Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

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

 | 
Katia Schneller
, 
Noura Wedell

I. Embedded Writing

When Kitsch Becomes Form

Rachel Stella

Texte intégral

1This paper treats the textual elements in Robert Morris’ multi-media installation, Preludes (for A.B.) . Analyzing how text is deployed both as something to look at and something to read contributes to an understanding why this installation is a pivotal piece in the artist’s oeuvre.

2Preludes (for A.B.) is first seen in the spring of 1980 at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York City, in a group exhibition called 3 installations: Vito Acconci Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim The work contains eight similar but not identical units, each consisting of a molded plastic skull-slab of Italian onyx (Fig. 9, Fig. 10). These are dispersed at regular intervals in a windowless room whose walls have been banded with black paint: a horizontal swathe around the circumference of the room intersects with eight vertical stripes, each one behind a skull and slab assembly. From the ceiling, eight spotlights focus their beams on these units, leaving the rest of the space in relative obscurity. A light affixed behind each onyx slab emphasizes the stones’ translucent quality while at the same time illuminating the text silkscreened upon their polished surfaces. These backlights also call attention to the repetitive iconography in play: eight variations upon cranium, cross and grave. The skull motif has, since Antiquity, appeared in visual or verbal tropes evoking death. The bands of black paint intersect to form eight cruciform shapes behind the stone and skull units, alluding to the preponderance of this form in the Christian death cult. As Morris places his skulls just above the inscribed slabs, tombstones come to mind.

  • 1 André Chastel, “Glorieuses ‘vanités’” in Les Vanités dans la peinture au xviie siècle (Caen: Musée (...)

3To explain the prestige of the skull image in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, André Chastel wrote: “As death entered the world through Adam’s fault, a skull, that of the first man, was depicted at the foot of the Savior’s cross. This dizzying short take on human destiny was present in the still life paintings known as vanitas, which adopted this symbol when a vigorous reminder of man’s fate seemed indispensable to piety.”1

9. Robert Morris, Preludes (for A. B.), 1979-1980. Italian onyx, silkscreened text, electric light, metal, plastic, paint. Collection of the artist.

9. Robert Morris, Preludes (for A. B.), 1979-1980. Italian onyx, silkscreened text, electric light, metal, plastic, paint. Collection of the artist.

Courtesy of Robert Morris and Sonnabend Gallery, New York. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

10. Robert Morris, Preludes (for A. B.): Roller Disco: Cenotaph for a Public Figure, 1979-1980 (detail). Italian onyx, silkscreened text, electric light, metal, plastic, paint, 35 × 34 × 7 inches (88.9 × 86.9 × 17.8 cm). Collection of the artist.

10. Robert Morris, Preludes (for A. B.): Roller Disco: Cenotaph for a Public Figure, 1979-1980 (detail). Italian onyx, silkscreened text, electric light, metal, plastic, paint, 35 × 34 × 7 inches (88.9 × 86.9 × 17.8 cm). Collection of the artist.

Courtesy of Robert Morris and Sonnabend Gallery, New York. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

4Skull, cross, tomb: through dramatic lighting and clever manipulation of materials Morris enables his cheap and cheesy stage set to resonate with the full force of a seventeenth century vanitas. Close inspection, however, of the materials in Preludes shows them to be inexpensive and commonplace: metal brackets, electrician’s lights, industrial paint, plastic toys, and ersatz marble. The incongruity between the tacky means and the eschatological message turns out to be such an effective rhetorical device that Morris will exploit it variously for years to come.

5Barely six months after Preludes debuts at Sonnabend, the two-part Study for a View from a Corner of Orion (First Study: Day, Second Study: Night) is shown at the Castelli Gallery in Soho. Here, the program is more complex than in Preludes (for A.B.). Steel trusses, stones, light fixtures, felt, aluminum tubing, and mirrors are placed, ostensibly in the formation of the constellation of Orion, around, not skulls, but complete human skeletons. In the Day version, the skeletons are silver-leafed; the Night version contains a single black skeleton in a pose taken directly from Bernini’s Tomb of Alexander VII, and likewise holding an hourglass. Although both pieces are large room-filling installations, no formal similarities link Study for a View from a Corner of Orion with Preludes (for A.B.) . Yet, by citing Bernini explicitly in Corner of Orion, Morris clarifies the eschatological themes and art historical references that the Preludes do indeed announce. These themes persist and develop in his work throughout the 1980s. In 1981, he redeploys the same skull-over-slab configuration as Preludes in an installation called Jornada del Muerto. To capture the tone of this piece, one dares say Morris opts for bad taste and goes for baroque. Skull-slab units hang on the walls of the room, and in the middle of the installation Bernini’s skeletons are back, wearing World War I helmets, astride giant phallic missiles, even as they evoke the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Mirrors, theatrical lighting, and black felt wall upholstery contribute to the dovetailing of high art references into a display that seems inspired by the carnival midway and funhouse. Unlike the Preludes arrangement, the slabs underneath the skulls are no longer silkscreened with texts, but rather with collaged images containing geometric motifs used by Southwest Indians, documentary images of nuclear explosions, and other allusions to the atomic tests carried out at the New Mexico site the piece is named after.

6Preludes contain no such overt citations to a specific baroque artist; Morris quotes only himself in this installation. As mentioned, it is the theatrical display that sets up the viewer to feel, if not the catharsis of theatre, at least some kind of discomfort as the subject becomes clear. Repetition provides coherence to the display: eight crosses, eight skulls, eight slabs, eight texts. Whether or not the viewer perceives this repetitive structure as an allusion to stations of the Passion narrative, the installation is conceived in a manner to compel a closer look. Upon scrutiny, the silkscreened text at each station initiates a particular relationship with the work as a whole. One is no longer strolling or wandering through a decor. The act of looking must change from sweeping gaze to the focused stare required for reading.

7The reader finds in each text a description of a non-existent, although potentially realizable, funerary monument. In literary terms, these texts belong to the minor genre known as ekphrasis, of which the most restrictive definition is the verbal description of visual art, real or imagined. In this sense, they relate directly to Morris’ hoax essay, “Three extra-visual artists,” which is nothing but one long ekphrastic expression in which numerous imaginary artworks by fictional artists are described.

8The texts in Preludes confound the viewer who reads attentively (Fig. 11, Fig. 12). The vanitas theme explicitly conjured in the work’s iconographic program is not evoked specifically in the texts. Whereas the theatrical lighting of Preludes creates the illusion of a church-like or sacred space, the eight texts are crafted without any figurative language in order to eschew emotion and affect. These texts do not reference any other work of art, literary or pictorial; thus they give the impression they are free of esthetic ideology. The most import lexical aspect of these texts is the distinction between monuments meant to accommodate corpses (tombs) and purely commemorative structures in which there is no body (cenotaphs). Five of the projected monuments are tombs: A final tomb for Frank “Jelly” Nash, A tomb-garden outside the city, Tomb for a dismembered body, Project for a tomb—the towers of silence. Three descriptions concern cenotaphs: A cenotaph for cancer, Roller disco: cenotaph for a public figure, and A cenotaph for air crash victims.

11. Robert Morris, Tombs and Cenotaphs: A Tomb-Garden Outside the City, 1980. Unique suite of 8 plates, silkscreen, Plate V, 18 × 24 inches (45.7 × 61.1 cm), printed by Styria Studio, New York. Genève, Cabinet des estampes du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

11. Robert Morris, Tombs and Cenotaphs: A Tomb-Garden Outside the City, 1980. Unique suite of 8 plates, silkscreen, Plate V, 18 × 24 inches (45.7 × 61.1 cm), printed by Styria Studio, New York. Genève, Cabinet des estampes du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

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

12. Robert Morris, Tombs and Cenotaphs: Tomb for a Dismembered Body, 1980. Unique suite of 8 plates, silkscreen, Plate VII, 18 × 24 inches (45.7 × 61.1 cm), printed by Styria Studio, New York. Genève, Cabinet des estampes du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

12. Robert Morris, Tombs and Cenotaphs: Tomb for a Dismembered Body, 1980. Unique suite of 8 plates, silkscreen, Plate VII, 18 × 24 inches (45.7 × 61.1 cm), printed by Styria Studio, New York. Genève, Cabinet des estampes du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

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

9Whether tomb or cenotaph, all eight texts refer to monuments that do not exist, honoring (with only one exception, Frank Nash, 1887-1933) persons whose death is as bogus as their life, which exists only in the author’s imagination. The four tomb projects, other than Frank Nash, concern not actual corpses but plausible ones. Indeed, the use of the euphemism “occasion” to describe death indicates an ambivalent attitude toward mortality, either stoic or cynical. Project for a tomb—the towers of silence provides no information regarding the persons whose “bodies are placed on the towers with cranes from outside the walls when the occasion arises.” The body composter described in A tomb-garden outside the city, is designed to treat unspecified “bodies from various places in the city—the morgue, hospitals, scenes of crashes.” Though the text for Tomb for a dismembered body addresses the viewer directly in the second person, the voice does not say whose “torso is to repose beneath this lacy white trellis.” Similarly, each of the cenotaphs commemorates a different category of disaster victim; but we don’t know who they are, or when they will inevitably succumb to the cancer, airplane accident, or flood announced in the texts. These are imaginary but potential, even likely, disasters conjured by the artist’s mind.

10Should they be realized, the described artworks would take forms Morris has already practiced: either earthworks, architectural projects, or large scale installations. Although the blatant cynicism of A cenotaph for cancer, in which it is posited that the monument itself is financed by manufacturers of carcinogenic products, makes the idea of a commission to build such a monument implausible, it is not materially impossible to make the works described by the texts. Indeed, Morris did go so far as to execute several preparatory drawings that share titles with the silkscreened texts of Preludes, among them are Tomb for Silence of 1978, and Cenotaph for Aircrash Victims of 1979.

11To consider feasibility or plausibility of giving form to imaginary artworks brings us to the crucial aspect of these ekphrastic images. There are contradictions between the verbal representations printed on the onyx slabs (the images described by the texts) and the visual image created by the Preludes installation. We confront the terrifying aspirations of the textual images (the probability of finding corpses at any and all moments to fill the tombs, the potential disasters to be commemorated by cenotaphs) with the cryptic visual image presented by the installation. How do these verbal representations relate to the installation’s overt citations of art history, and a décor that alludes to churches and funerary art, which are the salient visual aspects of Preludes? Visually, the work seems to propose what funerary art is traditionally supposed to offer: that art can make death dignified and provide consolation. Skulls, skeletons and other images of mortality are beautiful in the baroque art that Morris cites because death is not a repellent idea in Baroque culture. The corpus of macabre seventeenth century iconography that Morris references contains the implicit message that death is not shocking, vile or fearful, but rather an inevitable step towards redemption and resurrection. However, Morris’ textual proposition is quite different: that death is irreparable and that the circumstances of dying are horrible. His written descriptions contain no image of the afterlife, no inscriptions to honor the dead or comfort the bereaved, no symbol of hope.

12Is it possible to resolve the contradiction between the melancholic but optimistic view of death presented visually, and the despair expressed by the texts? Let us go back again to the traditional vanitas which provides, so to speak, the skeletal infrastructure of Morris’ installation. Such work often contained as a sub-theme the vanitas of visual art, that is to say the wasted (vain) effort of man’s impermanent creation, and the vanitas (hubris) of trying to compete with God’s creation. Preludes suggests that the true vanitas of making art lies not in its ephemeral nature, nor its comparative inferiority to the craftsmanship of a greater Maker, but that it is vain to believe that art provides any solace for the human condition. In the 1980s, critics began to use the terms “kitsch” or “bad taste” to qualify works such as Study for a View from a Corner of Orion, Jornada del Muerto, the Hypnerotomachia series, the Burning Planet series, the Holocaust series, to name a few. Being cheap, cheesy and tacky, Preludes would seem to be just that, a work introducing a whole oeuvre in which bad taste is the stance of stoic resistance to hopelessness and despair. The despair is not only provoked by the human condition, but by the artist’s inability to endure or deny his ineffectuality. The artist’s ambivalent position in the world is the paradox expressed in the contradiction between image and text in the Preludes. It is a paradox that will find continued expression in later work, with the difference that authorial irony of the texts will leave place to visual irony and sarcasm in the form of bad taste. By affirming their strategy as kitsch, such works continue to contradict the idea that art can have any redemptive or consoling effect. Perhaps it is this grim message, even more than its stylistic expression, that has caused critics to reject so much of the work Robert Morris made during the 1980s.

Notes

1 André Chastel, “Glorieuses ‘vanités’” in Les Vanités dans la peinture au xviie siècle (Caen: Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1990), p. 13.

Table des illustrations

Titre 9. Robert Morris, Preludes (for A. B.), 1979-1980. Italian onyx, silkscreened text, electric light, metal, plastic, paint. Collection of the artist.
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and Sonnabend Gallery, New York. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3812/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,8M
Titre 10. Robert Morris, Preludes (for A. B.): Roller Disco: Cenotaph for a Public Figure, 1979-1980 (detail). Italian onyx, silkscreened text, electric light, metal, plastic, paint, 35 × 34 × 7 inches (88.9 × 86.9 × 17.8 cm). Collection of the artist.
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and Sonnabend Gallery, New York. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3812/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 451k
Titre 11. Robert Morris, Tombs and Cenotaphs: A Tomb-Garden Outside the City, 1980. Unique suite of 8 plates, silkscreen, Plate V, 18 × 24 inches (45.7 × 61.1 cm), printed by Styria Studio, New York. Genève, Cabinet des estampes du Musée d’art et d’histoire.
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet des estampes 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/3812/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 804k
Titre 12. Robert Morris, Tombs and Cenotaphs: Tomb for a Dismembered Body, 1980. Unique suite of 8 plates, silkscreen, Plate VII, 18 × 24 inches (45.7 × 61.1 cm), printed by Styria Studio, New York. Genève, Cabinet des estampes du Musée d’art et d’histoire.
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and Cabinet des estampes 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/3812/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 863k

Auteur

Independent scholar.

© ENS Éditions, 2015

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