Benjamin H. D. Buchloh What was your artistic training and what did you know about art history when you began working?
François Morellet To run through it very quickly, in the 1940s, I started off with figurative painting, but without ever having had a teacher. It was really more about the savor of being a painter; I had wanted to be one, perhaps because my father had somewhat overestimated painters. He didn’t like painting so much, but he liked painters and would have liked to have been one. When I made my first canvas, I put a lot of paint on my shorts to look like a painter; that seemed important. I still enjoy it, but I realize that at that time I must have had a somewhat romantic notion about the profession.
I was against museums because I had read everywhere that museums were temples, that they had to be burned down. But I loved the Musée de l’Homme and was very influenced by everything I saw there, especially Oceanic art and the tapa cloths printed with abstract motifs. I spent a lot of time there. That was in the late 1940s. I was practically making faux-Oceanic work, and I’m still happy whenever I see those tapa cloths. Then in the early 1950s, I must have approached abstraction through the influence of the Ecole de Paris.
Buchloh At the beginning of your career, did you respond to the avant-garde, particularly the Russian Constructivists from 1915 to 1925? In the late 1940s, were Piet Mondrian or Kazimir Malevich among your influences?
F. Morellet No, not at all. The influence of Katarzyna Kobro, Alexander Rodchenko, and company was much later. At that time, I was influenced in some ways by Alfred Manessier, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, and Serge Charchoune, a painter whom I still like. Around 1950, I made my first abstract paintings. They involved lines that were more or less horizontal and more or less vertical, which yielded a kind of checkerboard, a construction to be filled in as the next step, a bit like Paul Klee or some Ecole de Paris artists. Then I quickly arrived at something much simpler. In 1951, for example, I made a small painting, the surface of which is divided in two by a diagonal, revealing only a white side and a gray side.
Buchloh Was the more local tradition of reductive abstraction like that of Victor Vasarely or Auguste Herbin also an influence?
F. Morellet During that period, Vasarely was painting in a very Ecole de Paris way; he eventually came to reduction, to black and white, toward the end of the 1950s. When I met him, it seemed that I had taken it further than he had. At the time, he was making large color forms; they were pretty but lacked a system or construction.
Buchloh And Josef Albers?
F. Morellet No, but there was a huge event for me at the time. In 1950 we wanted to emigrate to Brazil because we didn’t believe in Europe anymore. When we got there in 1950 or 1951, Max Bill had just mounted a large exhibition, and I met artists who showed me bad black-and white newspaper photos of that show.
Buchloh You had to go to Brazil to discover Max Bill? That’s a fantastic paradox.
F. Morellet It’s strange, right? I was already making abstract work that was pretty simple, but it wasn’t yet justified, Concrete. Those images by Bill were a revelation, and that’s how I came to know Albers. At the time, Bill was establishing the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, Germany, and I met quite a few artists there. The Brazilian artist Almir Mavignier, who had come to France maybe in 1951, right after my return from Brazil, went to study in Ulm. He’s the one who brought me there for the first time. In Paris, around 1953–54, he also introduced me to Ellsworth Kelly, who was in Europe at that time. We met many times with Bill. What I liked about him was his conceptual, Concrete side, which was in line with Theo van Doesburg’s principle that a work has to be conceived of before being executed; a work has to be justified.
My two great influences were Concrete art, which I discovered through Bill, and Islamic art, through the arabesques of the Moorish motifs at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. If you plug both into the computer, it will probably give you a lot of things that I made in the 1950s.
We looked through Danielle’s notebooks to see if my first trames (grids) were made before or after the visit to the Alhambra. At first, I thought it had been a direct influence but then realized that I had already executed trames of evenly distributed motifs before our 1952 trip. But no matter, the Alhambra was a huge revelation. The Concrete art that I had discovered with Bill had its systematic aspects. All of a sudden, with the Alhambra, that all-over seemed amazing to me, infinite.
Buchloh You met Kelly around 1953. Did you see his famous exhibition in 1951 at the Galerie Arnaud? Did you live in Paris at the time?
F. Morellet No, I studied in Paris but didn’t live there. I met Kelly and then, of course, saw some of his exhibitions, like the one at Galerie Maeght for example.
Buchloh Were you somewhat friendly with Kelly at the time?
F. Morellet Yes. In the end, he lived with my parents in a small room above their apartment. In Paris there was another marvelous guy, who was making very minimalist paintings, Jack Youngerman. And Alain Naudé. We were all friends.
Bill’s work came as a shock for me and I think for Kelly as well. He had visited Bill a number of times and talked to me about it, but I don’t think that comes up in the literature about Kelly.
Buchloh It’s always Jean Arp and Joan Miro, who are mentioned.
F. Morellet Kelly didn’t talk to me about Arp, except for maybe things he did with Sophie Taeuber-Arp having to do with chance.
I wasn’t meeting many people during that period. We’d go to Paris some weekends; we’d have dinner with Kelly, Youngerman, and Naudé. But I didn’t have the opportunity, as a number of artists did, to study at the Ecole des beaux-arts, to have free time, talk, meet other artists. I never visited Arp. I visited Georges Vantongerloo twice because Bill, who was very influenced by him, told me to do so. Those were my contacts, but let’s turn back to the great master Mondrian. Serge Lemoine told me that the first reproduction of his work published in France was in a book by Skira released three years after Mondrian died. There was not a single Malevich and certainly not a Rodchenko or Kobro. I remember opening that book and discovering that Mondrian reproduction. It must have been around 1950. It annoyed me. “Why be so aggressive?” I wondered. But I kept returning to the book. It fascinated and annoyed me at the same time. Once the annoyance passed, and thanks to Bill, who had served as a stepping-stone, I enjoyed a big love affair with Mondrian. At the same time, there was the fascination with Marcel Duchamp, who wasn’t very well known in France during that period.
I was friends with Joël Stein, whom I met in Paris and who was part of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV). He was a wonderful guy, very literary. He had attended meetings and been somewhat involved with the Surrealist group. He’s the one who introduced me to Duchamp. I. was fascinated and excited by the irritation that Duchamp’s attitude could trigger. I liked the contrariness, and while identifying myself with Mondrian, I continued to be fascinated by Duchamp.
Buchloh What about artists from the Abstraction-Création group in Paris during that period?
F. Morellet It’s funny because in the 1950s there was a lot of geometric art, at the Salon des réalités nouvelles in particular. Then a number of artists, like Youngerman and others, changed their practice. There was a vitality in the early 1950s before certain artists gave it up because of a lack success (success somewhat graced Art Informel painting instead).
The year 1952 was perhaps the one in which I made the most work that continues to interest me, most of it having very little, if any, composition. Uniformly distributed paintings, tapping somewhat into the spirit of the monochrome, containing elements like stripes, trames, repeated
things, a bit like the repetitive music that I encountered much later. Serial music had always bored me (at that time, I was passionate about jazz). It only excited me much later, with Steve Reich. I was such a champion of uniformly distributed painting that when I saw Barnett Newman’s works, for example, zilch! They didn’t do anything for me! To me, Newman was the ultimate in composition, in the arbitrary. On the other hand, the Pollocks that I had seen at the gallery Studio Paul Facchetti were much closer to what interested me.
Buchloh I saw one of your paintings from 1958 on the third floor of your house that struck me enormously. I had never seen work from that period. It interested me because I immediately thought that there was a real dialogue with Jackson Pollock’s work or that it could even represent a response to his work.
F. Morellet Vasarely said it very nicely: You’ve effectively done Tachisme without getting your fingers dirty. That was exactly it.
Buchloh Was it a response to Pollock in a certain way?
F. Morellet No. Maybe. In 1952 I was in love with Mondrian (I must have started loving him in 1950). But to me, he didn’t go all the way. What continues to be traditional in Mondrian is composition.
Buchloh Instead of composition, what interested you were principles, series, repetition, an objective system?
F. Morellet Yes, especially the least number of subjective decisions possible. The painting I love the most is from 1953, a white square in which three vertical lines and three horizontal lines form sixteen squares.
Buchloh It’s the perfect grid.
F. Morellet The perfect grid. With the edge of the painting replacing the line, it forms sixteen squares. It’s satisfying because it was going against Mondrian, further than Mondrian, against the Ecole de Paris, against everything that was happening at that time.
Buchloh What do you think about Frank Stella’s famous argument about relational painting, in other words compositional painting? He stated that all European painting adhered to composition, with a balance between weight and counterweight, as in the case of Mondrian. And Stella, in his famous 1966 interview, stated that he had, with his 1959 black paintings, broken with that tradition of relational painting.1 Obviously, it takes some nerve to say that.
F. Morellet Yes. To me, Stella is still a great character; he’s done lots of things. He was a good friend of Kelly, who in fact had reproductions of my work and wanted to introduce me to Stella. Around 1954 I made paintings with concentric angles, a motif that Stella soon favored. Just four or five years apart, our painting looked very much alike.
Buchloh In any case, those are questions that an entire generation of artists was facing, and inevitably, some solutions and responses might be similar.
F. Morellet Yes, of course. But if you were unfortunate enough to do what an American had already done, you’re going to hear about it; but when it happens in the opposite direction! I experienced the same with Sol LeWitt…
Buchloh Yes, I wanted to avoid that subject because it’s an old story.
F. Morellet Yes, it’s an old story, launched by my gallery in. Germany, along with a somewhat heavy-handed promotion.2But in the United States, it brought me more problems than advantages. In any case, what’s certain is that when you move forward with a trajectory, it can happen that others have arrived at the same point. It also happened to me in the other direction, to make things after others did, to realize it and go back.
When Du jaune au violet (From Yellow to Purple, 1956), was exhibited at a fair by Galerie m, the dealer at Stella’s German gallery mistook it for a Stella. The same situation happened to me with the LeWitt I saw in Flash Art; I thought it was one of my paintings.
Buchloh To get back to the principles of your work, in what respect did Duchamp influence you? I imagine that you must have been interested in his redefinition of distance or line?
F. Morellet That’s right, distance, but also the kind of myth that began to take shape around Duchamp when there still weren’t many in-depth articles on him and few reproductions. Jan van der Marck was the first to write about that monstrous relationship between Mondrian and Van Doesburg on the one hand, and Duchamp and Francis Picabia on the other.
As it started to be mentioned then and as it continues to be mentioned—and it really makes me happy—I think I wasn’t ever really serious. When I made my broken circle arc in 1954, it was also to shock, to distance myself from geometry and from Constructivism. When I made those fully distributed paintings with trames, repetitions, it was also a means of reacting against Constructivism and Mondrian. When I made random paintings of uniform distributions of 40,000 squares or random lines, it was a parody of, an ironic take on that.
To present a simple line broken into four parts like that was as much Picabia and Duchamp as it was Mondrian. I discovered Van Doesburg much later. I loved Mondrian so much at first that I took sides against Van Doesburg, and one day, I realized that I resembled him, not Mondrian.
Buchloh Were you friendly with certain artists coming out of Nouveau Réalisme?
F. Morellet No, not at all. I met Daniel Spoerri only very late and Arman, even later. And Yves Klein, of course. The first things I saw . . . and his attitude, and all, somewhat fascinated me.
Buchloh And Ad Reinhardt, for example, did you see his exhibition in Paris at Galerie Iris Clert? It was in 1954.
F. Morellet I saw a lot of Reinhardt at that time—he was in a lot of exhibitions—but I didn’t think much of it.
Buchloh Really? Despite his principle of non-composition? Because there’s less composition in his work than in Newman’s.
F. Morellet Not so much. I saw a delicacy that I found pretty and modern, but . . .
Buchloh But in his work the principle of seriality was meant to be a principle that tended to abolish composition.
F. Morellet Yes, of course, completely. And Malevich always bored me for example and still does today . . .
Buchloh When did you ultimately discover him?
F. Morellet I never discovered him because discovering means appreciating. Mondrian, for example, first annoyed me, in the years 1949–50; then I liked his work.
After Youngerman, Naudé, and Kelly left France, I found myself all alone again. Around 1959, a load of South American artists arrived, and in the meantime,
we came into contact with rather wonderful people named Molnàr from Hungary. So we decided to form a group with some of those South Americans, who had meanwhile gone to see Vasarely. The group took its stable form with six people, three South Americans and three Europeans: Horacio García Rossi, Francisco Sobrino, Julio Le Parc, and Yvaral (Vasarely’s son), Stein, and me. We all pretty much stopped painting in those years.
From 1960 to 1968, we played a lot off labyrinths, in particular a big one for the Paris Biennial in 1963. People would enter “pénétrables,” as Jesús Rafael Soto called them later. There was an entire room with 40,000 random squares in red and blue all over the walls and ceiling. The installation ended with a room with four panels of neons that echoed each other and surrounded viewers.
We were focused on viewer participation. In 1962 I had made my sphere; in 1963 I started working with neon. It had been a kind of parenthesis, where we believed painting was over and that it was now necessary to have the viewer participate, that this was the society of the future.
Buchloh It’s really interesting to understand that your position in the late 1950s and early 1960s was very specific, because it was different from both the so-called geometric or abstract Cubist tradition and from the practice of the Nouveaux Réalistes, which referred to Duchamp. Your
position referred to Duchamp and Mondrian alike but strove to move away from the two and transform all those avantgarde paradigms, but in what seems today to be a rather complex and isolated space.
F. Morellet Yes, it could be summarized as the monstrous son of two distinct heritages. In the end, I have that Constructivist puritanism in me. The Concrete artists, the Constructivists, the Minimalists, De Stijl—they’re all moralists, puritans, and really Jansenists. I have that uptight side and I like that rigor, but I also have a very strong penchant for the absurd and dynamic.
Buchloh With regard to those two postures—to simplify, a Duchampian position and a reductivist, utopian position— did someone like Piero Manzoni interest you? Because he tried to connect those two positions in the same way.
F. Morellet Yes. The first painting I sold was through a gallery called Azimut in Milan, founded by Enrico Castellani and. Manzoni. They invited me to have an exhibition in 1960. The group around the gallery had not yet been formed. There were paintings by Castellani, monochromes by Klein and Lucio Fontana, too. Azimut lasted two years. I believe they were the first to exhibit Jasper Johns in Europe.
Manzoni came to buy one of my paintings, a very full trame, somewhat Tachiste. But of course Manzoni never sent me the money. Finally later he sent us two of his “shit boxes,” which were worth about as much as the painting in price. 3
Buchloh Another question should be raised in terms of the artists in the 1950s who brought art to the level of pure spectacle, for example Klein and others coming out of Nouveau Réalisme. That dimension of pure spectacle and provocation is absent in your work, which is much more balanced.
F. Morellet More uptight. You know the word “uptight”? 4 I think I’m very partial to artists who are not uptight. The Nouveaux Réalistes—Jean Tinguely, Klein, Arman, César Baldaccini, and Spoerri—made very good things at one time, during the great post–World War II period. But Spoerri and Tinguely didn’t have that somewhat Huguenot, uptight side at all, which I feel I have. They were constantly into escalation, Pierre Restany brought them together, and they worked with one another. As for me, I was the little provincial one, completely isolated from the world. I couldn’t quite do scandalous things in my studio in Cholet or in Clisson where I was before.
As for those wonderful Russian artists we were speaking about, I was so sorry when I saw how long it took to learn about them, to learn that Rodchenko had made those three monochromes. All of that I learned later, and it’s unfortunate, but with the result being that even though I adored Mondrian, I think De Stijl was somewhat overvalued compared to Constructivism. Also, a very underrated guy, who now interests me more, precisely because he wasn’t as promoted, is Bart van der Leck, who was overshadowed.
Buchloh You also staked a critical position, I imagine, with regard to your relationship to the 1920s avant-gardes. For example, the utopian spirit, the hope concretized in Mondrian’s work, was no longer possible then. There were no more social goals associated with abstraction for your generation. Was there a kind of skepticism that motivated the evolution of your work?
F. Morellet For several years, I felt a bit ashamed of my skepticism. It must have increased gradually, but at first, I was still in the idealism of the 1920s.
Buchloh Yes, so there was a utopian model in the beginning?
F. Morellet Yes, at first. But when I made the three horizontal lines crossing the three vertical lines, I felt I was launching a kind of provocation.
Buchloh It was also a way to conceive of a model of equality?
F. Morellet There was a mystical side, in the broad sense of the word. There was a provocation, of course, but it was for no one since I wasn’t yet exhibiting, even if I had had it in mind that one day someone would see it. But I was looking for a form of purity, a word that now horrifies me—I even find it dangerous. (If a politician says it, I’m going to hurry to the country next door.) I was taken by Mondrian’s somewhat silly idealism, but the skepticism came very quickly. Every year, the proportion of skeptical paintings grew, as early as 1954, with the fragmented arc for example. It wasn’t mystical anymore.
Buchloh But it wasn’t funny either; it was a kind of perversion of the problem. It remained serious. It wasn’t the line as defined by Manzoni, for example.
Danielle Morellet Then, starting in 1958, there were all the distributions realized through chance, a real breakthrough thanks to humor.
F. Morellet Yes. Kelly had done that kind of thing before, not in the Dadaist spirit, and the Arps had done it before in the Dadaist spirit. There can be a mystique about chance. For example the Dutch herman de vries, whose oeuvre I liked a lot, worked not with chance but with a mystique of chance. There was nothing mystical about the use of chance in my work; it was more about showing that the use of chance was the rule of the game.
D. Morellet That’s of course where LeWitt found himself eight years later.
Buchloh Yes, and I’d like to come back to that extraordinary painting of yours from 1958 at your home. I was under the impression that it was neither cynical nor utopian, but almost a bit skeptical.
F. Morellet Nihilist.
Buchloh Yes, a bit. It moves away from both abstraction and seriality. It’s an extremely critical attitude but one that takes place in a totally neutral space. It’s really difficult to explain. It’s not desperate; it’s a negation of the expression—
F. Morellet It’s the spirit of Robert Ryman to me a bit, to fill a surface like that.
Buchloh That painting struck me because I had never seen it before, and its radicality struck me. There’s a quality that I find in Manzoni, even if it’s not always funny or Dadaist. But in some of his work, there’s that kind of neutral objectivity; it’s almost positivist.
F. Morellet Yes, a bit. It would be better to talk about the absurd, instead of humor, with my work. I love order and the absurd, but above all not as separate qualities. The things I’ve always liked the most—for example that film by Fischli and Weiss—are usually very constructed, very ordered in their succession, and completely absurd. Order and the absurd: that can have a nihilist side, because it’s tragic, and it can also have a comical side—
Buchloh Can it have a mechanistic side, too? There’s also a play with the mechanism of drawing in that work. It’s almost complete anonymity, and at the same time, it retains a structure and a conception that resists complete anonymity.
F. Morellet I have this theory that artists are here to prepare the terrain so that viewers can unpack their picnic onto it. It’s not a very innovative idea but I think that what viewers find in art is what they bring to it. For me, in order for viewers to be able to unpack the largest picnic possible, I put the least amount possible in there. I look for a neutrality, or a poverty, in order to receive a certain kind of wealth from the viewer. It’s like when I hear Steve Reich. There’s nothing, and that’s why I can enter into it. That penchant for emptiness is a sensibility, I think, that belongs to the twentieth century, and perhaps to Japan in other eras. In the end, with regard to many pieces I made, you should talk about the absurd and humor, but also a penchant for emptiness.
I’ve always liked Ryman. I find that he very much characterizes the kind of neutrality that veers toward “nothing at all” with a certain refinement and always without drama. It’s a “nothing at all” that smiles and is completely empty at the same time. To me, my three horizontal lines crossing my three other vertical lines was the same thing; that emptiness makes it possible to say, “Oh, phew, there’s nothing, but it’s still really pleasant that there’s nothing”— there you have it.
1 Frank Stella, quoted in Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” ARTnews (September 1966), repr. in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: Dutton, 1968), pp. 148–64. 2 For more, see “The Rigorous Absurd: Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, and Béatrice Gross in Conversation,” in this volume, pp. 27–28; Flash Art, no. 39 (February 1973), p. 33. 3 Lucio Fontana had bought Morellet’s painting, and then Manzoni offered his own work to Morellet in lieu of Fontana’s payment. 4 Morellet used the word coincé in the original French.
Translated by Molly Stevens. © Dia Art Foundation. English translation originally published in Béatrice Gross with Stephen Hoban, eds., François Morellet (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2019), p. 207-212. Originally conducted in 1987 at the Morellets’ home in Cholet, France, this conversation has been translated, condensed, and edited for this publication