François Morellet is the creator of a number of already canonical paintings, such as the 4 doubles trames, traits minces 0°-22,5°-45°-67,5° of 1958 (Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne), a work consisting of no more than several sets of parallel black lines intersecting on a white ground, generating no motif, or the Répartition aléatoire de 40 000 carrés selon les chiffres pairs et impairs d’un annuaire de téléphone, 50 % rouge, 50 % bleu of 1960 (collection of the artist), a painting that consists in fact of 40,000 red and blue elements distributed at random across a very fine orthogonal grid, whose binary principle and its outcome overturned artistic convention and anticipated the coming digital revolution.
Since the early 1950s, Morellet has based his art on the use of elementary forms — the line, the grid, the square — arranged according to simple principles to generate limitless structures and repetitive rhythms, neutral in both form and execution. These works without a message offer the presence of their material reality and a novel and unparalleled exploration of the visual world. Morellet belongs in fact to the geometric abstraction that emerged of the second half of the 20th century: he made his own in particular its inheritance from Concrete Art, transforming this through his own personal contribution and setting it on a new path.
In 1963, Morellet began sometimes to use artificial light in his work, in the form of neon tubes. Since then, over a period of more than forty years, he has never stopped elaborating his language and refining his thinking, prompting new developments in his art. One of the most important of these was in the early 1970s, when Morellet found in his paintings the means for an engagement with architecture. And indeed, his best-known work, which did much to make his reputation, remains the Trames 30°-87°-93°-183° of 1971, whose red lines and blue background were painted on the surrounding walls of the Plateau La Reynie in Paris, near the site where the Centre Pompidou was to be built; this exploited the intersecting sets of parallel lines he had used in his earlier paintings. Since then, Morellet has produced more than a hundred such works, in many different countries, from the United States to Japan, including Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and of course France itself, where in 2010 the Louvre acquired a group of stained glass windows to adorn a 19th-century staircase, conceived in accordance with the principle of tilt and displacement that has interested the artist since the 1970s.
There is another sector of activity likewise directly related to the artist’s pictorial production, equally important if not so evidently public: these are the installations, ephemeral works produced for specific exhibitions. They are of different types. One in the entrance hall of the Centre National d’Art Contemporain (CNAC) in the Rue Berryer, Paris, in 1971, created for Morellet’s first one-person show at a French public institution, consisted of black adhesive tape applied to the wall of the staircase so as to form a regular flat grid superimposed on the relief decoration. In 1986, invited to show at Schloss Buchberg, near Linz in Austria, Morellet hung a white canvas on the wall of a room, so hiding a crack, but placed upon it a branch found in the park outside, annulling the cover-up. At the Abbaye de Tournus, in 1990, he installed on the floor of the refectory a number of argon tubes forming two sets of broken parallel lines, one at an angle to another, and occupying the whole area. Made on site, quickly and at low cost, all three installations were inspired by their context and designed for the individual space. And at the end of the show, they disappeared. Recalling in their principles and execution the techniques of such artists as Christo, Joseph Beuys and Walter De Maria, these works are also closely related — in their ephemerality, in particular — to the happenings and performances organised by artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, George Brecht and Bruce Nauman. The installations are in a way responses to the need to react, to deal with different contexts, in which the aspect of performance, the need to improvise, the taste for risk and the festive spirit are all essential elements. The first major international exhibition to focus on this emerging technique was “When Attitudes Become Form,” organised by Harald Szeemann at the Kunsthalle, Berne, in 1969. Since then, from Daniel Buren in the early 1970s to Olafur Eliasson today, many artists have turned to the genre, nowadays celebrated by such events as Paris’s annual “Nuit Blanche.”
To Morellet goes the credit for having been one of the pioneers, participating in the collective works of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel from 1963 onward, and then, after 1969, making use of it regularly on his own account — as is abundantly clear from the catalogue published by Susanne Anna in 1994, on the occasion of the his exhibition at the Chemnitz municipal museum. In total, Morellet has produced rather more than 200 such installations,1 with equal pleasure, and, one might add, with equal good manners. And now the Centre Pompidou has decided, with the artist’s agreement, to stage the first ever exhibition devoted to these works, reconstructing some of the most representative examples. […]
1 Susanne Anna, ed., François Morellet. Installations (Chemnitz/Stuttgart: Städtische Kunstsammlungen/Daco-Verlag Günter Bläse, 1994) lists 183 installations to 1993, but many were not taken into account, being unmentioned in published sources or in the artist’s own records. Since then, Morellet has presented this kind of work at nearly every one of his exhibitions.