New York

Robert Morris

Leo Castelli

Robert Morris has been a reliable monitor of the art world’s pulse for 25 years. At one moment in the ’60s, he wanted the work of art to be perceived as an object in its brute materiality. Soon, however, in rhythm with the mutating taste of the time, he moved on to a less macho brand of art-making employing felt and a range of strategies aimed at dematerializing the art object. The ’80s saw another shift in Morris’ approach, again in sync with the tempo of the moment, to the grandiose historical mode in which he continues to work today.

Darkly monochromatic, cryptlike, and partially filled with sections of fossillike bas-reliefs of body parts, machine parts, branches, and other post-holocaust remains, each work in the recent show features a word or phrase embossed onto the lead surface: “Freud,” “Leo,” “Leonardo,” “Oedipus,” “Mnemosyne,” etc. The piece entitled Freud, 1990, had the psychoanalyst’s name printed in large letters across the top, with fossilized images filling the bottom portion. Leo, 1990, featured the name (presumably referring to his dealer Leo Castelli) printed across the top while the bottom left-hand corner featured three concentric circles. A replica of a brain occupied the innermost circle, and a heart was situated outside the circles to the right. The majority of another piece, entitled Oedipus, 1990, remains concealed by a felt curtain that extends past the perimeter of the frame. Morris’ method harks back to the Old Master approach, in which narrative feeds on the fat of synthesized allegories. Images of mass destruction are combined with linguistic or cultural references. Each of these pieces undertakes the serious job of revealing the essence of a violent and transgressive world, but they are coolly cataclysmic, and they speak of the frozen remains of a world that once was, a world over which no one is left to remember or to mourn.

Like much of the media-inflated spectacle that constitutes contemporary reality, the sheer number of victims in these scenes of mass destruction is both numbing and psychologically distancing. Stripped of their reference to any individual victim, these body parts are museum mummies. The apotheosis of all subjective reference, they take on the aura of the powerful art object, commodified and consumed, insured against threats of irrelevance or insubstantiality.

Also exhibited were free-standing pieces of sculpture that harked back to ’60s Minimalism; in fact, one piece was from that period. The concern for literary content was also evidenced in a wall piece that broke from the preoccupation with mass death and seemed instead to be an homage to Marcel Duchamp. Mnemosyne, 1990, has the goddess of memory’s name embossed in large letters across the work’s surface. Above the name three different sized rulers hang from eye hooks, and what appear to be fossilized remnants of Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages are randomly embossed in the remaining negative space. Once again, the memory here lacks the resonance of individual loss; like much of the work in the show, this attempt at the grand statement remains a display of dissociated spectacle.

Dena Shottenkirk