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Investigations: The Expanded Field of Writing in the Works of Robert Morris

 | 
Katia Schneller
, 
Noura Wedell

I. Embedded Writing

Morris(’s) Prints

Christophe Cherix

Texte intégral

  • 1 Litanies has since been recovered and was restituted to the Museum of Modern Art in May 2012.

1It may seem peculiar on my part to begin my presentation with a drawing that, even as it provides a key to Morris’ oeuvre, also stands as a reminder of a painful moment in the history of the institution I work for, the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Litanies, a sheet covered with writing from 1961, is an important drawing by Robert Morris. It was part of our collection until it mysteriously disappeared during the long tour of the exhibition The Drawings of Robert Morris, organized by Thomas Krens in 1982 for the Williams College Museum of Art1. That this fundamental piece by Morris should appropriate a text by Marcel Duchamp as if it were a ready-made is all the more à apropos given that disappearance has been the fate of so many of Duchamp’s original ready-mades. Morris, like several other American artists of his generation including John Cage and Jasper Johns, was considerably influenced by Duchamp’s work. In the drawing in question, dated 18 February 1961, whose complete title is The Litanies of the Chariot by Marcel Duchamp. A Two and One Half Hour Recitation by R. Morris, Morris spent two and a half hours copying by hand in a totally repetitive manner a preparatory note by Duchamp for the Large Glass. A facsimile of this note was first published in 1934, in the Green Box, a flat case reproducing the artist’s writings of the years 1912-23. An English translation by the museum curator George Heard Hamilton appeared in 1960, the year before the creation of Litanies. There is a performative aspect to Litanies, as it takes Duchamp’s statement literally by accomplishing quite exactly what it states. If Duchamp associates chariot and litany, this is because the latter expresses by repetition a circular aspect of the thought process, two elements, repetition and circularity, which Morris expresses as literally as possible, and, I would suggest, materializes in the very space of his drawing. If such a strategy based on the almost literal visual translation of a statement or a concept can be discerned even earlier in the works of Jasper Johns—who has always appealed to Morris—its singular use by Morris anticipates that of Bruce Nauman a few years later. It is as if Morris were attempting to “contaminate” his drawing practice (and, as we shall see, his sculptural practice as well) with elements as foreign to visual art as time, exploited here in a manner comparable to that of a concert, or as the idea of repetition, in the theatrical practice of rehearsal leading to a representation, two notions which are intrinsic to the media of theater and dance.

2Shortly before the creation of Litanies, in 1960, Morris gave up painting (in a style influenced by Jackson Pollock) and moved to New York City. During this period he explored new artistic fields, for instance experimental dance, which he practiced along with Simone Forti, his spouse at that time. This is also the period of the assemblage pieces sometimes described as “neo-dadaist” objects, various performances, and the first sculptures consisting of simplified volumes—works that often served, as was the case a few years earlier for Rauschenberg’s white monochromes, as stage accessories. This was also the period when Morris encountered George Maciunas, the founder of Fluxus; their paths intersected for a brief moment. Thus we find Morris’ name in the table of contents of An Anthology of Chance Operations…, an anthology assembled by Maciunas and published by La Monte Young and Jackson MacLow. The book project, which included more than twenty participants, began some time in 1961 and finally was published in 1963, precisely when Morris disassociated himself from Fluxus and decided to remove his contribution from the production even though the printed pages were already stockpiled in his loft. Fortunately, a few copies were assembled earlier and thanks to these survivors, we can now appreciate Morris’ contribution after the fact. The original publication was meant to contain two texts by Morris, texts which anticipate some of his major works. The first, a score in a typically Fluxus style, proposes that the spectator “make an object to be lost[,] to put something inside that makes a noise and give it to a friend with the instructions: ‘To be deposited in the street with a toss.’” This proposition alludes to a 1916 work by Marcel Duchamp called With Hidden Noise and announces the work Morris made in 1961, Box with the Sound of its Own Making. This piece consists of a small wooden box from which emanates a recording of the noises created while in the course of the work’s fabrication, that is to say a tautological reflection on its own making. Morris’ second text in An Anthology of Chance Operations seems to have more to do with what art history has labeled minimal art. In Blank Form, Morris stated: “Blank form [sic] is like life, essentially empty, allowing plenty of room for disquisitions on its nature and mocking each in its turn. Blank Form slowly waves a large gray flag and laughs about how close it got to the second law of thermodynamics.” Follows a list of examples of empty sculptures including “a column with perfectly smooth and rectangular surfaces, two by eight feet, painted grey,” which evokes another major piece by Morris from 1961: Two Columns, whose re-fabrication in 1973 was acquired by the Teheran Museum of Contemporary Art. Of particular interest is Morris’ evocation of the second law of thermodynamics, concerning entropy, that is the disorder inherent to all systems and which leads them ineluctably toward chaos. It appears that this is, to my knowledge, the first instance of such a notion expressed in visual art; and it will take on considerable importance not only in Morris’ career, but also in the works of a whole generation of artists including Robert Smithson, both a friend and admirer of Morris.

3The first work by Morris to evoke the theme of entropy explicitly is a suite of experimental prints from a zinc plate made during the beginning of the 1960s and titled On Wheels (Fig. 1-3). In this suite, Morris submits his initial text to a process of entropic nature by printing the plate over and over again without re-inking, until the final passage produces a sheet on which no remnants of text can be seen. The Cabinet d’arts graphiques in Geneva conserves a large part of this suite, and one can see clearly from print to print how the slowly exhausted text loses its legibility. And what does this text, authored by Morris himself (unlike Litanies) tell us? A brief extract: “On Wheels / Wheels, roll me along. Wheels, there’s nothing / like you. Wheels, you’re so full of rolling that / you can’t be rolled out. Wheels, you got / endless rolling. Wheels, you got rolling in / reserve. [And later] Wheels, we could go / almost anywhere, just the three of us. / Wheels, roll me along. Wheels, we ought to / go across Kansas.” And so on, as the text fills up the entire space of the sheet of paper. This filling up of the whole page with writing is similar to the procedure employed in Litanies, where the text was appropriated from Marcel Duchamp.

1. Robert Morris, On Wheels: no. 1, 1962. Prints, unique suite of six prints (an initial inking followed by 5 ghost proofs) on newspaper 24 × 18 inches (60.9 × 45.8 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

1. Robert Morris, On Wheels: no. 1, 1962. Prints, unique suite of six prints (an initial inking followed by 5 ghost proofs) on newspaper 24 × 18 inches (60.9 × 45.8 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

2. Robert Morris, On Wheels: no. 3, 1962. Prints, unique suite of six prints (an initial inking followed by 5 ghost proofs) on newspaper 24 × 18 inches (60.9 × 45.8 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

2. Robert Morris, On Wheels: no. 3, 1962. Prints, unique suite of six prints (an initial inking followed by 5 ghost proofs) on newspaper 24 × 18 inches (60.9 × 45.8 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

3. Robert Morris, On Wheels: no. 5, 1962. Prints, unique suite of six prints (an initial inking followed by 5 ghost proofs) on newspaper 24 × 18 inches (60.9 × 45.8 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

3. Robert Morris, On Wheels: no. 5, 1962. Prints, unique suite of six prints (an initial inking followed by 5 ghost proofs) on newspaper 24 × 18 inches (60.9 × 45.8 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

4However, in the suite On Wheels, Morris no longer repeats a single sentence, but rather constructs a text whose logic is not temporal—i.e., the two and half hour time frame of Litaniesbut rather spatial, since the process culminates when the text arrives at the end of the sheet, or shall we say page. In the course of an interview I undertook with Morris in 1995, he explained “On Wheels did not repeat the same phrase over and over again as did Litanies. But there is a refrain that gets repeated. […] On Wheels is more utopian than Litanies, a very airless and disenchanted text. That Wheels might have transported me across the country was also a romantic notion. […] I suppose I thought of this object as, in some fantastic way, related to Tatlin’s Glider—a kind of liberating vehicle.” Indeed, Morris’ text addresses an object, in this instance a sculpture, since Wheels is a sculpture made of laminated pine and moulded steel (collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto), perhaps created in 1962 rather than 1963 as is commonly attributed in most of the artist’s catalogues. This object, as Morris states in the text On Wheels, exists as a transitory form, and as such it is probably the first clear articulation of one of the fundamental characteristics of the new relationship between spectator, object and space brought about by minimal art.

5Wheels was exhibited, along with Column, Box With the Sound of its Own Making, and several other pieces in Morris’ first one-man show in New York, in 1963 at Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery. The exhibition’s only photographic document known to me depicts the sculpture Wheels as well as a suite of prints from zinc plates whose fabrication process recalls that of On Wheels. Morris exhibits this second suite of ghost proofs as a counterpoint to his sculpture, a suite which demonstrates the entropic process taken to its extreme. Each sheet from the series Morris Prints (Fig. 4-6) contains the artist’s name (“MORRIS”), identifies the kind of object that is created (“PRINTS”), and bears a series number from 1 through 20, which the artist has inscribed in lead pencil on each sheet. A variant reading of the suite, “MORRIS PRINTS” describes the artist’s action. In either case, whether considering the work itself or the action that produces it, the viewer observes its slow disappearance, from proof to proof until the artist signs the final blank sheet, a disappearing act that should not be compared to Rauschenberg’s signing the erased sheet of a De Kooning drawing. Morris signed a sheet that never carried artistic marks, yet its immaculate state was the inexorable conclusion of the series. Morris is not advocating here the disappearance of the author, but rather the disappearance of the singular gesture, of any heroic or constitutive artistic act.

4. Robert Morris, Morris Prints: no. 1, 1962-1963. Prints, unique suite of twenty prints (an initial inking followed by 19 ghost proofs) on newspaper, 24 × 18 inches (60.8 × 46 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire (Gift of Jeannine and Vladimir Stepczynski).

4. Robert Morris, Morris Prints: no. 1, 1962-1963. Prints, unique suite of twenty prints (an initial inking followed by 19 ghost proofs) on newspaper, 24 × 18 inches (60.8 × 46 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire (Gift of Jeannine and Vladimir Stepczynski).

Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

5. Robert Morris, Morris Prints: no. 5, 1962-1963. Prints, unique suite of twenty prints (an initial inking followed by 19 ghost proofs) on newspaper, 24 × 18 inches (60.8 × 46 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire (Gift of Jeannine and Vladimir Stepczynski).

5. Robert Morris, Morris Prints: no. 5, 1962-1963. Prints, unique suite of twenty prints (an initial inking followed by 19 ghost proofs) on newspaper, 24 × 18 inches (60.8 × 46 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire (Gift of Jeannine and Vladimir Stepczynski).

Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

6. Robert Morris, Morris Prints: no. 20, 1962-1963. Prints, unique suite of twenty prints (an initial inking followed by 19 ghost proofs) on newspaper, 24 × 18 inches (60.8 × 46 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire (Gift of Jeannine and Vladimir Stepczynski).

6. Robert Morris, Morris Prints: no. 20, 1962-1963. Prints, unique suite of twenty prints (an initial inking followed by 19 ghost proofs) on newspaper, 24 × 18 inches (60.8 × 46 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire (Gift of Jeannine and Vladimir Stepczynski).

Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

6My final point is that the suite of Morris Prints brings to the exhibition space the temporal oscillation that was already perceptible in a work such as Litanies, even as it emancipates itself from the kind of illustrative relationship seen in On Wheels, which relates as much to the work of Duchamp as to Morris’ own sculpture. These prints inhabit the walls as if to indicate that what really matters is not what one sees there but rather our own movement through the room, a movement which leads to chaos, loss of reference points and to the fundamental existential difficulty that has resided in Morris’ work from this period until the present, and which allows his work to resonate beyond the constrictions of style and period.

Notes

1 Litanies has since been recovered and was restituted to the Museum of Modern Art in May 2012.

Table des illustrations

Titre 1. Robert Morris, On Wheels: no. 1, 1962. Prints, unique suite of six prints (an initial inking followed by 5 ghost proofs) on newspaper 24 × 18 inches (60.9 × 45.8 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire.
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3807/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 97k
Titre 2. Robert Morris, On Wheels: no. 3, 1962. Prints, unique suite of six prints (an initial inking followed by 5 ghost proofs) on newspaper 24 × 18 inches (60.9 × 45.8 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire.
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3807/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 109k
Titre 3. Robert Morris, On Wheels: no. 5, 1962. Prints, unique suite of six prints (an initial inking followed by 5 ghost proofs) on newspaper 24 × 18 inches (60.9 × 45.8 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire.
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3807/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre 4. Robert Morris, Morris Prints: no. 1, 1962-1963. Prints, unique suite of twenty prints (an initial inking followed by 19 ghost proofs) on newspaper, 24 × 18 inches (60.8 × 46 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire (Gift of Jeannine and Vladimir Stepczynski).
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3807/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 61k
Titre 5. Robert Morris, Morris Prints: no. 5, 1962-1963. Prints, unique suite of twenty prints (an initial inking followed by 19 ghost proofs) on newspaper, 24 × 18 inches (60.8 × 46 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire (Gift of Jeannine and Vladimir Stepczynski).
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3807/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 32k
Titre 6. Robert Morris, Morris Prints: no. 20, 1962-1963. Prints, unique suite of twenty prints (an initial inking followed by 19 ghost proofs) on newspaper, 24 × 18 inches (60.8 × 46 cm). Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire (Gift of Jeannine and Vladimir Stepczynski).
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet d’arts graphiques du Musée d’art et d’histoire, Genève. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3807/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k

Auteur

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller chief curator of prints and illustrated books, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

© ENS Éditions, 2015

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540

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