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PRINT February 2019

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ROBERT MORRIS

Robert Morris, Blind Time III, 1985, graphite on paper, 38 × 50".

ROBERT MORRIS has said that his work is a form of “investigation.” During the 1960s and ’70s, the period of Minimal, post-Minimal, and Conceptual art, he devoted attention to processes of mind and body—to making, perceiving, and knowing. He sometimes turned to models from science and technology, although he explained that his efforts were born of a desire to disprove rather than prove: to push systems in ways that exposed their lies. In his critical writing, he examined new developments in sculpture with clinical precision. Later, drawing from his early work even as he appeared to reject it, Morris emphasized one process in particular, memory, which he explored using an iconography of personal and historical experience—of childhood, political crisis, dreams, myth, war. If Marcel Duchamp was the artist’s chief adopted forebear during the first phase of his career, then the key figure of the second phase was Francisco Goya, whose images he copied into some of his work. I can imagine dividing Morris’s later work into three categories, each named for one of Goya’s great print series, all pitch-dark: Caprices, Proverbs, and Disasters of War.

Morris’s art was informed as much by self-doubt as by skepticism of a philosophical kind.

One body of work that stands at the center of Morris’s practice is the “Blind Time” drawings. Morris did not begin the series, which he produced in chapter-like installments over the course of several decades, until 1973. Yet the implications were long in formation. We can look, for example, to the locked or concealed spaces of so many of the early small objects, and to a group of now-lost works conceived in the early ’60s, the “cabinets” for sitting and standing, with their themes of constraint and enclosure. Morris made the drawings with his eyes closed, using raw medium (powdered graphite and iron oxide, among others) on large sheets. Navigating the sheet with his bare hands, he worked from protocols—instructions annotated with an estimated time. A “Blind Time” drawing summons the accidents of automatism and the refinements of traditional draftsmanship without belonging to either extreme. Intention, memory, chance; the body’s place within the delimited space of the sheet; the mark as an index of elapsed time: By disavowing sight but admitting these other factors and conditions of making, Morris asked us to rethink—and to feel—our way through drawing as a historical medium. The series also evinces the twin themes of revelation and withholding that thread through the artist’s work overall.

View of “Robert Morris,” 1964–65, Green Gallery, New York. Photo: Rudolf Burckhardt.

Morris’s art was informed as much by self-doubt as by skepticism of a philosophical kind. In our many exchanges, I sometimes found him to be suspicious of the value of artmaking. Perhaps this was also a kind of ethic. In recent times, he generously cooperated with me and my colleagues at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in our intensive study of the institution’s large holding of his early work (acquired from the collector Giuseppe Panza between 1991 and 1992). Morris subjected himself to a number of protracted interviews, and he spent long, often tedious stretches of time with us in storage. Our conversations about originals and copies and the meaning of “authenticity” in a context of refabrication appeared to engage him. Yet, while he appreciated our efforts, he could be exasperated by our minute attention to the material and technical qualities of the work. At one point, we learned that while the objects in Morris’s celebrated Green Gallery exhibition of 1964 were destroyed at the close of the show, he had saved a fragment—a slender plank of painted plywood now in ruinous condition. Excited, we asked to take brief possession of it for close examination, and he humored us by handing it over. “It’s like a piece of the true cross,” I said.

“I use it to keep mice out of my studio,” he replied.

Jeffrey Weiss is an independent curator and critic and an Adjunct Professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.