On ViewHauser & Wirth
January 26 – April 7, 2021
François Morellet’s life work represents the rakish progress of a cockeyed formalist. Though the artist was self-taught and sedentary (he lived in the town of Cholet, France, where he was born, his whole life), his various paintings, installations, and sculptures have nevertheless had a worldwide reach, largely due to their adaptability made possible by the artist’s inclination towards open-ended formal systems. On the installation of his 2012 work Entre deux mers no 1 the artist playfully commented, “I’ve been dreaming of showing several variations [of this work] in a single work 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.” Thus, there is a kind of random slippage built into the conception of Morellet’s works that allows his reductive geometric forms to practically dance outside of their mathematical lines.
In-Coherent begins with a brief survey of the artist’s early paintings such as Carrés et triangles rouges et bleus (1953), in which bright blue and red triangles pinion a rectangle on point in the center of the canvas. The centrality of the image reads somewhat iconically, despite its rigorous derivation from the overall proportion of the square composition, and so serves as a contrasting register from which to take in the more liberated forms of Morellet’s later works. For instance, on an opposing wall, Entre deux mers n° 2 and n° 3 (both 2013) are grouped together so that their stainless steel “horizons” line up in water-level plumb while their wood and canvas supports flip animatedly across the wall in tilted momentum, creating a feeling of vertigo in stasis. It’s an array held in vital tension, its conceptual roots in Jay Hambidge’s concepts of dynamic symmetry.
Throughout the show one notes in the permutations of wall and floor works a foolish consistency adhering to these conceptual roots (foolish in the best sense, as in the brinksmanship of balance of an acrobat). In Relâche n° 2 blanc (1992), a large rectangle, again, on point, serves as a monochrome white wall-bound base to an orchestration of free- floating right angles in canvas, aluminum, and neon. As in a Harold Edgerton photo of time-lapsed motion capture, Morellet reiterates his commitment to random composition via this riveting sequential repetition. He manages here to extract the piquantly lyrical from geometry’s most reductive elements—a real feat of formal capacity, if not downright perceptual alchemy. Roughly echoing this same format is another, more volumetric, wall work titled Icy climbing beam 45°, 45°, 45° (2003). Here, a grouping of boxy beams fold over one another as if packed for transport in a kind of field dissemblage. It represents an interesting instance of Morellet including a practical/anecdotal element in his formal compositions, like a carpenter playing with random cut-offs. Another great example of this approach is the rudely constructed yet elegantly composed 4 morceaux d'un carré (tableau) assemblés 2 par 2 perpendiculairement à l'aide d'un seul clou (1984). Four framed, wooden right triangles are balanced roughly at their respective apexes, all held together by a single bolt. The basic elements of a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome come to mind, but, unlike the utopian Fuller, Morellet seems to prefer a radical incoherency of geometric form in this piece—pushing the possible limits of graceful equilibrium to the edge of tumbling chaos.
This comprehensive retrospective exhibition, organized by the gallery with Olivier Renaud-Clément, also includes the artist’s wall drawings, 4 trames 30°, 60°, 120°, 150° partant des 4 angles du mur. Intervalles: hauteur du mur, 4 trames 30°, 60°, 120°, 150° partant d’un angle du mur. Intervalles: hauteur du mur (both 1977), in which asymmetric vectors of black-taped line crisscross one wall of the gallery—a looser version of Sol Lewitt’s systemic wall works—and a colored neon piece, Rouge pair–Bleu impair n° 5 (2012), in which vertical bands of thin neon tubes move from either side of a medium-sized rectangle to mix in approximately even proportion toward the work’s center. In all, the show offers an excellent composite introduction into an artist whose long career has been made up, for the most part, of a series of discrete aesthetic investigations. Those perhaps familiar with Morellet’s later, large-scaled neon works, like the one last installed in the basement of Dia: Beacon, No End Neon (1990/2017), or his monumental architectural wall painting (in characteristic blue and red) on Dia’s Manhattan location, Trames 3° 87° 93° 183° (1971/2017), might be reintroduced to the artist’s work via this considerate grouping, coming away with a concisely synopsized version of the artist’s broad oeuvre.