François Morellet, Sphère-frames, 1962, aluminum. Installation view, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 1963. From La Troisième Biennale de Paris.

François Morellet, Sphère-frames, 1962, aluminum. Installation view, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 1963. From La Troisième Biennale de Paris.

François Morellet

François Morellet, Sphère-frames, 1962, aluminum. Installation view, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 1963. From La Troisième Biennale de Paris.

IT IS IRONIC that François Morellet remains most recognized for his affiliation with GRAV (Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel), since the Paris-based collective aimed precisely to do away with the artist as author. Between 1960 and 1968, Horacio García Rossi, Julio Le Parc, Morellet, Francisco Sobrino, Joël Stein, and Yvaral produced objects, events, and environments that challenged spectators to take on a participatory role as makers of meaning. The group complicated not only the phenomenological singularity of artist and spectator but also the contemporaneous definition of “visual art” through an emphasis on “research”: Their broad mandate included a reliance on the scientific method and its negotiation between rational systems and random or chance-based permutations. Almost as a riposte, curators Alfred Pacquement and Serge Lemoine’s “Réinstallations” resituated Morellet’s installations from 1963 to the present as a cohesive oeuvre bearing the conceptual choices of a distinct author. This narrative was achieved by the total elimination of Morellet’s early “detours”: for example, the “primitivist” works of the late 1940s and the grid-based paintings of the 1950s. Without this historical depth of field, Morellet’s installations display stylistic commonality as the unifying trace of authorship, rather than clearly evincing the conceptual variations and ruptures through which he persistently questioned authorial intention.

GRAV frequently installed their exhibitions like “labyrinths,” consisting of passages, stairways, and rooms with disjunctive light sources meant to challenge the spectator’s phenomenological unity. Using a similar blueprint at the Centre Pompidou, “Réinstallations” began with Morellet’s contributions to GRAV’s two most important labyrinths. Random distribution of 40,000 squares using the odd and even numbers of a telephone directory, 50% blue, 50% red, 1963, a dimly lit room lined with silk-screened wallpaper with a blue and red geometric design, transformed a completely aleatory and objective system into a source of perceptual disruption. Likewise, Neons 0˚ 45˚ 90˚ 135˚ with 4 interfering rhythms, 1963/2011, consisted of four panels in a dark room, each with neon lights programmed to flash at alternating intervals, leaving a sequence of rapidly dissipating afterimages on the spectator’s retina.

Morellet gave the public more latitude to manage its disorientation in RED, 1964, in which the word rouge appears in red on a white panel inside a darkened cabinet, with a button that detonates an electronic flash—a violent response to Sol LeWitt’s Red Square, White Letters from two years earlier? The performative dimension of LeWitt’s critique of aesthetic autonomy, based on transforming the viewer into an actual reader, is exacerbated in Morellet’s self-administered shock treatment, which literally invites spectators to blind themselves as they read. Morellet’s “experiment” points to LeWitt’s shortsightedness in suggesting that performativity is the property of a subject who directs this capacity at an art object without considering that language is an open and eccentric system. Similarly, the public could manipulate a lever to disturb the watery reflection of neon lights in Reflections in water distorted by the spectator or activate an electric fan to agitate a reproduction of La Joconde on a cotton sheet in Mona Lisa Distorted (both 1964). Playing with these gadgets today, one wonders whether the commercial materials and mass-cultural means of publicity dominated the spectator-cum-consumer through a systematic elimination of real choice, or whether a qualitatively differentiated “participant” was created in the act of pushing buttons and moving levers. Morellet and his generation—Carlos Cruz-Diez, Brion Gysin, and Otto Piene, to name a few—contested the notion that lived experience had been replaced by seamless spectacle: They conceived of the sensorium as a space in which totalizing inculcation might be undermined. Yet even as their gizmos aroused the spectator into extreme psychokinesthetic states of potentially emancipatory overstimulation, they also incorporated viewers into more streamlined technological and industrial assemblages through enticing simulation.

After GRAV’s dissolution in 1968, Morellet abandoned the question of public participation and returned to a problem that had long preoccupied him: the subjective possibilities of abstract painting in its connection with (allegedly) arbitrary and impersonal systems. In various ways, Morellet suggests that a painterly “gesture” is a singular choice conditioned by a system’s logic but not conflated with it. Pictorial incident is, for example, both integrated into and differentiated from the institution’s material support with 4 grids drawn and in relief, 1981, in which wooden beams placed on top of geometric pencil lines seem to blend with the walls and create nonsynonymous textured surfaces. More recently, Morellet has turned to rules of random distribution to create such baroque works as π Weeping Neonly, no. 3 and Neons by Accident (both 2003). Despite every attempt to remove subjective composition, Morellet’s random systems inevitably create the condition of possibility for rational choices and flourishes of (personal) eloquence. Following Yve-Alain Bois, this is due to the coexistence of random and rational impulses within the modernist structure of the grid, a simultaneity that revitalizes artistic production in unpredictable ways.

Though this exhibition’s attempt to recuperate Morellet’s experimentation with subjectivity into a stable author may have been more fetishizing than factual, it makes palpable his paradoxical positions. The show leaves us with an uncomfortable suspicion that the spectator may be administered by the aestheticization of information systems—but also the sense that the interpenetration of rationalized processes and sensory experience might not be reducible to the purely abstract or analytic, perhaps producing contingent and unruly effects and spaces of engagement.

Nuit Banai is a lecturer in modern and contemporary art in the department of visual and critical studies at Tufts University/School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.