New York

Robert Morris, Maybe They Won’t Find Out, 2014–15, linen, resin, 46 × 32 × 72". © Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Robert Morris, Maybe They Won’t Find Out, 2014–15, linen, resin, 46 × 32 × 72". © Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Robert Morris

Robert Morris, Maybe They Won’t Find Out, 2014–15, linen, resin, 46 × 32 × 72". © Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Robert Morris, now eighty-four, is a figure of singular importance to American sculpture, painting, Conceptualism, and performance art. His recent exhibition, which he titled—with admirable didactic zeal—“MOLTINGSEXOSKELETONSSHROUDS,” comprised several figural groups made of Belgian linen. Saturated with epoxy resin and draped over life-size mannequins, the linen, when dry, is lifted from its support, becoming, in turn, a ghostly exoskeleton, the memory of what had once been the weighty dross below: immaterial weightlessness versus earthen matter.

The new shells of figures—light but not insubstantial, translucent and sharply responsive to changes in illumination—were then set about the gallery space, some upon the floor while others scampered up the wall to challenge our sense of gravitational logic. The works also suggest the molted carapaces of arachnids or crustaceans, discarded shells that announce the continuing growth of these animals. Thus, these sculptures, shroud-like and funerary, imply both new life and a mortal—not to say an intensely iconographic—past.

We wonder, for example, are the figures in Keep It To Yourself (all works 2014–15) at rest, or are they ci-gît figures, the “here-lies” portraits of medieval French and English mortuary monuments? Of course, they may be both. At times, say with regard to the seemingly bereft mourner in For Otto, we are reminded not only of Renaissance and Baroque compositions but also of the statuary in pedimental ensembles—specifically, the cunning way in which such figures are arranged to conform to the acute triangular extremities of that vexing format. One grouping in particular comes to mind: the three goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon, whose florid drapery is germane to the present work. (To that end, Morris also brings to mind Madame Grès, the famed Parisian designer whose garments were predicated on suave draping. This particular affinity represents an ambiguous semiotics that Morris himself might enjoy, given the signals coded in the notorious 1974 beefcake poster of the artist enchained while sporting a Nazi military helmet.)

Certain sculptures mark specific references, such as the Holy Week processions in Spain. Yet while the conical hoods of penitents are all but Goya-like, so too are they inferentially American, evoking the dunce caps of the one-room schoolhouse, quite the way George Ohr ceramics or nineteenth-century American genre painting is embedded in the work of Jasper Johns. Such parallel Americanisms in Morris’s work evince his crusty, fashion-be-damned independence from artistic conventions, even those for which he himself bears considerable responsibility, Minimalist unity versus post-Minimalist dispersion among them. Likewise, as much as the drapery in these sculptures points to classical origins and Renaissance rebirth, it also emphatically speaks to the American beaux-arts tradition, specifically the sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens or Daniel Chester French. Recall the swathed, shadowed head of the angel in the latter’s Milmore Memorial, 1889–93, also known as The Angel of Death and the Sculptor, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Celebrity hit Morris early, with the famed Green Gallery show of 1964, which featured several works that became standard markers for Minimalist sculpture while also sparking an appreciation for the work the artist produced immediately preceding that exhibition: namely, his intricate paraphrases of Marcel Duchamp and his participation in an emerging school of Conceptual dance. The latter mode is still sensible in the implied movements of the “MOLTINGSEXOSKELETONSSHROUDS.” Now, at more than a half century’s remove, it is rare to find members of Morris’s generation making such energetic work. Most, if not having already left the scene, create nothing more than the repetition of signaturized merchandise designed to resurrect the aura of discoveries long past. That has never been Morris’s way, as this show gave ample proof.

Robert Pincus-Witten