New York

Robert Morris

Castelli Gallery

At this writing, the third and last installment of the Morris exhibition at Castelli has not yet been mounted. The fact that the sculptor’s work is made to unfold successively rather than simultaneously in time, while it may be due to the restricted space of the gallery, is symptomatic also, of a larger program, of a definite, but bewildering intention. For one cannot see all at once the self-evident, cannot piece together the literal. This peculiar condition applies to his overall production itself, hauntingly variegated in its syntax, but never seeming eclectic or derivative in the light of a strategy that knows precisely where it is going, and that declares itself with an extraordinary economy.

Let me sketch a four point exposition of what I consider the main, intertwined issues in his outlook, as they have culminated in the present show. They are 1) a reference to the image of the body, its weight more than its gestures or anatomy; 2) an accent on chance, interchangeability, permutation; 3) a concern with the relation between work and materials, means and ends, activity and concept; 4) elegance, as much in precision of thought as in sensuous tact.

From his earlier sculpmetal or lead imprints of bodily parts, to his current aluminum girder piece, or felt aggregations, Morris has not made as much of a transition as may be supposed. An earlier work called Stairs had panels on its steps which opened to reveal the impress of a foot. This fossilized “memory” of a footfall was both a cast of a human presence and a recollection of a tangent imposed by gravity. The girder piece is a square lifted up and supported by short members at about a forty degree angle. A primary impression is of the downward pressure of the structure. For their part, the felt piles are sculpture, nakedly and solely abandoned to gravity—so that Morris has moved from past to present to past again, combining the differing tenses with varying material incarnations, and altered artistic responsibilities, that are at once ambiguously literal and metaphorical. He demonstrates that the form is not at all a prerequisite for the desired sensation, but contingent upon it.

This contingency allows him to shift the arrangement of his fiberglass modular pieces so insistently as to demote them to the status of pawns in a game of esthetic chess. The artist’s will is featured in his initial choice of component parts and in the possible moves of which they are capable, but their combinations are simultaneously optional and inevitable—registering the assent rather than the operation of his will. The same goes for the felt, cut from patterns that may still refer to each piece of the material as being folded twice and cut along the edges, or arrayed in series that represent the progressive halving of determined quantities. So different in their appearance, nominally the keystone of formalist judgment, these sculptures yet betray a common denominator in their crucial principle of optionality, and in their suggestion that order itself is only an appearance. Here is an abstractionist opposed to the idealist logic of abstraction, who devaluates the fixity of its tenets, and who yet is singularly consistent in his reliance on the non-representational independence of his materials, and the integrity of their gestalt.

It is in line with the above that Morris has insisted that the information needed to plan a work and the sets of information that result from experiencing it are not mutually reciprocal. The differences obtained through comparing the mental and the physical picture of sculpture have apparently prompted him to allegorize and to juxtapose the nature of making and its final result. In the now famous box with recorded sounds of its production, he intimates that the only viable statement an art object can make is self-reference. Nor must there be any nonsense about the valor of such an activity as the “creative process.” How objects come to be the way they are should be visible, always apparent, yet, not as revelation of a conceptual end. It is a condition which governs them, with no more applied affect than that. It seems to have been a recognition that the making was nowhere near as objectivized as the materials in minimal sculpture, that Morris has temporarily switched a part of his attention to felt jumbles, a move only superficially that of an apostate. His invocation of Pollock and Morris Louis as predecessors for “acknowledging the inherent tendencies and properties of . . . matter” combines with the Johnsian knowledge that form or expression is not thereby guaranteed or perpetuated. Rather, meaning resides exactly in the pessimistic affirmation of this fact. Morris’s own execution of his art seems more ad hoc than improvisational, yet the work never, even in the felt form, emerges as circumstantial or gratuitous.

Finally, Morris is an elegant. His glossy-surfaced dove grey is an emblem not merely of a compositional choice, but a life style. I disagree very much with his idea that color is an addition that subverts the physical—a notion that has a very dubious truth value—but it is understandable as an intrinsic factor of style, and it has served him well. Similarly, the clinically sharp edging of junctures in the fiberglass pieces, those rims that are like lines, reveals a painstaking sensitivity to form rare in the machine-made products of his colleagues. Then too, only a most exquisitely esthetic mind could have managed to inject into heavy dark industrial felt, not merely a monkish rectitude, but a new refinement of sensuous pleasure. It is the consonance of all these things with a fastidious if poker-faced habit of thought, rigorous in its impurities, enigmatic in its directness, that has provided the current most important projection of American sculpture into the future.

Max Kozloff