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Artist’s Preface (1982)

In 1976–77, on the occasion of a retrospective of my work that circulated among four museums (the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Kunsthalle in Baden-Baden, the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, and La commanderie van St. Jan in Nijmegen), a catalogue was published.

In this catalogue, playing art historian, I tried to impos e a bit of order (even though I would likely be accused of having too much of it) on my works from the preceding twenty-five years.

  I wrote: “In this catalogue, I have classified my works since 1952 into five chapters. These five chapters— juxtaposition, superimposition, chance, interference, and fragmentation—represent the five major families of systems that I have used for twenty-five years (most

often simultaneously).”

And so my works managed, for better or for worse, to slip the comforts of chronological classification in order to gather in these new territories with uncertain borders. Generally not for worse, in fact, except in the case of certain canvases from recent years. Such as, for instance, this painting from 1976: Grid Tilted 5° Placed Horizontally.

I had classified this work among the juxtapositions because it is covered in parallel, horizontal, juxtaposed lines. I would have preferred not to discover one small detail, namely that the most important particularity of this painting was perhaps not its having juxtaposed lines, but rather its being tilted by five degrees.

And this “quality of being tilted” not only had no existing chapter to accommodate it, but also could not be the basis of a new chapter unless I were to accept a classification like the one used in “a certain Chinese encyclopedia” invented by Borges (and related by M. Foucault in The Order of Things), in which it is written that “animals are divided into:

(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones,” etc.

On the other hand, I could have limited my attention, for these classifications, to the traces of an older nature on my canvas (juxtaposition), in the spirit of those naturalists who, for instance in the case of the bat, first considered the udders, signs of a shameful past, and not the wings, fruits of a more recent and marvelous evolution that places them

well above cows.

I have never been able to accept the kind of classification that is based on what has since been surpassed. A classification must, to my mind, take into account first and foremost what has just happened, or even what is about to.

This method has, among others, the advantage of rendering unclassifiable anything that is new. Just as these tilted paintings, which appeared in 1973, were unclassifiable for me in 1976, so must my truly new works (if they exist) be unclassifiable now.

These unclassifiable works, according to my system, were the exception. They have since become the rule. Thus, I now have only to declare closed this nomenclature that no longer serves me any purpose, and give it a title like “Chapter One.” Exactly the way one does for Recent History,

where we see all the contradictory events of a period become “The Fifth Republic” once the Sixth arrives, or “The Republic” once another regime does, or even, circumstances permitting, “The Antebellum.”

My rethought and broadened classification, then, would have only two chapters: before (see the Berlin, Baden-Baden, Paris, and Nijmegen catalogue) and now (this catalogue). Or,

to put it more formally, those works with something in them (and neutrality around them) and those works with something around them (and neutrality in them), or those works obeying

geometric constraints and those works using the geometry of constraints, or, finally, those works that are cut off from the world, protected in their ideal medium—stable, timeless, immaterial—and those works that are exploded, driven outside of a medium that finally reveals itself to be what it truly is: weighty, unstable, capricious, and always ready to take center stage.

Why write all this? Why try to justify everything as though we were still in the sixties? Why drag out, once again, this idiotic, classificatory, definitively outmoded rationalism?

Yes indeed, why?

Well, surely because I myself am definitively outmoded.

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. 206-207.
Originally published as « Préface de l’artiste » in François Morellet: Werke/Works, 1976–1983 (Bottrop, West Germany: Josef Albers Museum; Ludwigshafen, West Germany: Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, 1983), p. 10.