PRINT Summer 1970

Three Notes on an Exhibition as a Work


IT IS THE PARTICULAR DISTINCTION of Robert Morris to have proposed, through a series of exploratory enterprises, the terms of a sharpened definition of the nature of the sculptural experience. Cognitive, then, in their fullest effect, these enterprises demand time for comprehension. More than this, however, they elicit the acknowledgement of temporality as the condition or medium of cognition, as of esthetic experience. Time, then, has been inscribed variously, from the first and with increasing emphasis in Morris’s work, and I wish to suggest from the outset something that I have elsewhere argued at greater length1: this emphasis does not project the fetishization of either “process” or “immediacy” common to much of recent art; it rather testifies to an intellectual resolution and concern singular in their consistency.

The recent exhibition at the Whitney Museum2 included three pieces, permutational in character, composed of steel plates, each ten square feet and two inches thick. Height of pieces varied between four and five feet. Another, of two plates, formed an inclined plane, resting upon a column of polished stone. The weight of the steel in this piece was 12,000 pounds.

Another, the central configuration, presented a double track of wooden beams; across these lay concrete blocks (hollow, though of great weight), tipped and resting upon steel rollers; all this measured ninety-five feet by twelve feet by seven feet. One final piece composed of timber, stacked and toppled, measured in totality about fifty-four feet by sixteen feet by seven feet, and its individual, stacked components were twenty-six feet in length.

No consideration of this exhibition can do without some mention, some sense of these dimensions and of the demands made by scale and weight of materials upon the resources of the Museum’s space, its circulation potential.

Inscribed, as though in italics within these assemblages, signaled with a kind of urgency, was a technology of transport and assemblage. The last two pieces described (I shall refer to them respectively as I and VI) redirect, with a particular insistence, one’s attention back or away from the perception of forms fixed in space and toward the apprehension of something taking, or having taken, place. Pushing back admittance date to the first day of installation had provided the condition for complete legibility of the “inscription”: it has, as well, inhibited their subsequent perception as fixed forms, as objects. (Perhaps things were thus for the citizens of Haussmann’s Paris; they are not for those of Lindsay’s New York.)

One arrived, then, to find installation commencing and attended by observers not all that numerous, but very active. The photographer had been joined by the film-maker, and a tape recorder was at work. A highly developed technology of recording surrounded a technology of installation that was as simple as it was grand-scale. The most immediately striking aspect of the situation was, in fact, its sustained, concrete and public proposal of the basic course in mechanics. Inclined plane, wheel, lever, pulley and hook, maneuvered by Morris and the Lippincott crew, offered another “Continuous Performance Altered Daily.” For one was insistently referred to the three evenings of performance by dancers working with Yvonne Rainer which had immediately preceded this installation. Rehearsal had been offered as performance and projected, as well, on film. And this rehearsal-as-performance had incorporated, articulated the learning of movement, gesture, task, both within given sections of each evening and more generally, over the time span of all three.

Looking, however, from Lippincott’s gantry hoisting steel plate and concrete block into place and over towards the elevator shaft through which the 26-foot wooden beams were being successively lifted toward their third-floor exhibition space, one saw the hook’s amplification in the elevator cage, and one perceived the play of scale within the dynamics of installation itself. Task performance assumed through that kind of amplification of hook into elevator cage, and within this “functional” context, a dramatic quality which stood in paradoxical contrast to its explicit attenuation within the context of performance proper.


LET US SAY THAT it is the task of critical description to project, as in slow motion film, the perception of that which is not immediately, wholly or steadily apparent, to correct oversight. One might then suppose that optimum critical performance on this occasion might require a literalization of the metaphor. And there was a certain appropriateness in the proliferation of recording instruments on hand. The multiplicity and strenuousness of action, the series of pragmatic re-calculations and adjustments, at each moment end each stage, of means to ends, the hoisting, toppling, hammering, rolling of great weights and volumes produced a spectacle, framed, intensified by the low-ceilinged, rectangular space of the galleries, animated by the sounds of hammer upon steel and wood, of chains and pulleys and the cries of crewmen calling to one another—as in the Rainer performance—for redirection, re-enforcement, help. A really well-edited film is certainly in order.

The basic rolling, tilting, hoisting and toppling actions pointed, however, back to the early grand constructions that we know and to those on which we speculate—to those of Egypt or of Stonehenge, and a tape records, I hope, a crew worker’s flash of recognition: “My God, this is like 2000 B.C.!” Any detailed consideration of this exhibition would have to concern itself with the manner in which the “statement” of these pieces is a kind of question: “How?” It would have to consider, in discursive mode, the manner in which they elicit the impulse toward analysis of tasks and semantical relations.3 Central to that consideration, too, would be the manner in which an artist’s concern with temporality is nourished by the re-reading of history.


THE ANALYTIC IMPULSE IS ELICITED in one’s viewing of I and VI by their especially high degree of legibility. They invite decoding, as it were, more openly than the steel pieces, whose weight is less openly declared to the observer than that of concrete and timber. It is the weight and volumes of I and VI, their visible evidence of movement and dislodgment which point insistently back beyond their final placement. Toppling and final wedging point to an introduction and limitation of probability into structural plan or strategy in the manner described by Pierre Boulez in the early and celebrated article, Aléa:

On the level of structure formation I believe that one can first absorb chance by establishing a certain sort of automatic relationship between different networks of probabilities set up at the outset . . . I realize that this automatism should not be extended to the totality of the creative process, but it can be a part of such thinking, a particularly effective means for the construction of a work at a given moment. No other procedure can convey so well an impression of directionlessness, weightlessness, can project the sensation of an undifferentiated universe. Depending, however, upon whether or not this automatism is more or less predominant, one will obtain a chance solution qualified to a greater or lesser degree . . . If we wish to integrate chance and the notion of structure itself within a directed whole, we must use more subtle differentiations and introduce notions such as the deferred or undefined structure, the amorphous or directional, the convergent or divergent one. This development of chance within composition will unquestionably produce a totality of a more highly differentiated character, and it will renew and accelerate the development of formal perception.4

Annette Michelson


1. In Robert Morris, The Corcoran Gallery of Art. Garamond Pridemark Press, Baltimore, Md., 1969.

2. Although composed for and through this occasion, they are nevertheless anticipated by several pieces seen in the Corcoran exhibition of 1969.

3. As proposed by Christian Norberg-Schulz in Intentions In Architecture, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1965, and articulated by Gerald S. Hawkins in collaboration with John B. White in Stonehenge Decoded, Dell Publishing Co., New York, 1965.

4. Pierre Boulez, Relevés d’apprenti, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1966, pp. 48 and 49.