Moving Spirits: The Combined Legacy of Francois Morellet and Gerhard von Graevenitz
Sperone Westwater, New York
by Robert C. Morgan
In many ways, this exhibition of works by Francois Morellet and Gerhard von Graevenitz could not have happened at a more opportune moment. While Americans are in the throes of trying to find a future amid the chaotic aftermath of an overindulgent art market, Europeans appear more wisely invested in trying to redeem the importance of artists who have been less visible in New York, but whose achievements in many ways are relatively comparable. At a time when Modernist historians on both sides of the Atlantic are contesting the role of American centrism in evaluating what is significant in post-1960s contemporary art, it is indeed rewarding to see a selection of work by two leading representatives of the Light-Kinetic movement who were involved in showing primarily in Europe. Many Light- Kinetic artists – cited as Op artists in the American press, specifically at the time of “The Responsive Eye” (1965), curated by William Seitz, at The Museum of Modern Art – were unaccountably avoided by critics, collectors and historians who adhered to more popular, commercial trends syphoned through New York’s vast range of entertainment media.
While Americans may be more historically aware of Morellet, largely due to the his mid-career retrospective shown at the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo in 1984, less is known about the equally profound and innovative genius of his colleague, Von Graevenitz, who died tragically in a small plane crash the previous year. In hopes of correcting this historical imbalance, Sperone Westwater – in collaboration with the Mayor Gallery in London – has mounted a concentrated, yet beautiful exhibition of these artists’ works on the eve of two larger-scale surveys that will focus more inclusively on the history of Light-Kinetic art, forthcoming in late 2012 and 2013 in Paris and New York. Therefore, the timeliness of this show cannot be underestimated.
One cannot ignore the ground-breaking work of the Swiss post-Bauhaus artist, Max Bill, whose retrospective at the Sao Paolo Museum of Modern Art introduced “Concrete Art” to the southern hemisphere in 1951, but never quite made its influence known in North America. One may cite the northern hemisphere’s expanding involvement with abstract expressionism as being largely responsibility. Still, one cannot avoid Bill as an underlying force in the later development of Light-Kinetic art, specifically in relation to the kind of works produced by Van Graevenitz and Morellet included in “Moving Spirits.” By 1958, both artists were involved in moving beyond the gesture and to distance oneself from the immediacy of the hand, a concern also advocated by Bill at the Hochschule fur Gestaltung in Ulm. In addition, what came into focus by way of Concrete art in the works of Morellet and Von Graevanitz was the attention given to systemic applications of form and their inevitable relation of the system form to light.
The introduction of the two artists happened at the Studio F in Ulm in 1961 through the graphic artist Almir Mavignier, who introduced them. The primary duration of involvement between the two artists continued through the 1960s into the late 1970s when the concerns of Kinetic- Light art began shifting elsewhere.
For example, the symmetrical design of protruding white dots that created a braille-like relief structure on the surface of Van Graevenitz’s works from 1960 gradually became more uniform, more systemic, and evenly spaced across the surface by 1961. In each case, they comprised what might ironically be called a tactile surface. But the tactility in these ultra-fine works was not in the sense of something hand-made or even reminiscent of the hand, but more in terms of an appellation, that is, a surface that invited the viewer to feel its optical sensuality, and thus, to engage with the pattern of dots that visually transforms the surface into a language that might suggest the arbitration of a code. By the end of 1961, Van Gravenitz had progressed to another level of investigation in his work kinetic surfaces began more hard-edge and less about the stillness of the surface. At first (1962), he began working with analog mechanics in which metal bars would move indeterminately around the surface of a twenty-four inch square. Six years later (1968), the format became a tondo (circle) instead of a square in which three white circles would move on a black surface. This eventually led back to a larger square format in 1973 in which two black vertical rectangles slide back and forth, resembling a kinetic John McLaughlin painting.
Francois Morellet's way of making sculpture in the early 1960s, similar but more complex versions of the cubic forms made by the American artist Sol LeWitt a few years later. His involvement with systems was concomitant in its intensity as shown in his linear silkscreen “trames” on wood (1969) in which a shifting grid structure would be developed through the lamination of four or five serial arrangements. These were generally done in opposing colors, such as red and blue. Later (1971 – 73), Morellet began using multiple seriations of actual wire mesh and flashing neon rods in a cruciform arrangements within a square, thus suggesting the essence of a grid. Spirals were also of interest to Morellet during this period in that they implied determinacy and indeterminacy, infinity and finite structures.
In either case, the segues that go from the work of Morellet to that of Van Graevenitz, or from Van Graeventitz to Morellet, are sometime playful yet also predisposed to serious contemplation. Their independent ideas and autonomous realizations opened new possibilities as to how we perceive our sense of reality. While they may have started to develop their orientations as artists through the geometry of concrete form, neither artist turned inward to formalism. Rather they consistently moved outward and thereby signified the nature of time and space, light and darkness, status and kinesis –all the conditions that govern the physical world to which we are all connected.
Robert C. Morgan is an internationally renowned art critic, curator, artist, writer, art historian, poet, and lecturer. He holds an MFA in Sculpture from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1975), and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history from the School of Education, New York University (1978). Dr. Morgan lives in New York, where he lectures at the School of Visual Arts and is Adjunct Professor in the graduate fine arts department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He is Professor Emeritus in Art History from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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