Following his death this May, the two London shows mounted to celebrate François Morellet’s 90th birthday have become de facto eulogies for him. Happily, both are worthy tributes to a man likely to be remembered as one of the most quietly influential and singular artists of the 20th century.
Without formal training, Morellet began painting in the early 1940s, turning to abstraction in 1950, before devoting himself to aleatory and systems-based work from the 1960s onwards. Active on the Paris scene from the 1950s, Morellet also led a kind of double existence until 1975, juggling artistic life with working in the family toy factory some 350 km from the capital. Distance did not, however, prevent him from travelling, exhibiting and meeting contemporaries who shared his interest in carving out a new kind of art. Inaugurating the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV), in 1961, to formalize their search, Morellet and his co-founders (Horacio Garcia Rossi, Julio le Parc, Francisco Sobrino, Joël Stein and Jean-Pierre Yvaral) set about a semi-serious programme of artistic and sociological enquiry. Committed to doing away with ‘the traditional artistic attitude’, they announced an end to the primacy of the individual creator and the reverent audience. Their joint manifesto, Assez de mystifications (Enough Mystifications, 1963), went so far as to forbid the audience ‘NOT TO PARTICIPATE […] NOT TO TOUCH […] NOT TO BREAK THINGS’.
Though Morellet’s solo art was less radically interactive, its central principles are contiguous with GRAV’s: effacement of the artist’s personality, pre-occupation with optical effects, distortions and industrial techniques. At base, whether in two dimensions or three, it is geometrical – inspired in equal measure by Piet Mondrian, the tapa cloths of the Pacific islands and the complex patterns of the Alhambra. At the same time, as Morellet pointed out in his many interviews, he was indebted to a range of sources beyond the visual arts: the self-imposed literary constraints of Georges Perec and the Oulipo, John Cage’s aleatory techniques and the phasing patterns of Steve Reich’s music. For works that, over 55 years, restrained themselves to exploring the possibilities of different kinds of trames (warps/wefts/grids/matrices), generally in no more than two colours, Morellet’s oeuvre has a rich background and a rich foreground. Like Philip Glass’s early work, it is about exploiting the complexity to be found in simplicity and repetition.
Like GRAV’s group output, Morellet’s work is also underpinned by humour, conscious of its flirtations with absurdity. A questionnaire given to passers-by at GRAV’s 1966 Journée dans la rue (Day in the Street) asked whether they found the event ‘Useful’, ‘Gratuitous’, ‘Stupid’, ‘Intelligent’, ‘Justified’, ‘Timely’, ‘Amusing’ and ‘Pretentious’. Invited to give a Yes/No answer for each, it was implied that respondents could find the event all of these things. The list provides a useful rundown for Morellet’s solo work. Taking mathematical rigour, chance operations and arbitrary constraints to almost absurdist lengths, pieces like Répartition aléatoire de 40,000 carrés suivant les chiffres pairs et impairs d’un annuaire de téléphone (Random Distribution of 40,000 Squares Following the Even and Odd Numbers of a Telephone Directory, 1960) or Néons avec programmation aléatoire-poétique-géometrique (Neons with Random-Poetic-Geometric Programming, 1967) tick all of the questionnaire’s boxes. In case the audience missed the title’s humour, Néons could form the sequence NON, NUL, CON, CUL (‘NO, RUBBISH, TWAT, ARSE’). Even at its most stripped, his minimalism was never austere.
The works gathered by The Mayor Gallery date, with one exception, from 1969–74: the period directly following GRAV’s mutually agreed demise in 1968. The densest – Tirets 0° – 45° – 90° – 135° (1971) and 3 trames 0°, –22°5, +22°5 (1971) – show Morellet’s Islamic influence at its strongest, with visually overwhelming patterns formed by overlaying black and white silkscreens. Others, applying similar operations to coloured squares, create shimmering optical illusions that anticipate the aesthetics forced on early videogame designers by the limitations of 8-bit graphics. But it isn’t necessarily the most immediately striking works that demand the most attention: perhaps the most restrained, 1973’s 2 trames inégales avec 10 interférences (2 Unequal Wefts with 10 Interferences), is enthralling, despite being composed purely of horizontal lines in black and white.
Morellet’s latest works, showcased at Annely Juda, read as the ongoing refinement of that gripping simplicity. The ‘3D concertant’ series (2015) reduces the earlier trames to a series of repeated short black lines slowly interfering with each other as they pass across diagonally mounted square canvases. For all the economy of means, the concertants spur the viewer to read the spatial relationships as an emotional narrative as well as a series of optical effects. Rococoncret n° 4 (2012), meanwhile, arranges the same black curve on four square white canvases to produce an elegant swoop framing a diamond of wall. As its title suggests, despite their increased minimalism, the late works express the humorous glint in Morellet’s eye even more strongly than those in the Mayor show. These late works are a fitting epitaph for a remarkable artist, productive right up to the end.