New York

Robert Morris, BRAINDEAD / SHITMOUTH / PRESIDENT, 2017, fiberglass and epoxy resin, 36 × 71 × 4".

Robert Morris, BRAINDEAD / SHITMOUTH / PRESIDENT, 2017, fiberglass and epoxy resin, 36 × 71 × 4".

Robert Morris

Castelli Gallery | Uptown

In her autobiography Feelings Are Facts (2006), Yvonne Rainer recalls visiting Robert Morris’s installation Passageway, 1961, at Yoko Ono’s Chambers Street loft in New York. “I traipsed downtown and up the five flights expecting some kind of performance, only to be met, on opening the door, by a three-foot wide curving corridor with [a] seven-foot high ceiling that ended in a pointed cul-de-sac,” writes Rainer. “I was so outraged that I wrote on the wall ‘Fuck you too, Bob Morris.’” Notice the “too.” For those familiar with the indignities of Rainer’s subsequent relationship with Morris, this episode reads as a foreshadowing, but it should also be understood as a prescient act of art criticism. Through six decades, there’s always been an element of “fuck you” to Morris’s work, a kind of rude affront you try to shrug off as misdirected hostility, but that leaves you shaken and self-questioning nevertheless—because, deep down, you know you deserve it.

In “Banners and Curses,” which was still on view when Morris passed away this past November, that “fuck you” assumed physical form. Suspended from the ceiling were seven relief panels (all works 2017) of yellowed fiberglass, each cast to resemble a rumpled canvas tarp, or perhaps a body bag. When the works were viewed head-on from either side, their ridges and folds revealed themselves to be holding the shapes of all-caps letters that spelled out crude bursts of invective: “BILGEPUMP / MUMBLEFUCK / BANKERS,” “AMERICAN / BIGDICK / MILITARY.” Each individual “curse” consisted of three stacked words, with the middle line running backward, which added to the difficulty of deciphering them. The slowed reading of these panels delayed the realization that most shared a common target: “HALFWIT / DIPSHIT / LEADER,” “RACIST / MOTHER / FUCKER,” “BRAINDEAD / SHITMOUTH / PRESIDENT.” Who could that be? In terms of art-historical precedents, Morris’s suspended sculptures invited comparison to the materialized language of Mel Bochner’s Roget’s Thesaurus paintings, yet they also bore a passing resemblance to anger-laden tweets.

It comes as no surprise that, even in his eighties, Morris was attempting to address the present. Few artists have ever moved so quickly, or so consequentially, from one set of concerns to another. Morris articulated the rationale behind “Banners and Curses” in an essay published this past summer that argued for the utility of cartoon aesthetics in confronting the Trump era. (“We live in cartoon times,” he wrote. Perhaps we should read the “curses” as fiberglass renderings of the speech bubbles used in comics.) The exhibition’s second component was twelve digitally printed billboard-size banners that leveraged the elastic spatial relations of comic book illustration to bring together figures culled from Krazy Kat, political caricatures of past presidents, films by Stanley Kubrick, paintings by Titian, and, most extensively, etchings by Goya. These mash-ups convincingly cast the Enlightenment-era grotesques of Los Caprichos and Los Disparates as spiritual ancestors to the loutish avatars of 2018, such as the hockey mascot Gritty or the man-child Brett Kavanaugh.

That said, two aspects of the banners did detract from their timeliness. The first was Morris’s focus on militarization. A banner combining images of Uncle Sam and desert jeeps with the words “GENERAL DICKHEAD NEEDS TROOPS” felt more appropriate to the George W. Bush presidency, back when the principal object of critique was neoimperialism (whereas now our collective attention has shifted more toward structural racism and toxic masculinity). The second was Morris’s quotation of his own past work. A sculpture from ca.1968 floated across a screen saver–style background of stars in outer space. A gang of Goya’s goons, accessorized with rifles and camouflage, sat beside a quartet of Minimalist blocks. This retrospective glance ran through the show, though it seemed as though Morris was more inclined to tear up his laurels than he was to rest on them. In his last published essay, Morris wrote, “Art needs a wounding critical edge if it is not to remain inert, expensive, and culturally dispensable.” Fuck you too, Bob Morris, and farewell. 

Colby Chamberlain