I was thrilled to be invited to this exhibition of new and recent works by François Morellet in Annely Juda Fine Art London, after all, it isn’t so often that one is able to look at contemporary art from the hand of a near-legendary maker celebrating his 90th year.
To put this show and the individual achievement into perspective, François Morellet was born in the same year as Fidel Castro, Queen Elizabeth II and Chuck Berry (all still alive and kicking of course), but more than this, Morellet has been one of the chief European exponents of geometric abstraction for well over half a century. In the context of this, I was somewhat surprised to come face-to-face with a more personal dilemma as I found myself recoiling at my own preconceptions of the ‘contemporary’ as applied to the work of a nonagenarian; shame on me.
In 1960, Morellet helped establish the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) with a group of around a dozen artists who operated as a creative cell. GRAV renounced the solipsism of individual artistic practice and embraced audiences, interactions and (then) emerging technologies to deliver occasionally spectacular kinetic/interactive works. Unsurprisingly, in the late sixties the group atomized, losing its point - and its moment - as culture fluctuated more wildly than GRAV itself. Somewhat surprisingly, other true pioneers of art and technology who were drivers of GRAV, (incl. Vera Molnár and Julio Le Parc), are also still around, and there is an impressive tenacity to this group which is noteworthy of itself; I would personally love to believe that this shared longevity is testament to a lust for life forged through the faithful, creative collaboration that was GRAV.
Forgetting the history, the works in the show are entirely of this moment and are exquisitely drawn, realized and envisioned. Morellet, whilst revered in Europe, is lesser known outside, and whilst his oeuvre may not have single-handedly re-formed 20th and 21st Century art practice or critical theory, make no mistake, these works are extraordinarily accomplished. Whilst they exhibit some of the symptoms of classic modernism, they are more poetic/literary than kinetic within the context of this show. In Morellet’s ‘Mal barré après réflexion n°7’, (2015), the linear neon’s appear to parry and riposte against the black ground - Reinhardt to note. In ‘Lamentable Ø 5m blanc’, (2005), the seeming carcass of draped neon becomes a rich, deep and melancholic metaphor for loss of meaning, loss of message and maybe the irony of a collapsed capitalism.
The diametric, diagrammatic and material oppositions the work deny us, as viewers, some of the essential reassurances offered by squarely hung canvases, but as an alternative, offer the possibility that instability, separation and overlay may be equally acceptable conventions for viewing. This show is easy on the eye, but also contains some deep material ironies that should not be lost on the viewer as essential moments of disquiet and discord - some iron in the soul if you will. There is still an edginess here that emanates from beneath the polish, the finish and the vista.
One of my very favourite ‘contemporary’ shows of 2016 so far, open until the 24th of June. Oh, and Happy Birthday François!