PRINT Summer 1994


IN AN INTERVIEW CONDUCTED as his recent retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, was about to open (Artforum, April 1994), Robert Morris was asked his views on the large topic of “other artists.” He answered in a noncommittal way, saying that he admired any number of artists of the past but specifying only his most obvious lodestone in Marcel Duchamp. “The only one I vaguely despise,” he added, “is Picasso.”

Having read this exchange on my way to the Guggenheim, it stayed with me as I walked through the exhibition, for the one other artist who insistently kept coming to mind was none other than Picasso—a fact that suggests some disavowed self-knowledge in Morris’ remark. Of course there were others whose actual imprint on the work was far more obvious and expected: Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Barry Le Va, Robert Smithson, Chris Burden, even (surprisingly for me) Morris Louis in certain of the hanging felt pieces of the late ’60s, which mimic as wall relief the compositions of that painter’s “Veils” and “Unfurleds.” All but the last dependency have long been staples of commentary on Morris, both in published criticism and in the murmuring background of resentful art-world gossip. So pervasive has been the charge that Morris has made a career by habitually helping himself to other people’s ideas that David Antin’s catalogue essay for the Guggenheim takes it as a guiding theme. Antin labels the accusation the “Roberta Smith problem,” in honor of the latter critic having bluntly raised the issue in a dismissive review of the artist’s latest series of paintings.1 Then Smith, as if challenging Antin’s ad feminam attempt to contain the issue, drove home precisely the same point in an equally unimpressed review of the Guggenheim retrospective, also for the New York Times.2 Peter Schjeldahl was if anything more antagonistic and belittling in The Village Voice, this coming from a critic who in 1972 had reported (for the Times) on the lionization of Morris in the New York scene of that period, calling him “a nearly transcendent art world presence, an artist who, it seemed, could do no wrong.”3 Plainly old conflicts are resurfacing. The strange outcome is that an artist who once enjoyed such automatic deference finds the dominant critical media of his own city virtually closed to sympathetic consideration of his achievement.

But how kind and tolerant by contrast has posterity been to Picasso, an artist whose early fashioning of a career in Paris has a great deal in common with Morris’ tactics of the ’60s in New York. Defenders of the latter artist are forced to deflect accusations of opportunism by declaring that his mobility of manners and media constitutes a challenge to conventional notions of an autograph style. With Picasso, on the other hand, no such defense has been required; the positive idea of unending fecundity has successfully legitimized a strikingly similar kind of expediency, that is, the ease with which he processed anything in his vicinity, particularly the innovations of other artists who followed a slow-growing, meditative approach.

“Painters,” he once declared to the young Françoise Gilot, “no longer live within a tradition and so each one of us must recreate an entire language. Every painter of our times is fully authorized to recreate that language from A to Z.”4 It would be no surprise to encounter Morris imparting similar words to his literary confidant W. J. T. Mitchell—he has said as much in his previous writing.5 At the same time, the practice of each conspicuously confirms the truth that no language worth the name can be invented from scratch. Long before the mid teens, when Picasso famously turned from Cubism to portraits in the classical manner of Ingres, he had been working through and discarding available models in a determined effort to secure attention and finally dominance in a world he had entered in 1900 as a tongue-tied and unpolished outsider. Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin served his purpose at the start; then of course came Cézanne, but to compare the Demoiselles d’Avignon with any of that artist’s great “Bathers” is to discover how the latecomer’s comparative weakness was turned to tactical advantage. While Cézanne presents the record of an agonized process of reconciling vision with tactile longing while accommodating both within a resistant medium, Picasso’s Demoiselles converts his predecessor’s vocabulary into a collection of hard and confident shapes—even his famous second thoughts and alterations were rendered with decisive panache. During his first Cubist period of intimate collaboration with Georges Braque, Picasso processed their joint discoveries into paintings at triple the rate of his French colleague (and then multiplied that advantage by receiving several times more money for each canvas from their shared dealer).

The imbalance in the history of Cubist sculpture is even more pronounced. It was Braque who first conceived the practice, making constructions in paper over the summer of 1911, but he thought of them as temporary researches. Taking up the practice more than a year later, Picasso, typically, preserved his experiments and made the move to more permanent materials. None of Braque’s models survive; Picasso’s Guitar, probably finished late in 1912 and patently derived from them, is credited with generating the entire history of constructed sculpture in the 20th century.

This spring in London, as it happens, art consciousness has largely been dominated by the exhibition “Picasso: Sculptor/Painter,” at the Tate Gallery, conceived and curated by Elizabeth Cowling and John Golding. It has enjoyed a virtually unanimous critical success (with crowds to match), but is marked throughout by the usual evasion, dictated by a single-artist biographical imperative, of the collaborative relationship behind its subject’s achievements. The intelligibility of the show’s initial section is vitiated by the absence of Braque, a suppression that is consistent with the obsessional drive of even the most informed Cubist scholarship, William Rubin’s as well as Golding’s, to secure evidence of Picasso’s irrepressible singularity and superiority in assessing the one period when he had those burdens lifted from him. The simple fact is that none of what he did in those years would have been possible outside of the partnership. Joint creative responsibility, then, must be privileged over individual manual execution.

The key to any adequate historical understanding of Picasso is grasping his acuity in synthesizing the best art in his vicinity; the same, obviously, can be said of Morris, and in light of that distinguished prototype the “Roberta Smith problem” does indeed seem to be an unimaginative response to the artist’s undeniable weight. But the traditionally solo format of the Guggenheim exhibition, exactly parallel to that of the Tate’s “Picasso,” bears some responsibility for eliciting the sort of dismissal voiced in the New York press. The die-cut, hide-and-seek play with the 1962 I-Box on the catalogue cover (his name blocks out the penis in the photograph of his naked body) takes for granted an outmoded fascination with Morris’ person that might usefully have been downplayed at this date. The various ironies long recognized in that object—patiently spelled out by Mitchell in his catalogue essay—might have provided a warning against just such a use of the image; to deploy it as an announcement for a traditional retrospective washes even those simple paradoxes away.

How much more meaningful would the appearance of I-Box have been with Johns’ Target with Plaster Casts, 1955, somewhere nearby, with its various body parts, including the impression of a penis, behind the small hinged doors. Its omission is exactly like leaving Braque out of a display of Picasso’s Cubism, despite its maker’s having been an involuntary partner in the transaction. The dependence of I-Box on Johns’ vocabulary is so complete, down to his signature stencil typeface, that it must be taken as a primary point of the work. To attend to Morris’ transformation of his prototype is to leave aside the work’s pat ironies the better to follow the ways in which the newcomer sought to insert a legible identity for himself into an established scene by reversing certain of its defining components. The body in pieces is integrated; implicit injury becomes cheerful health; technical devices designed to preserve reticence and disguise are made to signal brash self-disclosure: Yo Picasso. The collaborators whom Morris has lately recruited from text-based academic disciplines might automatically write off this line of thought as an art historian’s reflex. I suspect, however, that it permits the soundest tribute to the artist’s genuine importance, not
least because it diverts attention from his frequent philosophical overreaching.

One result of making Morris’ opportunism a matter for serious analysis would be to highlight his moments, now rather obscured, of prescient invention. Both his early Hand and Toe Holds and the Minimalist mesh sculptures, for example, stand comparison with anything being done in the period and certainly had a great deal to teach the currently fashionable Bruce Nauman (whose self-fashioning in turn offers many points of comparison to Morris’). The collating of recorded events in the 1962 Card File was the seed of the mammoth Index assembled by Art & Language a decade later. With the tangled felt sculptures, Morris found a way simply to stand hack and allow Minimalism’s fetishized geometry to implode into an image of its expressionist opposite. The “Blind Time” drawings of 1973 refine this investigation of expression still further. Summing up the entire New York School epoch that had gone before, and forecasting the return of gestural painting, these experiments isolated the conventions of expressive appearance as purely a product of somatic weakness. Their deviated geometries promise an abundance of emotive rewards but deliver only traces of bodily machinery reaching beyond its limits. And on that strictly antiemotive premise, the trace of the artist’s hand managed for a moment to evade the alibi of irony.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.

1. David Antin, “Have Mind, Will Travel,” in Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem, exhibition catalogue, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1994, pp. 34–49; Roberta Smith, “A Hypersensitive Nose for the Next Thing,” The New York Times, 20 January 1991.

2. Smith, “A Robert Morris Tour of Contemporary History,” The New York Times, 4 February 1994, p. C24.

3. Peter Schjeldahl, “The Smartass Problem,” The Village Voice, 1 March 1994, and “Robert Morris: Maxi of the Minimals,” The New York Times, 7 May 1972. I owe the latter reference to Richard Meyer.

4. See Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso, London: Virago, 1990, p. 67.

5. Robert Morris, “Three Folds in the Fabric and Four Autobiographical Asides as Allegories (or Interruptions),” Art in America 77 no. 11, November 1989, p. 144: “When I sliced into the plywood with my Skilsaw, I could hear, beneath the ear-damaging whine, a stark and refreshing ’no reverberate off the four walls: no to transcendence and spiritual values, heroic scale, anguished decisions, historicizing narrative, valuable artifact, intelligent structure, interesting visual experience.”