‘All my work is about doing as little as possible and making the fewest possible arbitrary decisions.’–François Morellet
François Morellet (1926 – 2016), a prolific self-taught painter, sculptor, and installation artist, developed a radical approach to geometric abstraction during a career spanning more than six decades. The artist’s inaugural exhibition with Hauser & Wirth, ‘François Morellet. In-Coherent,’ will offer a glimpse of Morellet’s prolific and multi-facetted oeuvre from 1953 – 2013, including some rarely seen key abstract geometric paintings from the 1950s and 1960s, a major wall installation from 1977, space installations and several neon works, a medium pioneered and continuously readdressed by the artist throughout his life.
The exhibition makes plain Morellet’s lasting influence in art through his distinctive talent for bringing Dada-infused irreverence, irony, and joyful lightness to his aspiration of dismantling traditional hierarchies and embracing elements of randomness and chance within the framework of pre-established systems. Organized with Olivier Renaud-Clément, 'François Morellet. In-Coherent' underscores the full breadth of the artist’s artistic explorations through a large array of mediums.
The exhibition begins with works from the 1950s, a period during which Morellet turned from figurative and representational work to abstraction following an influential trip to Brazil in 1950. Inspired by his first encounters there with Concrete art and the work of Max Bill, he began creating works that followed simple systems and rules and eliminated as many arbitrary decisions as possible.
His ‘Trames’ (Grids) paintings feature, for example, superimposed grids of perpendicular lines or networks of dashes rotated at various angles, as in ‘36 trames de tirets pivotées au centre’ (36 Grids of dashes rotated at the center) (1960). In works such as ‘Carrés et triangles rouges et bleus’ (Red and blue squares and triangles) (1953) and ‘Carré inscrit dans un carré’ (Square inscribed in a square) (1954), Morellet exploits the possibilities of simple geometry by creating a system of circumscribed squares which in turn form isosceles square triangles.
Morellet eventually went beyond the confines of the picture plane and in the 1970s became interested in what he called ‘the outside of painting,’ focusing on three-dimensionality and introducing steel, iron, wire, mesh, and later wood into his work. Three space installations in the exhibition, each composed of a metal angle iron and two white canvases, exploit the simple rule of finding ways to connect two surfaces that are not situated in the same plane by the sole straight line shared by these surfaces.
In a series of diptychs entitled 'Entre deux mers' (Between two seas) (2012 – 2013), the sea level, suggested by brushed stainless steel plates placed on the canvases, forms a visual line uniting the two paintings that make up each diptych, and, beyond that, the series as a whole: 'I’ve enjoyed juxtaposing two of these 'Entre deux mers.' I’ve been dreaming of showing several variations of 'Entre deux mers' in a single room from the beginning – a room that wouldn’t be too big and, of course, with all the seas at the same level. That way, the viewer would really be out at sea.' Viewers could also see a reference to the name of a white wine from the Bordeaux region traditionally paired with oysters. The tilted canvases could then humorously evoke the queasiness caused by excessive wine consumption.
François Morellet's object-based paintings, neon and architectural installations, and site-specific works explored the creative potential of kinetic and pre-established systems, challenging the viewer’s understanding of perception and the physical picture plane. Working primarily with basic geometric forms, Morellet was committed to a methodology of rigorous objectivity and personal detachment. Morellet’s playfulness and wit are also revealed in the titles of his works, which often include tongue-in-cheek puns, parody, and wordplay.
Mask King Tape, 1985. © Studio Morellet/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: François Morellet
All images: © François Morellet/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Courtesy François Morellet Estate