New York

Robert Morris

Sonnabend Gallery

The poster for Robert Morris’ Labyrinths—Voice—Blind Time in 1974 showed the artist stripped to the waist, in helmet and dark glasses, shackled at wrists and neck. Pushed to the breaking point, machismo, individualism in excelsis, seemed compromised by the forces it encapsulated, sadism defined by an equal and opposite masochism, with the result that the artist and his artwork, equated temporarily, were oiled and masked (recurrent Morris motifs) and sealed off absolutely as sheer narcissism demanded a willing loss of identity. He seemed to be saying that/these days, when Prometheus buys his own chains from a friendly neighborhood leather store, the ease of manipulation of sign-systems has distanced reality. While the ideal of the suffering artist is the more poignant, the more unattainable it becomes, the reality itself is a closed circuit, a lowest common denominator, a white slab with no meaning in itself, ready to be touched by the artist’s mind. Tony Smith called a black cube Die—it was an apt pun.

Backlit and glowing, Cenotaph for Cancer, inscribed in black on a marble slab in a darkened room full of similar slabs, is bitter but disturbingly serene. “It is a park, well-kept and bringing to mind those lush retreats of the eighteenth century. . . .” One reads the text reverently, as in a church. On a pond, it says, floats a mutant swan donated by an asbestos mining company. A row of chestnut trees has been planted by the executive vice-president of a chemical corporation. Haacke would have named names; Morris is satisfied with descriptive prose. His proposals for monuments are acknowledged as kitsch, even farce; a plastic skull surmounts each text. Yet the pervading mood is one of Victorian melancholy. A previous idea was for a Canovalike mausoleum where his own casket on rails would be moved a little every day. The cenotaph series presents architectural cadenzas, plans for sites in which sheer survival outweighs petty pretexts, where a loss of moral values has made nonsense of that social celebration classic art implied. Morris’ Romantic yearnings indicate nostalgia for epic, not lyric, values. One staple of his critical thought has been a constant redefinition of minimalist precepts. More than ever now, this may be wearing thin; a compulsive, self-indulgent habit of mind. Does Morris mean to abandon it? Or does he simply mean to make us think he will abandon it? It is unlikely; all cliffhangers have solutions. As Morris’ career has taken shape, it has seemed increasingly to be an act of effrontery, a gamut of roles and stances arranged cunningly into a sequence in which stratagems alone are applauded and works themselves fade imperceptibly into history after somehow having crystallized it perfectly. More than once, Morris has displayed powers of an intellectual Houdini. Now, once more, he must unfasten his chains.

Stuart Morgan