New York

Robert Morris

Leo Castelli Gallery

In a preface to the recent show called “Mirror Works,” Robert Morris tells of how uneasy he was when the mirror insinuated itself into his work; it seemed hard to redeem, it was so “disco-degenerate.” “Later its very suspiciousness seemed a virtue.”

Such an inversion is common with Morris: he works in tension with received ideas of sculpture to clarify just what sculpture is. In Voice, 1974, an idea of sculpture as a static and atemporal thing was used as a foil for elements more in keeping with performance. New prospects were generated for sculpture, even as it was defined critically. “Mirror Works” shows a similar strategy.

The six sculptures are warped wooden supports for mirrors that bulge in and out. The effects are fluid, infinite: any idea of sculpture as a discrete and done thing goes by the wayside. Normally we think of sculpture as an object or figure, distinct from us, within a space where we can walk freely; as we walk, the sculpture is revealed in a logical succession of views. Not much of this is true of the mirror works. Multiple, they make the viewer multiple: he can’t orient himself to address them. Oddly, in work that (because of the mirrors) is so centered on the viewer, so private, the viewer is decentered, taken out of himself—he seems more the object than the subject of the experience. The sculpture, as a medium, seems to betray him like language: things that seem private, when made public, get distorted; the exterior misrepresents the interior. In any case, if not betrayed, the viewer does seem appropriated by image(s) that don’t even seem his. He literally cannot detach himself from the sculpture to think about it. Such thoughts occur later, away from the sculpture, when he may turn it into an object of study that he controls. Meanwhile, the literal reflection obstructs any abstract reflection.

Most of the mirror works enclose the viewer or restrict him somehow, so that, in the midst of an illusory space that is open, there is an actual space that is quite closed. This inhibits the body of the viewer, even as it gives the image or representation of the body free play. As in a surrealist painting, the real and the unreal inhabit the same world; but the effect here is not freedom: the reality of the hard glass intrudes upon the fantasy of the mirror, and the illusory space renders the actual space all the more constrictive.

As an enclosure, each sculpture is more a space than a figure. In effect, the mirrors efface the sculpture as a visual thing and make an illusionistic space in which the viewer is the illusionistic figure, i.e. the sculpture. Looking around at oneself in the mirrors replaces walking around an object in space. But, because the mirrors distort, the views do not seem consecutive, and no one figure is revealed. Again, there is an inhibition, for the viewer does not even seem adequate as an object.

Morris also showed a series of drawings entitled “In the Realm of the Carceral”; they are “plans” for a prison that is at once comic-book dastardly and technocratic refined. The whole is both a dystopia of a society under surveillance and a parody of such dystopias. The titles, like The Hot and Cold Pools of Persuasion, are comic and critical: the language, though absurd, does point to psychological truths and the abuses of metaphor.

“In the Realm of the Carceral” calls to mind the recent work of Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, but, for the most part, the relation is an ironic one. For Foucault, the realm of the carceral is the realm of the social; he says explicitly, “there is no outside”: the principle of observation in the prison (perfected in the “Panopticon,” a domelike structure that allows one warder to oversee all inmates) is general in society; we are all subject to “disciplinary mechanisms” that assure the “asymmetry of power,” etc. True, the devices in the drawings do seem to extend beyond the frame, but the mediation Foucault has in mind is a bit more subtle. True, the perspective in the drawings is somewhat like the Panopticon, an overview that is also a relation of power, but (as in the sculpture) the viewer is not sure whether he is the subject or the object, “above” with the warder or “below” with the inmates. It is of course not a matter of “us” or “them,” and Morris does not show either party, which is why the drawings are so ominous, even though the devices are absurd: it is as if Power itself is represented.

In any case, Morris is aware of the general thesis of Foucault, that knowledge produces power which in turn provides for new knowledge, etc. (In the preface, Morris tells of a wily use of mirrors by Greek soldiers, “an early instance,” he writes, “of genius in the service of the military.”) “In the Realm of the Carceral” is a parody of the process, yet, as in all parody, there is a truth in the thing ridiculed, and even as Morris makes fun of paranoia over surveillance and power-masters, he attests to the reality there too. It seems important for artists to know that they are not free of the workings of knowledge and power, that there may in fact be a utility in art that bills itself as nonutilitarian, that the status of the artist as an outsider is perhaps a franchise given him.

Hal Foster