François Morellet And the Artistic Events In Zagreb In the Early 1960’s: New Tendencies, Gorgona
Published in: Dometi, 9, Rijeka, 1990.
Those were the early 1960’s, a short period of economic prosperity in Yugoslavia and, even more, a time of a great spiritual enthusiasm, when the Zagreb-based Gallery of Contemporary Art staged a series of exhibitions of the international art movement, New Tendencies. Owing to that initiative, the names of the Gallery and of the city were firmly inscribed on the map of European avant-garde movements of the time. Nowadays, those events feature large in the cultural history of the milieu. Those were initiatives which showed that there were a number of artists, critics and art professionals who lived at the heart of European developments; as intellectuals and professionals, they were ready to launch an action of international scope and significance. Predictably enough, they would not have been capable of doing so, if they had not, from the very beginning, been in close communication with a number of like-minded artists from several European countries and, later, several countries outside Europe, as well. The New Tendencies exhibitions in Zagreb were actually the result of a lucky constellation of the aspirations, will, knowledge and energy of many individuals from a variety of different backgrounds, as was only to be expected, given the genuinely international character of the initiative. One of those individuals, and one of the outstanding participants in the enterprise, was François Morellet. This account attempts to summarise some facts and, on the basis of these, to cast light on his role in the first exhibitions of the New Tendencies, as well as some other of his connections and contacts in Zagreb, in the period from 1961 to 1965.
How the series of what ended up as five New Tendencies exhibitions first came about to be came about can nowadays be deduced from a number of trustworthy sources. A brief account of the circumstances surrounding the launch of this initiate is given below and relies mainly on the reminiscences of Almir Mavignier, published in the catalogue for the fourth exhibition of Tendencies. Namely, Mavignier visited Zagreb in the summer of 1960 and met a number of artists and art historians associated with the Gallery of Contemporary Art. In discussion at the Venice Biennale soon afterwards, they jointly hit on the idea of organising an international exhibition, which would feature some mostly young, unknown artists who were working in ways that had been overlooked, or omitted from surveys of the latest artistic developments, including the current Biennale. In order to put the plan into practice, Mavignier undertook to put together a core list of participants, while the staff of the Gallery of Contemporary Art was to ensure the financial and organisational basis for the exhibition. However, we can see that the Gallery's role was not simply limited to providing technical support from a passage in a letter from Mavignier to Matko Meštrović, who was one of the core team of organisers. In this, he highlighted the degree of trust that was being placed in the artists who were to contribute to the first New Tendencies exhibition and the freedom they would enjoy, which, he pointed out, was directly attributable to the prevailing spiritual climate in Yugoslavia and, specifically, Zagreb. He pointed out that they were being offered a chance that would never have been available to them in the majority of West European countries, where the art scene was in the hands of a powerful market.
Mavignier’s list of proposed participants in the Zagreb show included the name of François Morellet, amongst others. According to the catalogue for the New Tendencies exhibition held at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in August-September 1961, this artist displayed three works there - Five Double Grids, 1960; Two Double Grids +4o5 – 4o5, 1960; and Three Double Grids 0 o 30o 60o, 1961 - plus two additional works, Variation for Structure I-II, 1961, which he executed in common with Mavignier. The very fact that Morellet collaborated with Mavignier tells us something about the close artistic ties between the two men, and this claim finds support in another fact: in April 1961, together with Marc Adrian, Morellet and Marc Adrian held an exhibition at Studio F, in Ulm, which was the city where Mavignier was living and working at the time. In June and July of the same year, there was also an exhibition of Contemporary Yugoslav Painting (Jugoslawische Maler) at Studio F, selected by Matko Meštrović and arranged, once more, through the efforts of Mavignier. Meštrović came to Germany at the time of the opening in Ulm and took the opportunity of becoming acquainted with the work of some of the artists who were included in the first New Tendencies exhibition in Zagreb, a couple of months later. Morellet came to Zagreb with Mavignier in early August 1961, for the opening of the exhibition, and that, of course, meant that he personally became acquainted with the local artists and the staff of the Gallery of Contemporary Art. In all likelihood, Josip Vaništa, the spiritual and managerial spearhead of the Gorgona, would have been one of those whom Morellet met, at the time. And it was on Vaništa's initiative that Morellet’s solo exhibition was put on in March 1962 at Studio G (Šira Salon at 13 Preradovićeva Street), where the members of Gorgona used to mount exhibitions from time to time, both of their own work and of artists for whom they felt a certain affinity. From then on, Morellet maintained very close professional and personal relations with Matko Meštrović, and their contacts were particularly frequent between October 1961 and February 1962, when Meštrović was in Paris and often met the members of GRAV (Groupe de Recherches d’Art Visuel), including Morellet. That was also the time when intensive preparations began for the second New Tendencies exhibition in autumn 1963, in an atmosphere of turmoil among the artists who aspired to take part in it. Five letters, written by Morellet to Matko Meštrović between January and December 1963, testify to the former’s immediate involvement in the tumult, which was caused by ideological issues, at least as much as administrative ones. An important aspect of Morellet’s ties with Zagreb was his above-mentioned solo exhibition at Studio G, in March 1962. As the very date of the event indicates, Morellet’s Zagreb show fell into the gap between the first two New Tendencies exhibitions. For the artists in the movement, this was a turbulent time, during which they moved from their initially diverse post-Informel positions, strongly influenced by the erratic attitudes of highly motivated individuals, such as Piero Manzoni and the members of Zero, towards a greater homogenization, in terms of language and ideology - i.e. in the direction of the Programmed and Kinetic Art that was to prevail in the second exhibition in Zagreb, in 1963. Hence, it is understandable that Morellet's reference points, for his exhibition in Zagreb, should have been both the Gorgona group, which had organised his exhibition at Studio G and the nascent New Tendencies movement, since these were the two groups of artists, who had enabled him to establish his links with the cultural scene in Zagreb. It is worth recalling at this point that, as the organisers of the first New Tendencies, exhibition in 1961, Meštrović and Radoslav Putar were also members of Gorgona - as was another participant, Julije Knifer. It is also worth emphasising that Morellet’s 1962 exhibition in Zagreb was not a mere courtesy shown to a foreign artist, still less an element in a cultural exchange agreement between institutions in different countries; on the contrary, it was an exhibition, by means of which its organisers sought to wanted to express their strong, indeed passionate, advocacy of a current notion of art that was especially dear to them - namely, the importance of reaching a new understanding of the personality and behaviour of the an artist in the existing social circumstances, at a specific moment in time. What the Zagreb organisers of Morellet’s exhibition saw in their guest’s show, output and artistic profile were powerful assets in their struggles at home; moreover, they saw in this undertaking some powerful arguments for the transformation of the very nature of art, and of its social function, in accordance with their own fundamental premises and independent aims.
The catalogue cum invitation card for this event, which took the form of a fold-out leaflet (itself, a sign of the modest funding that was available) contained a brief introduction, written by Matko Meštrović in Croatian and French, in addition to the basic details of the place and date of the opening (19.00 hours, on 19 March 1962). It is not possible to deduce from which works by Morellet were placed on display Ion Zagreb, on this occasion, Yet rather more can be deduced from Radoslav Putar's survey, written for the magazine, Čovjek i prostor (‘Man and Space’; No. 110, May 1962), where we learn that the exhibition consisted of ten exhibits belonging to the group of works sharing the overall title of 'Trames, Grillages' ('Screens, Grids'; in Croatian: Rasteri, potke). Morellet had been producing these ever since 1952, but his preoccupation with the subject had intensified, from 1958 on. Here is Putar’s description of this type of work:
'Morellet composes by way of putting two or more regular geometric nettings onto the white base. The lines of the nettings mutually make strictly defined angles and the sum of all the lines and the left-white spaces is an entangled grid which at first sight looks amorphous and blurred. But a better focused glance reveals in it a large number of singular regularities. The impressiveness of Morellet’s compositions does not rest on a static effect of the determined forms; contrarywise, the character of shape on his works reveals a living and dynamic relation between the image-surface and the viewer’s eye. In that relation, decisive role is played by the dimensions of the painted surface, the tempos of the rhythms in some elements of the composition, as well as the distance and movement of the viewer’s eye.'
Putar is here quite aware that what is inherent in this manner of solving the issue of form is, at the same time, a new approach to plasticity:
'These and such features of Morellet’s painting art, as well as the consequences of his formative principles are not single examples and they doubtlessly represent a new developmental stage in the contemporary non-figurative art which is, again, suffering significant and deep changes. Among the pioneers of the new stage, Morellet has already taken a special and outstanding position.'
And Meštrović, whose main contribution to the overall organisation of New Tendencies been mainly been concerned with the ideological and ethical dimensions of the event, emphasized in his introductory text, printed on the catalogue/invitation card for Morel let’s show that it represented
'a fundamentally new way of beholding which implies deep changes not only in the relations concerning the retina of our eye, but the changes which we are to realize sooner or later and which make such beholding possible tell that something is changing in ourselves, that is, it will of necessity have to change (…) I deeply believe that some new dimensions are being opened in the roots of our being, the condition and effect of which will be a universal correction of man’s measure, rectification of his pretensions and his powers. I can read that from this art.”
These claims of Meštrović truthfully reflect the expectant mood of the time, that some far-reaching, as yet scarcely detectable changes that had seduced the advocates of this artistic movement, held out the promise of renewal, not only of some of the particulars of everyday existence, but of the broader conditions of society, as a whole. Anyhow, François Morellet himself had written in the catalogue for the first Zagreb exhibition of the New Tendencies that
'we are witnessing the eve of a revolution in art which is going to be equally great as the one in science. Therefore, the rationality and the spirit of systematic research should substitute intuition and individualist expression.'
And it will help us to understand this mood of expectancy in greater detail, if we invoke the following statements written by Meštrović somewhat later (1965), when the initial atmosphere of crisis had begun to affect the protagonists of the movement:
'With Art Informel well on the wane, namely, the inceptive activity of the New Tendencies looked like something that reckoned with a "New World", coming out as its freshest voice and foretaste… At that moment, there could be no mention of anything near contamination with the ruling practice and the criteria of its protagonists, and even the issues of bare existence were not recognized. It was the moment of sheer ideation which then failed to see any obstacles on the somewhat more serene horizon of the international political situation which might rebut it roughly.'
This, then, was the prevailing atmosphere after the initial enthusiasm for staging the project in 1961 had given way to an aspiration to reconstitute New Tendencies, as an international movement. In an undated letter which must have been written in the first few months of 1963, to judge by a number of events that are mentioned there, Morellet informed Meštrović of his intention of co-authoring a text with François Molnar on 'the correspondences between the spirit of the New Tendencies and Marxism' (un texte sur les rapports de l’esprit de la Nouvelle Tendance avec Marxisme). There is no doubt that the essay in question is the one published as a separate volume, under the title Za progresivnu apstraktnu umjetnost (In Favour of a Progressive Abstract Art); the publisher was the Gallery of Contemporary Art [Zagreb], and the occasion was the second New Tendencies exhibition, held in August-September 1963. It was a kind of theoretical and ideological counterpart to the catalogue of the exhibition, with its introductory texts by Meštrović and Putar.
How did Morellet's and Molnar's co-authorship come about? How large were the two authors' respective contributions to the text of 'In Favour of a Progressive Abstract Art' which they both jointly signed? And who wrote what? In an unpublished memoir of 1970 about his own work, Morellet testified to the fact that he had become acquainted with the Vera and François Molnar in 1957, when he had found himself completely alone in Paris, in a milieu which had never shown much understanding for 'Concrete Art', and when the only members of his artistic family (Almir Mavignier, Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman) had left the city In 1954 and gone their separate ways. The Molnars, who were of Hungarian origin, had arrived in Paris in 1952 from Budapest, where they may have become acquainted with the Constructivist legacy of Lajos Kássak and László Moholy-Nagy. It quite possible that it was Morellet, who first introduced the Molnars to the circle of artists who met on a regular basis in a garage/studio in the Rue des Beautreilles, in the Marais and first took the name of Motus, in 1958. The group name, Centre de Recherche d’Art Visuel, followed immediately afterwards, at the beginning of 1960, but as soon as GRAV was founded, in July 1960, the couple departed, as a result of a principled, theoretical and ideological, disagreement However, Morellet continued to maintain close contacts with the Molnars after they had broken away from GRAV, and this enabled them to jointly to undertake the work on the text, In Favour of a Progressive Abstract Art, at the beginning of 1963, and to publish it in conjunctions with the second New Tendencies exhibition, in the autumn of the same year.
In Favour of a Progressive Abstract Art is a text which reveals an ambition to offer much more than the poetics of the New Tendencies movement, but it is obvious that it was grounded in the experience, views and interests of the movement’s membership, at the moment of its formation and initial expansion. The theoretical and philosophical background to the text is provided by Marxism and dialectical materialism, and Its indebtedness to this doctrine can be read into the very titles of a number of chapters in this essay, such as Form and Content, Abstract Art and Marxism, and Progressive and Non-Progressive Abstract Art/ For obvious reasons, it it is not possible to analyse the text in any detail here, but it is possible to see at a glance that this is a rather militant piece of writing, composed with the explicit aim of championing the kind of art in which the authors, Morellet and Molnar, expressed their unshakeable belief. Here and there, this is a pronouncedly doctrinaire text, and this is especially noticeable in the chapter which presents the distinctions between the 'progressive' and the reactionary' tendencies within the framework of Abstract Art. The text should be understood and, to some degree, justified as something of a weapon, to be deployed in the struggle between artistic ideologies at a particular moment of history, in the early 1960’s. The authors of the essay, who explicitly advocated the concept, and practice, of experimental art, ventured to elaborate a number of topics under the following headings: 'Exploration of a Visual Work as a Psychological Entity', 'Exploration of the Perception of a Visual Work', 'The Affective Elements of Perception', etc. [In Croat, the titles read: Proučavanje vizualnog djela kao psihičke cjeline, Proučavanje percepcije vizualnog djela, Afektivni elementi percepcije.] Judging by the contents, these were the areas to which Molnar felt the closet affinity, since he had also begun working at the Institut de l'Esthétique et des Sciences de l'Art, at the University of Paris, in the year (1963) in which the essay was produced.. It may seems an unwarranted effort, to try and identify the personal contributions of these two authors to the collaborative text in which they were both involved, but some familiarity with their personal qualities leads us to suggest that major portions of the text may be ascribed to Molnar, with his systematic and scientific approach, rather than to Morellet, who was, both then and later, inclined to a considerably more easygoing and, at times, even sceptical and ironical view of developments – in art and life, alike. As a way of testing this assumption, we may refer to the information about the anthology of Morellet’s writings edited by Bernard Blistène, in the catalogue of the artist’s 1986 retrospective at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, where only one short quotation from the text includes an explicit reference to the fact that it was co-authored with Molnar.
As one of the protagonists of the New Tendencies movement, who had, from the very beginning, maintained a close collaboration with Meštrović, Ivan Picelj and others who were close to Gallery of Contemporary Art, Morellet regularly responded to the invitations to participate in the Zagreb exhibitions. Thus, according to the information in catalogues, he participated in the second New Tendencies exhibition (1963), with the works Successive Lightings 16 and Sphere; in the third (1965), he showed his work Neon No. 3; the historical section of the fourth exhibition, in 1969, featured his Three Double Grids 0 o 30o 60o, from 1960-1961, that was owned by the Gallery of Contemporary Art; finally, at the last exhibition of the series, held in 1973, he took part with his new work, Two Rows of Different Bands, from the same year.
The New Tendencies movement was afflicted with turbulences, especially after 1965, when an internal crisis became ever more noticeable, when schisms took place, and when conflicts even arose between the like-minded artists of former times. Yet none of this did anything to shake Morellet’s loyalty to the earliest aspirations, in the name of which the movement’s exhibitions originally been launched in Zagreb. From 1965 onwards, and particularly after the New York exhibition, The Responsive Eye, it dawned on most of the participants in the first few New Tendencies shows that that they were bound not to achieve many of the goals they had set themselves in the early days, and that a major part of their aspirations had proved to be over-ambitious, or inadequately thought through. Yet none of this should have acted as a brake on the artists' personal activities or vocation. The cohesion within GRAV, to which Morellet had belonged from the beginning, was gradually decaying, for reasons both internal and external - one of them, connected with the award to Julio Le Parc of the Grand Prize for Painting, at the 1966 Venice Biennale. In the midst of the large-scale social and spiritual ‘quakes’ of the year 1968, the membership of GRAV finally split up, with the individual members going on to pursue their careers independently, to the limits of their abilities and ambitions. Morellet was one of those who were unharmed by the crisis and the dispersion of the New Tendencies movement; quite to the contrary, over the next two decades, he now felt impelled to invest an inordinate amount of energy into exploring a range of issues relating to three-dimensional work, and a number of problems he had already formulated In the period up to, and during, his involvement with New Tendencies. Once again, as the example of Morellet shows, this only goes to prove that that strong individualities only succeed in developing their full potential after the initial efforts of artistic groups and gatherings have begun to wind down. The last two decades of Morellet’s work and a series of major exhibitions, including his retrospectives at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin (1977), the Brooklyn Museum in New York (1984-5), and the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris (1986) – to name but a few examples - have elevated this artist to the rank of a major figure in the art of our time. All this activity has been supported and sustained by the analytical texts of authors, such as Serge Lemoine, Max Imdahl, Gottfried Boehm, Jan van der Marck, Antje van Graevenitz, Bernard Blistène, as testimony to the very high status that this artist enjoys in his field and in the path he has steadfastly pursued over all these years. And that provides yet another reason for the pleasure one feels, in pointing out that an artist of such great repute was for many years closely related – professionally and personally – to certain artistic circles in our milieu; and, moreover, that the relationships that were established in this way were the outcome of a number of local initiatives, which were based on a fruitful exchange and led, we believe, to from which we believe Morel let himself has benefited, and were based, we believe, on a series of fruitful exchanges.