New York

Robert Morris

To know why Robert Morris loomed so large in the 1960s one need look no further than Untitled (Scatter Piece), 1968–69. For this room-size installation, Morris distributed his materials—steel, lead, zinc, copper, aluminum, brass, and contrasting thick felt sheets—according to an open system of size and weight change, with dozens of individual forms whose bending and folding L-shapes and bullet-nose U-turns were determined by a complex system (as Jeffrey Weiss tells us in his excellent essay accompanying this show) premised on calculations of coin tossings “plus numbers randomly selected from the New York City telephone directory,” generating directives that “govern the length, width, thickness, and number of bends (0, 1, or 2) for each unit.” The artist himself has overseen the reinstallation of the work at the Leo Castelli Gallery, where it is exhibited alongside working drawings—seemingly abstruse fields of counting and counterchecking, which allow one to experience the same astonishment that one has in examining a score and then hearing the music, the sensory differential is so divergently startling.

Untitled (Scatter Piece) was originally installed in the West 108th Street warehouse Castelli had opened to exhibit new, experimental and out-scale work—that of Richard Serra as well as Morris’s. The piece currently on view tends to reinforce the sense of a stylistic coupling between these two artists in spite of their vastly different sensibilities. Morris’s evolution from a Duchampian point of departure could barely be farther from Serra’s unyielding Suprematist, Barnett Newman–like grounding, though with the passage of forty-plus years, this difference is far less apparent than it once was. Back then, one worried about who had what idea first—the nanosecond lag between one artist’s toss and another’s scatter. Today that kind of clocked Olympian hairsplitting seems absurdly proprietary.

Of course, many other artists also made work that avails itself to meaningful comparison with Morris’s—among them, Robert Smithson, with his sheer impulse toward ever-larger scale, and Barry Le Va, whose smashed glass layerings and distribution pieces also address the conundrum of how to judge quality in abstraction. Furthermore, the piece reveals Morris’s affinities to many contemporaneous figures who took up the notion of horizontality, of floor-ness, of sprawl—a radical conception that, while asserting sculptural presence, subverted the inherent vertical totem as the surrogate human figure germane to the entire tradition of sculpture.

In that soixante-huitard moment—marked by immense social pressures (disgust with the Vietnam War and political assassinations within the United States; the exultations of the women’s movement, gay liberation, “black is beautiful,” the Summer of Love)—alienated artists posited grave and original questions as to how to maintain the credibility of abstraction (the modernist signifier of social upheaval), how to shear from it the excrescences of the then-rapid commoditization of advanced art. This endeavor was, for many artists, emblematic of their revulsion for art’s embourgeoisement. Morris was always prompted by a sense of moral outrage (and not necessarily to agreeable effect—think of the Romantic, John Martin–like vistas of hurricane, pestilence, holocaust, and putrefaction typical of his work from the early ’80s; too message-y for sure but unflinchingly sincere).

Given present circumstances, then, the “scatter piece,” while not necessarily false to the original is, in measure, an altered work. This applies on a practical level as well: The current town house space containing the work is much smaller than the original sinister warehouse; the thick sliced felts are draped in each of the corners of the room, and it seems easier to forge a path through the seeming jumble, where, this time, one has access to a viewing room in which one can peruse the drawings. So this is no facsimile reproduction of what once was, based on surviving photographic documentation, but the memory of sculpture as a virtual performance to be differentiated at each new reconstruction. Yet, all that granted, Untitled (Scatter Piece) is still—for want of a better word—breathtaking.

Robert Pincus-Witten