François Morellet

Lights, electrical circuits, wood,
48 × 129 cm
Inv. 2001.913/Acquired with the aid of the FRAM Île-de-France


François Morellet is the artist of paradoxes. A man with a clearly serious life (he ran the family business in Cholet until 1975), he has been a life-long artist. The pioneer in France of geometric abstraction, he is forever challenging his own principles. As an artist he derides inspiration and champions the viewer’s role. In the 1950s, his painting called into question arbitrary choices and artistic expertise; from that point on he subjected the creative act to the definition of a system, announced in the title: the rules of play (because play is what is involved) were established.
This system, which forms the basis for the creation of his works, leaves plenty of room for chance, something that became an actual component of his work in 1958. That same year, he began using light as a material to be imprinted on the viewer’s eye. He was already placing the latter in a position of responsibility, giving him/her the task of making the work appear, be it in Reflets dans l’eau déformés par le spectateur [Reflections in Water Distorted by the Spectator] (1964) or, two years later, 56 lampes avec programmation aléatoire-poétique-géométrique, ingenuously renamed by the museum staff as ‘NON, NUL, CON, CUL’ [NO, NIL, CUNT, BUM]. A constellation of light bulbs appears in random fashion, subject to haphazard programming. The game was to bring forth words based on geometric shapes – rude words at times, too!
Wordplay is a key part of François Morellet’s work. A vibrant heir to the spirit of Dada, he cultivated this way of seeing and deriding the world. Because of his fierce wit, he kept his distance from art, but also, as in this impudent piece, from the world. He hides, here getting the public to launch those ‘coarse and derogatory interjections’ (Arnauld Pierre) by stepping on the pedal.
The installation of this work for the opening of the museum remains etched in people’s memories. Those involved chuckled at the thought of the official visits and the surprise that would register on visitors’ faces. This typified the strength of GRAV:1 ‘We want to interest the spectator, free him from his inhibitions, relax him.’
With this work, François Morellet, inventor of forms and words, provokes amusement, but at times also embarrassment on the part of the viewer, who is responsible for the appearance of these cheeky messages – insolence being one of the irremediable hallmarks of their dreadful inventor.


1. Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel, created in 1960, of which Morellet was a founder member.