New York

Robert Morris

Grey Art Gallery

This exhibition of Robert Morris’ felt works—the earliest dating to the late ’60s, the most recent to 1983—constitutes a truly major exhibition. Felt has come to be regarded as Morris’ signature material, for it recurs somewhat regularly in his oeuvre. In general, Morris’ work has been over-intellectualized and underemotionalized. The catalogue essays accompanying the exhibition do little to change the situation, although curator Pepe Karmel acknowledges that the works’ “seductive curves. . . . evoke the presence and motion of the human body.” He describes the work House of the Vetti, 1983, as “a central slit enclosed by narrow labial folds of pink felt . . . surrounded by larger areas of gray (or gray and black) felt,” with the whole structure projected into the room “by the distinctly phallic element of the steel pipe.”

Similarly, the various untitled works of the ’70s usually fold around a cryptic central form. Indeed, the felt works in general are a kind of intonation of bodiliness as such—liturgically precise in their patient repetitions, their discreet compulsiveness. Their ceremonial quality is crucial. They raise the host, which is usually poised at the uncertain moment when abstract spirit becomes physical body; in Morris’ case, the transformation occurs when the physical body seems about to become abstract spirit. No doubt to interpret Morris’ work in a pictorial spirit is to violate its essentially abstract character, but his abstractions do gather pictorial punch by way of their expressive power. Indeed, I would argue that the felt sculptures epitomize the project that is at the heart of Morris’ work: an exploration of negative expressivity and the use of negative means to articulate it, that is, the use of minimal abstract gesture to generate maximum expressive effect. Just as the pictures in the House of the Vetti at Pompeii fused and toyed with pictorial and abstract architectural effects, and had mythological import, so do Morris’ felt sculptures. Is it possible that the simultaneity of male and female attributes in his work—especially the attempt to render the attributes equivalent, for all their difference—can be related to the scenes of Dionysian ritual in the famous Villa of the Mysteries, also in Pompeii?

Up until the ’80s—when his expressivity became heroically explicit, if not without his usual inhibiting touch of self-mockery (and mockery of us, the spectators)—Morris made visually shallow works, that is, works in which a relatively neutral, uneventful surface and/or structure was used to intense expressive effect. What was understated was erotic, as a general phenomenon of art, as a specific quality of material, and as the general point of being. In the felt works, the erotic is simultaneously repressed by being denied obvious pictorial expression, and expressively magnified by abstract symbolism (the source of pictorial semblance) and emphatic tactility. This ambivalence to the erotic is amplified in the ambiguous sexual reading that can be given to “figural” sculptures. The work has an unbalanced ambiguity: like the streamers on a maypole, the female folds come together around a phallic center. But then again the center is more often recessive than projective, righting the balance and suggesting Morris’ identification with the female. The felt works are voluptuous nudes, as hairy and provocative in their nakedness as I-Box, 1962, Morris’ ironic self-portrait.

Donald Kuspit