François Morellet

La Crie; Galerie Oniris; Galerie Art Et Essai de L' Universite

François Morellet’s work combines a purist approach to systems, which comes directly from the great geometric and Constructivist traditions, with an irrepressible sense of humor, whose antecedents can be traced through Dada back to great 19th-century French humorists such as Alphonse Allais. Morellet’s work from the early ’50s prefigured certain aspects of Minimalism and Op art by several years, and the artist has continued adding new systems to those he developed originally. However, Morellet uses a comic mode to undermine and expose the absurdity of the very systems he employs. In this way, Morellet aligns himself with the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, for whom geometry was but another site for Dada.

For a long time now, Morellet has reduced painted works to simple white surfaces. Recently he has used this method to question certain traditional conventions in the practice of painting—in particular, those that involve standard canvas formats. In his “Paysage-Marine” (Seascape) series, 1987, he parodied the figurative landscape tradition in a rigorously monochromatic mode.

Lately, he has taken up the figure, or portrait standard, format. In his “Défigurations” (Disfigurements) series, 1988, Morellet “disfigures” a painting (preferably a famous one), simply by replacing the face in a given picture with a white 30-figure canvas, hung at the same angle as the face on the original. (30-figure refers to a particular size canvas used for portrait painting.) The historic works thus “disfigured” are chosen from the collections of the place where Morellet happens to be exhibiting.

The three simultaneous exhibitions in Rennes of Morellet’s work were organized around the “Défigurations” at La Criée. The Galerie Oniris showed some of the “Paysages-Marine” pieces, and the Galerie d’Art et Essai de l’Université gathered a small selection of older works. At La Criée the artist took on three of the most famous paintings in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in this Breton city. Le Nouveau-né (The new born, ca. 1690) by Georges de la Tour, La Chasse au tigre (The tiger chase, ca. 1620) by Peter Paul Rubens, and L’Elévation de la croix (The elevation of the cross, ca. 1690) by Gaspar de Crayer were thus reduced to a few starkly white canvases directly hung on the walls of the exhibition space. Perfectly faithful on a formal level, these “Défigurations” ultimately enjoy an ambiguous status that is characteristic of Morellet’s current work. The viewer who is unaware how they were made will probably see them as derivations from Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematism, liberated from the limitations both of the frame and of the single-canvas surface. But the viewer who can relate the “Défigurations” to the original works from which they iconoclastically emerge will see their essential irony.

Not to be overlooked is one small piece, which functions as an exergue to the whole “Défigurations” enterprise, as well as to the other exhibitions. Entitled Trente chefs d’oeuvre en 30 figure (Thirty masterpieces in 30—figure, 1988), this work consists, as usual, of a 30-figure canvas painted white. On this emblematically white monochrome Morellet has painted, also in white but in legible relief, the titles of 30 famous works that have in common the fact of having been painted on 30-figure format canvases. Among these 30 titles, taken from the oeuvres of Cézanne, Gauguin, Manet, Picasso, Picabia, and others, there can be found an obligatory self-reference to the Trente chefs d’oeuvre en 30 figure by Francois Morellet.

Daniel Soutif

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.