Modern grids: sensual and poetic

Modern grids: sensual and poetic
Adrien Couvrat, "Partition", acrylique sur toile, 21 toiles 60 x 80 cm, ensemble 246 x 438 cm, 2019.
Must see  -   Exhibitions

From July 4 to August 31, the Maubert Gallery is hosting a group exhibition of artists which all revolve around an iconic design of modernity: the grid. By bringing together pieces from three artists of various styles, Grilled! demonstrates the use of this form today and shows that it is driven by an ambition very different from the one from which it emerged.

In his book, L’Abstraction avec ou sans raisons art historian, Éric de Chassey recounts the grid shape’s evolution in art. After having existed primarily as an organizational tool in perspectivist paintings, the grid would later evolve into an artistic object during the European cubist movement which began to develop in the 1910s and 1920s. While it tended to become a pattern by blending with the surface when it was used to divide spaces realistically, the grid used to reconstruct shapes in an anti-naturalist intent was used as a framework that stood for political, egalitarian and rational utopias.

However, the cubist grid was never used alone and it was only after the World War II with the abstract movement that the grid became distinct from other elements of a painting. Used as a principle subject in art following the horrors perpetuated during the war, it is interpreted as an indication of the canvas’ flat surface and is associated, on both sides of the Atlantic, with a refusal to comment on the present. Yet, the grid of this era did not refer only to the painting’s tangibility but was also meaningful because, as the author indicates, it had three different components. There exists a humanist side that softens it and de-organizes it like in Jackson Pollock’s work, a rationalist side that, conversely, radicalizes and standardizes it through division, multiplication or addition like those introduced by Carl Andre, and at last a spiritualist side, which by heightening perception, arouses a spiritual attitude in whoever looks at it as Agnes Martin’s pieces demonstrate.

Isabelle Ferreira, “Unité”, acrylique sur briques plâtrières, dimensions variables, 2006 – 2019.


Although these uses of the grid faded as abstract expressionism and minimalist were replaced by Pop Art, the form endured. For example, Andy Warhol used it to generate multiple images of by-products of industrialization. Although invested with an ironic quality, the grid from this era reconnected with its initial purpose: the concept of rational organization. Around the 1970s, and as the period of postmodernism began, this form which was symbolic of modernism was used to critique the illusions of modernity as a whole. It was then used as a method of repetition in an attempt to diminish the symbolic meaning with which it had been invested, then remade but turned around in a way that distorted the meaning it had up until that point. We then began to witness the grid’s first uses as a symbol of confinement and limitation.

Éric de Chassey notes that despite a long history that spans from utopia to disillusionment, the grid saw a resurgence in the 1980s when abstraction ceased trying to define itself as a hegemonic style in order to increasingly develop into  a method able to exist alongside other approaches. The three artists currently being shown at the Maubert Gallery fit within this perspective. Born in 1972, 1981 and 1983 respectively, Ferreira, Adrien Couvrat and Nicolas Muller create work that, while falling within the continuity of Art History, also bear the specific characteristics of our time.

Nicolas Muller, “White Cedar”, transfert et béton sur papier, 7.8 × 4.7 cm, 2016.


Accordingly, the Unity series produced by Isabelle Ferreira between 2006 and 2019 is made up of several assemblages of plastered bricks arranged on the ground.  The grid motif does not directly appear but the artist emphasized all the constitutive elements present in the material used. As well, the layout of bricks highlights their subdivisions and reveals the squares that form them when painting the surface draws attention to the lines that they display. The juxtaposition of bricks emphasizes the grid’s prominent modular aspect and their layering involves intersection which is also characteristic of this motif. This series demonstrates a use of the grid very far removed from the idealistic concepts, either political or spiritual, of its past. Far from being a utopian project behind which the artist must disappear, making themselves as anonymous as possible, these grids are an interplay of shapes and colours determined by the artist.

While these pieces demonstrate an opportunity to claim creator status by using the grid motif in the present day, those by Adrien Couvrat restore the spectator’s same desire to experience pleasure derived from pictorality.  While the artists who painted grids, driven by their desire for utopia, have long addressed themselves to a kind of Man, in the broadest terms, the collection of 21 paintings arranged in a grid by Adrien Couvrat is intended for a spectator viewed as a specific individual. The installation entitled Partition in fact requires the spectator’s participation in order to reveal its nuances; they must move from one end to the other to notice that if, when viewed from the front, the canvases form monochromes and their reflections in the mirror appear striated. The colour’s vibration and the optical movements are transmitted through physical experience.

Isabelle Ferreira, “Marbres”, cartes postales de Piet Mondrian grattées, 28,5 x 24 cm, 2010.


The grids created by these modern artists do not only involve painting but poetry too as demonstrated by Nicolas Muller’s installation called White Cedar (2016) which is presented in the form of 30 small papers arranged in a grid. On each one, the artist has transferred the image of a tree that he had partially covered in concrete at different levels depending on the paper used. Here, modernity, symbolized not just by the shape of the device but also by material common to all modern architecture, sits alongside nature. Which one will triumph in the end, man or tree? This feedback of the depiction which interacts with the grid allows it to fit within a narrative tradition. While the grid has often thought been thought of as a form of silence, Nicolas Muller reconnects it to the realm of speech and fiction.

The pieces being shown as part of Grilled!  are not merely humorous, as the title of the exhibition might suggest, they are also sensual and poetic. They demonstrate that, while this iconic motif of modernity has not completely disappeared, it has been renewed. Many years have passed since the 1980s and today’s artists use the grid without resentment. They even approach using it with a degree of tenderness like in Isabelle Ferreira’s series of Mondrian postcards that she had scratched in such a way that only white colours remained. Without any other primary colours and everything else in shades of white, Mondrian’s compositions appear smoother. They seem to prove that once they are relieved of all utopian inclinations, the grid can be a pure object of visual satisfaction.

This is an original Art Critique article by Orianne Castel, first published on July 23rd, which can be found here.