New York

François Morellet

Bruno Facchetti Gallery

François Morellet—a French artist born in 1926 who was in the forefront of both Minimalism and Conceptualism in his native country—is little known in the United States. Between 1953 and 1956, he produced pieces that foreshadowed with amazing precision later works by Joseph Albers, Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, and others. Aspects of systems art and Op art were also intuitively articulated in his work before the movements that would finally bear those names emerged. Three of the works shown here continue Morellet’s long investigation into the random placement of geometrical elements, which goes back to a work of 1958 called Random Distribution of Triangles using the odd and even numbers of a telephone directory. He places white canvases on the wall in configurations alluding to the placement of human heads in three classic kitsch paintings—E. G. Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851, John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark, 1778, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic, 1930.

Morellet’s other work here—a series of five pieces titled “Paysage-Marine/Seascape,” 1987—focuses with unusual precision and considerable irony on the issues of drawing and representation. Each of five pieces consists of two monochrome panels, one panel the standard French size for landscapes, the other the standard size for seascapes. (The seascape panel is a more oblong rectangle, presuming less incident and more emphasis on the horizon line.) The artistic conventions for representing sea and land become representations of sea and land themselves; the rectangle intended to contain an image of the sea represents the sea, that intended to contain an image of the land represents the land. By juxtaposing these panels, with their built-in intentions as implied content, Morellet produces a “picture” of land and sea; he mediates the conventions that function as, or condition, reality and produces images that are made present by their absence. Each sea panel is painted with an industrial white oil paint that yields a wet, glassy look; each land panel is painted with a mat white acrylic that looks granular and earthy. The canvas is primed and prepared for image, then covered with many layers of paint; it is abstracted of all incident, like the white page Mallarmé said would be the ultimate poem. Yet ironically, perhaps mischievously, in a parody of the monochrome sublime, Morellet draws or represents with these blank building blocks.

His five pairs arranged in different configurations have titles that bring them into the range of representation. In Falaise et mer (Cliff and sea) the panels are perpendicular; in Marée basse (Low tide) the water panel sits at the lower edge of the land panel; in La Vague (Wave) it slightly overlaps the land panel; in Marée haute (High tide) it overlaps the land panel completely; and in Raz de marée (Tidal wave) the water panel and land panel are chaotically askew. Supplied with these titles, the viewer sees the two panels as performing an act of representation, but without the prompting of the titles one would not have seen it. Morellet presents a gentle and loving satire of the human obsession with controlling the world through representation; at the same time, he reembodies the classical Conceptualist concern with exploring the confusion of various modes of representation.

Thomas McEvilley