“La Collection Bic,” an exhibition at Paris’s Centquatre cultural center, shows us a new facet of the humble Bic pen, which, along with its relatives the Bic lighter and razor, have been a familiar part of our lives for decades. Invented by László Biró (now I finally understand why the British call ballpoint pens Biros rather than Bics) and marketed by Baron Marcel Bich, owner of Bic, as of 1950, the low-priced pen was revolutionary. Umberto Eco said of it: “Intentionally ugly, it became beautiful because it is practical, economical, indestructible, and organic. The BIC Cristal is the only example of realized socialism. It cancels any right to property and any social distinction.” Unfortunately, the ubiquitous Bic also contributed to the throwaway culture that has polluted the world with useless plastic.
Artists, who might be expected to look down their noses at this cheap, crass object, have been using the convenient Bic for longer than we might have guessed, as evidenced by a 1959 painting by Alberto Giacometti of his brother Diego and a 1960 self-portrait by René Magritte. The historical section of the show also includes, among other works, a sketchy nude in red Bic by Lucio Fontana, far better known for his monochrome slashed canvases, and a charming drawing of a walking bird by César from 1980. These may have been random sketches, but Alighiero Boetti was very consciously creating finished works of art using Bics in the early 1970s, a few of which are on show here.
Aside from these pioneering pieces, there are many more works in every imaginable style by contemporary artists, some of them done in response to commissions or competitions sponsored by Bic, which first realized the promotional value of art made with the pens after an exhibition was held in the Val d’Aoste in 1998.
One section shows objects made from Bic products themselves, including Kate Lennard’s “Razor Chair” (2016) and even a dress made of pens, Oscar Caravallo’s “Miss BIC Dress” (2012), and another might be described as the obsessive-compulsive section, with repetitive drawings that involve long hours of labor – like Anne-Flore Cabanis’s “FluctuAction BIC 1999-2009” or “3 Bic” (2010), tiny mazes that use up all the ink in a Bic and form an image of sorts.
Then there are the beautifully precise and realistic drawings, including a series by Enam Bosokah of Ethiopian women, and “Timmy” (2014), pictured at the top of this page, by The Kid, a young artist who has also done wall-sized paintings with Bic pens.
Also striking are the works that use not the pens themselves but their ink to striking effect. Hicham Berrada uses Bic’s four color inks to make chromographic prints, for example, while a series of elegant abstract painted panels laid out on the floor, by Herbert Hinteregger, look fairly anodyne until you start to walk slowly around them and watch the colors of the Bic ink glow iridescent and change color. Apparently, the artist painstakingly emptied the pens by hand and used the plastic cases to make the wall of Bics at the entrance to the show.
The variety of works on display is astounding. While slightly tighter curatorial control might have been desirable, it is more than interesting to see what the lowly Bic can do.