New York

Ree Morton

As well deserved as the recent attention to the artist Ree Morton is, we should not overlook the critical or curatorial coaxing necessary to bring a neglected figure such as this one back onto the scene. Only a little digging makes it clear that prior to her death in 1977—at the age of forty, in a car crash—Morton had achieved notable success (showing work regularly in both gallery and museum exhibitions) and had fully installed herself within a vibrant artistic community; yet, for as engaged and present a figure as Morton would seem in retrospect, we must remind ourselves that until a few years ago many of us didn’t know her name.

That artists who die young—and thus who have had short careers—are often lost to the history books is in itself not surprising. But nevertheless, in some cases (Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, et al.) the brevity of a career only underscores its importance, while in others it leads merely to obfuscation. I do not want to argue that this is always a matter of gender (Eva Hesse offers a counterexample), but in Morton’s case there is no question—to my mind at least—that the kind of work she made, and the life she led, aided and abetted her (temporary) removal from art history. Efforts by Helen Molesworth, Connie Butler, and, most recently, João Ribas (who curated the Drawing Center’s exhibition, titled “At the Still Point of the Turning World”) have successfully rehabilitated an artistic practice that, some three decades after it abruptly came to a close, finds an unexpected resonance today.

This resonance derives from the fact that Morton’s work feels at once deeply out of and in sync with our own moment. While we have of late been fortunate to see in museums and institutions what would seem to be evidence of attention to feminism and its impact on art, there is nonetheless a merited anxiety about the sustainability of such attention and, worse, not-so-subtle institutional and cultural hints that we should move on from feminism now that it has ostensibly been ushered into the historical canon. But a return to Morton’s practice reminds us what complicated terrain art informed by feminism was—and still is. Morton came to art “late in life” (i.e., around thirty years old), after having abandoned a nursing career, gotten married, and had three children. Making a kind of radical about-face, she dissolved her marriage and dedicated her life to making art. During the late 1960s and early ’70s, then, Morton absorbed the lessons of post-Minimalism, Raymond Roussel (among other literature and philosophy), and feminism, all of which she seems to have treated as equally consciousness-raising.

And though Morton didn’t use the word feminist to describe her work or thinking, she appears oppositional almost from the start in the way she pressures the repetitive, ostensibly expressionless structural operations with which she first experimented. The Drawing Center’s show, neatly (perhaps too neatly) arranged to take a viewer through the many rapid phases of Morton’s oeuvre, opened with a number of such works, delicate pencil drawings from the early ’70s that would seem to proceed with modular fidelity but begin almost at once to lean toward evoking soft tactility (her cubes very often more like pillows) and subsequently toward topography. Morton soon gave herself over to illusionism and even cartoonlike representation, with works diagramming movement and mapping, mimicking wood grain, playing with “craft” conventions, and so on. Her later works take on, with a biting kind of humor, questions of “decorum,” invoking the feminine, the decorative, class, and regional styles. That the exhibition highlighted “drawing” in a practice so hybrid and limber as that of Morton (who was also represented there with sculpture and installation work) was not really a hindrance, pointing up, instead, the ways in which Morton played outside the lines of medium-specificity anyway. In a notebook from 1968, Morton seems to lay it all out in advance: Framed as a question, the word “ELEGANT?” hovers at the top of the page. Below, two columns are marked “I like” and “I hate.” Under the former, such things as “Byzantine mosaics,” “good liars,” and “Ingres” appear. Under the latter: “painters—phony,” “paintings—rectangle,” “elegance,” and “good taste.”

Johanna Burton