PRINT March 1970

A Robert Morris Retrospective in Detroit

IN JANUARY THE DETROIT INSTITUTE of Art opened the second leg of an exhibition which began at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and which will end at the Whitney Museum. The Washington and Detroit shows have presented aspects of Robert Morris’s work during the past ten years; most probably the Whitney will touch on all periods of the sculptor’s development in a more complete way.

Undoubtedly, Morris is one of the most thoughtful and influential artists of this decade. By 1967 the poetic uniqueness of his works had produced something of a legend among younger artists (e.g., someone spotting the chalked remark on another Minimalist’s outdoor piece, “Bob Morris did it better”). One senses that, by last year, Morris could have fire-bombed the Met and a half dozen museums would have vied for the photographed results as a process show. That’s magnetism of a rare sort. But, moreover, no other artist to my knowledge has such a complete intellectual understanding of his own acts, a most useful but treacherous advantage.

The early works document Morris’s debt and hommage to Marcel Duchamp; as Annette Michelson says in her catalog essay, “ . . . Duchamp’s work constitutes a text, whose interpretive reading is Morris’s uniquely personal accomplishment.”1 There is a curious circularity of self-referential quality to all of Morris’s Duchampian constructions. Each work is a paradox which turns in on itself like a closed system, so that the viewer is always left outside looking in—not unlike the way Morris forces one to relate to his circular and square constructions. It is as if to say, “I won’t allow you near the center, the center is me.” This is most clearly evident in Morris’s little icon I-Box (1965), a form shaped like the letter “I” which opens to reveal a photograph of the nude artist. A work entitled Fountain (1963), is a simple galvanized pail hanging from a suspended hook; presumably a tape recorder produces the sounds of gurgling water in the pail. One’s eye level is far below the rim of the pail, so one can only mentally project oneself into the source of the noise. Similarly, Box With the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), is a closed plywood box with the tape-recorded noises of its birth. Most of the Duchampian constructions (the last two mentioned above being exceptions) are covered with sheet lead. This is true of Litanies (1963), a relief with keys and key ring, accompanied by a notarized document that “withdraws” all esthetic quality from said object. Perhaps a very anticipatory object, Untitled of 1963, is a series of five recesses in a wooden block which contain the ends of ropes tied in a Gordian ball; here a later Juddian theme and anti-form are combined. Interestingly enough, this is used on the poster for the exhibition. Unfortunately, Morris’s pre-1960, Pollock-influenced paintings were not available for the exhibition. These would have made an excellent foil for their successors.

The catalog credits the artist with being an “iconoclast” and “subversive” in the Duchampian tradition. I would say just the opposite: Morris is most effective as an artist when he is least Duchampian. Perhaps perversely, I have always felt that more than one Duchamp would not only be impossible, but merely academic. Kierkegaard rightly insisted that as far as esthetic pleasures are concerned, there is virtually no possibility of repetition.

This is further confirmed by my recollection of a question put to Duchamp ten years ago (one for which he probably gave every interviewer a different answer). I asked him why he made his first Readymade. To free himself from habit, he answered, to determine that art is a matter of free will. How did he mean that? Duchamp explained that in 1911 he had sought a meeting with Renoir, then quite old and famous. Renoir invited the young artist for breakfast. Duchamp arrived early, finding Renoir in his studio drawing a life model. Duchamp was thunderstruck; it came to him that he was witnessing his own life forty years hence. My God, he thought, Renoir needs that nude before breakfast the way most men need a cup of coffee before work. Duchamp said that he had envisioned himself as a monkey on a chain, with a paint brush instead of a begging cup. Was it possible, he wondered, for an artist to commit an esthetic act that was more than the result of habit and tradition?

While reviewing photographic proofs of the Detroit installation, I became aware of a young woman who appeared repeatedly in them. I asked Samuel Wagstaff, curator for the Morris show, if she could be identified. He replied that the woman was a graduate student at Columbia doing a doctoral dissertation on Morris. How droll, I thought, that ten years of subversion should be rewarded by such flattery from academia.

Thus it seems to me that the avant-garde could be defined by one of Kafka’s more quoted aphorisms: “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes part of the ceremony.”2 Nevertheless Morris’s early objects are a concerted effort to break loose from the compelling influence of 1950s American painting. What is apparent, as I shall attempt to show later, is that Morris’s Duchampian posture has become internalized, now affecting strategies rather than forms. For instance, Card File (1963) quite obviously leans on Duchamp’s notes for the Green Box. It is a metal file with typed entries of Morris’s activities as he was filling categories. Yet he is justified in claiming this as an antecedent to Process Art and Conceptual Art, which he has done.

Most revelatory in the show is a series of five reconstructed Object sculptures, originally built in 1961 and 1962. Four of these are plywood forms in off-white: Column (1961), Untitled (1962) (Morris’s “square doughnut”), Slab (1962), and a portal not mentioned in the catalog. Pine Portal (1961) in unpainted pine lumber is also present. For works of such importance to the Minimalist movement there should have been more documentation than the few lines allotted by Miss Michelson. She noted that “The first two pieces known to me are a Column . . . and the Box With The Sound of Its Own Making . . . exhibited in 1963.”3 She adds that the Column was designed for a performance at the Living Theater, “. . . intended to be placed vertically for 3 1/2 minutes, horizontally for 3.”4 It would be interesting to know why the other pieces were made and in what context. Certainly an exhibition as important as this deserves a catalog providing an in-depth study of all the artist’s work. Miss Michelson’s long essay constitutes the only description of Morris’s output and thinking. As a piece of elucidative writing it may do justice to the theoretical foundations of Morris’s art, but it is intolerably dense, tough reading. Actually the essay devotes little attention to Morris’s writings, his unique approach to craft, his forays into Earth art, Ecological art, Process art, and Conceptual art, and, as mentioned, to the genesis of individual works. The fact that some early works were destroyed, and that conflicting dates exist for works such as Slab, would lead one to expect special efforts in pinning down their origins.

From conversations with Morris I suspect that he is the most articulate exponent of his own work (I have never heard an artist with as many good anecdotes about the trials of getting his sculpture made). Would it not have been reasonable to have a competent interviewer and editor get this information from him, perhaps even doing a little cross-checking and scholarship?

In spite of much supplementary analysis of the influences of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Charles Sanders Peirce, by Miss Michelson, Morris spells out the meaning of his objects very simply: “The specific art object of the ’60s is not so much a metaphor for the figure as it is an existence parallel to it. It shares the perceptual response we have towards figures.”5 Loosely interpreted, the gist of his argument is that Minimal art deprived sculpture of every anthropomorphic remnant, except for filling space of approximate body size. Such art precipitates a series of negations which ask how sculpture can be reduced to its most essential denominator without rejecting the notion of sculpture. In other words, how can sculpture define itself most rigorously as a tautology? Documented, Morris’s early theater pieces, and the props used, would have given some valuable insights into the evolution of these ideas.

Surely Morris’s Green Gallery exhibition in 1964 will remain a watershed for sculpture. Rarely have so many principles of an art been attacked with such poetic consistency. Cloud (1962) and Corner Piece (1964) and his 22-foot-long horizontal post with the beveled edge (which strangely is in neither retrospective) redefined the standards by which our bodies measure the effect of sculptural presence. Psychical implications of works such as Corner have been captured by the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard in his Poetics of Space:

And all who live in corners will come to confer life upon this image, multiplying the shades of being that characterize the corner dweller. For to great dreamers of corners and holes nothing is ever empty, the dialectics of full and empty only correspond to two geometrical non-realities. The function of inhabiting constitutes the link between full and empty. A living creature fills an empty refuge, images inhabit, and all corners are haunted, if not inhabited.6

Looking at photographs one can readily understand Morris’s point that room size is an all-important function of the relationship between a viewer’s body and the sculpture filling the room. Sculptures in the Green Gallery amply defined the room’s plenum, and at the same time remained separate pieces. Morris tells a story about Corner in that 1964 show. Each day he would pull the piece six inches out from the wall, and sometime during the day Dick Bellamy would push it back into the corner. Thus the sculptor asserts his limited authority over architecture.

Morris’s hollow-centered circular, oval, and square pieces were begun in 1965 and for me remain archetypes of the artist as a personality. They imply that open and closed, full and empty mean the same thing. In a gallery I have never witnessed a person step inside one of these works, an invasion of being of which few persons would be capable, literally defiling sculpture by usurping its space. The idea of modular units assembled into a circular form probably began with Untitled (1965), a fiberglass circle split in half with internally illuminated cuts. It is one of the very few instances when a sculptor has successfully combined emitted light with a massive form. Morris made some of the early modular fiberglass pieces, insisting that it was exceedingly hard to find a professional plastics fabricator who would finish things to suit him. He claimed one spent as much time watching workmen as doing the work oneself. Morris also observed that once an idea has been defined, the artist should leave all formal problems of fabrication to workmen. This seems a fine arrangement because in the process many minor esthetic problems are resolved, simply by allowing professionals to use craft procedures. But there was usually a point, Morris insisted, when workmen began to make esthetic suggestions. He knew then it was time to shift fabricators.

Many of Morris’s observations on technique in his “Notes on Sculpture” are simply ways of saying that there cannot be two craft procedures—one for sculptors and another for modern technology—but that we are already conditioned to the logical infrastructure of technological appearances whether we like it or not. And like his mentor, Duchamp, Morris harbors a profound distrust of technology and its purposes—real or imagined. Consequently Morris tends to pull away from all forms of overt or complicated technology, except for the off-the-shelf variety.

His modular expanded wire-mesh pieces are probably classics for this decade; they exude an authority that no other artist has brought to that particular material. In the large, modular valley-shaped piece, included in the 1968–1969 Whitney Annual Sculpture Exhibition, I think Morris achieved one of his finest works to date. Situated in the first exhibition space of the Detroit show is a labyrinthine series of ten 5-foot-high units in heavy-duty aluminum grating, Morris’s most successful walk-through modular series. It possesses a scale and substantiality that involve the eye and body in a way not unsimilar to some of the earlier plywood and fiberglass pieces

The main hall of the exhibition contains two major pieces, both structured on the hollow-center principle. Untitled (1968) consists of a square formed with 15-foot aluminum I-beams, propped on one side by two 4-foot I-beams. Untitled (1968–1969) is square and almost as large, a giant playpen constructed from structural aluminum plate. These works, as with some of the other recent pieces in aluminum, are bolted together for easy disassembly and transportation. The artist was confronted with the task of filling an exhibition space ten times the size of the Green Gallery, or Castelli’s, with major works. I think Don Judd could have done this and done it well. But Morris’s work is predicated upon a considerably different premise, that of an anthropomorphic size-scale relationship between the viewer, room and object. Somehow, presence for his work means body-size, proximity and impingement. These large works are just that: large. The hollow-center falls out of Morris’s aluminum plate playpen; it possesses little of the tension of an invisible center, rather it is like looking into an empty wading pool. Outside on the lawn of the Detroit Institute Morris has placed another I-beam work; this is a kind of saw-toothed truss in four sections. It is big. Last year Morris mentioned some of the problems connected with storing, paying for, and selling some of these goliaths. “What do you do if they don’t sell,” I asked. “Make them larger,” he replied.

Originally the “elephant grey” of Morris’s primary forms was considered a means of playing down “non-sculptural” attributes, or forcing viewers to deal with the presence of objects rather than surfaces. Though some of the felt pieces are rich in color, the overall consistency of Morris’s output (including the early and late lead pieces and those in aluminum) is that of varying shades and consistencies of grey. The problem of personality through color is intriguing and led me to submit Morris’s work to the Lüscher color test. I selected only part of the series of color cards and these were inconclusive, since they were not Morris’s choices but simply color preferences found in his work. However, for a person who most frequently picks grey the analysis is remarkably revealing:

Whoever chooses grey in the first position wants to wall everything off, to remain uncommitted and uninvolved so that he can shield himself from any outside influence or stimulus. He is unwilling to take part and insulates himself from direct participation by dealing with what he must mechanically and artificially. Even when apparently participating in the full, the person who selects grey first is really only participating by remote control, as it were—he stands aside and watches himself go through the motions, but he does not really allow himself to become involved.7

Much of this seems consistent with what Annette Michelson implies, where the “irony” and “indifference” of Duchampian decision-making are considered virtues. And it confirms something that I have felt for some time: that Morris’s sculpture is essentially criticism about sculpture.

When Morris’s first felt pieces were shown in-May of 1968, he seemed reasonably sure that these were “anti-form” manifestations, a view about which he has had second thoughts. I suggested that “anti-form” was simply one variety of form, analogous perhaps to thinking that pure randomness is the result of chaos. Any first year statistics student understands that most randomly generated series of numbers are mathematically biased, thus structured, and that only the utmost skill and precision will produce something approaching pure randomness—again another type of structure. In a similar sense I can remember Morris remarking that one series of hanging felt strips did not look very “random”; this he felt was because they were all hanging from pegs arranged at the same height from the ground.

The Detroit show contains a number of felt pieces, some very structured and some not. It is easy to understand why these works are especially popular with museums and collectors. The colors and consistencies of the felt and thread-waste pieces are incredibly sensuous. In an era of mechanically organized field painting, Morris has managed to evoke a passing memory for Kokoschka, Soutine, and Pollock, a sense of painterliness that none of the other anti-form artists has matched. The unexpected powder-blue thread-waste room which Morris showed at Castelli’s in 1969 is a case in point. Most anti-form artists maintain an almost brutal disregard for the surface niceties of materials—while essential properties are considered important. I can remember one anti-formalist walking around the thread-waste room muttering, “My God, it’s an Olitski fallen off the wall!”

The most striking felt construction hangs in the main exhibition hall in Detroit, a kind of shaped painting or banner, cut in ribbons through the center. The thread-waste room misses because it is small and one is not allowed to plow through it. For an iconoclast, Morris has never hesitated to leave ample art historical clues in the structuring of his work. The thread-waste environments also include mirrors, asphalt, aluminum, brass, zinc, felt, copper and steel, but within this knee-deep conglomeration there are substantive allusions to Johns and Pollock and to the possibilities of making figure become ground and ground become reality, providing reality takes the form of a gallery floor.

Speaking of environments, the Detroit show provides one surprise. This is a passageway, much favored by Samuel Wagstaff, which the artist built for a downtown mixed-media evening in 1961. One enters a door simply marked “Walk In.” The space inside is a curved, grey corridor, periodically lighted from above; it is not unlike the spiral passageway above the rotunda in St. Peter’s. Suddenly one realizes that the walls of this space are moving together, and soon one’s forward motion is blocked altogether. This corridor is the kinesthetic equivalent of paranoia.

Another extemporaneous work not listed in the catalog consists of some sections of reinforced concrete piers and timber. Possibly as a playful reference to one of Henry Moore’s three-piece reclining figures, these were set up on the lawn outside the Detroit Institute. As allusion to Moore or Pavia the arrangement is quite creditable, in fact possessing more robustness than the usual works of these artists. Morris spotted the concrete elements in a field while he was traveling from the Detroit airport to the museum. The process of choosing and arranging this work corresponds to a striking degree with an essay, “The Science of the Concrete,” by Levi-Strauss. From conversations, I remember that Morris was markedly impressed by this essay. In it Levi-Strauss differentiates between the scientific method of deductive design and that more primitive but also scientific technique of the bricoleur; this is an old French term that refers to someone who uses apparently random or devious methods—as compared to a craftsman or scientist—to achieve his goals, which are usually formulated in the process of employing the methods. The bricoleur may attack any number of tasks, but the essence of his life-style is that he uses what is at hand. In my discussions with Morris, he has ridiculed the kind of engineering know-how that we associate with an evolving technological culture and Tekart; in its place he identifies with the bricoleur, or someone who is naturally inclined to solve problems by living within the natural constraints of his culture: the artist. Morris’s present concern with materials is well elucidated by a passage from this same essay:

Further, the “bricoleur” also, and indeed principally, derives his poetry from the fact that he does not confine himself to accomplishment and execution: he “speaks” not only with things, as we have already seen, but also through the medium of things: giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes between limited qualities.8

In effect, one ramification of Morris’s esthetics is the constant choice of materials and a context for them; this is a kind of listing structure whereby he may exhaust a category of art by producing all materials as art. Here the art model is materials (for Levi-Strauss this would represent a fusion between the Western ideal of the plastic arts and that of the more primitive notion of bricolage). Of course there is at times a deception practiced by Morris; he may choose to do virtually nothing to his materials or he may arrange them into quasi-sculpture, providing a consumer’s link between old and new work. What is important for the bricoleur is continuity within the mythic structure of the plastic arts, in fact adding structure by doing something rather than discovering something which will undermine mythic viability.

Morris’s earth projects began in 1967 with the production of a model in opaque green plexiglass. This represents a slightly rising, circular mound sodded with grass. The idea most likely stems from Morris’s 1967 summer visit to Aspen, Colorado. At the Aspen Meadows a somewhat similar form was designed by Herbert Bayer in 1955. A year later Morris drew plans for five connected 200-foot-long serpentine mounds for the lake-fill extension at Northwestern University at Evanston, Illinois. This was to be a perceptual experience which could not be assimilated without considerable walking over the terrain.

Morris has recently designed a series of ten hand-printed, multi-colored lithographs entitled “Earth Projects.” These are titled in terms of phenomena: Mounds & Trenches, Dust, Burning Petroleum, Piles & Pits, Temperatures, Steam, Vibrations, Waterfall, Hedges & Gravel, and Wall and Ditch. Some of these are earth, stone, and plant variations of the artist’s indoor works; others, the more ephemeral phenomena, are generated by underground, power-fed apparatus. Each in effect is a buried support system for a large-scale “natural” happening.

At this point it is not unfair to ask, how does the complete oeuvre of Robert Morris hold together, what principles, if any, bind it? A clue may lie in the title of Annette Michelson’s catalog essay: “Robert Morris—An Esthetics of Transgression.” Her opening paragraph hints at the underlying philosophical complexities to such an investigation:

Robert Morris has moved, in a decade, from the making of objects to modification of temperature and terrain, passing, through a series of parallel strategies, from the scenic space of theatre into that of landscape as Theatre of Operations. The central interest and importance of these movements—in several senses and at most points transgressive—is assured by the manner in which their departures, shifts of emphasis and direction, extensions and contractions of scale, have sharpened and revised the categories of sculptural process, thereby re-defining and extending the arena of esthetic discourse. Developing, sustaining a focus upon the irreducibly concrete qualities of sensory experience, they renew the terms in which we understand and reflect upon the modalities of making and perceiving.9

Clearly Morris’s work lacks the kind of esthetic unity normally associated with a major retrospective. Individual works and types of work are incredibly fine, but on the whole it is impossible to define any concrete focus or direction in ordinary terms. The fact that Morris can write a “Beyond Objects” essay and subsequently produce the largest objects of his career is one example of his refusal to be morphologically sequential, or even comprehendible. One of the best works at the exhibition at the Corcoran, I am told, was an outdoor steam environment. This, as with a number of the artist’s earth works, stems from a tradition which is completely alien—in fact antithetical—to the bulk of his hard and soft sculptures, and yet these are produced interchangeably. Many of these works have had their antecedents in the European origins of kinetic art. Some outdoor works which are fashionable now were instigated during the mid-1960s by kinetic organizers such as Willoughby Sharp. This makes Morris’s efforts neither better nor worse as art; what it does is force us to bracket all of the mentioned tendencies into a new sub-set: namely, perceptual explorations. When Miss Michelson explains that Morris sustains focus “upon the irreducibly concrete qualities of sensory experience . . .”, I am hard pressed to think of any art that does not. Sensory experience is sensory experience, whether it involves remembered intellectual categories or reflects bodily kinesthesis. All experience is the result of incoming stimuli processed through the nervous system. Furthermore Morris has produced examples of Conceptual art and Neo-Dada art which do not deal primarily with somatic experiences, if this represents the irreducibly concrete.

Nietzsche said that he “who finds language interesting in itself has a mind different from him who only regards it as a medium of thought.” Obviously Morris’s overriding concern is the category of art per se, and only secondarily particular art forms or inventions. He realizes that forms are extremely transitory and shift as soon as new modes of perceptual recognition modify artistic activity. “Once a perceptual change is made, one does not look at it but uses it to see the world. It is only visible at the point of recognition of change.”10 So that Morris’s parallel forays into the past (his own and other artists’) are really didactic gestures for reconstituting worn-out perceptual modes. Hence intelligent discussion of Morris’s art diverts one from understanding Morris’s manipulation of the art category.

A cursory review of this decade will indicate that its anti-formalist tendencies have been more or less a recapitulation of Duchamp’s post-Cubist experiments. Duchamp long noted that art had become anachronistic. However, Morris agrees with Morse Peckham that art, more than ever before, is an “empty category,” that is, a category of human social activity that is constantly being filled with new materials and activities—as long as they relate to contemporary social transitions and function as an anticipatory adaptive mechanism. Duchamp, of course, would and did consider art to be a “closed category,” one that by the very fact that it was reasonably understood as a psychical activity had lost its validity as a social act for dealing with reality.

During the past sixty Years or so we have witnessed a constant flux of strategies for treating art as an empty category. In the catalog essay Miss Michelson makes a limited comparison between Tatlin and Morris. While intentions to use new materials and to consider engineering techniques are common to both, Morris would never consider adopting a utilitarian-functionalist position—Tatlin would and did. The Constructivist movement was one of the first to accept advanced aspects of Western civilization as a storage bin for filling the “empty category” of art. Others have followed. From the use of neon signs and steel fabrication techniques in the creation of tradition-backed, formalist art forms, we have observed in the past few years an entire array of media used in the art context. Live horses, news teletype machines, multi-ton lead ingots, farm fields, and piles of dirt are a few of the means that have deluged art as a “closed” but viable category. Morse Peckham refers to “natural signs” (clouds, earth, rocks, etc.) and “artificial signs” (paintings, sculptures, refrigeration units, balloons, books, gas jets, etc.) as the two types of sign systems, both of which are used to refurbish the art context. It seems evident that Morris is one of several artists who understands that there is an inevitable interchangeability between natural and artificial signs once it is understood that both are equally valid means of serving as art. Thus, art becomes a kind of pointing mechanism, a means of continually redirecting attention. According to Morris the plenum of the world is so large that an inexhaustible number of articles, incidents, systems, and conditions exist to constantly replenish the art context. I think not, and for a reason put forth by Levi-Strauss: once we have perceived the structure of a social activity we have already modified it in as much as it pertains to ourselves. So it seems that an artist who is really rigorous about his undertaking cannot help but modify human consciousness and hence reality itself. The notion of the artist as a bricoleur is atavistic in this society—and certainly this produces one of the more interesting paradoxes in Morris’s strategy. Levi-Strauss made his own position clear in this fashion:

And I count as an esthete since Sartre applies this term to anyone purporting to study men as if they were ants. But apart from the fact that this seems to me just the attitude of any scientist who is agnostic, there is nothing very compromising about it, for ants with their artificial tunnels, their social life and their chemical messages, already present a sufficiently tough resistance to the enterprises of analytical reason . . . So that I accept the characterization of esthete in so far as I believe the ultimate goal of the human sciences to be not to constitute, but to dissolve man . . ."11 [By defining the structural relationships of human society.]

But in a sense Morris is quite aware that the roles of the bricoleur and the scientist are already being reversed in esthetic activity: “I would re-phrase Levi-Strauss somewhat. I think that for the most part art has in the past created structure out of events but now is using structure much more consciously to build events. In this sense it draws closer to science as a mode. So far, Duchamp has been the only artist to put structure ahead of event in a tough way.”12 Substantially Morris is saying that art history and esthetics are the constructs of an unconscious or semiconscious art tradition, but that art has now reached a stage of such acute self-consciousness that it can define its own mechanisms and procedures, or, as Levi-Strauss has said: “We have already distinguished the scientist and the ‘bricoleur’ by the inverse functions which they assign to events and structures as ends and means, the scientist creating events (changing the world) by means of structures and the ‘bricoleur’ creating structures by means of events.”13

Earlier I mentioned that Morris has turned to, or transcended, Duchampian strategies rather than revert to Duchampian forms. Quite obviously no one can choose another urinal. Such an act carries not an iota of esthetic recognition (i.e. reevaluation of the art situation). But there are other choices that can be made. One is the act of “bracketing” all art sub-sets so that art is demonstrably seen to be a closed and exhausted category. When it is demonstrated that the art structure merely demands that artists invent a new sub-set or sub-sub-set (i.e. environmental systems, fabricated objects, piles of materials, paintings, sculptures, file cards, motion pictures, or any other entity) then once and for all the art category is closed. Perception of art’s structure, as Levi-Strauss implies, dissipates art’s societal function. Once the limits of a category are understood, or bracketed, then all further activity is residual, merely existing for collectors and museum directors. Only by redefining art away from its present focusing, tautological condition can the art category be made empty again.

Morris’s genius is that he intuitively understands this situation but refuses to acknowledge it openly. So his retrospective is in effect an anthology of all the serious three-dimensional art created during the past decade—the problem remained that of how to transcend style and the linear morphologies that define style. Annette Michelson’s term—“An Esthetics of Transgression”—really does not do credit to the audacity of Morris’s thinking. After every formal rule of art has been shattered, rendered meaningless, the only axiom left is Duchamp’s “This is art because I choose it to be art.” With hundreds of professionally competent artists making choices, two alternative meta-strategies remain: the first is either to choose nothing—which limits the possibilities of a retrospective—or to choose other artists’ choices.

It is obvious that Morris’s art is his curatorial sensitivity. By “bracketing” art’s sub-sets during the 1960s he has angered a number of his contemporaries—but this is the price one pays when dealing with a superstrategist. As I have insisted in Beyond Modern Sculpture, invention and recognition as an inventor are the only real criteria for approval within the formalist art tradition. The cohesion of the art system as a societal sub-group depends upon such recognition: little artists have little ideas, big artists have big ideas, and so on. Just as Duchamp undermined the stability of the art world more than fifty years ago with the selection of a urinal, Morris has accomplished it by selecting . . . what obviously appears to be high-level avant-garde art. In effect, the “found object” has been exchanged for the “found art movement.” It will be some time before all the implications of such esthetic decision-making are clear to us.

Jack Burnham



1. Michelson, Annette (with essay by) (November, 1969) Robert Morris, retrospective catalogue (Washington: Corcoran Gallery of Art and Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts) page 50.

2. Kafka, Franz (1926) Dearest Father: Stories and Other Writings (New York: Schocken Books, 1954) p. 36.

3. Michelson, Annette op. cit., p. 49.

4. Ibid.

5. Morris, Robert (April, 1969) “Notes on Sculpture, Part IV: Beyond Objects” Artforum p. 51.

6. Bachelard, Gaston (1958) The Poetics of Space (translated from the French by Maria Jolas) (New York: The Orion Press, 1964), p. 140.

7. Lüscher, Max (1948) The Lüscher Color Test (Translated from the German and edited by Ian Scott) (New York: Random House, 19691 p. 52.

8. Levi-Strauss, Claude (1962) “The Science of the Concrete” in The Savage Mind (translated from the French) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967) p. 21.

9. Michelson, Annette, op. cit., p. 7.

10. Morris, Robert, op. cit., p. 53.

11. Levi-Strauss, Claude (1962) “History and Dialectic” in The Savage Mind (translated from the French) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967) pp. 246–247.

12. From a letter to the author by Robert Morris, March 31, 1969.

13. Levi-Strauss, Claude (1962) “The Science of the Concrete” in Savage Mind (translated from the French) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967) p. 22.