PRINT April 1985


ROBERT MORRIS IS AN artist of Vanitas, emptiness, a theme with myriad emblems of the vanity of earthly pleasures: an hourglass, a snuffed candle, a sword useless against the approach of death, jewelry valueless in the grave, a tipped-over cup, a skull. Vanitas inspired profusion in Baroque still life; it drives Morris to jam his recent works with images of skulls and bones, hearts and brains and other offal, fists, cocks, firestorms, stick figures, death masks, speeding comets, floating skeletons, a globe of the world. This plenitude makes Morris’ allegory of emptiness difficult to see. He was easier on his audience twenty years ago. Some of the plain gray boxes and L-shapes of the Minimalist Morris were ostentatiously hollow—uninhabited by things, abandoned by allusion. Those forms emptied time of all but a present tense, and banished from that present all but the simplest perceptions. That, at any rate, is what the artists’ “Notes on Sculpture’’ (1966) claimed, and what the criticism parroted.

No one talked of Vanitas then. The Minimalists and their friendly critics offered emptiness as a virtue, as purity, not as a threat. Minimalism promised to show the way to an all-enveloping present—a nontime, an arthistorical Utopia which ordinary history, with its fact of death, couldn’t touch. We all play anti-death games in our heads. The Minimalists thought that an obsessive focus on “purity” would block out images of mortality and its mess. And they were right.

But Minimalist emptiness isn’t as empty as it looked. Death-fears crowd Minimalism the way death-emblems clutter the Vanitas still life of the Baroque. No one in the ’60s was prepared to notice this. Morris made himself the exception. He came to Minimalist nontime from images of stop-time: from the tableaux vivants of his performance pieces and his early lead reliefs, with their emblems of frozen impact. Stop-time is ironic: form freezes, life halts; signs of time’s motion disappear, yet we all know that time goes on. Time is what always goes on, with or without us.

Morris edged away from Minimalism by charging his geometries with allusions to prisons, places whose inmates have practical reasons for building elaborate structures of nontime. By the end of the 1970s it looked as though Morris had been an ironic Minimalist, self-consciously futile in his attempt to lock himself into a present where death and the fear of death could not go. Sooner or later that fear goes everywhere, and sooner or later death follows. Consciousness reaches its far limit with that knowledge. So our unconscious has strong motives to like Minimalism or anything else that can seal off vision, blot up the energies of mind, absorb being in the safety of an isolated moment. We also have strong motives for breaking out of nontime, into history.

A psychomachia is usually the struggle between a soul’s good and bad inclinations. Morris’ large drawings in the “Psychomachia” series, 1982, shift this conflict from morality to the question of consciousness: will these roiling pictorial fields obliterate the ghostly figures, hide them away in alloverness, or force them into full knowledge of themselves? That knowledge includes a vision of death, as another series from the same year, the “Firestorm” drawings, suggest by showing the skeletal interiors of the “Psychomachia” figures. Morris’ white Hydrocal reliefs, also from the same year, break those skeletons in fragments.

We like to talk about the allover field as a major formal breakthrough. That saves us from talking about its limitless power to envelop and numb and cover with oblivion. Morris’ Hydrocal reliefs of 1982 are like allover fields plowed up, induced to reveal their contents—skeletal remains, bits and pieces of selves, emblems of Vanitas. In these reliefs he pits the emptiness of the art world’s emphasis on innovation against the emptiness to which ordinary history brings each of us, and his struggle within—the psychomachia—is nearly even, I think. He still feels the allure of nontime, stop-time, and all the rest of art’s methods, simplistic and ironic, of evading time itself. The emptiness of an estheticized time outside of time makes a comforting substitute for the real emptiness that waits in real time. To deny himself that comfort, Morris piles up emblems of Vanitas.

His latest works supply the black and white “Firestorm” drawings with a full range of luridly apocalyptic—in a word, Turneresque—colors. Some of these pictures are decidedly pretty. Morris surrounds them all with skull-and-bones reliefs in the shape of picture frames. Bits of brains and heart suggest an unbearable stench. Clogging the patterns that flow along the frames and around their corners, these body parts recall the elaborately carved surfaces of Victorian furniture objects that crowded and darkened interiors for nearly a century. This allusion turns the stench of slaughter into mustiness, the air of domestic entropy.

Morris says he knows nothing of these Victorian overtones and cares less. I mention them because I believe his obsession with time and death forces his art into a state of hyperallusiveness. The new works gather meaning, some of it unintended, from widely scattered zones of the culture—past and future, real and imaginary. As the field where this gathering occurs, Morris’ present is overcharged, wiped out, empty. He has transformed the Vanitas of Minimalist unknowing into the Vanitas of an unrelenting self-consciousness. He is a Saint Jerome for our times.

Some paintings of Saint Jerome show him listening for Apocalyptic trumpets. Others show him at study in his cave; next to his book sits a skull, a candle, an hourglass. Closing in on these objects, excluding the saint, 17th-century painters invented the Vanitas still life. Now Morris elaborates the Vanitas of the allover field. An earlier piece, First Study for a View from a Corner of Orion (Night), 1980, is a scaffold supporting lighting fixtures and immense swaths of black felt—field upon field, fields folded in upon themselves, fields twisted and crumpled, the integrity of the field doubled and redoubled until it dies of arbitrary expansion and black felt reads as ungainly black crepe: a gothic joke, complete with a skeleton lurking like a putto in one of the folds of drapery. Hanging from the Hydrocal frame of one of the new works, a set of Morris’ familiar felt strips illustrates an earlier episode in his career. But those felt strips are not just illustrations. They are also felt strips, no less so than the earliest ones. And the frames are sculptural, not just foils for pictures. Those are facts, which Morris reduces to the status of residual details. His new works are first of all images. Fact, even palpable fact, can only haunt them . He presents an allegory of the historical imagination that treats the present like a ghost of the future and of the past. Only in contemplating the present’s emptiness can that ghost come alive. Only by facing the perpetual absence of the moment do we live it.

Morris’ art generates its power by overwhelming us with an excess of choices. If I insist on looking at his picture frames and seeing Victorian rococo, I still must decide whether to see that style as a revival that occurred in its own time (French antique, as it was called) or as a new departure (French modern, as the Victorians also labeled it, in honor of Louis Philippe and his refurbished monarchy). I can see another style altogether, Italian Art Nouveau, with a decorative extremism of its own, or the still more extreme—the still hard to believe—Churrigueresque of Spanish Baroque. Or I can look at Morris’ patterns and see horror so blatant it sickens. Then it wears off, leaving an atmosphere of Halloween spookiness. This carries over from the frames to the paintings, whose evocations slide easily from the early-19th-century sublime to the intimacies, and vapidities, of late-19th-century Symbolism.

Possible interpretations, most of them dubious proliferate, scattering the attention through distant regions of time. Before Morris showed his simple gray Minimalist forms, he made intricate reliefs from lead. Projectiles, it seemed, have entered these metal slabs from one side, then plowed their way toward the far edge. But the violence is all in the conception; the images are carefully built to recall events that usually take place in an instant. Those images of ballistic artifice reappear in some of the new pieces. Made of Hydrocal now and bearing imprints of fists, they hover with meaning in front of Morris’ paintings. Is this the artist’s attempt to deny time’s power to remove him from his earlier self? Or are the new projectiles, which look so different from the old ones, evidence that the early Morris is long gone? Does the artist mock himself here, and if so, who is the target—the Morris of the ’60s or the Morris of the ’80s?

If the horror of Morris’ spectacle were not labyrinthine, we could never stumble out of it into the larger history beyond the boundaries of art. So we keep looking for the clue that will precipitate that essential accident. Does the extinguished candle of the traditional Vanitas ignite the burning planets of Morris’ new paintings and pastels? One of the Hydrocal frames puts an image of a dive-bombing figure with wings, which Morris drew when he was eight, behind his latter-day apocalypse. By including this image, Morris implicates his early fantasies in the disasters he now evokes. This is candid but not surprising. Many of us drew pictures of falling flying figures when we were young. Children, even if they turn out to be painters or sculptors, are not artists. So a child’s drawing, including the one Morris layered into this recent work, makes no esthetic claim. Though its links to Morris’ mature works are tenuous, it has strong links to fears of disaster—most of them unrecorded that we all feel. The necessary presence of this childish drawing pushes the work that contains it at least partway out of art’s privileged realm into the ordinary world. This makes it difficult to judge Morris’ apocalypses the way I judge most works in this genre: as easy flirtations with ultimate disaster, carried on well within the refuge of Modernist detachment. The inclusion of the Icarus-like drawing, an autobiographical fragment Morris had forgotten for decades, takes the esthetic gloss off his terror, returning it to a raw state. Then a gloss, the product of brilliantly managed pictorial and sculptural effects, returns, but it feels as if it has a large purpose.

It doesn’t matter precisely how we decipher the puzzles we manage to extract from Morris’ phantasmagoria. There are too many choices, too many alternatives, for any one to be “right.” There is, however, one basic choice to make: whether to see this artist’s consistency or overlook it. His styles develop, overlap, disappear, return much changed. The more intricate the maneuvers the more obsessed Morris looks in pursuit of his abiding purpose: to empty out the present. Once he emptied it with images of “purity.” Now he empties the present by collapsing it under an image—overload, a burden that inevitably spills over to the next moment, and the next, emptying them all, forcing us into the flow of real time, inviting us to come alive to all that awaits us there- as selves and as a culture.

Carter Ratcliff is a poet and critic who lives in New York. His book on Robert Longo will be published by Schirmer/Mosel, Munich, and his book on Pat Steir by Harry N. Abrams, New York.