François Morellet

Musée National du Jeu de Paume

A FEW CHOICE PAGES extracted from a vast volume—that would be one way to describe the François Morellet exhibition recently presented by the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume. This two-story space, once a temple of Impressionism, is sizable enough, but it still couldn't accommodate a complete retrospective (thus making the necessity for one all the more glaring) of a prolific artist, now seventy-four years old, whose first pictorial forays date back to the immediate postwar period.

Nonetheless, curator Daniel Abadie, who organized the exhibition in close consultation with Morellet himself, managed to skillfully assemble a selective anthology of the artist's work—a process that involves at least as much sacrifice as choice—without hesitation or remorse, cleanly dispensing with entire sections of his oeuvre. To get off to a vigorous start, no work prior to 1952 was included, so that the artist encountered in the show's first rooms was one already immersed in geometry. Parallel lines and colored dashes arranged evenly on wood or canvas; square paintings in which fine black tracings outline sixteen squares here, thirty-two rectangles there; and the various possible configurations, methodically enumerated, of an L-shaped figure resulting from the combination of a square and a long rectangle: These are Morellet's “first” works as shown at the Jeu de Paume. He is immediately enthralled by the idea of the system; through it, he has often said, he attempts both to keep arbitrary decisions to a minimum and to approach the position of a composer or an architect, in those cases when the artist's hand plays no role in realizing a work since others step in to execute it.

It's not at all surprising, therefore, that a relationship has often been retroactively pronounced between these early pieces by Morellet and some Conceptual or Minimalist art. In one of the exhibition catalogue essays, Thomas McEvilley makes this “discovery” in his turn—he sees Morellet's geometric exercises as clear precedents to those of such American artists as Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, and Sol LeWitt—and regrets that because of an unfortunate lack of publicity (resulting, in McEvilley's account, from the fact that the French are the last remaining people on earth to resist “ferociously the use of a second universal language, English”), these precedents have not yet gained entry into art history books. One wonders what books he's been looking at. Morellet has no need for the kind of a posteriori recognition that is itself even more Americentric than the oversight it pretends to rectify. For one thing, these works, presumably validated by their supposed pre-Conceptual or pre-Minimalist character, are firmly inscribed in a long European tradition of systematism; Morellet has often emphasized the significance in his aesthetic development of the Dutch artists van Doesburg and Mondrian, as well as Swiss concrete art, especially Max Bill's, and even the Alhambra of Granada—all chapters in the history of art that have been written and rewritten in a number of languages, including English. But more important, Morellet's works can be appreciated in their own right. If any sort of sequence were to illuminate them (not merely endorse them), it should naturally be that which their author himself has given within his own oeuvre rather than some formal coincidence or intersection of process, all the more since, as a lover of classification, Morellet has made it a guiding principle of not only his work's development but also successive rereadings of his earlier creations.

From the squares and dashes of the early '50s to the use of π as a generator of patterns that occupies Morellet today, the artist's own sequence has in fact brought forth new systems aplenty. After variations on the square, the right angle, and parallelism came a period of superimposed frameworks (well represented here by works of various sizes, techniques, and materials—wire mesh, paint, and adhesive tape, among others). The introduction of chance as artistic method followed, with canvases showing 40,000 small squares painted according to a pattern determined by numbers chosen randomly from the telephone book (the decisive factor being whether a number was odd or even). From these meticulous silkscreen prints, modest in size (about thirty-one inches square), we passed—almost completely ignoring, as this anthology requires, the period of Morellet's participation in GRAV, the visual-art research group whose notable members included Julio Le Parc and Yvaral—directly to the '70s and to several other sets of works, where the artist's systems appear increasingly deranged by an undisguised taste for a kind of humor with roots in Alphonse Allais or Alfred Jarry. White or neon (which Morellet began using in 1963) dominates most of these often large-scale works, whose rules of execution are at times frankly a bit wacky. Thus, the aesthetic force behind the wall-size display of the fifteen white canvases that constitute Delacroix défiguré (La Mort de Sardanapale) (Delacroix disfigured [Death of Sardanapalus]), 1989, results from a principle as ironic as it is simple: Where each face appears in a famous painting, the artist hung a white canvas known as Figure—literally, “face”—-which was traditionally used for portraits and whose dimensions could vary but not its proportions. Morellet chose the sizes of his Figures to match the faces in Delacroix's work, thus conserving its original measurements.

No less oddball are works from the series “La Géométrie dans les spasmes” (Spastic geometry), 1986, which subject Morellet's cherished white squares and rectangles to more licentious adventures. Pairing them in ways that recall sexual positions and titling them with insinuating expressions—En levrette (Doggie style), Par derrière à deux (From behind in twos), À croupetons (Squatting)—the artist turns the love of geometry into the geometry of love and, as he writes in an essay from the period, causes “everything to tip into another world.” As if to make explicit—though not without humor, of course—the pornographic intent of these three large works, Morellet added on either side of them two small works on paper, Figures hâtives (Hasty figures), also from 1986: images of squares again but this time somewhat irregular ones, since each side consists of the black imprint of the artist's penis, an ironic reminder of the anthropomorphic investigations of Yves Klein, whose “brushes” were women covered in blue paint.

In another, more pastoral register, the “Géométrees,” 1983-85, a few splendid examples of which were gathered in the next room, force the irregular forms of wooden branches into a rigorous geometry whose imposing rectitude can appear almost as sadistic as it is playful. Here the tracing in pencil of the arc of a perfect circle extends the natural but (naturally) imperfect curve of a branch placed on the floor against the wall; elsewhere a straight line of black adhesive tape stuck behind another, almost rectilinear, branch marks out even more clearly and with a sort of cold cruelty that which separates the ideal perfection of geometric forms from the vagaries of those born of nature.

On the ground floor were recent works including Le Relâche no. 4 (Release no. 4), 1992, which assembles colored angles by turning again to the vicissitudes of the telephone book, and already “historic” works such as Néons avec programmation aléatoire-poétique-geométrique (Neon with random-poetic-geometric programming), 1967, three squares of neon whose sides and diagonals light up randomly, producing either simple geometric figures or, from time to time, words such as NUL, NON, CUL, or CON (roughly translatable as “nil” “no,” “ass,” and “cunt”). Here also viewers had the pleasure of encountering one of the artist's masterpieces. Rarely shown because of its complexity, Détail d'une structure infinie de tétraèdres limitée par les murs, le sol et le plafond d'une piece (Detail of an infinite structure of tetrahedrons limited by the walls, floor, and ceiling of a room), 1971, takes up an entire room, as its title indicates, thereby offering a unique and satisfying example of the “allover” principle applied to a three-dimensional space.

Finally, at the present, came the conclusion of this anthology (which produced the typical contradictory effect of both sufficing in itself and creating an irresistible urge to gain access to the whole). Morellet's present most notably involves the formal contortion of the number it. From the succession of digits after the decimal point (in the case of π: 1, 4, 1, etc.), associated with angular values obeying variable systems of conversion (say, 1=10, 2=20, 3=30, etc.), the artist has since 1998 drawn a profusion of works employing his usual materials—neon, metal, paint—to which he now adds the computer, resulting in an impressive array of pieces that range from gigantic architectural interventions to large paintings to tiny monitors. Some of these occupied the last spaces of the exhibition, and, as if Morellet wanted to endow his anthology with a suitable cover, the facade of the Jeu de Paume was also covered with a work from the π series, a large, distinct configuration of lines realized in red neon that, obeying the generative formula 1=45, comprised right and half-right angles in perfect harmony with the classicism of its support.

Daniel Soutif is a Paris-based curator and critic.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.