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The Seventies (1979)

The seventies, as far as my painting is concerned, followed directly from the fifties.

During the sixties, I concerned myself above all with metallic structures and with neons (and with spectator participation, through my work with the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel).

Without fear of ridicule, I will now play art historian and attempt to dissect in a few lines this still-fresh little slice of life: 1970 to 1980.

First, concerning the works:

—-– On the one hand, the grids of the fifties, obediently enclosed within the limits of the canvas, began to quit their traditional gathering places and spread out over walls, windows, and other sculptures that found themselves in their path (of course I should have expected as much, my grids having always had a tendency not to stop at the edge of the painting).

—-– On the other hand, the paintings without grids, vacant at last, began leading lives of their own, liberating themselves from the dictatorship of the unconditional parallelism with the wall and the floor. This liberty, true enough, was quickly exhausted, either by the diktat of a last errant straight line or, as ever, in the face of systems that were rigorous, simple, obvious, precise, and absurd.

Concerning that which I am not afraid to refer to as my ideas, the break with the fifties and sixties was quite clean.

As early as 1970 and 1971, having noticed that the enlightened art lover bestows meanings upon works “without taking into account what the author may have said or written, and often in opposition to the interpretations of other commentators,” I concluded (after many detours, which I do not have the space to enumerate here) that “the visual arts must allow the viewer to find what he wants, which is to say what he brings to them himself. Works of art are picnic grounds, multicultural melting pots where everyone eats what he has brought for himself…”

Now, in 1979, I continue to make works intended to say (practically) nothing. But I believe today that this vacancy, this non-meaning, which has fascinated me for thirty years, might have another justification besides calling to viewers and allowing them to unpack their own picnics.

Indeed, if since 1950 my works have flirted with emptiness, it has been with that rather particular kind of vacancy that comes from the absence of “nature”—the voluntary absence of any evocation of “nature,” of any “natural” justification, of any “natural” principle. (“Nature” having, of course, nothing to do with my systems or my systematized chance.)

Well! A justification of these “denatured” works, then, is their relation to a world that is itself, as I conceive of it, “denatured” as well, freed of God and his residue, namely the idea of “nature.” It is the acceptance of a world guided solely by chance and artifice, which is ultimately the acceptance of a present no longer denied in the name of a vanished past or a future yet to be established. It is an attempt to create an “artificialist” art, as distant from naturalist art as naturalist art was from sacred art.

And when I speak of naturalist art, of course, I do not mean an art that tends to represent exactly the appearance of the external world, but an art that seeks to convince us that its justifications are anything other than chance and artifice, that it is motivated by mysterious forces issued from the depths of nature or even the depths of history (the course of history being the final avatar of naturalism).

I mean, among others, the art of Mondrian, who wanted to allow nature to be seen “in a purer manner,” or that of Malevich, who thought that “man is nature” and that it is now man who will perfect this insufficiently natural nature.

Whereas for my part, as Clément Rosset puts it (L’anti-nature, Presses Universitaires de France), “it is, on the whole, a question of domesticating man into the heart of a world as foreign to him as the enigmatic ‘unfamiliar land’ of which Empedocles speaks in a fragment of his Purifications: of making him recognize as ‘his own’ an absence of all definable environment, of inuring him little by little to the idea of artifice by making him progressively renounce a set of naturalist representations whose lack of referent in reality has never failed to lead to disappointment and anguish.”

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. 203-204.
An excerpt was originally published as “Les années soixante-dix,” in Skira Annuel: Art Actuel: Skira Annual/Actual Art, special issue, 1970–1980 (1980), p. 95. A revised version was published in François Morellet (Toulon, France: Musée des beaux-arts, 1980), n.p