Robert Morris
Biography of Minimalist Sculptor, Noted for Felt Assemblages.
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Poster of Robert Morris (1974)
The notorious self-portrait
body art poster created by
Morris to promote his show
at the Castelli Gallery, NYC.

Robert Morris (b.1931)

Contents

Biography
Education and Early Career
Process Art
Critics
Later Works
Exhibitions
Importance as an Artist


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Biography

One of the most complex and challenging postmodernist artists, Morris has achieved fame in a wide range of contemporary art movements. He began by exploring abstract expressionist painting, moved on to performance art, before settling on contemporary sculpture. During the 60s, along with Donald Judd, he became one of the best known exponents and theorists of minimalism, receiving praise from some of the best galleries of contemporary art. He championed an artistic ethos in which art is reduced to simple geometric shapes devoid of all references, with the focus on how the spectator interacts with the artwork. Some art critics lapped it up, others, like Michael Fried (b.1939), were less sure. During the rest of the 1960s and 70s Morris continued to explore the boundaries of process art, notably in the areas of assemblage art - in which his use of felt and other unconventional materials downplayed the significance of the finished product. - and in land art. Morris's contribution to postmodernist art also includes a number of important critical essays, in which he expresses his views on chance and ephemerality. They include "Some Notes on Dance" (1965), "Notes on Sculpture" (1968), "Anti Form" (1968), and "Aligned with Nazca" (1975). Whether or not you appreciate (or understand) Robert Morris, his range of creativity and his influence on contemporary art and other contemporary artists is undeniable. Indeed, one might say that - compared to Morris - Turner Prize winners like Damien Hirst (b.1965), Gilbert & George (b.1943, 1942) and Martin Creed (b.1968), to name but three, look rather lightweight.

Education and Early Career

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Morris studied engineering at the University of Kansas (1948–50), after which he enrolled at Reed College, where he studied philosophy. After this he turned to art, training at the California School of Fine Arts, in San Francisco. However, he cut short his studies after a year to serve in the Army Corps of Engineers in Arizona and Korea. After his discharge, Morris began his career as an artist in San Francisco, producing paintings in the style of abstract expressionism.

From now on, his constant involvement in a variety of different types of art led to an ongoing cross-fertilization of ideas. Thus, out of his experience with gestural painting, the notion of art as a record of a performance by the artist (as illustrated by Hans Namuth in his photos of Jackson Pollock doing his action painting) led to Morris's interest in dance and choreography: an interest encouraged by his wife, the dancer and choreographer Simone Forti. In 1959 they moved to New York where they joined a group of improvisational dancers known as the Judson Dance Theater, for whom Morris choreographed several works, including Arizona (1963), 21.3 (1964), Site (1964), and Waterman Switch (1965). In turn, the rudimentary wooden boxlike forms that Morris built as props for his dance productions, led to an intense interest in minimalist sculpture. In his one-man shows at the Green Gallery, New York (1964 and 1965), he exhibited entire rooms of these nondescript objects. From 1966 onwards he turned to more industrial materials, like aluminium and steel mesh. Going to the edge of the envelope, he also produced a series of Neo-Dada style installations whose components included sculpted brains and electroencephalogram readouts, in the manner of earlier constructions by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968). Curious as ever, Morris continued to study in the 60s. From 1961 to 1963 he took a masters degree in the history of art from Hunter College, New York, eventually, in 1966, completing a thesis on the modernist Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). In the same year he managed to publish a series of influential essays "Notes on Sculpture" in Artforum, and exhibit two L Beams in the seminal 1966 show entitled "Primary Structures" at the Jewish Museum in New York City. (Please see also: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.)

Process Art

During the late 1960s, Morris swapped the plywood and steel of his Minimalist artworks for the soft materials connected with his exploration of Process Art. Like Joseph Beuys (1921-86) - though for entirely different reasons - Morris was particularly interested in felt, which he heaped, stacked and suspended in a series of artworks designed to highlight the difference between "form" (where art is created by the artist according to objective formal principles), and "process" (in this case the physical properties of the felt which resists all attempts by the artist to shape it into predetermined forms). All this was in line with Morris's view that art was an expression of its process of production, not - as Clement Greenberg insisted - a purely visual experience. To put it another way, the ethos of process art declares that the end product (the art object) is not the principal focus. It is the making of it (the process) and also the experiencing of it (the spectator's interaction with it) that is the central issue. Some of Morris's process artworks were exhibited at the prestigious New York gallery owned by Leo Castelli (1907-99).

See: Art Evaluation: How to Appreciate Art and How to Appreciate Paintings.

Critics

Sometimes, however, Morris's appetite for artistic phenomenology and his zeal to involve spectators has gone too far. In his 1971 show at the Tate Modern in London, his exhibit occupied the entire central sculpture gallery with a complex of ramps and cubes. Unfortunately within 7 days it was closed down for safety reasons. The notion that his work is essentially theatrical has been mentioned by Maurice Berger, Michael Fried and others. These critics are concerned that Morris's idea of creativity involves a rejection of too much that is central to conventional aesthetics. His avant-garde art, they say: denies the importance of originality, undervalues craftsmanship, and accords too much precedence to the unfamiliar and the unconventional; it has even been associated with the controversial Fluxus group. Fried's main objection to Morris's style of minimalist sculpture, as outlined in his celebrated 1967 essay "Art and Objecthood", is that it denies the value of composition and form, and instead exalts the significance of the viewer, thus transforming the sculpture from a work of art into a spectacle.

Later Works (Firestorm Series)

Around 1980 Morris returned to painting and drawing, with an apocalyptic vision of the modern world as displayed in his Firestorm series. Some critics have argued that this new focus is quite consistent with Morris's historical preoccupation with themes of death. As far back as 1962 Morris created an unusual assemblage - I-Box (1962) - consisting of a wooden box covered in sculpted metal with a pink door in the shape of the letter I. When opened, it reveals a nude photo of the artist as if set inside a coffin.

Exhibitions

Works by Robert Morris have been shown in many of the best art museums in America and abroad. He has had important solo exhibitions, for instance, in the following public venues: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1970), the Art Institute of Chicago (1980), the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (1986), the Newport Harbor Art Museum (1986), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC (1990). In 1994, the prestigious Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, held a major retrospective of Morris's work, which travelled to the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg and the Musee National d’Art Moderne at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Importance as an Artist

Although the jury is still out on issues like "what is art?" or "what is the difference between art and entertainment?", and therefore the long-term reputations of many postmodernist artists remain up in the air, some of the top contemporary artists are in no doubt as to the relevance and importance of Robert Morris - both as an artist and as a writer on art. His influence on Donald Judd (1928-94) and other exponents of Minimalism, such as the conceptual-based sculptor Fred Sandback (1943-2003), the painter Jo Baer (b.1929), the experimental sculptor Eva Hesse (1936-70), and the installation artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-96), in matters of materials used and viewer perception is quite evident. For these reasons alone, Morris ranks as a key contributor to American art of the late 20th century.

 

• For biographies of other artists involved in process art, see: Homepage.


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