PRINT February 2014


FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS, Robert Morris has been producing new work that is, in unexpected ways, explicitly derived from old work. So far, the new objects are fifteen in number. They have been produced by a craftsman, Josh Finn, from a variety of hardwoods: walnut, maple, oak, cherry, mahogany, ash, alder, birch, poplar, and European beech. The techniques of fabrication are often those of cabinetry. Each work was made to stand alone, but Morris thinks of the entire group as a “family” of related objects. Four of them are variants—almost exact replicas—of works in plywood or fir previously made by Morris himself during the early 1960s, and these bear the original titles (from 1961, 1963, and 1965, respectively): Box for Standing, 2012, Wheels, 2012, and Tracks, of which there are two versions, both 2013. (Never exhibited as a sculpture, Tracks was used by Morris as a working prop in Waterman Switch, 1965, a performance first presented at the Festival of the Arts Today in Buffalo, and later at Manhattan’s Judson Memorial Church, during which Morris and Yvonne Rainer, both nude, slowly made their way along the top of the “tracks” while clasped together in a frontal embrace.) Three new objects—two of which are simply called Column, the other Spiral Column, all 2013—derive their titles and physical proportions from Morris’s first, now-legendary “large-form” work in plywood of 1961. Four others—Steps, 2013, Bench, 2013, and two works titled Arch, 2012—are more loosely based on early forms. In the case of both iterations of Arch, the obvious precedent is a pair of pine “portals” dating from 1961, which are, by contrast, post-and-lintel constructions of roughly the same size. (In this recent phase of work, Morris has also produced several hardwood objects unaccounted for here; these do not take his early work as an obvious referent.)

Titles for the new sculptures are descriptive, identifying or naming what might be thought of as the prototypes to which they refer. Of the new work, Box for Standing came first, and it was Morris’s experience of collaborating with Finn on this piece that motivated him to continue. He did so one object at a time. Each was anticipated by sketches and proposals concerning structure, medium, and scale. During the planning stage, as Morris relates, practical considerations included the relative advantages of construction using small versus large units of wood, the variable methods for joining these elements together, and the different ways in which a given wood will age, color, and check. Questions of weight, size, and transport were also addressed, and these influenced certain details of fabrication. Revisions have been the norm. Final determinations were often reached after a long period of trial and error, with some completed objects rejected as unsatisfactory. Various works were imagined but never built; these included new fabrications of a group of four objects originally conceived in 1961, consisting of “cabinets” for containing the beholder’s body in a sequence of positions—standing, sitting, leaning, and lying down. (Of these, only Cabinet for Standing was realized in 1961, and it was subsequently destroyed.)

Certain recent works also possess an unexpected personal iconography. This is not something we have typically associated with their early referents, which were, at the time, more commonly said (by both the artist and his closest critical observers) to serve as props for task-related performances or as abstract exercises in scale and perceptual gestalt. The three new objects referred to as columns, for example, transform the early, hollow version in painted plywood into eccentric piers composed of stacked and rotated hardwood planks. Morris explains that these constructions are in fact derived from a grade-school prank in which he and a friend created a tall, narrow structure of carefully piled drawing boards in a school basement in Kansas City, Missouri, cementing the pieces together with old shellac. Looking back on this early episode, the artist now describes the result as having been a kind of demotic Endless Column, citing the presumably inadvertent model of Constantin Brancusi (whose series of works by that name was begun in 1918). This biographical element is compounded throughout the group of new works by what Morris refers to as a hidden narrative: the dedication of each object, in the form of initials, to an individual of personal significance from his “distant past.”

Personal iconography, whether hidden or exposed, populates the new work. What might be described as the work’s temporality, however, is as much an intrinsic function of the significance of original and copy in the context of his practice overall. At the outset of the ’60s, and often throughout the decade, Morris fabricated the large constructions himself using basic carpentry skills and the rough materials of the construction trade. He generally produced the objects in the studio (in early photographs, several can be seen intact in his loft), dismantled them for transport, and then reassembled them on-site for exhibitions. For the most part, if the objects went unsold, he discarded them or, in a few cases, had them returned to him as dismantled parts (and whenever he moved to a new space, he typically left them behind). Morris has often said that, in the case of the plywood constructions in particular, “there is no original.” In that regard, the early objects are basically provisional; provisionality in and of itself was not the work’s primary objective, but the production values the objects represent are openly, even deliberately, foreign to the conventional refinements of sculpture or craft. Morris made the objects to the best of his limited ability, which was good enough to allow them to serve a specific—also limited and often temporary—role.

A handful of early objects that were acquired during the ’60s are now held in private or public collections, but most of the early fabrications were not preserved. Some of those that do remain are in deleterious condition, having been mistreated over the years—probably owing to the very fact that the works were assumed to be freely subject to refabrication, a form of permissibility that leaves the object susceptible to rough handling or inadequate storage. These circumstances have been largely taken for granted in the literature on the artist, although whether or not they should be interpretively privileged is an open question. Given the function of the objects as props and circumstantial experiments in the perceptual and spatial conditions of beholding, their identity is contingent. They are situational but not situated: They possess neither an optimal setting nor even an optimum state, in that there is no obvious reason to prefer one iteration of a given work over another. To paraphrase Donald Judd, the early Morris object was nonspecific. Even so, any encounter with it depends a good deal on its material nature; throughout the history of a given work, as it was refabricated and shown from place to place, this material aspect was subject to change.

Over the years, Morris’s work of the ’60s gained increasing recognition, and the large constructions were frequently requested for exhibitions in which the work’s historical significance was primarily at stake. In that context, the artist often sanctioned an exhibition copy, which would substitute for an object that would otherwise have been too costly to pack and ship. At times, new fabrications were made of early works that had never been realized. (The exhibition copies were to be destroyed after the show, although this protocol was not always followed.) Morris also approved refabrication of works that had disappeared. By the ’70s, such copies were generally made by others according to instructions from the artist but mostly without his supervision. One consequence of this development has been—rightly or wrongly—that special distinction (in a museum or market context) often accrues to objects made by the artist’s hand.

A “copy” or version of an earlier work was at times produced at Morris’s behest in a medium that differed from the one he had used when the work was first (if ever) shown. Eventually, the large-form sculptural objects were variously made in plywood, fiberglass, and steel. This was done in some cases because Morris came to believe that the new medium better served the production and appearance of a given form. Long, sharp corners, for example, turned out to be easier to achieve in steel than in fiberglass, which Morris had originally valued for its deadened surface quality rather than for its capacity to support a hard edge. To be sure, refabricating a given work in one or more new media represents an exercise in problem solving, but it can also be described as an act of reinterpretation. Even so, if the work is claimed not to be early, but part of a living or ongoing practice, then the priority we might want to grant an initial or “original” object is debatable, especially with respect to preference for a given medium or for an early object that may still be intact but that is now deemed by the artist to be less viable than its refabricated self.

To put this differently, the practice of refabricating earlier work, whether as an exhibition copy or as an iteration that is intended to be preserved, is not unique to Morris’s recent activity but has been operative throughout his career. With that in mind, the true “hidden narrative” of his practice concerns agency, authenticity, and the status of the object. Together, medium and fabrication play two roles: a practical one concerning the viewer’s encounter with the object in the space of beholding, and an ontological one concerning the work’s unstable material identity. The propositional nature of the work tells us that material identity is, in turn, subject to change. Consequently, the historicity of the object is, arguably, moot.

The narrative of material constitution that has distinguished Morris’s large-form sculpture since he began producing it in 1961 cannot be dissociated from the nonmaterial ambitions of the work, even as that narrative sometimes contradicts certain assumptions that have come to typify Conceptualist claims made on the work’s behalf. In that the recent objects reference early ones, they do not evince a new strategy as such; instead, they intensify an ongoing condition that has been obscured. By producing the new objects in hardwood, however, Morris is now aggressively engaging a degree of refinement of medium and craft that is anathema to the circumstances and values of the period during which the works—in their early form—were first conceived. In this way, the new material choices represent an overt reversal of terms. Consequently, the recent objects that are derived from early ones aren’t versions or iterations, but, in a manner of speaking, representations. They might be said to depict the prototype rather than replicate it. Being at once formally familiar yet, materially speaking, estranged, they are startling, even uncanny. This sensation is only slightly diminished in the case of new objects—such as Steps and Arch—that do not “copy” specific early examples so much as recall the earlier works in their bulky proportions and at times vernacular forms.

Another way to describe the effect of defamiliarization strikingly activated by the recent work is to begin by saying that the new objects address the old ones through the implementation of the figure of cliché. I mean to apply this term broadly, so that it holds multiple connotations pertaining to that which is ready-made, including, but not limited to, language: the incessant recurrence of a once-novel descriptive term; the gradual emergence of a social or cultural convention; and the depletion of original meaning, which is the negative potential of replication in any form. In the case of Morris’s work, the implication of an original from which the cliché is derived would apply not to the first object in a run of “identical” iterations (again, Morris rejects the characterization of such an object as “original”); it would instead apply to the historical significance of the initial object, which, given replication and changing conditions of viewership and display, is apt to wane.

With more than five decades separating the new from the old, time that has been filled by a complicated if mostly disregarded exhibition history of copies and refabrications (and a photographic history in books and magazines as well), Morris’s large objects have, through proliferation, attained an indelible status in artistic practices after 1960. Together these objects represent not just a body of work, which we generally identify with the origination of so-called Minimal art, but an anthology of images. Some of them, such as Column, 1961, and Wheels, have become ciphers of a historical rupture concerning the relation of the sculptural object to the body—the one-to-one encounter between object and beholder. Box for Standing, a literal container for the standing artist, is foundational in this respect. The initial pine version of that work can be seen in an archival photograph showing Morris inside it. In fact, the objects the artist has recently subjected to replication have largely been ones that can be said to explicitly summon the presence of the body. Finally, though, in addition to their historical significance, these early works have also come to constitute for Morris a personal inventory of images that have always been repeatable.

The copy—a new fabrication of a damaged work or the refabrication of an early object, often in a new medium—has been inherent to the logistics of Morris’s work since the ’60s. The mechanism of cliché can therefore account for the way these forms as images are variously established, deployed, recuperated, or retrieved. In this context, however, the hardwood replications address iterative practice as a conflicted one: At its two extremes, after all, repetition can be an index of apathy or the expression of longing—a recurring dream. Morris has said that the recent work’s titles, although merely descriptive, are intended to challenge the general validity of abstraction as an idea; the covert assignment of initials to each object functions as a second kind of nominalism, now encoding the work with personal, even private, significance. Above all, the new objects might make the early, quasi-provisional ones appear to be models or maquettes, mock-ups for a very different project than the one they were first constructed to serve. In his criticism of the ’60s, Morris spoke of basic forms such as the box as being a priori_—_given or conceptually ready-made, and thereby readily available for appropriation from within the common culture. This early recourse to the principle of the a priori, which perhaps displaces that of the “original,” now seems to represent a general preoccupation with what might be called the tense of the sculptural object. Accordingly, iteration has come to signify a paradox of singularity in a context of multiplicity and change.

Aesthetic strategies of repetition in the age of mass production are often said to reflect the cultural imperatives of industry and commercial manufacture, but the perfection of craft requires its own practice of repetition as labor (and its own mechanicity, the automatic repetition of the hand): the intensive working of a medium to produce pattern, for example, or the running perpetuation of a type. In 1966, Morris completed a master’s thesis at Hunter College in New York titled “Form-Classes in the Work of Constantine [sic] Brancusi.” In the preface, he describes his method as being derived from George Kubler’s analysis of the archaeology of utilitarian form (with reference to Kubler’s then-recently-published book The Shape of Time [1962]). Morris explains that he turned to Kubler’s terminology because it offers a system of largely nonmetaphorical terms through which to account for “a coherent pattern in the development as well as the morphology of related forms.” This struck him as being useful for a rigorous examination of Brancusi’s “series-like productions of sculptural forms.” The Kubler system is significant because it permits the bracketing-out of the conventions of chronology (and attendant questions of style) in order to privilege “the dynamics of changing forms distributed in time.” It is worth remarking that in his thesis, Morris also describes Brancusi—the older artist’s radical investigation of “form-class” notwithstanding—as having been “bound” to an iconography of form, for it was against iconography (as well as style) that Morris constructed his Kublerian scheme. Yet the representationalism of Morris’s recent objects tells us that the formal priorities of his own early work are supported by such an iconography—a quasi-symbolic compendium of form as image.

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Morris quotes Kubler to the effect that a series (as opposed to an ongoing sequence) is, by definition, a closed system. The term series-like, which the artist applied to the temporality of Brancusi’s work—which is to say, to the “dynamics of [its] changing form”—may then also be the best way to describe Morris’s large-form objects as a group, within which the “copy” is made to navigate multiple media and changing circumstances over time. Unlike Brancusi’s sculpture, the large-form works do not represent a traditional studio practice. The objects are, aesthetically speaking, nonidealist, in the sense that they do not qualify as autonomous objects of contemplation but are instead activated by a given space. The material nature of hardwood reverses this: The object’s function and affect are now far from provisional and blank. Something of the materiality of Brancusi’s wood surface—scrupulously worked, sensual, and refined—has even appeared (despite the fact that the Morris objects are, of course, not carved). In this context, delegated fabrication, formerly an expedient in Morris’s work that served to deprivilege the relevance of craft, manages to summon lavish technique almost in order to mark its loss to art practice. Here it could be said that the commodity status of the object is implicated by the craftsmanship of the new work (which over time is apt to be “valued” in part for its quality of fabrication), even if, given the continuing absence of the artist’s hand, the factor of authorship is ambiguous. One might at first be inclined to characterize Morris’s application of precious materials and high technical standards as being a cynical, market-oriented throwback. Yet in the context of copy and cliché, these moves surely serve to test the historical criteria for market value in his work (during the ’60s, for example, did value apply to the “object” or the “idea”?). In any event, the painstaking fabrication process in hardwood now introduces a slowness that, materially speaking, positions the new objects on a temporal register of their own.

THE EARLY MORRIS OBJECT has become a memory device. Issuing from the condition of the cliché, the uncanny appearance of the new constructions identifies the old ones as objects of desire. In addition to the automatic reiterations of cliché, then, a conscious impulse for series-like repetition is in play, one that is no less a potential instigator of form. Samuel Beckett spoke usefully of a related impulse in his book-length essay on the work of Marcel Proust, first published in 1931, the year Morris was born. Beckett was speaking of what he calls Proust’s investigation of the “erratic machinery of habit and memory”: “Life is habit,” he wrote. “Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals. . . . The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day. Habit then is the generic term for the countless treaties concluded between the countless subjects that constitute the individual and their countless correlative objects.” The logic of the Proustian world would have once seemed dubiously applicable to Morris’s work. Yet the banality of habit allows us to class repetition, even the repetition of aesthetic form, with the acquired automatism of daily behavior—with fixation as well as with convention and routine. In the Beckettian sense that habit reflects the perpetual reinvention of the self in relation to the world, habit’s close proximity to compulsion lends a psychological dimension to the copy as correlative object—as object-image or object-cliché. And insofar as Morris has chosen to copy objects that often implicate the body—above all, his own—the immediacy, even compulsiveness, of self-invention is physically acute.

An alternative conceptual model for the multiple operations that distinguish the corpus of early and late large-form objects is that of literary translation, wherein the work is less copy than interpretation—the same but different. In any case, if Morris’s recastings of early objects can be characterized as representations, according to which the forms constitute a kind of iconography, then the work’s proper modality is not that of form and mechanicity alone, but, in Beckett’s words, of habit and memory. (We recall, as well, that both compulsion and the fallibility of memory are themselves objects of interest in the early small sculptures that Morris produced at the same time as the large forms—plaques and boxes with moving parts that implicate repetitive actions and memory as a biochemical process.) According to Beckett, in his reading of Proust, an object can only be a “source of enchantment” when it is “perceived as particular and unique and not merely the member of a family.” Beckett adds, however, that perception of that kind is at odds with force of habit, which expresses itself as recurrence. Perhaps such a psychic dilemma surfaces whenever nostalgia and the present collide, even in a context, such as Morris’s, of rational investigation, a practice once so deeply grounded in the literalism of the here and now. In the late journals of Eugène Delacroix, an artist whose work bears no conceivable relation to art after 1960, we often find the artist reviewing the life and work of his younger self. There, Delacroix also spoke of enchantment, although we cannot help but acknowledge the pull of doubt: “For enjoyment to be perfect, one needs memory to complete it and unfortunately, we cannot both enjoy and remember a pleasure at the same time. That would be to add the ideal to the real.”

Robert Morris’s recent work will be on view at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York, February 8–March 15.

Jeffrey Weiss is senior curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, an adjunct professor of fine arts at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and the author of Robert Morris: Object Sculpture, 1960–1965, just published by Yale University Press.