Robert Morris

At first glance, from the ground floor of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Robert Morris’ Labyrinth looks like one of his earlier Minimal pieces: a fiberglass or plywood ring (here, masonite), painted his usual very light gray. But it is 8 feet high and 30 feet in diameter—therefore more barrenly intimidating, a sort of unearthly gas tank in a museum. I enter aslant, through its straight, narrower than me, bisecting passageway. About 2 yards ahead, the left wall curves convexly out of view to the right. So begins the first gambit of the labyrinth. I think of words starting with “m”: misgiving, Minimal, minatory, Minotaur.

Imprisoned within the concentric circularities of the interior, and watchful for their hairpin turns, I am possessed by an excited resentment. Higher than many, my eyes cannot track any of the overhead gallery lights, as if my internal sextant had gone awry. Left and right, north and south, all these are left behind me in some obviously saner and more human place. Worse, in these contorted, blinded circuits (they had originally been planned to be 16 feet high), the sound of someone scraping the wall would mean an unhappy bottleneck along the way. The combined knowledge of creatures ahead or behind would seem equally afflicted and unhelpful. Meanwhile, there are shorter or longer swings to contend with, doubling back onto the start or directing me suddenly from one quadrant to another, more distant, that appears to fold it on itself. In awe of his ingenuity, I am aware all along that the lengthier paths please more than the shorter ones, but only physiologically, and that the real gratification—finding the “true” lead—will come only in time, indifferent to the rhythm of the grope through the labyrinth.

But this is an illusion. For at no point does an optional direction present itself. Morris is getting me into the thing, making me feel its density and concentration, involuted like the structure of a brain. If nothing else, he is highlighting, in an exemplary way, the difference between a maze of arabesques and one of angles. But he is not allowing me the chance of guessing my way out of this limbo. Somewhere, deep into it—was it a minute ago or five when I started?—I understand the total coerciveness of the track. It is, in some ways, a relieving, but also certainly, an alarming experience. Seldom has a promenade given me the impression of being delivered up completely to someone else’s designs. The trip is not at all about the mild apprehension of getting lost, but the profounder anxiety of being led into a trap. With the suspense of a right or wrong discovery, there fades the sociability of the labyrinth game. Coming through the broken spiral, and decreasing bends, impatient, now, for the outcome, I suddenly see the graffiti of an anonymous visitor: “You’ll be amazed.” She was right, for I had walked into a cul-de-sac.

“Is this,” as one uninvited inscription puts it, “where our tuition money goes?” The implication was factually wrong and the anger as misplaced as in another scrawl which called the ICA an elitist pig. Perhaps one should not expect students to discriminate between a highly condensed mock-up allusion to sterility or obsessively constricted space, and the real thing. On the other hand, the intuitions of an art critic who sees in this latest Morris piece a brilliant extension of internal vectors within a Minimalist cylinder seem almost incidental to the experience offered. I grant immediately the physical effect of the object, and respond to it, but is not my response prefiltered through intellectual and professional upbringing? Certainly, it was inconsequential to the “had,” “ripped off” sensation that it was rather likely I was intended to feel. On the way back, there was still “information” to be gained, the reverse of that acquired at the onset, but my resentment was sharper, now, too, and the point of the irate graffiti appeared more understandable.

Morris’ number had been appreciated very well by those who had no prior knowledge of New York esthetics. They had not warmed up to being so terroristically disconnected from their surroundings, or being treated as if they were gerbils in a laboratory experiment. That I could not entirely agree, seeing the cleverness of the artist, was self-protective. In fact, he demanded that I adopt some kind of intellectual defense, without requiring that I acknowledge it. But who is to tell me that I should be happy in my protections?

Max Kozloff