PRINT September 1974

Robert Morris: the Complication of Exhaustion

No one’s mind is likely to have been changed by the exhibitions of Robert Morris’ work that took place in New York and Philadelphia in the spring of this year. One interesting thing about Morris is that he seems to be an artist who—for many people—has remained extremely problematic although he has achieved the status of a major contemporary figure. Which is, I think, symptomatic of the complexity of his ambition. To remain problematic is to maintain the capacity to provoke, and this Morris continues to do in a way that elaborates an earlier statement of his own: "Characteristic of a gestalt is that once it is established, all the information about it, qua gestalt, is exhausted.1

THE NEW YORK SHOW WAS accompanied by a poster showing Morris in s-m regalia, which has caused some displeasure. One might fairly describe it as guaranteed to do so, given the political-sexual atmosphere of the immediate present. But what’s delightful about the poster is that it wasn’t a gratuitous appendage to the show; its thematic relationship to the work isn’t that of a leitmotif—a freely floating, apparently disconnected, part of the story put in to provide relief or contrapuntal emphasis—but of a prologue. In Richard Foreman’s play Pain(t), the word “painter” is shoved up a woman’s behind, a metaphorical gesture that seems repulsive on several levels and, because of that, obliges one to reconsider the entire set of conventions on which the play, and one’s experience of it, rely. The provocation provided by Morris’ poster may, perhaps, be analogous to that sequence of Foreman’s. It proposes an image that, by virtue of its negativism, concentrates attention on the theme of the show, which is about individual willfulness in the face of an extra-personal terminology. Morris’ poster is an ironic encapsulation of his own position in contemporary art. His career has been one that concentrates on the artist’s identity as a performer within an institution of a certain sort. Such an implicitly heroic identity, Morris seems to say, can only be credibly maintained if it’s capable of self-parody. Without that capacity, one is left with a rhetoric that doesn’t possess the ability to question itself. As it enters one’s consciousness at that point where the analytic vocabulary of art objects becomes blurred with the social vernacular of the art world (a collection of vaguely liberal people), Morris’ poster serves as a mild reminder that it’s the language having the most developed self-critical faculty which has the most subversive effect in the world at large.

All of Morris’ recent work draws attention to the idea of individual performance, of a figure moving around in a space. In this way, Morris, as usual, makes it hard to decide whether his work occupies the space of sculpture or of theater or dance. This confusion is an important one. Ultimately, it’s necessary to see Morris’ work as sculpture because only when one thinks of it as such does its use of temporality begin to make sense. Just as necessary, though, is Morris’ characteristic reluctance to completely subsume the theatrical within the terminology of sculpture because only through an apparent resistance to the subsumption of one by the other can he maintain a kind of equal tension between the stability of sculpture and the mutability of the performer’s response.

I’m suggesting that we’re asked to see the atemporality of sculpture as a background to the temporal development that is Morris’ response to it. Morris’ work is theatrical but not theater; theater depends more completely on sequential development, and on an internally generated disruption of that sequentiality. For instance, in Beckett—where the play disrupts theater’s tendency toward the metaphorical through an insistent banality, so that one might say that Beckett defamiliarizes theatrical space through a manipulation of the emphatically inconsequential—the text is reinforced by the space but not in tension with it.2 The space is simply an extension of the dialogue’s banality. The tension fundamental to the work lies elsewhere, within the dialogue, between the absurdity of the language used and its intrinsic logic.

This isn’t anything like what happens in Morris’ work, where the metaphorical propensity of words, and of the performer—the sense in which any figure standing in a space suggests a universal situation—is placed in tension with the specificity of a literal space, space that isn’t an extension of the performance it contains but, rather, exists prior to it. This space, I have said, is the atemporal space of sculpture. The way in which Morris uses theatricality to erode, clarify, and manipulate sculpture’s identity as an atemporal organization of a real space, but not to replace sculpture with theatricality as such—as theater—becomes clear when one compares Voice, the most obviously theatrical of the works in the New York show, with the other things exhibited along with it. For the most part, in Morris’ recent work, one’s attention is occupied by the personal and perpetual accumulation of terminology depicted by the variety of the work, rather than by the manipulation of that terminology within a narrative order. For Morris, as for many others, “sculpture” is a readymade, a received epistemology, a set of terms that amounts to an institutional language.

This treatment of a medium as a readymade has been basic to American art at least since Johns’ reconstitution, through a reassertion of the Duchampian example, of painting and sculpture’s identity as species of cultural signs.3 From this follows what is, to my mind, a confirmation of contemporary art’s commitment to the development of an explicitly materialist esthetics, an urge to identify art more and more closely with its support.4

And in this sense Morris’ view of sculpture as an epistemological readymade is directly analogous, and indebted, to Johns’ position on artistic conventionality. For Morris, one might say, sculpture is that which inhabits but also replaces real space—architectural or natural—and, while its appreciation customarily involves the spectator in movement around the work, is itself static and syntactically atemporal.

Theatricality may be put in tension with this received epistemology because the temporality of the theatrical is the logical corollary of the stability of sculptural space, as the undifferentiated space of the world at large is the corollary of the differentiated space of painting. At least, that seems to be the dialectic proposed or depicted by Voice, a work which suggests that, insofar as Morris’ ambition takes off from Johns’, it’s a sophistication or refinement of it in that Morris has gone further than Johns toward the development of oppositions which can be perceived as nearly equal. Temporality isn’t subsumed within the atemporal, in Morris’ work, as readily as the coat hanger is taken over by the painting as a whole in Johns’. I think the reason is that Morris employs oppositions that are logical rather than random. This is to say that Morris relocates the incidence of randomness in his work at a second level, where it clarifies an initial logicality, while Johns makes an experience of the arbitrary or the random the point of entry to his work. In Morris’ case, temporality is experienced precisely as an immanent feature of the sculptural Gestalt, rather than as a feature of another reality superimposed on it. This makes it possible for Morris to depict the individual as an idiosyncratic concentration of institutional generality, and to present the artwork as an explicit manipulation of the interchange between the two.

To experience Voice is to explore sculpture through the elaboration of the temporal at the price of atemporality’s reduction to a lowest common denominator, the level at which sculpture declares itself autonomous to the extent that it becomes an institutional space that replaces its architectural context. In Voice, four large amplification units are used to suggest a space that replaces or modifies the space of the gallery but is still contained by it. Shaped like the corners of a room, the amplifiers describe a rectangular enclosure whose corners are roughly coincidental with the centers of the gallery’s walls. Within this rectangle, the audience sits on stools which come in four sizes and are covered with cloth the same white as the speaker system. Across it comes a kind of dramatic narrative.

Morris must have gotten some pleasure from being able to identify the notion of the speaker as the source of a human voice with the word’s vernacular meaning, its use to connote an electronic tool. In Voice this pun is made to conjure up—with startling explicitness—the reflexiveness between the performer and the institution that’s already been described here as the theme of this year’s exhibitions and indeed of the whole of Morris’ career as a mature artist. Voice is a sculpture in which the audience stays still, experiencing the piece by remaining within it rather than moving around it. One’s own space is completely identified with the space of the sculpture. It’s a space filled with recorded words, affected and disrupted by them. A space made subject to time by a discourse that emanates from the work itself and, as it does so, identifies the work as an index of spent time that involves its audience in a procedure close to, but not the same as, a literal re-creation of the artist’s moves. It’s not the same, because the audience isn’t involved in the process of rejection and selection that engages the artist. It’s similar in that it locates the audience within the work and makes viewing into a perceptual performance that takes place within the sculpture’s space and time in a manner reminiscent of the artist’s role as a performer within a given terminology.

This effect is heightened by the realization that the space in which the audience sits is one that, through the agency of the recorded narration, thereby becomes the context for a frankly autobiographical document. The sound track, recorded on four channels—one to an amplifier—is spoken by actors and heard in a pattern that moves irregularly around and across the space. Divided into four parts, the piece is three-and-one-half hours long, which—surprisingly, given the conventional effect of epic drama—tends to emphasize Voice’s location in real time, a consequence of its occupation of real space, its identification with the space of the gallery.

So the division of the work into four occurs temporally as well as spatially—its sequential structure reinforces its physical rectangularity—and this division is developed further within the narration, in particular in the first and second parts. The first is called The Four, and identifies the four amplifiers with four opposed points of the compass. As with the interplay between the seats and the disposition of the amplifiers noted above, this allows Morris to initiate one’s experience of Voice with a series of references to spatial positioning and temporal order that reflexively identify the two through what are puns or almost puns—of specific location with generalized orientation on the compass, of a speaker system with a narration that’s sometimes suggestive of a person moving around the room (when a single voice comes first from one speaker and then from another) and at others suggests a space speaking (when more than one voice speaks simultaneously on more than one speaker). Voice’s use of reflexivity, like that of other contemporary art concerned with an exegesis and exploitation of the interaction between temporality and simultaneity,5 consists in making either one of any pair of opposed phenomena descriptive of the whole they describe. That is what makes Morris’ work dialectically articulate, and also what has made it possible for Morris to persist in the subdivision of an avowedly exhausted Gestalt. Or, to refer to an important essay Annette Michelson wrote five years ago, an “exhausted monolith”: sculpture as a sign for grandiosity reduced by quantification, by a phenomenological reduction that allows for a continuing attentiveness, by, in other words, the subjection of a myth to the demands of a materialist imagination.6

This brings us to They, the second part of Voice and the only part not written by Morris. They is made up of extracts from the work of Emil Kraepelin, who wrote on mental illness—with a special regard for criminality—earlier in this century and at the end of the last. Kraepelin was the originator of a classification system of psychopathology on which all subsequent classifications are based. Two more facts gleaned from the Encyclopaedia Britannica seem especially pertinent: “[Kraepelin] helped devise a series of tests by which he attempted to separate psychological activities into four components: perception, memory, association and motor functions”; and “. . . In addition [to six differentiated states of depression] he recognized four mixed states: depressed mania, agitated depression, depression with flight of ideas and partial inhibition. He finally concluded that these all belonged to a single manic-depressive entity.”

The extracts from Kraepelin’s notebooks used in They are the ones Morris thought of as the least theoretical, extracted fragments of case histories. They is read by two actors, a man and a woman. One track is reserved for the passages read by the man’s voice alone and the one that faces it is similarly reserved for the woman’s. Each of the other two is used for the voices of both together. In the middle of a sentence the piece will move from both voices reading at once to another point of origin from which comes the voice of the man or the woman alone. When the two are reading together, they read the personal pronoun for the opposite sex when it comes up: he says “she,” she says “he.” Some sentences are repeated, the final passage four times. Recalling Walter Benjamin in its organization and deployment of the quote, They isn’t meant to have any independence of the whole, so one is reluctant to return to a text which is meant to have an existence limited to the three-and-one-half hours that Voice takes up. But I cannot resist quoting one passage from early on in the sequence:

Sometimes they hear voices which have a metallic sound, they are resonant voices, organ voices, or as of a tuning fork. At other times the voices do not appear to them as sense perceptions at all; they are voices of conscience, voices which do not speak with words, voices of dead people, false voices, abortive voices.

The third part of Voice begins with a section called Cold Oracle, proceeds to one titled He/She, and goes on to one called Scar/Records. The last part is a 67-minute monologue read by Mark Strand, who makes an appropriate and substantial contribution to the work by bringing to it a declamatory tone honed by his own experience as a poet who writes poetry meant to be read aloud.

The relationship between narrative and space, as the work proceeds toward the univocal last part, maintains that metonomical reflexiveness which I’ve said is conceptually derived from the corollary relationship of sculptural simultaneity and theatrical temporality. It is, I think, correct to say that what one might for want of a better word call the choreography of Voice reasserts the work’s concentration on the reflexiveness between the individual and the institution. The first and third sections are made up of simultaneously played tracks that blur one another. As they bombard one from different corners of the space, these passages assert an atemporal whole whose coherence is reduced by its own simultaneity. The second and fourth parts, which employ two known public performers—a psychologist and a poet, the studies of one and the voice of the other—are linear and propositionally articulate in comparison to the first and third. This is an apparition; no section of Voice is more “logical” than any other in its propositional continuity. The moves from one sound source to another aren’t logical in this sense either, although neither are they completely random—basically a shift occurs at every line-change in Morris’ typewritten notes. In all of this the use of Kraepelin is signally apposite; it suggests with a particular succinctness that the elevated but strained rhetoric of the performer-hero has its origin in. public knowledge, that the individual—as he’s known and as he comes to know himself—is the product of an institutional vernacular that precedes him and provides the vocabulary that comes to be identified as his own.

THAT THE IDEA OF SCULPTURE—its reduction to the conditions under which we can talk of it as an institution with an autonomous morphology—provides an epistemological space in which an individual imagination can maneuver and find itself—and that it’s the interaction between the two, rather than the subsumption of one by the other, which interests Morris—is further hinted at by the drawings of mazes that were also part of the New York show. These pieces especially seem to clarify Voice’s preoccupation with an immutable space—that of sculpture—realized through time. They aren’t the kind of mazes that one can get lost in, they’re a kind that leads one to a point at which one must turn around and come back.

I went down to Philadelphia to see a maze that had been built. Quite coincidentally, I happened to be reading Gide on the train and came across the following passage, which describes a walk around a town in North Africa:

She preceded me along a strange path, unlike any I have ever seen in other countries. Between two rather high walls it meanders almost lazily. . . it curves or doubles back altogether, and right at the start a bend bewilders us; there is no knowing where we have come from or where we are heading.7

From the railway station I went to the show and entered the maze. To be inside it is to be lost but not lost, to know that one can’t take a wrong turning but not to know where one is in terms of the room in which the maze is situated. The walls are eight feet high and were meant to be sixteen—a shortage of money problem—so one cannot see over them. The passageway leads one to a place just off the center of the maze, and then weaves around until it has described the entire 100-foot circle that is the maze’s ground plan, at which time one is again at a point just off-center—next to the first place one arrived at although one doesn’t have any way of knowing that—and from which one must then retrace one’s steps in order to get out.

The passageway is narrow, one must squeeze past people coming the other way, which confirms and structures one’s experience of the work as a concentration on performance constrained by context. As it leads one into and around and out of the space, the maze describes a configuration quite like that of a dance. But, just as atemporality is focused upon a progressive complication of temporality in Voice, so does the maze suggest dance through negative example. The freedom of music characteristic of dance is undercut by a passageway 18" wide, and by one’s inability to say where one is in terms of the overall space. The maze robs individual performance of the possibility of spontaneity, through the provision of a contextual stasis which dominates by being accessible only piece by piece rather than all at once. It proposes, to return to an earlier observation, an institutional space in which there is no opportunity for individual willfulness. Its direct ancestor is Passageway (1961), in which two curved walls—implying circles with radii of different lengths—converge, progressively squeezing out the space of the viewer until he or she can go no further.

NO VERSION OF PASSAGEWAY was shown this year, but other early works were included in the New York show and these indicate the way in which Morris has always thought of sculpture as a means with which to bracket an—implicit or explicit—temporality. Sculpture imposes a conventional simultaneity that doesn’t deny movement—one generally has to walk around sculpture, a procedure said here to be reversed and clarified by Voice—and that’s what recommended it to Morris in the first place. Columns (1961), made soon after Morris came to settle permanently in New York and not long after he abandoned painting for sculpture, actually had an origin in a theatrical performance. In its present state it consists of one column lying down and another standing—where the two are understood to be the same column in different states—which indicates how he has sought to make the potential for movement inherent in the experience of sculpture a feature of simultaneous presentation. Similarly, the two felt pieces pinned on the walls of the same room in the show offer a metonomic alternation of inwardness and outwardness by displaying the same thing in two states. In such pieces one is already confronted with a displacement of the temporal procedure that sculpture invokes. The passage from one column to the other, or from one felt piece to the other, is not around the space of the object but through one’s perception of the possible limits of its physical disposition given the constraints of gravity. It’s a passage through the inductively recognized possibilities of the abstract space of sculptural epistemology.

By extension, and this is the crux of the concern with a paradigmatic reflexiveness that Morris articulates, the Gestalt may be exhausted but by its exhaustion it becomes the object of continuous attention. An attention which is analogous to the artist’s involvement with the Gestalt in that, like any performance, it can at some level conclude only arbitrarily. When Voice is over, it’s over. It can’t be recreated through recourse to the script, because one can’t read several speeches simultaneously, although one can, up to a point, hear them that way. The maze absolutely dictates the order of one’s perception of it, and it’s a perception that requires one to remember, to continuously reconstruct information made available by the piece through time. One goes in and comes out, and the piece is situated in the past by the fact of one’s emergence from it.

The finger drawings that made up the fourth part of the New York show particularize this concern with the employment of memory in the subdivision of an atemporal Gestalt. They are made in a variety of ways, all of which have to do with time measured within the terms of a simultaneous presentation of temporal process. Their concern with literal measurement and its documentation suggests an affinity with the work of Mel Bochner, but Morris used a blindfold in their construction—a procedure inescapably reminiscent of Valéry’s assertion that the poet is a man with the courage to be lost in words—and one can’t think of Bochner as other than an artist committed to working with his eyes wide open. The drawings involve strategies that defamiliarize the drawing’s literal and pictorial space. They involve Morris—like the spectator walking through the maze—in a process in which he is asked to locate himself, to find his way around, in a space imperfectly remembered. One drawing especially seemed to essentialize his persistent concern with making simultaneity function as a temporal record. Starting at the top of a sheet of paper, blindfolded, he made horizontal marks with each of his hands. As these marks descend the sheet of paper they become larger, and this progressive increase in their length is thought of as an analog for lapsed time.

Earlier this year (Artforum, June, 1974) I wrote about Morris’ Light-Codex-Artifacts 1 (1974), and described its superimposition of an autobiographical signifier—a map of the Aquarius constellation, Morris’ astrological sign, made out of pushpins—onto a surface otherwise unresponsive to the image. I said that, as I looked at it, the work came to be reminiscent of Johns’ in two ways. The surface came about in a way similar to the methods used in the finger drawings, a subdivision of the wall that had to do with temporal measurement, but which recalled Johns’ Devised Curve in its use of a squeegee. The Aquarius constellation led me to think of Johns’ dymaxion map. I suggested that I took the surface to stand for an institutional, impersonal space in that it’s derived from measurement of the wall while the map’s simply imposed on it. And I take that to stand for the individual willfulness that, I have suggested here, Morris poses as the antithesis of epistemological logic. That Johns should emerge on both sides of the opposition seems indicative of Morris’ ability to propose a fully reflexive paradigm for the interaction with which he’s been concerned throughout his career in New York. I should describe this as the interaction between the individual and the institution, where the individual is understood as a specific instance of a general publicness—a situation metaphoricized by Morris by opposing the artist to the sculptural epistemology he inherits. At the risk of boring the reader, I’ve made this point several times to unite a superficially disparate body of work. One final point remains to be made.

To say that Morris opposes willfulness to an inherited terminology is to say that he’s aware that creative thinking is negative thinking, a conscious denial and also a manipulation of an innate tendency toward entropy in all things. In thinking about his work, it seems necessary to conceive of the possibility of a complete triumph of the institution over the individual. Such an obliteration seems to be metaphorically enacted in Morris’ work in those instances where the sculptural space completely overcomes the spectator. For example, in Voice, when the first and third parts are going on, one can’t discriminate between tracks played simultaneously. Or, when one is in the maze, totally constrained by the passageway. In order to manipulate meaning, Morris’ work seems to insist, one must constantly look for some way to distance oneself from it, to find an antithesis and, thereby; locate new-meaning in synthesis. Institutions are both sources of meaning and implicitly mindless, and interact in the imagination of individuals as a matter of course. Take, for example, Susan Sontag: “[Dancing is] the opposite of what writing means. Having goals, pledging yourself to discomfort in the hope of saving your soul, has no meaning when you’re out there on the floor. Thank God for dancing.”8

Morris, who’s never actually been a dancer, subjects sculpture to the temporal syntax of performance in order to bring it more fully into the space we ourselves inhabit. As such, as an experience materially present rather than distanced by myth, sculpture becomes ours rather than history’s. The space of the dance is the space of mortality but also of spontaneity, immediacy, the provisional and the pragmatic. By definition vulnerable to the subliminally motivated desire—solemnized daily in universities and artists’ bars across at least two continents—to confuse the atemporal with the ahistorical, the space of sculpture has constantly to be rescued from the calcification of the Ideal.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe



1. This statement has been printed several times since the mid-’60s, most recently in Rosalind Krauss’ “Sense and Sensibility,” Artforum, November, 1973. There are several points in the present essay where I touch on ground she has already discussed in similar terms. One instance is my usage of the opposition “individual:institutional,” which evokes her formulation • “private:public.” Since we know one another and talk often, there are aspects of my writing and hers the origins of which are no doubt shrouded in the mists of past conversations, but this pair of oppositions were in fact independently developed and, insofar as mine leans toward Marx where Krauss’ inclines toward a more philosophical—Wittgensteinian—formulation, they are in effect complementary but not identical.

2. Perhaps for this reason, one might add, in an orthodox theatrical event—such as a play by Beckett—props are necessary in order to establish an air of paucity on the stage not obtainable through their elimination. I understand this to mean that theater always’ occupies real space only nominally—its props undertake a provisional transformation of the space that responds to the text—but is never literally situated in real space as sculpture may be.

3. To put a modified beer can into a gallery is the same as putting a real coat hanger into (onto) a painting, in that both put institutional (special, privileged) contexts into tension with outside objects. The presence of these objects in either of Johns’ works provides the opportunity for a synthesis of the specific, differentiated syntax of artistic communicability with the undifferentiated space of the real world. In the course of this process, the art institution—painting and its support system—and the coat hanger, an inarticulate index of human dimensions superimposed on the special capacity for meaningfulness invested in pictorialism by tradition, achieve a kind of equivalence. The presence of ordinary objects within a context organized and presented as art demythologizes the institution, and turns it—and the products that rationalize and define it—into one kind of thing among things, because the extent to which the coat hanger can be seen as part of the picture is the extent to which the painting can itself be seen as a kind of object, at some level “like” the coat hanger, but also the vehicle for an accumulated and special coherence. For Johns, a painting can subsume the coat hanger—can identify its own space with the real space whence the coat hanger derives—only by first declaring that painting is reducible to a physically expressible conventionality, by saying it’s a discipline whose terms are stretchers, canvas, pigment, and suspension on a wall. Those, the materially realizable aspects of the medium’s morphology, are the terms in which Johns states the epistemology of painting in order that he may renew the discipline; those are some of the properties of painting that are known.

4. Contemporary art’s materialism has, I think, been well expressed by Octavio Paz (Alternating Current, New York, 1973):
. . . The new materialism is to nineteenth-century materialism what Marx and Darwin were to eighteenth-century materialism. Our materialism is . . . mathematical, linguistic, mental. Strictly speaking, it is neither idealism nor materialism. It is not idealism because it reduces the Idea to a combination of physicochemical stimuli and responses; it is not materialism because it regards matter as a system of communication; the phenomenon is a message or a relation between factors . . . The basic structure of these factors is no different from that of mathematical or verbal symbols: it is a system of relations. Before our era a Providence or a Logos reigned, a matter or a history perpetually tending toward more perfect forms; now an unconscious thought, a mental mechanism guides us and thinks us. A mathematical structure determine us—signifies us.

5. See, for instance, my “Douglas Huebler’s Recent Work,” Artforum, February, 1974.

6. Annette Michelson: “Robert Morris: An Aesthetics of Transgression” (catalogue essay), Robert Morris, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969. This essay, a definitive text, is also one of the first in which Morris’ anti idealism is clearly enunciated.

7. Andre Gide, The Immoralist, translated by Richard Howard, New York, 1970, p. 38.

8. “Susan Sontag: After the First Decade,” Interview with Chuck Ortleb, Out, April, 1974.