Ree Morton, To Each Concrete Man, 1974, wood, canvas, PVC flooring, lightbulbs, electric fixtures, stretched rawhide, colored paper, pencil, paint. Installation view, Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2008.

Ree Morton, To Each Concrete Man, 1974, wood, canvas, PVC flooring, lightbulbs, electric fixtures, stretched rawhide, colored paper, pencil, paint. Installation view, Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2008.

Ree Morton

Generali Foundation

Ree Morton, To Each Concrete Man, 1974, wood, canvas, PVC flooring, lightbulbs, electric fixtures, stretched rawhide, colored paper, pencil, paint. Installation view, Generali Foundation, Vienna, 2008.

ONE OF THE EARLIEST WORKS in the Generali Foundation’s “Ree Morton: The Deities Must Be Made to Laugh: Works 1971–1977”—the first major institutional survey of the artist’s oeuvre in almost thirty years—was Untitled, 1971–73, a humble-looking assemblage consisting of pastel-painted wooden branches arranged in a kind of post-and-lintel structure. In the composition, a drawing on canvas has been stretched across the segment of wall defined by this structure, and on it, the Y shape of the weight-bearing vertical branches is repeated twice. Though certainly unassuming, Untitled was a somewhat provocative beginning: As both an early work and the first thing viewers saw, it announced the exhibition’s chronological organization—a risky proposition for any retrospective of a “rediscovered” female artist, given the historical tendency of art by women to be reduced to biographical interpretations. Indeed, the chronological approach is all the more fraught because of the dramatic, and tragic, particulars of Morton’s biography: In her thirties, she left behind a conventional life as a wife and mother in order to pursue artmaking and created a remarkable body of work in less than a decade, before dying in a car accident in 1977, at the age of forty.

More significantly, however, the very spareness of Untitled forced some unmistakable parallels with Minimalism to the fore, which was surprising, since Minimalism would seem antithetical to Morton’s sensibility. In fact, in some of the artist’s most ambitious works—her environments, or installations, painstakingly reassembled here by curator and Generali director Sabine Folie—it appears that she was bent on recuperating all that was repressed in Minimalism and Conceptualism: i.e., affectivity, expressiveness, erotics. For example, Sister Perpetua’s Lie, 1973, Morton’s first environment (she made four in all), contains a grid-shaped object that immediately recalls the black-painted wooden structures Sol LeWitt favored until 1965. But the rhetorics of referentiality, representation, and emotiveness are nevertheless placed front and center, through profuse allusions to the allegorical-mechanistic narrative strategies Raymond Roussel deployed in his 1910 novel Impressions d’Afrique (a major influence on Morton and the germinal source of this work), as well as through ominous quasi-representational elements, such as a sculpture that looks very much like a guillotine.

Morton’s art, at least at first glance, can appear rococo, de-skilled, crafty, kitschy. Even her “Earthworks”—a group of outdoor works she created in 1976 for the Artpark in Lewiston, New York—evince these qualities. A ladder propped against a steep riverbank for one piece, for example, has gaily colored struts that look like ribbons. This aesthetic really crystallized some two years earlier, however, when Morton began making colorful sculptures out of celastic, a plastic-impregnated textile that could be molded into brightly tinted bows or swags. Mostly wall-based, these celastic works, which typically feature varyingly cryptic phrases (SOLITARY, OR RARELY 2; TERMINAL CLUSTERS), are occasionally embellished with glitter or nail polish: Resembling cake decorations or greeting cards, they seem to trump Pop art when it comes to positively embracing the definition of kitsch apostrophized by Clement Greenberg. The critic’s conception of kitsch—high art bastardized and dumbed down for those who have no sense of the value of genuine art and who are thus susceptible to cheap sentiment—seems entirely relevant here. Indeed, Helen Molesworth, in a catalogue essay for the show, proposes that an exploration of sentimentality—one rooted in feminist art’s preoccupation with the domestic mise-en-scène, sentimentality’s traditional home base, as it were—was central to Morton’s practice and, in fact, to the development of installation art more generally.

And yet, Untitled’s evocation of a fundamental architectural shape allows us to connect the work to modernism’s least sentimental strains. The primordial formal vocabulary here reminds us of Minimal art’s affinity for geometric abstraction as a language of forms deemed capable of achieving an intuitive, universal comprehensibility. Further, Untitled suggests that Morton was exploring the problems of color, and of painting itself, that Donald Judd claimed for Minimal sculpture in his 1965 essay “Specific Objects”; notably, an earlier version of the piece, pictured in the catalogue, incorporated not one but six drawings distinguished by a decidedly serial character. Of course, the work’s handmade, not to say hippieish, sensibility fails to square with the standards of Minimalist sculpture. The twig structure is part of a suite of forms—hutlike, doorlike, and altarlike—that recur in Morton’s work, suggesting both archetypal shelters and cosmic thresholds and connecting to her fascination with ritual. Just as unassimilable in Minimalist terms is the Y, or forked, shape, a motif that Morton understood as a symbol of evolution and of the crossroads—that is, of the choice between two alternatives.

Intriguingly, this collection of similarities and differences suggests ways in which Morton’s work might anticipate a recent directional shift in critical understandings of Minimalism, Conceptualism, and their aftermaths—namely, a shift toward an increasing emphasis on affect, an emphasis visible, for example, in discussions around “Romantic Conceptualism,” as practiced by Bas Jan Ader and others, following Jörg Heiser’s recent exhibition of that name. This particular reading of Conceptualism is based on far less “semiotic” arguments than, say, Julia Kristeva’s own concept of affect, which was so crucially influential for the art of the 1970s; in fact, it is considerably less semiotic than even the postmodern discourse of (allegorical) melancholy that coalesced around installation art during the late ’80s and early ’90s. So we might well wonder whether the real stakes for any reconsideration of Morton’s work are a rehabilitation of that “personal expression” excluded by the analytic artistic forms of the ’60s and ’70s—and by the critical discourse that accompanied those forms. It was, in fact, difficult not to view Morton’s retrospective in these terms, particularly given Folie’s declaration, on taking up the Generali directorship last year, that—unlike her predecessor Sabine Breitwieser, whose standpoint she apparently considered too “severe” (see the January 2008 article in this magazine, by Achim Hochdörfer and myself, on this subject)—she would prioritize the sensual and poetic.

But while Morton’s artistic language did not follow the “rules” of her era’s dominant schools of art—rules that, as is quite clear from her writings and interviews, she did in fact understand very well—it’s not particularly useful to construe her work’s transgressive affectiveness as a simple oppositional reaction. The tensile proximity to the post-avant-garde that is visible in her later work, as well as in early pieces like Untitled—in her predilections for found, banal, and industrial materials, language games, assemblage, site-specific mixed-media works, and references to disciplines outside art, such as the natural sciences, philosophy, and literature—suggests a more complex dynamic. Without denying the clear emotional charge of Morton’s work, we might say that sentiment is invoked in her art as a referential code, one deliberately brought to bear to counter the antikitsch commandments of both formalism and the avant-garde of her time. In other words, we are looking at a dialogic, critical, and ambivalent engagement with the post-Duchampian avant-garde, one that indeed contains elements of rebellion but that is far from a simple (and gendered) opposition of the expressive and the theoretical.

This is worth keeping in mind as we consider what Molesworth aptly calls the works’ “refusal to be properly sculpture or painting” (or specific objects, for that matter). To this I would add that it is precisely such a refusal that most clearly reveals Morton’s deliberate confrontation with the potential of those mediums and genres that she hybridized in her environments. As the exhibition demonstrated, in her installations Morton did not break down the material characteristics of drawing, painting, architecture, and sculpture to the point of unrecognizability. Rather, she placed these material characteristics center stage, as it were, but in such a way that the works evinced a certain emblematic fragmentation.

Take, for example, Morton’s 1974 environment To Each Concrete Man, created for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Evoking both a landscape and a kind of fantastic hunting lodge, the work features a cluster of mushroomlike hanging rawhide lamp shades, each casting a soft light on a chunky rawhide-covered tree stump mounted on delicate little legs. A diffuse glow on one wall serves as a kind of spotlight for a sculptural yet frankly theatrical tableau: On a low platform are several wooden figures that resemble easels, or perhaps memorial plaques, but that are also unmistakably anthropomorphic. It isn’t difficult to see this work as an acerbically comical attack on the institutional chic of Minimal sculpture and on the information aesthetic of Conceptual art, such attacks being typical of “deviant” artists such as Eva Hesse, Lee Lozano, and Paul Thek. Certainly, To Each Concrete Man develops a system of shapes, materials, and hybrid object arrangements that, per Molesworth, may be understood as a precursor to the theatrical installations of the late ’80s and early ’90s. And like those later works, it presses the issue of the “aesthetic boundaries” (a phrase borrowed from art historian Regine Prange) between mediums that Greenberg felt were exactly what kitsch undermined. At once pictorial and sculptural, atomized and holistic, To Each Concrete Man suggests that Morton was untroubled by the simultaneity of physical-phenomenological experience and visual-affective sensation. But again, we know that Morton was fully cognizant of the artistic discourse of her day; she was surely aware not only of Greenberg but also of Michael Fried, for whom such simultaneity was anathema as well. In other words, we can assume that she was conscious of, not blithely indifferent to, these boundaries and her transgressions of them. Noteworthy here is the fact that Morton intended the work’s title to refer to visitors; that is, each of us is a concrete man. Possibly, her title is reminding us that “personal expression” is a product of the very universalist (self-)identification with “man” that was contradicted in the ’70s by feminist critique.

Far from seeking universals, Morton seems to have been seeking a balance that she marked, as it were, as a duality or a doubling, signified by the Y motif. This boundary-constituting duality, in my opinion, carries over to the other installations and sculptures in the show, if not always delineating borders between mediums. It’s also important to consider Morton’s marking-off of, and transgression of, the distinctions between art and life, public and private, high and low culture. The sculpture See-Saw, 1974, for example, looks as if it were designed for some otherworldly playground: At the center of a circle of white-painted wooden blocks, a wooden plank is positioned atop a tree stump; backrests, painted white and embellished with black graphics, are affixed to either end of the board. So far, it’s more or less a conventional seesaw—except that one of the two backrests has been mounted upside down, rendering the whole thing absurdly nonfunctional. The balance here is precarious indeed—an image of the impossibility (for the viewer) of uniting the autonomous and the functional object, aesthetic value and use-value.

To revisit To Each Concrete Man, we might say that it is Morton’s obvious linking of private space (the dim, drawing-room-like space of the lamps and stools) and stage (the tableau on the platform) that produces the theatricality Fried had objected to in Minimal art seven years before, and which has long since been elevated to a mark of quality in installation art. This linking stages the boundary in a manner that anticipates the transformation of Minimal objects into performative-emotive systems, still an effective strategy today. (Think, for example, of the work of Tom Burr.) But of course there is more to reckon with than notions of public and private in a consideration of space in Morton’s work. In some of her earliest pieces—such as an untitled composition from 1973 in which a large abstract watercolor on canvas is given a sculptural dimension via three small logs propped against it, activating the wall-floor relationship—she was preoccupied with spatiality as such. And yet even here we might say she engaged in a kind of denaturalized, theatrical marking—evident in her career-long interrogation of the frame, which is often indistinguishable from the proscenium in her work (see, for instance, her “Regional Pieces” of 1975 and 1976, in which paintings of fish are set off by celastic “curtains”). She often accomplished this theatrical spatial marking via the use of light; her celastic word sculptures, notably, are studded with lightbulbs. Recalling that the motif of electric illumination has been used by artists since the nineteenth century to critique the illusionist standpoint, we might see these as indicating both links and separations between image and room. They suggest the lightbulbs around an actor’s dressing-room mirror—a frame of illumination that at once demarcates a “picture” (or reflection) and asserts sculptural presence, transecting the actual space of the gallery with its beams. Certainly, these works have something of the poignancy of a theater when the performance is over.

Recalibrating expression as a function of space and of aesthetic agency, and laying the groundwork for the affective propositions of a later generation of artists, Morton amply deserves this turn in the limelight. And in the end, fortunately, what Folie accomplished with this exhibition was very much in keeping with Breitwieser’s program and achievements. “Ree Morton” was a historical-critical retrospective, highlighting an artistic standpoint that previously had not been sufficiently evaluated in light of prevailing exhibition and discursive practices and that constitutes a necessary corrective to, and expansion of, the canonical history of the post-avant-garde. Far from being reductively biographical, the Generali’s presentation of this succession of works was a study in the evolution of a practice that has enormous potential as a sourcebook for artists today.

Sabeth Buchmann is an art historian, critic, and professor of the history of modern and postmodern art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.