PRINT April 2001


Robert Morris

Katy Siegel looks back at the 1962 studio visit by gallerist Richard Bellamy that resulted in Robert Morris’s debut at the legendary Green Gallery.

THERE WAS LOTS OF TALK in the early ’60s about getting “discovered,” Lana Turner’s apothecary apotheosis standing in for the “overnight” success stories of a Jackson Pollock or Jasper Johns, figures whose artistic achievements, charisma, and fortuitous timing were all boiled down to mythic studio visits by the likes of Peggy Guggenheim and Leo Castelli. The contemporary cliché is no less facile: Today’s artists are supposed to be extra clever when it comes to getting out, getting around, and getting over. And the pandering and posing is often pointedly contrasted with the more “authentic” artistic postures of the past. Of course it’s all been a bit tricky post-Warhol, but whether the balance tips in favor of pure schmooze or high purpose, most artists will remember an instance (if not quite a Schwab’s moment) when their careers seemed to take off, when an auspicious encounter turned private effort into public presence.

When Robert Morris moved from the West Coast to New York in 1961 with his wife, the dancer Simone Forti, he didn’t know any artists. The couple shared a studio with Yvonne Rainer, and Morris gravitated toward composer La Monte Young (they’d been friendly in San Francisco). Many avant-garde poets and musicians—Jackson Mac Low, Richard Maxfield—circulated around Young in those days, but the only visual artist in Young’s orbit that Morris recalls was Walter De Maria, who he says “appeared now and then with a pained and holier-than-thou bearing.”

In 1962, Morris, studying in the art history program at Hunter College, decided to take his slides (actually a book of photographs) to every gallery in New York City—not so difficult in those days, when there were relatively few. The only person interested enough to make the trip downtown from Fifty-seventh Street was Richard Bellamy.

Director of the Green Gallery, Bellamy had come to New York from Cincinnati, and had previously run the Hansa gallery, where Allan Kaprow first showed. After a brief stint at Martha Jackson, for which he bought his first suit, Bellamy opened Green (in truth, there was no “Green”—he chose the name to evoke freshness). Here he showed a wide range of artists, including George Segal, James Rosenquist, Lucas Samaras, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd. Often affectionately described as “eccentric,” “poetic,” or just plain odd, he was famously intelligent, sympathetic to artists, and open to adventurous art.

Bellamy visited the artist’s dark studio on Fulton Street in a dilapidated, unheated building (Morris thinks it was originally a food warehouse: Whenever he hammered, peanuts rained down from cracks in the ceiling). The dealer saw some of Morris’s large, gray plywood works and the Box with Sound of Its Own Making, 1961, a wooden cube housing a tape recorder playing back the sawing and nailing that had gone into the box’s construction. Bellamy said little, but rather stretched out and took a short nap on Untitled (Slab), 1962, an eight-foot-square plywood platform that sat a few inches off the floor. Morris was surprisingly unfazed by this (after all, not even a Minimalist wants to put a dealer to sleep). When Bellamy woke up, he offered to include Morris in a show.

Here things become a little hazy (even in the artist’s own recollection). In January 1963, Morris exhibited in one or both of two concurrent group shows at Green, but it’s unclear precisely which pieces appeared. What is clear is that, in October 1963, Green held his first New York solo show, an exhibition that included the slab on which Bellamy had snoozed. Aside from the “usual idiot reviews,” Morris remembers two reactions in particular—one dismissing the work for its supposedly insufficient presence, the other responding to the work’s perceived aggression aggressively—that neatly (and ironically) prefigured the two-pronged negative reception of Minimalism. The first came from John Cage, whom the artist had invited to see his work. Sometime later, Jasper Johns told Morris that Cage had gone to see it but “only saw a platform with nothing on it.” As Morris wryly comments, “This from the master of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.” The second reaction was Philip Johnson’s: Bellamy told Morris that the architect had also stopped by, seen the work, and said he “wanted to kill it with a broom.”

Despite his embattled reaction, shortly thereafter Johnson bought a piece, Litanies, 1963, though he failed to pay for it. Morris took matters in hand and made a new piece, inspired in part by the collector’s nonpayment—Statement of Aesthetic Withdrawal, 1963. Johnson bought this work too (and paid for both). Laying to rest in a stroke the myths of the artist-ingenue and the callous careerist, Morris’s cerebral rejoinder was “smart art” in every sense of the phrase.

In this new monthly column, Artforum talks with renowned artists about the incident or encounter that first brought them public recognition.