Robert Morris

Judson at 50: Robert Morris

Left: Robert Morris in costume for War, January 30, 1963. Right: Robert Morris and Carolee Schneemann rehearsing Site in 1964. (Photo: Hans Namuth.)

Robert Morris lives and works in New York and is known for his significant contributions to Minimalism, Land art, and process and installation art. Not long after moving to the city in 1961, he began performing with the Judson Dance Theater, an informal group of artists and dancers working at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first concerts at the theater, and to commemorate the occasion, will present a series of interviews with key participants in the group.

THE JUDSON CHURCH was well known to those who lived downtown. There was a gallery downstairs, and performances, plays, concerts, and readings went on in the basement gym as well as in the church proper. All of these activities were supported and encouraged by Howard Moody, the pastor of the church. Jim Dine’s Car Crash was the earliest event I recall attending at the Judson Gallery.

In the early 1960s, Robert Huot lived and worked in a loft across Church Street from me. We had a friendship that had a certain edge; we argued a lot and insulted each other. Huot, who was physically quite powerful, once grabbed me as we were walking down the street and threw me on top of a car. I no longer remember what I said to provoke him to do this. One day we were discussing the dangers of peace and came up with the idea of having a combat. Each of us would make our own armor and weapons. It came about that we would enact our “war” in the basement gym of the Judson Church as one of the events of an evening of performances. I believe the other events were all billed as dances. So by default our performance of War was categorized as a dance.

I knew Mark di Suvero from having worked in a small studio below him near the old Fulton Fish Market before moving to my loft on Church Street, and I asked him to make me a steel gong. He cut a four-foot circle from a plate of steel with his cutting torch. The heat caused the circle to deform slightly into a concave/convex shape, which seemed perfect for a gong. I made a large wooden frame in which to hang the gong and asked La Monte Young to “play” this instrument for the combat-performance. We performed War on January 30, 1963, and it was my first involvement with the Judson.

We never rehearsed War. It started with La Monte just hitting the gong for fifteen minutes in pitch-dark in the gym. Then the lights went up with Huot at one end and myself at the other. We began running toward each other and we slammed into each other with our shields. We were each holding a pigeon. I had bought the birds, after first trying to trap some in Washington Square Park. When we hit we let them go and they flew into the audience. The piece consisted of us hitting each other with fake swords and maces until all was demolished. Then the lights went out. I gave the gong to La Monte. Six months later he called; he wanted me to listen to a recording he had made with it. He had wired it with contact microphones and played it with a bow.

Our weapons were made to break and our costumes were sturdy. Neither of us sustained injuries. My costume was made with mops for epaulets, and I had a large foam rubber muscle on my right arm tattooed with a red heart and an arrow through it. There were plywood greaves; two rubber bath mats were worn like a kind of skirt. A real fox fur and two beer cans dangled down in front between the bath mats. I had a plywood shield with a photo of Eisenhower on it and medals attached, one of which was the Iron Cross. I remember Huot’s armor was made with many license plates.

Before I moved to New York I had been living in San Francisco and was married to the dancer Simone Forti, who was working with Anna Halprin. I became involved with Simone in setting up a workshop in San Francisco to explore areas of performance and dance we both felt were ignored by Halprin. We met with a small group of dancers, painters, musicians, and poets on Sunday evenings where we experimented with sound, light, language, and movement in a workshop situation. This was my first involvement with dance-related explorations. When I moved to New York in 1961, these investigations were still fresh in my mind, so the open forum of the Judson appealed to me—although I don’t remember specifically how Huot and I got our collaboration War into that basement for a performance.

I stopped choreographing works when Yvonne Rainer, with whom I was living at the time, told me, “One dancer in the family is enough.” This was after Check, a work for fifty-plus performers, was first performed in Stockholm in the fall of 1964. It was the last work I choreographed. I can no longer recall particulars of time, place, or context, but the words themselves have stuck in my mind, as they precipitated my decision to stop working with dance.

I have many memories of working at the Judson Dance Theater, but to set them down, even to describe the works I performed there, would perhaps generate too long a text. So I will cite one example here. Carolee Schneemann suggested that we collaborate on a work and I agreed. We met twice in the basement of the Judson to improvise together to see if anything would come of it. I felt at somewhat of a loss at the first session and now can’t recall, or perhaps have repressed, what I did. I do remember distinctly what Carolee did. She took off her clothes and began to paint her body, and I found this distracting. The second time we met Carolee did the same thing. I stopped whatever it was I was doing (probably running around banging into walls) and announced to Carolee that it wasn’t working. I suggested that each of us should have a turn making something in which the other performed. I said I would go first and think of something that would include her. What I came up with was Site, a work in which Carolee did take off her clothes, got painted white, but did not move. She never made a work with a role for me as a performer. This may have been because she disapproved of my casting her as Manet’s Olympia in Site. Still, she did not refuse to perform in the work.