American Sculptor and Performance Artist
Kansas City, Missouri
Summary of Robert Morris
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.
- 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.
Biography of Robert Morris
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.
Important Art by Robert Morris
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."
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 Édouard 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.
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.