New York

Robert Morris

Leo Castelli Gallery And Sonnabend Gallery

Robert Morris’ latest New York exhibition spreads over two galleries and takes two directions. At Castelli, space is enclosed. At Sonnabend, sight lines are drawn. In one sight-line piece, four copper rods, each nine feet long, are suspended from the ceiling; their arrow-shaped tips reach almost to the floor, When the viewer stands so that three of the four rods are lined up, the fourth is revealed to be off-set. Between the group of three and the single rod, one sees a painted black line extending vertically along the far wall. As a pattern of three lines––copper, black paint, copper—is revealed, space is compressed.

Morris imposes a flattening, graphic effect on objects disposed in three dimensions. He does much the same in a piece made of bronze slabs suspended from the ceiling. They are arranged so that their various positions and volumes resolve themselves, from a certain viewpoint, into another flattened pattern.

In the third piece at Sonnabend, four sets of square steel frames are suspended from the ceiling in a square pattern; mirrors are placed on the wall at each corner of the square. The result is an enclosed, right-angled, symmetrical pattern of reflections. Looking through a set of frames, one sees a mirror in which—as one would expect—a set of frames is reflected. However, the mirrors are mounted so as to provide a 45-degree angle of incidence. Thus the frames one sees reflected belong to another set. Since a gallery wall appears in the middle of this pattern of reflections, the piece allows one to take sight lines around corners. In fact, the viewer is able to see the back of his own head, as in some video set-ups.

There are two pieces at Castelli. One is a tunnel, 35 feet long, welded together from sections of cold-rolled steel. Set against a wall, it offers an arched interior space five feet high. The lower edges of the steel are nine inches from the floor. Thus light and, one could say, space enter in at the bottom of the tunnel, making it far less claustrophobic than it appears from the outside.

The other piece at Castelli, made of heavy wooden beams and stained plywood, reverses these effects. Smelling of creosote, it evokes docks, piers and the openness of the water’s edge. The arrangement of its upright beams seems, at first glance, to invite one to enter. However, no one did so when I was at the gallery. The piece’s interior spaces are forbiddingly constricted when seen from close up.

Having described these works, I have little more to say—except to elaborate on the dilemma of having little more to say. To some, these works’ resistance to analysis might be considered a virtue: the artist has offered experiences which are sufficient in themselves, which don’t require commentary. I have no quarrel with those who find these works rich and self-sustaining. I can only report that I found the experience terribly thin—boring, not to beat around the bush. I wasn’t bored in the way that leads past boredom to new orders of experience. I was simply bored. This is a disappointment. Some of Morris’ earlier work has aroused in me an intense—if adversary—interest.

These new works are circumscribed by an illustrational intention. Elaborate technological process and weighty, elegant materials are employed to demonstrate that objects can be arranged in space to reduce their three-dimensionality, that odd things can be done with mirrors, that seemingly forbidding space can be inviting, and that the reverse is true. I knew all this before I saw these two exhibitions. The experience added nothing to my knowledge. Nor, as I said, was the experience sufficient in itself. To elaborate these points would be to take up the pose of a connoisseur of futility—and of the ironies which perhaps attend that quality in these works. There’s one more approach, equally unacceptable. One could look at these exhibitions as displays of decorative objects. I suppose there are some ironies in that direction, as well. I prefer vital ironies, and feel neither the desire nor the responsibility to poke around in dispirited ones which may not even have been intended. It remains only to say that Morris’ next show is bound to be more interesting than either of these two take up the pose of a connoisseur of futility—and of the ironies which perhaps attend that quality in these works. There’s one more approach, equally unacceptable. One could look at these exhibitions as displays of decorative objects. I suppose there are some ironies in that direction, as well. I prefer vital ironies, and feel neither the desire nor the responsibility to poke around in dispirited ones which may not even have been intended. It remains only to say that Morris’ next show is bound to be more interesting than either of these two.

––Carter Ratcliff