Electric Aesthetic and Eclectic Practice (1991)

Before I begin this little history of the relations my art may have had with electricity, I would like to cast a very superficial eye on my deepest motivations. 

I believed in God until age twenty, then in progress until forty, and then . . . in nothing at all. My first “electric works,” which I produced toward the age of thirty-seven, are thus more or less guaranteed to lack transcendence: they glorify neither God nor the fairy of electricity, and only scratch the surface of those future sciences such as kinetics, cybernetics, information technology, or even, quite simply, mathematics. These “electric works” can be classified, along with all my work for the last thirty

years or so, as “ironically formal,” or even as “formally ironic.” They nonetheless, within this large family, used electricity in rather different ways.

First of all, broadly speaking, from 1963 to 1975, I was interested above all in playing with time, which is to say in creating “movement,” whether with motors, with blinkers, or with programmers (which also, for that matter, used electric motors).

As far as my works without light are concerned, I will cite the only two examples I created.

First, the “grids distorting themselves” in very slow movements, which produce an infinite number of different situations using the superimpositions of networks of parallel lines.

And then, on the contrary: the “interferences with undulant movement,” in which very fast motors rotate threads ballasted with lead at great speed, thus creating sinusoidal columns that appear immobile but that burst into confused movement as soon as one touches the thread, only to appear to fix themselves in place again after a few seconds.

As for the illuminated pieces, I most often subjected them to one of my favorite systems, which I called, more or less accurately, “interference.” And this, at first, thanks to primitive mechanical blinkers.

Groups of lamps in which, most often, elements of neon were lit and then extinguished at regular rhythms, but at slightly different speeds. Such that the illuminations of two, three, or four (never more) groups were visible, either offbeat or in unison. With two rhythms, the effect was quite brutal and simple; with four rhythms, the complexity approached the limits of comprehension.

During the same period, I also enjoyed conjuring, thanks to mechanical combiners, also crudely cobbled together, a succession of neon forms and letters fixed on three panels.

This rapid and confused stream of images seemed to be regulated by chance. But my technical skills at the time did not allow me to use a real random system, so it was only

a parody of chance that governed the irregular succession of geometric forms and the four words CUL, CON, NON, and NUL. 1

In the middle of the seventies, I abandoned my rhythmic or programmed neons to return to my paintings, though this time I took a much greater interest in what was happening around them than in what was happening within them. This was the beginning of my Baroque-Minimalist period.

After that, in the eighties and on to today, I returned to my affinity for neons, but chose to make them play with space rather than with time.

Often coupled with white canvases—square, thick, unbalanced—they suggest, with an illuminated, immaterial line or angle, the ideal direction or plane that the painting has lost.

But it sometimes happens that they parasite the walls by themselves, particularly the angles of the walls, creating baroque, folded-over, absurd spaces.

I almost forgot to mention that my neons, since they shed the cumbersome blinkers and programmers, are no longer ashamed of the electrical wires and transformers that are now fully part of the work.

This electric history seems quite long to me; I fear that the reader who has had the patience to read this far will now be as tired as I am. So I am cutting off the electricity, as it were, leaving for another time the story of the perilous battles between my neons and various architectures.

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. 215. Originally published as “Esthétique électrique et pratique éclectique,” in Bulletin d’histoire de l’électricité, no. 17 (June 1991), pp. 21–26