The “Shoddy” and the “Less-Than-Zero” 1 (1988)

Ever since it was systematized by the Impressionists, nothing has been able to halt the triumphal march of the “shoddy.”2

It expresses, for the great majority of art lovers, the sensibility and the genius of the twentieth century.

It has conquered most of the modernists and all the postmodernists.

It delineates the sacred territory of the Major Arts, that last bastion of refuge from designers, photographers, and decorators of all stripes.

It encompasses all movements: Figurations more or less Free, New, or Wild; Abstractions more or less Lyrical, Gestural, or Expressionistic, etc. All of them, besides a few movements, specialized in plagiarism or appropriation of “shipshape” 3 models as well as a small marginal current, running from Pointillism to Conceptual art, which has covered a handful of movements or groups that, it must be noted, have never been driving forces in the art market, such as Constructivism, De Stijl, Naive art, Concrete art, Hard-Edge painting, Kinetic Op art, 4 Minimal art. 5

While the adepts of the hot hand (and the sensitive one) form a great agglomeration of various trends, the adepts of the cold hand (and the precise one) have certain points in common, in particular a strong penchant for the “less-than-zero,” 6 a penchant that has only been confirmed over the course of the century. 7

The “shoddy” have some heroes among the “less-than-zero,” certainly, 8 but the superstars 9 and fashionable movements of the last ten years 10 always find themselves on the side of abundance.

No, this precious void, this fragile jewel of the twentieth century, fares poorly in feverish hands (which are so much better disposed, in any case, to make do with the leftovers of El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, and other Van Gogh).

It was thus in a sterile atmosphere, with cold hands and precision equipment, that I created my latest works: Paysage-Marine and Art-Présentation.

Paysage-Marine 11 is inscribed in the great figurative tradition. After pornography, 12 it is landscape and seascape that I am attempting to rehabilitate13 (and neutralize in the process).

Art-Présentation, on the other hand, represents nothing, but it also presents it. To be sure, it rehabilitates presentation, 14 but also and above all the naked canvas, free of nails and images. 

And there you have two more “less-than-zeros,” two new culs-de-sac, 15 wide open onto the royal route of universal and jubilant insignificance.

1 This text, a true and heartrending revision of the history of art, is not recommended for persons with an artistic sensibility, and particularly not for any artists unduly cited or neglected. 2 By “shoddy” (a colloquial term but not really a pejorative one), I mean all works of art the traces of whose fabrication are intentionally visible (when they are not themselves the “subject” of the work), such as irregular brushstrokes, paint drips, gaps, etc., for paintings, or irregular scissor marks, handprints, awkward assemblages, etc., for sculptures. Which means that “the shoddy” is imprecise as a matter of principle, that it cherishes means of fabrication that amplify the irregularities of manual work, and that it thus abhors any tool, principle, or system that guides, corrects, or replaces the hand. What a pleasure it is to recall, on this note, Filliou’s wonderful and utterly true variations on “well done, not done, poorly done.” 3 Like Dada, Surrealism, Nouveau Réalisme, Pop art, or Hyperrealism, which all, at one moment or another in their existence, plagiarized or appropriated “great painting,” consumer objects, ads, comics, photography, etc. 4 Kinetic Op art was perhaps the only one of these movements to be a market force since its inception (for which it would later pay dearly). 5 This enumeration is far from exhaustive, of course: it does not mention, for instance, (more or less unified) groups such as GRAV, Gruppo N, Gruppo T, B.M.P. T., artists using photography or computers, and also individuals difficult to classify in a given school, such as (among many others, and cited here by “age group”) Balla, Brancusi, L.ger, Herbin, Arp, Gris, Albers, Taeuber-Arp, Strzemiński, Reinhardt, Honegger, Artschwager, Hill, Castellani, Haacke, Mangold, Ruthenbeck, Dekkers, J. P. Raynaud, Brown, Palermo, etc., nor does it mention artists who first made “shoddy” work and then went on to make “shipshape” work, like Mondrian, or first “shipshape” work and then “shoddy” work, like Stella, or “shoddy” work and “shipshape” work at the same time, like Sol LeWitt, or “almost shipshape” work all the time, like Barnett Newman, etc. 6 “Less-thanzero,” as Raymond Devos has so justly noted, is “at least something,” which is to say just enough to qualify as such: for instance the “sculptures” of Duchamp, Kosuth, or Lavier, or the “paintings” of Yves Klein, Ryman, or Toroni. That is, works that appear so simple that they may give the impression of containing nothing more than one idea or one arbitrary decision, which is of course false. In 1980 I calculated (using an eminently contestable homemade system) that, in one of my “less-than-zero” paintings from 1953, 16 carr.s, I had in reality made eleven subjective decisions (length, width, and depth of the painting; color, thickness, and number of lines, etc.). For some painters with generous natures (Chagall, De Kooning, Schnabel, etc.), the tally would extend easily into the millions. For Mondrian, it goes from fortysomething to only thirteen (for his two-line composition from 1931). For Rutault, a great specialist in the economy of decision-making and in eliciting collector participation, it is not rare to find only two. Finally, for the all-category champion, Duchamp, we get no further than a single decision for the ready-mades as well as for his decision to stop painting; one can even imagine that he attained zero at the moment that he decided to stop without having begun again. 7 This confirmation can be observed in spite of (and by way of) all the culs-de-sac that have punctuated the history of the “less-than-zero,” from the rock-solid culs-de-sac of Dada and De Stijl to the fissure-free culs-de-sac of Minimalism and of B.M.P. T., and finally to the vicious culs-de-sac of Conceptual art, to arrive at the current and quite diverse blossoming of Knoebel, Armleder, Charlton, Lavier, Vermeiren, Bourget, Perrodin, Verjux, Halley, Taaffe (two oft-debated specimens that are nonetheless typical of the American species), etc. There are also, of course, certain pitfalls along the inexorable progression from the “shipshape” to the “less-than-zero,” such as for instance the pit of Baroque trompe l’oeil into which Kinetic Op art fell. 8 The Fontanas, M. Louis, Schoonhoven, Beuys, Twombly, Ryman, Long, etc., who in fact are often close to those of us who constitute the “shipshape” of the “lessthan- zero.” 9 The Dubuffets, De Kooning, Pollock, Tinguely, Stella (Baroque era), Kiefer, Schnabel, etc. 10 Like the newly Fauvist Germans, the ephemerally avant-garde Italians, the freely figurative French, and the eclectically Baroque or graffitist Americans. 11 These standardized formats—figure, landscape, seascape—were used systematically by Rutault (in his “definition/method”) as ready-made rectangles cleared of all figuration. “In no case does the format represent that which will appear there; it prefigures it.” On the other hand, for me, hyper-figurative painter (occasionally with conviction), it is not the same, and the “120 landscape” represents not a 114 x 195 cm rectangle but all landscapes. 12 See and read La dans les spasmes, catalogue no. 15 (Le consortium, Dijon, 1986). 13 Not to forget, of course, that Seurat and Mondrian had already courageously wrested this genre from the hands of the Impressionists. 14 Not to forget, among others, Picabia’s frames (the marvelous Danse de Saint-Guy!), Vermeiren’s pedestals, and Bourget’s frames and pedestals. 15 We may also consider these culs-de-sac to be the ideal spaces for brilliant and savvy picnickers (read “Du spectateur au spectateur ou l’art d.baller son pique-nique,” Morellet [Cholet, 1971] ).

Translated by Daniel Levin Becker. © Dia Art Foundation. English translation originally published in Béatrice Gross with Stephen Hoban, eds., François Morellet (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2019), p. 212-213. Originally published as “Le ‘mal foutu’ et le ‘moins que rien’” in François Morellet (Paris: Galerie Liliane et Michel Durand- Dessert; Dunkerque, France: Ecole régionale des beaux-arts, 1988), pp. 22–23.