passages

Robert Morris (1931–2018)

Exhibition poster for “Robert Morris,” Tate Gallery, 1971.

HIS CONSTRUCTION of the sculptural platform for Simone Forti’s Slant Board; his naked embrace with Yvonne Rainer as they balanced on two tracks; his thwarted performance inside Column that led to a head injury; his process-based exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1970 and its abrupt closure as a gesture of solidarity with the New York Art Strike Against Racism, War, and Repression. His smug smile as he displays his penis in I-Body; his overwrought neo-expressionist series about nuclear war; his poster camping it up in a queer/Nazi pose; his active dismantling of wooden sheets to reveal a motionless Carolee Schneemann in Site. Again and again, I return to these among so many indelible moments—of collaboration, of embodiment, of risk, of contradiction, of (at times infuriatingly gendered) making. I have been fighting in my head with Robert Morris for decades. Which is to say: I have been learning from Robert Morris for decades.

Morris—who was at the crux of my arguments about the fault lines and incommensurabilities around artistic labor in the US in the late 1960s and early ’70s—has also been at the crux of my education as a student and continues to be a persistent presence in my pedagogy as a teacher. The day after his death was announced, Huey Copeland graciously sent a group email to me, Elise Archias, Eve Meltzer, J. Myers-Szupinska, and Anne Wagner, recalling a formative graduate seminar on sculpture taught by Anne in the late 1990s in which Morris’s Minimal works and essays figured centrally.

“There was a time when the sun rose and set in those two unforgettable photographs,” Anne exclaimed, attaching JPEGs of his Green Gallery installation from 1964. How true! Together we parsed every shadow cast by the plywood structures depicted in those grainy black-and-white images. Now, I use Untitled (Mirrored Cubes) as an example of Minimalism’s staging of spectatorship so often in undergraduate lectures that I should have a keyboard shortcut when I insert that particular slide into my PowerPoints. In fact, Morris makes an appearance in my classes that touch on topics as wide-ranging as textiles (his dynamically slumping felts) and apocalypse (those portentous nuclear paintings, which I have been telling myself for years to write about in order to confront my ambivalence about them).

When I was researching my book Art Workers, Morris allowed me to spend days combing through his personal file cabinets brimming with correspondence, drawings, and other documents. But although I stayed at his house in Gardiner, New York, on several occasions, I have no distinct memories of him sharing warm anecdotes or dropping revealing tidbits about himself. He was polite but distant, and never exhibited the slightest interest in controlling my interpretations or contesting my assertions, though I knew he disagreed with some of them. And this, too, was a lesson—it is consonant with possibly the most significant one Morris offered, which is that viewers, with our specific eyes, our differently marked identities, our distinctly enfleshed bodies, will see ourselves reflected in his mirrors and can make of that encounter what we will.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is the Doris and Clarence Malo Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of California, Berkeley. She edited the October Files volume dedicated to Robert Morris (MIT Press, 2013).

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