François Morellet

The exhibition “Blow-up 1952–2007: Quand j’étais petit je ne faisais pas grand” (When I Was Little I Didn’t Work Big) featured eleven paintings by François Morellet from 1952 and their copies, made in 2006, four times larger in height and width. The original works present flat fields of color in geometric patterns that could extend infinitely beyond the paintings; they represent Morellet’s idea of allover painting and demonstrate the importance he placed on making visible a system rather than on creating a composition. Made with industrial oil paint on plywood, the works are small (several are 15¾ x 27½"), thin, and slightly yellowed and cracked with age. Morellet painted them with the aid of masking tape and a roller-tipped instrument used for painting pinstripes on baby carriages in the factory owned by his family, where he worked as manager and designer. In 1952, these works were among the flattest, most hard-edged paintings of their time, but today we see tiny traces of the hand and slight irregularities. Morellet will tell you that these early gems of geometric abstraction are ugly because he painted them himself.

To the uninitiated, Morellet’s work might recall Minimalist and Conceptual art, but the artist really preceded those movements. Born in 1926, Morellet credits 1950 as a pivotal moment, for that was when he first saw the work of Max Bill, the Swiss proponent of Concrete art, in São Paulo. Ever since, Morellet has adhered to the idea that one must have a precise conception of the work before going about making it, and that its execution must be neutral. For him, the best way to attain neutral execution is to have somebody else do it—he began working in this way in 1956 and has done so nearly exclusively since 1962. The 2006 remakes in this show are no exception. With the help of Morellet’s assistant, a slide projector, acrylic paint, and improved adhesives, the resulting paintings on canvas on wood are big, uniform, and perfect. They are thick (though only painted on the front surface), with edges as hard as diamonds, and their colors are lighter and brighter, as though the enlargement process came with a facelift.

Throughout his career, Morellet has exhibited a self-deprecating streak rare in members of his generation. Really, what other artist would, in the ’50s, create geometric abstractions with something as unmuscular as a baby-carriage pinstriping device? And which other “minimalists” would, in the ’80s, title varied groupings of immaculate white canvases to suggest that they are engaged in sexual intercourse (the series “Géométrie dans les spasmes,” 1986)? Only Morellet would revisit the elegant, thin lines of his series “Lignes au hazard” (Random Lines) to grossly fatten them in 2006 (creating the series “Débandade.”

Morellet’s remakes of his own work are humorously pertinent in view of current practices of younger artists (now in their thirties) appropriating works that have influenced them, sometimes leading to significant reflections on art but also sometimes simply cashing in on an old name. With “Blow-up,” it is as if Morellet had kidnapped himself and was demanding a ludicrous ransom—that nothing be for sale. With the eleven originals already belonging to public and private collections, he has decided that all eleven enlarged copies be donated to museums and foundations. He is the rare artist who takes art more seriously than himself. Maybe that’s why his work remains fresh.

Jian-Xing Too