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Jigsaw Puzzle Works: An Interview with Liliane Lijn

Liliane Lijn interviewed by Tony White.

Liliane Lijn at the Galerie de la Librairie Anglaise, November 1963. Photograph: Jean Loup Charmet


Liliane Lijn’s jigsaw puzzle works, Paris 1958–9

I am meeting the artist Liliane Lijn in her North London studio. Born in New York in 1939 of Russian Jewish parents, and with an exhibiting career that to date spans some 57 years, there might be much to talk about. Lijn has spent significant periods of her life in New York, Greece, London, and Paris, where she was a regular visitor to both the Surrealist café and the Beat Hotel, and formed friendships with Sinclair Beiles, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs and others. Lijn is becoming increasingly and justly celebrated for her pioneering work in art and science, kinetic sculpture and the uses of machinery, light, language, and industrial materials in visual art. But we are meeting today because I wanted to ask Liliane about some very early artworks of hers that are little known, the existence of which I only learned of when she mentioned them briefly and in passing within an article I’d commissioned in 2006 for Arts Council England. In ‘The Language of Invisible Worlds’, Lijn describes how at the start of her career in Paris she was,

working on puzzles. I would buy a jigsaw puzzle, take it apart, paint each piece separately to erase all clues as to how to connect them and then try to put the puzzle together again (1).

One reason that these erased jigsaw puzzle works made in Paris by the young Liliane Lijn are so tantalising is, of course, that they seem to offer the merest hint of a later work by another Parisian: the defining jigsaw motif and theme of Georges Perec’s 1978 masterpiece, the novel La vie mode d’emploi (2). However, Liliane has already told me that she doesn’t recall meeting Perec, and the purpose of our discussion is not to try to prove otherwise, nor to tease out possible connections in the Parisian cultural milieu of that time (3), but to focus on Lijn’s making of her enigmatic jigsaw puzzle works, and the circumstances in which she did so, and to consider these pieces as discrete, mature works in their own right.

When I arrive at the studio, an assistant lets me in. Liliane calls out a greeting from another room: a kitchen-like ‘wet room’ off the main studio. Here Lijn has been piecing together delicate, petal-shaped segments of green wax to create rosette- or flatworm-like structures, angular and curling — small enough to rest on the palm of her hand — that might be cast using the lost-wax technique. As we move into the large bright office space in the back of the studio, Liliane realises that the stove burner upon which she had been melting the wax for working has been left on, and she quickly dispatches her assistant to go and turn it off.

Tony White: When did you move to Paris?

Liliane Lijn: Well, I came to Paris at the end of I think it was November 1958, and lived in a hotel for a couple of weeks, as one did in Paris. That was kind of normal. My friend Nina Thoeren and I had agreed to meet there that autumn, and we both wanted to be artists, painters. Neither of us were formally educated as artists. And then, I was very lucky, I met Hundertwasser, the Austrian artist, and he told me that an archeologist friend was going to Egypt and wanted to find somebody to rent his apartment. And so I had this little apartment – more like a bedsit, it wasn’t really an apartment – on the Rue Chanoinesse, literally opposite Notre Dame. I could see the side of Notre Dame from my windows. I went and had a look a few years ago when I was in Paris, to try and find the apartment, but they’d put up a lot of new houses and restored others, so Rue Chanoinesse didn’t look the same. They’d changed things, so you couldn’t — I couldn’t find it.

First I was going to the Sorbonne, studying Archeology and History of Art. I didn’t go that often, because I was a ‘sit in’ student. I had very strange qualifications: what amounted to an O-Level from a Swiss-Italian grammar school, and three A-Levels. Not exactly the right thing to get you into a French university. But they were impressed. My French was pretty good, and they said, you know, sit in for a year. Alas, I didn’t finish a year, because I just couldn’t continue, I couldn’t do everything, so I had to make a decision and I decided to do art full time, and gave up the academic training. But you know the little that I did, which was probably about four months, has lasted me all my life.

Liliane Lijn, Galerie de la Librairie Anglaise, invitation (detail)

TW: Is that when you started making the jigsaw puzzle pieces?

LL: I was no longer at the university and I was making work. Teaching myself, really, just by doing things. So one of the first things I did actually – I mean, I drew and I did watercolours and gouaches and things like that – but very early on I became interested in jigsaw puzzles. And I had this idea, which was that if the way we do a jigsaw puzzle is by completing an image, where the image on each separate piece of the puzzle, the fragment, allows you to match it to another fragment, and that’s the way you make the whole – what if I obliterated all the clues?

My idea was that each little piece of the jigsaw puzzle would have a separate identity, and then I’d try to put them all together, to join all these separate images. And I think the idea also behind that was a) could I do it? but b) you know, what happens when you take things that have no clues, that don’t fit any more, and try to put them together. And what I wanted to see was, what would all these disparate images make when I put them all together? That was really what excited me: what was going to be the result of this.

TW: Can you tell me a little more about the process – how did you select the puzzles and so on?

LL: You’d go to a big bookshop – Boul’ Mich? (4) – and they’d always have these big jigsaw puzzles, you know, maps! That was the kind of jigsaw puzzle I used. Probably about a metre by 60cm, something like that. More a tabletop- than a floor-puzzle. I bought a number of them, thinking I would make a lot of these. But I’m not sure I did. I don’t remember making a lot of them. I do remember I must have made a few, but I don’t have any of them now. There’s no documentation. And now I don’t really remember whether I succeeded or not. Isn’t that weird?

They took a long time. It was very difficult, and really quite frustrating. Somehow I hadn’t really foreseen the difficulty. You know, the idea seemed exciting, and I loved the idea of seeing this completely unknown image that would be the result, and it didn’t occur to me that it would be difficult. So there’s the side of the puzzle, the edge, you know the first thing you do in any jigsaw is go to the edge because that’s recognisable. So you get a corner, and even without an image, you can get that. So you get your four corners, I mean, you always see that in pictures of people working on jigsaw puzzles, it’s always the frame, you know, and then you’re working inwards.

I remember quite well making each piece. Taking the puzzles apart and sort of throwing them around, so they’re totally mixed, so you don’t remember any sequence. That’s important. It’s like shuffling cards, right? And then I just took them au hasard, you know, by chance, and painted them on one side: the side that had had the original image on it. Painting over the image with gouache, with simple poster paint. I didn’t just paint it white, what I did was I painted each piece of the puzzle as a separate painting, whatever it was: different colours or a little thing, some kind of squiggle, I don’t remember exactly what I did, but each fragment had to be a whole.

Then I tried to put together the puzzle. There were no clues, at all. Each one was completely new and different, a separate world, a separate image. And I remember being very concentrated, painting these tiny little objects. They couldn’t be tiny tiny – you know a lot of the very big jigsaw puzzles have tiny little pieces – so I’m sure I chose a puzzle that had large-ish pieces, otherwise you know I wouldn’t be able to do much on it. And I actually wanted each piece to be something separate and different, and then to put together all these different things. While I was painting I might have thought, Oh that’s a nice one, but I don’t particularly remember.

I do remember concentrating on the images that I painted onto each piece. And putting it together. And how incredibly difficult it was – and my surprise at that. Because I didn’t really anticipate that it would be quite as hard as it became. Because there really was nothing, no clues. And I hadn’t thought about that really. I hadn’t given it conscious thought, you know, Oh well I’m going to do this and there’ll be no clues! I don’t think I did. I think it was very much about putting together separate things and seeing what would happen when they were finished. But unconsciously, of course I did.

Liliane Lijn at Indica, March 1967. Photograph: Nigel Hartnup

TW: Unconsciously?

LL: I think you go from being very conscious about what you want to do, to being completely unconscious of what you’re doing, but in between there are levels of consciousness. You have an idea of what you want to do, but as you do it it’s constantly changing. And I think the exciting thing about that is that you look, you’re looking at what you’re doing, that really is the basis of intelligence. Because you’re looking, acting, looking, acting, you know, you get the feedback and then you act. And that feedback makes an impression on you. And that’s the basis of the development of the brain. That’s maybe why it’s so wonderful to do, because you’re re-enacting something that goes back millennia, that Human Beings have done for millennia – and even maybe non-Humans. I mean it’s really very, very archaic behaviour. And the feedback you get is immediate and you change, and you may want to do A and you end up at C or D, whatever. You don’t necessarily end up with what you wanted. Because it’s feeding you different information, the materials, and that’s very exciting I think. I really like working like that.

I think doing the puzzles was in a way an initiatory experience, oddly enough, into three-dimensional work and the kind of work that I did much later, which was if you like experimental, research based work.

TW: Who were you hanging out with? Did you often talk about these jigsaw puzzle works with friends and acquaintances?

LL: Yes, because I thought it was really exciting. My friend Nina’s mother was the Surrealist painter Manina, who had just moved to Paris from Venice. So I met André Breton right away, because Nina and I used to go to the Surrealist café quite regularly, and Breton would kiss our hands. The Café was near the Gare Saint Lazare, but I don’t recall the exact name or street, because Nina took me there. And I also met Benjamin Péret, Max Ernst, and a wonderful woman, Joyce Mansour, an Egyptian poet, a brilliant, Surrealist poet. She was the only poet who used to go to those meetings. I never got to know her very well. She was very beautiful, quite a bit older than me. And I met Toyen the painter. She was quite amazing – a great painter. You know, the Surrealist café was kind of boring really. It wasn’t all that exciting, because it was disintegrating and Breton had banished all the most interesting people.

So I met a lot of people. I mean Paris was really lively and open and it was very easy to meet people, and I talked about the jigsaw puzzle work a lot, but I never told Breton about them. I was much too shy. I didn’t tell any of those guys about my jigsaws. You know, frankly, very few people paid any attention to what I was doing at that time. I was a) young, and b) a woman. You could tell them anything you liked. Blank!

But also because I think what I was doing was kind of odd. There weren’t many people doing anything like that. You know, I wasn’t creating images, figurative images, and at that time it was an odd thing to do.

Liliane Lijn at Indica, invitation (front)

TW: Did you exhibit the jigsaw puzzle works?

LL: No! I mean I’ve done a lot of things that I’ve not exhibited, but that definitely not, because I was really at the earliest stage of my — I mean I arrived in Paris in November ’58, and I probably got that apartment before Christmas, so very quickly, within two weeks. And I started working – playing, working whatever – and I must have started doing those in either December or January; either late ’58 or early ’59. It was very, very early. I remember because another friend of mine, a school friend of mine who’s a poet, he visited me. You might have heard of him, his name is Franco Beltrametti, an Italian poet, and he became quite well known actually. I mean at the time he wasn’t well known, he was still studying. And I remember showing him those, but he didn’t understand.

The only thing is that Takis came to visit me. I’d only just met him in a café with my then boyfriend Jean-Jacques Lebel, and Takis had asked me what I was doing. And he was quite serious. Whereas a lot of people weren’t serious with young women. He said the usual thing, you know: What are you doing here? And when I said I wanted to be an artist and I was working at that, he said, Oh, I’d like to see what you’re doing. It was a gambit, but it was quite a serious one.

The first time he visited, he saw what I was doing, and I think he saw a complete piece, and he was fascinated by it. It was either complete, or nearly complete, or I had one complete and another on the way, and he saw it and it really impressed him. He was really interested, and he said, ‘This is important, Liliane!’ That I remember. Because I didn’t think of anything I was doing as being important. And he said, ‘I can teach you how to do lost-wax, and then you can do it in three dimensions.’ And that was sort of the beginning of our relationship, this friendship, because he was probably the only one who actually looked at my work and commented on it. I had a lot of visitors, but most people actually didn’t look at the jigsaw. Most people didn’t even see it. They thought maybe it was, you know, just an ordinary jigsaw! They just didn’t pay attention.

The only person who really was interested in it was Takis. He thought this was something that only the progeny of refugees would do. He thought of it as somehow coming out of this background, of people who’ve been through a lot of turmoil. People who’ve lost everything. He said that what I was doing was impossible, you know, You’re doing the impossible! And only people who come from that kind of background try to do the impossible. Of course, he didn’t know my background when he saw that. He only found out later.

TW: And the name Liliane Lijn – the surname at least – is a pseudonym?

LL: I had my father’s name right until the first time I showed, which was 1961 in Venice. It was during the Biennale, and there was a little exhibition in Castelfranco, a small town just outside Venice. And I was invited to show there, and so I was with Takis in Venice, and an American composer friend said, ‘You can’t show with your name!’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know you’re not the only one carrying that name.’ Because my name was Segall, and George Segal was a very well known figurative American artist at that time. And actually my friend didn’t know, but I did, that I had an uncle or a cousin, I don’t know the exact relationship, but a blood relation in Brazil who was very well known and his name was Lasar Segall, and he was like the Picasso of Brazil. And I signed my name ‘L. Segall’ and I think he did, too. So that was another reason why I thought it was a good idea to change.

So the composer friend kind of gave me this idea of calling myself Line [pronounced ‘Lee-neh’], and because I was in Italy and spoke fluent Italian it never occurred to me that this was like the English word ‘line’, because in Italian it doesn’t mean ‘line’. It doesn’t mean anything! I thought that it sounded good, and I took that name until I went to New York, which was sort of a couple of months later, and then suddenly I saw it and it looked like ‘line’. And everything I did was linear, so I thought No! Change it! So I took out the ‘e’ and L-I-N seemed short, so I put the ‘j’, not realising that in Dutch it means ‘line’ – and I only found that out in 1980, standing at a bus stop in Amsterdam!

Liliane Lijn at Indica, invitation (reverse)

TW: When did you move out of the apartment? Did you take the jigsaw puzzles with you?

LL: I was in that flat until probably the end of February, beginning of March 1959. It was all very short and intense, that one year was like probably the densest year of my life. Extraordinary isn’t it, that kind of moment – so many things happening. Then I went to a place called Convention, a very bourgeois neighbourhood. Takis said to me, ‘Only Polish refugees live here!’ He had a thing with refugees.

And Takis wrote about my jigsaw puzzles. I don’t remember where he wrote it, but I remember reading it. It might be in the catalogue – well the card – for the Indica show (5). Or maybe he wrote it somewheres else. I don’t remember where he wrote it, but I remember him writing it. Maybe he wrote it in his autobiography. He wrote a brief autobiography at that time: ‘Slashes’ I think it was called in English, but it wasn’t in English it was in French (6). I’ve forgotten the name in French, I just remember the translation.

When I moved I may well have taken the jigsaw pieces, because I took everything with me, so I probably did, but, you know, I didn’t continue with it.

This is an edited transcript of an interview that took place on 26 September 2018. Images courtesy Liliane Lijn and Rodeo Gallery. © Liliane Lijn

Liliane Lijn’s Spotlight display at Tate Britain runs until 28 April 2019.

Liliane Lijn Liquid Reflections 1968. Tate © Liliane Lijn


(1) Liliane Lijn, ‘The Language of Invisible Worlds’. London: Arts Council England, 2006. p. 2.

(2) In Georges Perec’s novel La vie mode d’emploi (1978) – or Life, A User’s Manual in Perec biographer and translator David Bellos’ 1987 English language translation – an eccentric millionaire named Bartlebooth conceives a plan that will become his life’s work: (in summary) to learn to paint watercolours, to produce paintings of 500 ports around the world, to have these paintings made into jigsaw puzzles, to complete the puzzles, to send each back to the place it was painted where the paper can be rebound, the wooden support removed and the puzzle erased in a detergent solution, so all that remains is a blank sheet.

(3) The reader wishing to find out about Georges Perec’s brief posting back to Paris, after almost one year of national service, from November 1958 until he was recalled to the barracks in Pau in July 1959 (before his eventual early release in November 1959) – including his first encounters in March 1959 with the two literary sources of the name ‘Bartlebooth’, (Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby’ and Valéry Larbaud’s novel A.O. Barnabooth: son journal intime) – is directed to Chapters 17, 20 and 21 of David Bellos’s biography Georges Perec: A Life in Words, in particular pp. 209-215. See also, p.459, and p.622 for brief accounts of Perec’s invention in 1969 of ‘the “Bartlebooth synopsis”’.

(4) Boulevard Saint-Michel. There were some large, educational bookshops on the boulevard at that time.

(5) Lilian Lijn at Indica, Indica Gallery, London, 1967

(6) Takis, Estafilades. Paris: René Julliard. 1961



Tony White’s latest novel The Fountain in the Forest is published by Faber and Faber. A new paperback edition is published on 3 January 2019. He is the author of five previous novels including Foxy-T and Shackleton’s Man Goes South, as well as novellas and numerous short stories published in journals, exhibition catalogues, and anthologies. White was creative entrepreneur in residence in the French department of King’s College London, and has been writer in residence at London’s Science Museum and the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. A frequent collaborator with artists and musicians, White is editor and publisher of the artists’ book project Piece of Paper Press, which he founded in 1994 – recent publications include titles from Joolz Denby, Courttia Newland, M John Harrison and Selina Thompson. From 2010–2018 Tony White chaired the board of London’s award-winning arts radio station Resonance 104.4fm.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 1st, 2019.