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Artists Robert Morris

Robert Morris

American Sculptor and Performance Artist

Movement: Minimalism

Born: February 9, 1931 - Kansas City, Missouri

"Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience."

Synopsis

Robert Morris was one of the central figures of Minimalism. Through both his own sculptures of the 1960s and theoretical writings, Morris set forth a vision of art pared down to simple geometric shapes stripped of metaphorical associations, and focused on the artwork's interaction with the viewer. However, in contrast to fellow Minimalists Donald Judd and Carl Andre, Morris had a strikingly diverse range that extended well beyond the Minimalist ethos and was at the forefront of other contemporary American art movements as well, most notably, Process art and Land art. Through both his artwork and his critical writings, Morris explored new notions of chance, temporality, and ephemerality.

Key Ideas

In the mid-1960s, Morris created some of the key exemplars of Minimalist sculpture: enormous, repeated geometric forms, such as cubes and rectangular beams devoid of figuration, surface texture, or expressive content. These works forced the viewer to consider the arrangement and scale of the forms themselves, and how perception shifted as one moved around them, which was a central preoccupation of Minimalism.
Morris's 1966 essay "Notes on Sculpture" was among the first to articulate the experiential basis of Minimalist artwork. It called for the use of simple forms, such as polyhedrons, which could be grasped intuitively by the viewer. and also described Minimalist sculptures as dependent on the context and conditions in which they were perceived, essentially upending the notion of the artwork as independent in and of itself.
In the late 1960s, Morris began introducing indeterminacy and temporality into the artistic process, referred to as Process art or Anti-Form. By cutting, dropping, or stacking everyday materials such as felt or rags, Morris emphasized the ephemeral nature of the artwork, which would ultimately change every time it was installed in a new space. This replaced what Morris posited as the fixed, static nature of Minimalist, or "object-type," art.

Most Important Art

Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961)

As its title indicates, Morris's Box with the Sound of Its Own Making consists of an unadorned wooden cube, accompanied by a recording of the sounds produced during its construction. Lasting for three-and-a-half hours, the audio component of the piece denies the air of romantic mystery surrounding the creation of the art object, presenting it as a time-consuming and perhaps even tedious endeavor. In so doing, the piece also combines the resulting artwork with the process of artmaking, transferring the focus from one to the other. Fittingly, the first person in New York Morris invited to see the piece was John Cage-whose silent 1952 composition 4'33" is famously composed of the sounds heard in the background while it is being performed. Cage was reportedly transfixed by Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, as Morris later recalled: "When Cage came, I turned it on... and he wouldn't listen to me. He sat and listened to it for three hours and that was really impressive to me. He just sat there."

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Site (1964)

Dance has occupied an important aspect of Morris's oeuvre, involving the artist's creation of rudimentary, box-like props that anticipated his Minimalist objects and concern with viewer interaction. In the 1960s, the artist choreographed and performed a number of works for the New York-based collective known as the Judson Dance Theater, including Site. In the piece, first performed at the Surplus Dance Theater with the visual artist Carolee Schneemann, Morris, wearing a mask of his own face, systematically carried away four-by-eight foot sheets of plywood to reveal a nude Schneemann emulating Edouard Manet's Olympia (1863). Morris maneuvered the boards around the stage, until finally using them to again conceal Schneemann, all the while the sound of a jackhammer played repeatedly in the background. Site recalls Box with the Sound of Its Own Making through its use of an audio recording and focus on the banal (de)construction of a wooden structure, but here the situation is more complex and ambiguous; it is unclear whether the anonymous masked Morris or the nude Schneemann, whose pale skin and white backdrop discourage attention, is the focal point of the performance-an ambiguity that prompts the viewer to consider the relative importance of the artistic process versus the resulting artwork itself.

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Untitled (L-Beams) (1965)

One of Morris's best-known Minimalist pieces, Untitled (L-Beams) lacks any texture, trace of the artist's hand or figural content that would otherwise distract the viewer from pure engagement with the arranged forms. The work is composed of three L-shaped forms identical in every way, but positioned differently - one lying on its side, another resting on two edges, and the third standing erect. The forms' configuration causes them to be perceived as varying in size and shape. Morris's concern with the experiential aspect of the piece is revealed in his use of polyhedrons - three-dimensional solids with flat faces and straight edges whose forms and shapes could be readily grasped by the viewer. It also underpinned his instructions that the work be arranged differently each time it was to be exhibited so that viewers would experience the work differently as well.

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Untitled (Pink Felt) (1970)

Randomness and temporality played important roles in Morris's body of work known as Process art or Anti-Form, a movement he theorized in a famous 1968 essay "Anti=Form." To create the work seen here, Morris cut and dropped pieces of felt on the floor; the result of these actions is a tangled mass of shapes with jagged contours and irregular sizes, spilling across the floor in a tangled object without any consistent structure. This form was not permanent, as whenever Untitled (Pink Felt) was reinstalled in a new location the felt pieces were dropped anew, resulting in a different composition for every iteration. In addition to introducing ephemerality into the artistic process, works such as Untitled (Pink Felt) represented a striking departure from pieces like Untitled (L-Beams), with their serially repeated geometric shapes of works. Embodying a gentler aesthetic than their austere Minimalist predecessors, such works also seemed to reintroduce figuration, as the arrangement of felt pieces calls to mind organic forms.

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Advertisement for Castelli-Sonnabend Exhibition (1974)

This work is an advertisement for Morris's April 1974 exhibition at the Castelli and Sonnabend galleries, that was part of his continuing dialogue with the artist Lynda Benglis, with whom he had previously collaborated on film projects. In the ad, featured in Artforum magazine, Morris is seen from the waist up, flexing his muscles and outfitted only in S & M gear: a German Army helmet, aviator sunglasses, steel chains, and a spiked collar. While striking in itself, Morris's hypermasculine self-portrait is important for prompting an image that gave rise to a huge controversy on the pages of Artforum: a centerfold ad in that same magazine featuring a photograph of Benglis, naked but for a pair of sunglasses, a diamond earring, and sporting an enormous dildo. While Morris's image barely raised an eyebrow, "the Benglis ad" was met with an angry uproar that dramatically illustrated the sexual double standard. Interestingly, one of the loudest voices of condemnation against was the art critic Rosalind Krauss, who had actually photographed Morris for the Castelli-Sonnabend poster; along with other editors of Artforum, Krauss called the ad "an object of extreme vulgarity" that succeeded in "brutalizing ourselves and, we think, our readers."

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Steam Work for Bellingham-II (1974)

The ephemerality and unpredictability explored in Morris's felt pieces was addressed in other aspects of his oeuvre as well, such as his steam works. One of these pieces was Steam Work for Bellingham-II, commissioned by the University of Washington in 1971 and set in the rolling hills of the university's campus. The piece is a special type of fountain that gurgles underground and swells to an amorphous column of mist, which then dissipates. The form the piece takes is dependent on several factors: by the amount of heat generated at the university at different times of the year and by the weather-related variables such as the degree of sunshine, wind, and condensation in the air. Its interaction with the landscape and the viewer returns to Morris's ideas about perception and physical awareness and was a significant work in the burgeoning Land art movement.

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Biography

Childhood

Robert Morris grew up in a suburban area of Kansas City. Early in life, he began reproducing comic strip images, a habit that helped him discover a talent for drawing. A flexible outlook at his elementary school allowed him to spend additional time honing his artistic skills. He also participated in a weekend enrichment program that encouraged the students to sketch artwork in the local Nelson Gallery (now the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art) and draw at the art studios of the Kansas City Art Institute.

Robert Morris Biography Continues

Early Training

Morris took classes at the University of Kansas City and the Kansas City Art Institute in 1948. He transferred to the California School of Fine Arts in 1951, but only stayed for a semester before joining the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Upon his return to the States in 1953, he enrolled at Reed College in Oregon to study psychology and philosophy. Two years later, he returned to California to continue painting full time.

During his student years, Morris painted monochromatic abstract landscapes influenced by Clyfford Still, who had taught at the California School of Fine Arts. After leaving Reed College, Morris continued producing large-scale abstract pieces, but this time following the methods of Jackson Pollock, such as painting on the floor, using a scaffold to suspend himself over the canvas. Via such expirementation Morris developed an interest in the working process itself. Morris ultimately abandoned painting in the late 1950s, troubled by a feeling of disconnect between the end result of painting and the actions involved in its production, Through his wife, the dancer Simone Forti, Morris became more involved with film and performance art. For the next several years, the couple organized theater workshops that explored the possibilities of movement and improvisation.

In 1960, Morris moved to New York and enrolled at Hunter College to study art history. Having abandoned painting, he started to build sculptures in plywood. One of the first pieces completed was Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), a wooden cube accompanied by a recording of the sounds produced during its construction. The way in which the object itself was combined with process gave Morris a sense of satisfaction he was unable to realize in painting. Over the next few years, he continued to produce art that focused on the role of language, its relationship to the body and other underlying concepts rather than the physical object itself. His first solo exhibition in New York took place in 1963 at the Green Gallery. Aside from Donald Judd, who recognized the Minimalist elements of Morris's work, most critics responded negatively to the works in the show, perceiving them as insignificant and overly aggressive.

Also in 1963, Morris resumed his exploration of theater and movement, choreographing his first dance performances in New York. Site (1964), executed with Carolee Schneemann, is closely related to Morris's contemporary sculpture, in that it focuses on a continuous series of actions. In this piece, Morris removed a pile of wooden slabs one by one to reveal Schneemann, posed in the manner of Manet's Olympia.

Mature Period

Robert Morris Photograph by Susan Horwitz

Beginning in 1966, Morris published the first of several important articles in ArtForum that helped articulate the intentions of his own sculpture, as well as the ideas underlying key art movements. The series, entitled "Notes on Sculpture," is among the best known of his writings, and identified him as one of the central figures of Minimalism. In these essays, Morris rejected the concept of the uniqueness of the art object, instead emphasizing the importance of the artwork's relationship to the viewer. This is seen in works such as Untitled (L-Beams) (1965), consisting of identical L-shaped constructions arranged in different positions, making them appear to be of different shapes and sizes depending on the position of the viewer.

Progressing in his aim to dissolve the object, Morris worked with commonplace materials, not unlike Arte Povera artists in style and intention. Untitled (1967) is made of pieces of felt cut into strips, which spill haphazardly onto the floor. The resulting object is random, without a definite shape or form. The ordinariness of the material makes the object seem even less substantial. To demonstrate his "Anti-Form" principles, in 1968, Morris organized the exhibition 9 at the Leo Castelli Warehouse, which included the work of Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra.

Throughout the next decade, Morris continued to work with free-form materials in order to deconstruct conventional categories of the art object. He slowly dismantled his piece Continuous Project Altered Daily (1969), composed of waste materials found in construction sites, until nothing was left except remnants of dirt. The ephemerality of this work was also explored in his steam pieces, such as Steam Work for Bellingham-II (1974). In both of these works, the end result is such that photographs are the only records of their existence. By subverting the conventional notion of art as a tangible product of a series of actions, Morris's Anti-Form and other Post-Minimal pieces expanded the possibilities of what art could be.

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Late Years

Robert Morris Bio

Morris has continued to develop these ideas in his work in performance art, and has installed several site-specific installations in the United States and Europe. From the late 1970s to the present, he has experimented with different types of media, including mirrors, Hydrocal (a brand of Plaster of Paris), and even painting. His themes have been almost as varied, ranging from war to memory to feminism.

In particular, Morris has widely explored blindfolded drawing in the Blind Time series, begun in 1973. He executed the first series of drawings with his hands dipped in a mixture of oil and graphite, following a set of previously defined rules to create the image; subsequent drawings in a related series were created by a blind woman following the artist's instructions. Other pieces addressed his disillusionment with the political establishment, a recurring theme in his more recent work.

Morris continues to exhibit worldwide, and works out of New York City.

Legacy

Morris's pioneering role in Minimalism and Post-Minimalist movements such as Process art and Land art made him one of the most significant figures in American art of the 1960s and 1970s. His use of repeated geometric forms, industrial materials and focus on the viewer's pure engagement with the object influenced the work of contemporaries such as Donald Judd, as well as later adherents of Minimalism such as Fred Sandback and Jo Baer. Morris's embrace of simple actions such as cutting and dropping and his use of unconventional materials resonated in the works of artists like Eva Hesse and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, as seen, for example, in the former's coiled rope pieces and the latter's works composed of spilled black licorice.

Morris also has an important critical legacy. His pivotal essay "Notes on Sculpture" directly prompted a negative response from critic Michael Fried who composed his famous 1967 essay "Art and Objecthood" as a response to Morris. In "Art and Objecthood," Fried expressed his objection to Minimalist sculpture for abandoning the concern with the nuances of composition and form in favor of engagement with the viewer, or "theatricality," which, in Fried's eyes, removed the work from the realm of art and transformed the act of viewing into a spectacle.

Quotes

"Have I reasons? The answer is my reasons will soon give out. And then I shall act, without reasons."
Robert Morris
"There's information and there's the object; there's the sensing of it; there's the thinking that connects to process. It's on different levels. And I like using those different levels."
Robert Morris
"I've been interested in memory and forgetting, fragments and wholes, theories and biographies, disasters and absurdities, and drawing but not dancing in the dark."
Robert Morris
"So long as the form (in the broadest possible sense: situation) is not reduced beyond perception, so long as it perpetuates and upholds itself as being in the subject's field of vision, the subject reacts to it in many particular ways when I call it art. He reacts in other ways when I do not call it art. Art is primarily a situation in which one assumes an attitude of reacting to some of one's awareness as art..."
Robert Morris
"No to transcendence and spiritual values, heroic scale, anguished decisions, historicizing narrative, valuable artifact, intelligent structure, interesting visual experience."
Robert Morris
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