monography of the works of Jef Verheyen