Sarah Morris, SM Outlined (Initials), 2011, household gloss paint on canvas, 84 1/4 x 84 1/4".

Sarah Morris, SM Outlined (Initials), 2011, household gloss paint on canvas, 84 1/4 x 84 1/4".

Sarah Morris

Capitain Petzel

Sarah Morris, SM Outlined (Initials), 2011, household gloss paint on canvas, 84 1/4 x 84 1/4".

Halfway through Sarah Morris’s film Points on a Line, 2010, a man signs a credit-card receipt in the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. He’s typical of the establishment’s diners: a wealthy suit who’s probably just enjoyed a decent lunch before heading back to the office for a languid afternoon. But rather than acting as a red flag to class warriors, Morris’s vision of the iconic dining room serves a structural or even architectural purpose, acting as a bridge between two seminal late-modern buildings: Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut (1949), and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s very similar Farnsworth House (1945–51) in Plano, Illinois. Morris shot both over several months, then edited them together with the Four Seasons as a link—a space that the two great architects collaborated on, Johnson having designed the restaurant interior for Mies’s building.

So far then, so Sarah Morris: urban setting, implicit architectural lecture with a hint of polemic, clever questions about the original and the copy, as well as the implications of collaboration. It’s a sumptuous production too, shot in HD with a sound track (by Liam Gillick) piped through the space in crystal-clear surround sound. One of the questions one is left with after watching this lush crash course in modern American architecture is whether the lesson is actually interesting. The short answer is probably not—at least not if that’s the question you focus on. And this is often the problem for Morris; she makes viewers work, and for those unprepared to expend the energy, it’s easy to miss the things that make her work good. Points on a Line is a case in point, in that its main conceptual thrust—the contradiction between modernism’s pristine buildings and the disruptive muckiness of the lives lived in them—lies hidden beneath its own shiny surface. But there are moments where it bubbles up: in shots of window cleaners doing their best to fend off the forces of nature, for example, or in close-ups of legal transcripts from a dispute between Mies and his client Edith Farnsworth, which bring some human grit indoors.

Upstairs, similar tensions emerged in Morris’s “John Hancock” paintings, 2011–. Most use the artist’s initials, S. M., laid on in her glossy, detached way. The evident reading—artist tinkers with own signature—could leave viewers yawning, but, as with Points on a Line, architecture is the real key to unlocking her message. Morris’s use of Hancock’s name for the series title isn’t just about its iconic status as the most flamboyantly inscribed signature on the Declaration of Independence; it is also a reference to Chicago’s John Hancock Center—another major late-modern building (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 1965–70), named after the life insurance company that in turn took its corporate identity from Hancock’s signature. Antenna (John Hancock), 2011, makes this explicit. The painting is based on the building’s distinctive aerials, and is one of only two works in the series not to feature Morris’s initials. The decidedly cool paintings hold viewers at arm’s length, just as the video keeps them firmly on the other side of the glass. But despite its polished aloofness, her work has seriously intelligent things to say about the uncomfortable overlaps between architecture, commerce, and authorship. And beneath the cold serenity is a more rewarding physicality—a reminder that our desire for beautiful spaces doesn’t always square with our irresistible urge to leave our mark on them.

Anthony Byrt