Robert Morris

In 1971, when Robert Morris was at the top of his game, he constructed a site-specific installation composed of plywood ramps, beams, balancing platforms, ledges, and a massive sphere for Duveen Hall, the stately entrance to the former Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain). Then forty years old, the erstwhile Minimalist envisioned something more complicated than a mere grouping of geometric forms and shapes. As David Sylvester and David Compton wrote in the exhibition catalogue, the artworks were “a sequence of structures which, although they resemble in their uncompromised simplicity Morris’ earlier sculptures, invite the physical participation of the public.” That turned out to be an understatement. So many people were injured as they energetically climbed, mounted, slid, and rolled among the over- size elements that the show was halted four days after it opened.

Morris’s wood units were destroyed. Museum director Norman Reid had already explained that the structures were “specially conceived and built for the Tate out of materials most of which can be put back into stock afterwards and used again to make floors, doors, furniture, etc.” Added Reid, “This is a new concept of art without permanent objects.” Had the Tate not published a catalogue copiously illustrated with the artist’s work of the 1960s, the installation might have been forgotten. Even Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem, the four-pound retrospective tome issued by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1994, only cites the British museum show once, buried in a lengthy list of solo exhibitions.

To anchor events organized for this year’s Long Weekend festival, Tate Modern had Morris re-create his original project from more durable materials, including higher-grade plywood, and with the addition of netting and other safety features. Newly titled Bodyspacemotionthings, it was even more popular this time than it had been almost forty years ago. By 11 am on the first day, young children were pouncing, running, screaming, and scampering across Morris’s ramps and slides. Later that evening, the rear of Turbine Hall resembled date night. Couples patiently queued to act like the kids. The response to Morris’s installation was so overwhelming that its four-day run was extended more than three weeks.

Surprisingly, no mention was made of choreographer Simone Forti, the sculptor’s first wife and former collaborator, who with Morris had used similar components as dance props, perhaps leading Morris to reconceive such structures as Minimalist sculpture. At the Tate for the second time, Morris’s objects seemed to rejoin the tradition of performative, high-energy installation art they unwittingly foreshadowed: Like the slides that Carsten Höller installed here in 2007, they now functioned as a species of playground equipment—but with little art content. You hardly noticed the plywood perches because the people having fun on the forms were so much more compelling. I only wonder what all those mothers said to their children as they passed between three screens on which Morris’s Neo Classic, 1971, a grainy black-and-white film of a nude woman inter- acting with the platforms and sphere, were projected continuously.

Indeed, as redeployed primary structures, Minimalist objects, or however you would like to refer to them, the works were disappointing. Disengaged from the confines of Duveen Hall, the whole ensemble resembled a free- standing stage set, especially when viewed from the floors above. Moreover, once the materials were upgraded and safety features added, the historicity of the project was negated. Rather than being reinvented, these forms seemed tamed. Neither did the ensemble have the impact of recent big-gesture art manifestations like Höller’s slides, Olafur Eliasson’s waterfalls, or Christo and Jean-Claude’s Gates. Morris’s art was once an inspiration to young artists, but now it seems addressed to a public that wants to amuse itself and nothing more.

Phyllis Tuchman