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

 | 
Katia Schneller
, 
Noura Wedell

II. The Text/Image Problem under Investigation

The Subject-Object Problem in “Aligned with Nazca”: On Phenomenological Issues in Robert Morris’ Artwork

Anaël Lejeune

Texte intégral

  • 1 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, pp. 26-39, reprinted in Robert Morris, Continuous Proje (...)

1In his essay “Aligned with Nazca,” published in October 1975 in Artforum, Robert Morris writes: “Our encounter with objects in space forces us to reflect on our selves, which can never become the objects for our external examination. In the domain of real space the subject-object dilemma can never be resolved.”1 It is with this admission of failure that we would like to start, and remark that if this was indeed one of the main issues at stake in the artist’s activity since the middle of the 1960s, its formulation in his writings was partly delayed.

  • 2 Robert Morris would have learned of this work by Merleau-Ponty from its translation into English i (...)

2A famous point in the historiographical doxa of American minimal art is that the work and the spectator unfold in the same space, that is to say that they both share the same conditions of existence. The meaningfulness of minimalist works rests in large part on the knowledge spectators themselves possess, thanks to the experience of their body, of the physical conditions of existence on which this kind of sculpture plays: weight, spatial extension, proportions, etc. From this point of view, and with regard to historiography again, it was reasonable to insist upon the role played by the thought of Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the formulation of such a proposition. The philosopher’s project was to return to the world, to return to a pre-reflexive consciousness of the world prior to its idealization or conceptualization, in order to unveil that unreflected life that supports our behavior and thoughts. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty sought to provide a description of the world based on the experience of the body, this experience being the only way by which humans have access to the former.2 This led Merleau-Ponty to approach the human as intertwined in his or her environment and to study the ways his or her thoughts and reflections on the world operate from within it, and not from a retreat outside the world as the Cartesian model would have it. We can therefore understand the interest artist and critics would have found at the time in such a mode of thinking, willing as they were to return to the fundamental experience of sculpture. Yet, what we would like to suggest is that if this spatial continuity and thereby this contiguity of object and subject were major concerns in “Notes on Sculpture” in 1966, their understanding was still partially hampered by Morris’ own formalist modernist theoretical framework at the time. We would like to argue that it is only in later texts that these issues are resolved, and notably in “Aligned with Nazca,” an essay in which Morris retrospectively realizes, through intuition, what he refers to as the “Cartesian” mode of thinking previously underlying his own minimalist pieces. Therein we find the framework for the formulation of an art whose mode of appearance, and whose form, cannot be separable from the spectator; therein is expressed the idea of an object that can no longer be separated from a subject.

  • 3 Greenberg writes, “The human body is no longer postulated as the agent of space in either pictoria (...)
  • 4 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture,” 1966, pp. 42-44, reprinted in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal (...)
  • 5 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2,” 1966, pp. 232-233.

3This issue of the subject-object relationship was particularly in phase with the debates that shook the New York art world from the 1960s onward. Indeed, such model positing the sharing of existential conditions could only make sense if opposed to another model based, for its part, on a caesura. This, of course, alludes to the sculptural model posited by the modernist critics Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. To put it succinctly, this aesthetic model is that of a sculpture whose meaning arises from an optical and immediate experience of sculpture. It tends, then, to postulate a discontinuity between the optical, weightlessness and immediate conditions of the work of art, and the physical, tactile, and durable world to which the viewer belongs. This model asserts the autonomy of the work vis-à-vis the viewer, who is considered the remote exegete of the sense produced by the play of formal elements composing the work. According to this model, the formal qualities of the work never seem to be affected by the contingency of the specific and partial point of view adopted by the viewer.3 Whereas the conception of sculpture which Morris defends in 1966 is diametrically opposed to this model. On the contrary, the artist asserts the fundamental tridimensional and tactile nature of the medium and insists upon the formal autonomy and upon the “literality” of the relationships established between the constitutive elements of sculpture: the space, the light, and the materials.4 The sculptures in which the artist perceives the most eminent accession to this nature are unified geometrical shapes whose economy enables the unveiling of the extrinsic factors that actually affect the form of the work as it is perceived by the viewer.5 Among these elements are the space, the scale, the light, etc. The form of the work, and thus, its meaning, cannot be separated from its conditions of perception; that is to say that its meaning does not precede its experience. Yet, we would like to suggest that Morris’ use of the notion of gestalt when referring to these unitary shapes seems to hinder in part this interdependence between the form and the perceiving subject.

  • 6 James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, (...)
  • 7 Wolfgang Köhler, gestalt Psychology (New York: Horace Liveright, 1929), p. 3.

4This notion of gestalt, borrowed from gestaltpsychologie with which Morris was familiar since the middle 1950s,6 refers to the dynamic process through which perception is organized. Wolfgang Köhler or Kurt Koffka argued that an object is directly perceived as a whole and not reconstituted a posteriori. They stated that the whole shape possesses greater properties than the sum of its parts. What’s more, beside this unitary quality, the notion of gestalt emphasizes two points. First, it insists upon the fundamental interaction that exists between the perceived object and the perceiving subject. Indeed, gestalt psychologists no longer dealt with phenomena per se but rather with the way they appear during the perceptive experience, since stimuli alone do not suffice to explain the perception of forms.7 For instance, the rays of light that hit the retina being independent from one another, one cannot infer from the unity or the homogeneity of an object the unity of its retinal image, if not through such a process of primary perceptive organization. Second, the notion of gestalt also refers to the causal relationships that exist between the parts which compose the form as well as between the parts and the whole. A gestalt is a structure whose unity results from the parts it totalizes. Yet, in turn, these parts occur only through the whole they compose. Therefore, the parts and the whole occur simultaneously at the moment of perception—form and meaning occur at the moment of experience. Morris, for his part, writes that:

  • 8 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2,” 1966, pp. 233-234. Our emphasis.

Even its most patently unalterable property—shape—does not remain constant. For it is the viewer who changes the shape constantly by his change in position relative to the work. Oddly, it is the strength of the constant, known shape, the gestalt, that allows this awareness to become so much more emphatic in these works than in previous sculpture. A baroque figurative bronze is different from every side. So is a six-foot cube. The constant shape of the cube held in the mind, but which the viewer never literally experiences, is an actuality against which the literal changing, perspective views are related. There are two distinct terms: the known constant and the experienced variable.8

  • 9 Tensions which had already been raised by Lizzie Borden in “The New Dialectic,” Artforum, vol. XII (...)

5Indeed, this piece of writing constitutes a penetrating description of the viewer’s encounter of a work such as Untitled (Battered Cubes) (1965) (Fig. 28) which causes a tension between the mental anticipation of its shape and the deceptive nature of its experience. Nevertheless, it seems that his critical claim against modernism might have benefitted from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological understanding of the gestalt in order to make it even more consistent. In fact, this kind of oscillation between what is “inalterable” and what “does not remain constant” and, what is more, the scission between “the known constant” and “the experienced variable” are at odds with this second hermeneutic tool used by the artist in his analysis.9 Two examples will highlight this point.

28. Robert Morris, Untitled (Battered Cubes), 1965. Painted plywood, four units, each 24 × 36 × 36 inches (61 × 91.4 × 91.4 cm).

28. Robert Morris, Untitled (Battered Cubes), 1965. Painted plywood, four units, each 24 × 36 × 36 inches (61 × 91.4 × 91.4 cm).

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

  • 10 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), trans. Colin Smit (...)

6In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty explains that perceiving the world does not consist in making a choice between an empirical mode according to which the thing coincides with the raw stimuli, and an idealist mode according to which the thing perceived must conform to the characteristics of a mental model known in advance. Perception consists neither in limiting oneself to physiological information nor in comparing reality with an object of consciousness. To take an example common both to the philosopher and to the artist, when one sees a cube, neither are the perspective deformations of its sides raw data, nor does one see all the sides of the cube simultaneously.10 Merleau-Ponty here calls upon gestalt theory which demonstrates that it is perception itself, and not the intellect, that “generalizes” the singularity or the specificity of experience. The identity of the perceived squares and circles with a conceptual category, he argues, does not happen a posteriori by an act of the intellect but at the very moment of perception. gestalt is not a projection of our consciousness on the world, but inheres in its experience. Merleau-Ponty writes:

  • 11 Ibid., pp. 60-61.

But although the gestalt may be expressible in terms of some internal law, this law must not be considered as a model on which the phenomena of structure are built up. Their appearance is not the external unfolding of a pre-existing reason. It is not because the “form” produces a certain state of equilibrium, solving a problem of maximum […] that it enjoys a privileged place in our perception; it is the very appearance of the world and not the condition of its possibility; it is the birth of a norm and is not realized according to a norm; it is the identity to the external and the internal and not the projection of the internal in the external.11

  • 12 Hal Foster, “The Crux of Minimalism” [1986], in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End (...)
  • 13 See also Alex Potts, The Sculptural Imagination. Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist (New Haven/Lond (...)

7Thus Morris’ formulation, while it does insist upon the constant changes that happen at the moment of experience, seems to preserve this dualism, or this “idealism” as Hal Foster has aptly noticed.12 Gestalt or the “known constant,” as Morris put it, seems to be similar to a model of the mind, as bearer of the truth of the shape, against which the perceived appearance or the “experienced variable” is checked. Whereas for Merleau-Ponty, the gestalt provided a way to avoid this dualism, and this, no less for a cube than for a baroque figurative bronze. There is thus a kind of caesura occurring in the structure of the experience as described by Morris, between the form in itself and its mode of appearance to the spectator. A caesura whose origin would have to be found in modernist theory, a theory that the will to counter, perhaps too frontally, forced the artist to preserve implicitly.13

  • 14 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., p. 4. See also Renaud Barbaras, “Mer (...)
  • 15 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., p. 432.
  • 16 Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception. A Psychology of the Creative Eye [1954] (Berkeley/Los A (...)
  • 17 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture,” 1966, p. 228 and 234.

8Our second remark on the use of this notion by Morris concerns the organization of the perceptive field. The primary principle upon which gestalt perception rests is its structuring in a ground and a figure. It consists in a discrimination that operates with regard to the qualities of the field: homogeneity, regularity, and the eventual symmetry of one zone in contrast with another more heterogeneous and undefined one. Thus, a figure on a ground can only appear insofar as they both determine one another, the same way neither the whole nor the parts of a form can precede one another. This is a fundamental characteristic of the notion upon which Merleau-Ponty insisted as early as 1945. Perception, he said, is not based on absolute terms but on relationships, that is, on a differential mode. He wrote: “The perceptual ‘something’ is always in the middle of something else, it always forms part of a ‘field.’”14 This is to say that gestalt does not so much designate a form as it does a figure-ground structure that is not ensured once and for all. Gestalt quality is not an exclusive and positive quality of the object but rather depends upon the relations established by the perceiving subject, according to his or her temporary perceptive interest. There is no world, Merleau-Ponty writes, “without an existence that sustains its structure.”15 That is to say that there is no world without a gaze focusing on a portion of the perceptive field and thus instituting it simultaneously into a form on a ground. For his part, Robert Morris, close to the common understanding of gestalt theory notably accentuated at the time by its vulgarization by Rudolf Arnheim,16 tends to identify the notion of gestalt with simple geometric forms that are considered stable. Morris refers to the gestalt as the “strength of the constant” and writes that “once it is established it does not disintegrate. […] it remains constant and indivisible.”17 But to base the quality of gestalt upon formal geometry or upon the material unity of the work, and to consider this quality to be immutable once established, still partially consists, it seems, in considering the shape of the work to be independent from the perceptive act that isolates it from its environment.

  • 18 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 4: Beyond Objects,” 1969, pp. 50-54, reprinted in Robert (...)
  • 19 Ibid., p. 57.
  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 Ibid.
  • 22 Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art [1967] (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California P (...)
  • 23 Ibid., pp. 55-66.
  • 24 Robert Morris, “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making,” 1970, pp. 79-81.
  • 25 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 4: Beyond Objects,” 1969, p. 57 and 61.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 57.

9These remarks, however, might seem quite unfair, had Morris himself not been aware of the issue. This is particularly salient in his essay “Notes on Sculpture, Part 4: Beyond Objects,” published in 1969, in which Morris criticizes the somewhat geometrizing understanding of the phenomenon of perception that had formerly been his own. Henceforth, he clearly states that fundamental condition of perception, according to which “Without the concentration of a figure, any given sector of the world is a field. Objects are distinct and differentiated more according to this or that local interest rather than according to any general characteristics.”18 Thus, while minimal art “took the conditions within individual things—specific extension and shape and wholeness of one material—for the project of reconstituting objects as art,”19 Morris goes on to say that “some new art now seems to take the conditions of the visual field itself (figures excluded) and uses these as a structural basis for the art.”20 It would seem that “a shift from a figure-ground perceptual set to that of the visual field” had occurred, shifting “closer to the phenomenal fact of seeing the visual field.”21 From then on, this kind of “figure-ground” organization would be inevitably associated in Morris’ mind with a simplistic understanding of the phenomenon of the perception of a work of art. In that regard, Morris’ position is similar to the one espoused in Anton Ehrenzweig’s The Hidden Order of Art. In that essay, Ehrenzweig criticizes the simplistic comprehension of the phenomenon of vision defended by gestalt theory. He accuses this theory of having decreed general rules based on specific cases characterized by regularity, homogeneity and the unity of the object of perception.22 Against such a model of vision, which breaks the field into pieces and decisively separates a meaningful figure from an unmeaningful ground, Ehrenzweig defends a “syncretistic” or “dedifferentiated” vision, one that grasps the totality of the structure of the field of perception. It involves a phenomenon of “scanning,” thanks to which the environment is simultaneously apprehended as a whole as well as by parts, impartially embracing figure and ground.23 This mode of vision is like an unresolved dialectic between the grasping of the whole and localized focusing. Morris himself would refer to it, a few months later, in terms of a “rhythmical alternation,” which is to say, in terms of a permanent oscillation between order and disorder, between differentiation and dedifferentiation, between containment and scattering.24 According to Morris, this understanding of visual perception is more conform to the actual conditions of perception. And as the artist advocates, the necessity is henceforth to carry on, in sculpture, the kind of immersion in matter or in the field that is characteristic of the actual phenomenological mode of confrontation between the spectator and his environment and the objects that compose it (Fig. 29-30). One must then reconsider the immersed standpoint from which perception takes place, a situation to which the artist testifies in his essay when he mentions a field that exceeds peripheral vision, and the “wholeness” of the field that is no longer “perceived as an image” but rather “sensed.”25 The mode of visual perception that results from this situation is fittingly designated by the artist by the notion of “landscape mode.”26 A mode to which Morris would bear witness at length in his essay “Aligned with Nazca.”

29-30. Robert Morris, Untitled (Threadwaste), 1968. Threadwaste, asphalt, mirrors, copper tubing, and felt, dimensions variable.

29-30. Robert Morris, Untitled (Threadwaste), 1968. Threadwaste, asphalt, mirrors, copper tubing, and felt, dimensions variable.

Courtesy of Robert Morris, Musée d’art contemporain of Lyon and Blaise Adilon. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artits Rights Society (ARS), New York, Blaise Adilon (Photographer).

31. Robert Morris, Looking Down on a Nazca Line Drawing, “Aligned with Nazca,” Artforum, vol. 14, no. 2 (October 1975), p. 28.

31. Robert Morris, Looking Down on a Nazca Line Drawing, “Aligned with Nazca,” Artforum, vol. 14, no. 2 (October 1975), p. 28.

Courtesy: Robert Morris. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

  • 27 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, pp. 150-156.
  • 28 Ibid., p. 154.
  • 29 Ibid., p. 158.
  • 30 Ibid., p. 158. Our emphasis.
  • 31 Ibid., p. 166.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 164.
  • 33 Ibid., p. 159. Morris renews here with the issue of the primacy of form over substance which he ha (...)
  • 34 Ibid., p. 166.
  • 35 Ibid., p. 169. Let us note that the continuity between the world and the space of the self suppose (...)

10The article describes a trip the artist took to Peru in order to visit the famous archeological site of the Nazca geoglyphs. The first part of the text consists of a personal account of the discovery and visit of the site that Morris undertook by car and then on foot. Sensations, impressions, and anecdotes on the region are mixed together in this account. Then, the singular experience of these lines is reported in details. In fact, Morris discovers that the perception of the lines blurs the order of orientations on which space is usually, or rather a priori, organized. It is from afar, he notices, that the lines, or the “gestalts of linearity” emerge most clearly (Fig. 31). The lines are only perceptible at a distance. They are thus a function of distance.27 Yet, by virtue of this extension, the horizontality of the lines is troubled insofar as they are no longer only perceived as inscribed on the ground but also on the vertical plane. “The horizontal becomes vertical through extension,” Morris writes.28 Thus, the orthogonality of the vertical and horizontal planes that usually organize objects in space is blurred here—a traditional spatial framework also to be found in the Western artistic tradition according to Morris, a reference justified by the formal similarities between certain recent works and the Nazca site. Indeed, all perceptive experience of art, Morris explains, is traditionally reduced to the frontality of the plane in which paintings and sculptures stand, parallel to the body of the viewer and perpendicular to his or her gaze. He writes, “All twentieth-century art seems compelled by a type of Cartesian projection that will net every visual experience by a vertical plane interposed between the viewer and the world.”29 But beyond the mode of perception, what is at stake in such an orthogonal organization is an a priori way of thinking. Morris writes, “The Cartesian grid of rectilinear room space involves a mental as well as a perceptual focus […].”30 Morris cites as evidence the recent art, including minimal art, whose geometric, serial and analytic characteristics reveal the logical sequences that have led, in an a priori manner, to the formation of these works. These are mental operations which belong more to the domain of writing and of notation than to the field of manipulation of matter in space: “Systems of notation are used by us at the distance that makes them intelligible; they are extra-spatial.”31 From this point of view, Morris’ critical claim against minimal art becomes clear: “minimal art’s diagrammatic aspect was derived from plans generated by drawings on flat pages. Most minimal art was an art of flat surfaces in space.”32 What is here problematic for Morris is that these shapes were determined and known prior to their concrete realization, “diminishing,” he writes, “the density of the physical.”33 Such conditions of creation presupposed that the forms were determined in advance and could be translated into matter and transposed into physical space without apparent modification, as though their physical and spatial nature were contingent. However, Morris now insists that “neither space nor consciousness is a medium in which objects or thought are constituted. For we know space by the objects in it […]”34—the corollary of this assessment being that there cannot be objects except in space. Therefore, contrary to the framework of production underlying minimal art, artistic forms could no longer be imagined independently of their mode of appearance—this despite the fact that minimal art did constitute an attempt to mediate between the surface and the issue of space.35

  • 36 Ibid., p. 166. Our emphasis.
  • 37 Ibid., p. 169.
  • 38 Ibid., p. 165. On this subject, see the commentary Gilles A. Tiberghien provides in Gilles A. Tibe (...)
  • 39 Ibid., p. 166.

11In order to explain this shift in artistic sensibility, Morris proposes an interesting conceptual couple. He writes: “The physical world divides for us between the flat, where notational information exists perceptually outside of space, and the spatial, where perceptual relativity is the constant,” and goes on, saying that “fixity is a function of notational systems, and notational systems exist in the flat world of surfaces.”36 Two models are thus brought into tension. On the one hand, there is the mode of flatness, convention and writing, through which things are thought in their fixity and objectivity. The function of notation, Morris insists, is to record the facts, to control, but also to “shut out the physical world.”37 Whereas on the other hand, the spatial mode designates the immersion in the sensitive world and the willingness to “venture into the irrationality of actual space.”38 That is, two models mediated by the singular site of Nazca, a site of inscription in the landscape. This seems to us a way to recall, intuitively, two modes of apprehension of space well described by the phenomenological tradition: the “geographical space” and the “space of landscape,” which the eloquent example of the labyrinth mentioned by Morris renders perfectly explicit. We read, “A labyrinth is comprehensible only when seen from above, in plan view, when it has been reduced to flatness and we are outside its spatial coil.”39 What is thus at stake is the distinction between the apprehension of objects in space by the spectator inserted in this space, and the understanding one gets of the same objects from the plane view, as seen from an overhanging position.

  • 40 Erwin Straus, Vom Sinn der Sinne; ein Beitrag zur Grundlegung der Psychologie (Berlin: Springer, 1 (...)
  • 41 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., p. 341.
  • 42 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, p. 147.
  • 43 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., pp. 341-342.

12It was the German neuropsychiatrist Erwin Straus who coined these two concepts in his book Vom Sinn der Sinne (1935),40 quoted by Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception. “Geographical space,” according to Straus, designates a modality of space through which space is apprehended as a closed and finite ensemble, a space in which each element possesses a well-identified and coordinated position. Every position is constantly determined by its situation within the whole space, and related to a zero point on the grid. The “geographical space” is a space that is already known, translated into a neutral and symbolic mode. By analogy, it is similar to a plan or a map. Merleau-Ponty describes this spatial mode as the “being […] which we know,” “the network of facts subject to laws.”41 It belongs, as its etymology echoes, to the domains of writing and flatness that Morris has conceptualized. The “space of landscape,” on the other hand, designates the lived space, the space experienced by the spectator who is inserted in it and surrounded by a horizon that constitutes the limit of what he or she can see. This is to say, it is a space whose limits are traced by his or her own perception of it: the space that opens up to the observer is organized around him or her, it unfolds from his or her position and shifts as he or she shifts. Morris attests to such a shift of horizon when he realizes the deceptiveness of distances in that immense space, and that the approach toward a motif is always postponed when one attempts to reach it on foot.42 Merleau-Ponty writes about this “space of landscape” that it is that “through which the world impinges upon us, and by means of which we are in vital communication with it.”43

  • 44 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, p. 151.
  • 45 Ibid., p. 156.
  • 46 Unless we are mistaken, the only other occurrence of the term among the group of texts that addres (...)
  • 47 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, p. 166.
  • 48 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., p. 256.

13The essential point lies here in the insistence that this last mode of perception, the “space of landscape” or the “spatial,” brings to bear on the relation that exists between the way objects appear and the standpoint of the perceiving subject. A relation Morris testifies to when he writes, for example, that “After an hour or so of walking and observing, one becomes very aware of how one’s behavior as an observer affects the visibility and definition of the lines,”44 or again, when he affirms that the perception of lines is a “function of distance,”45 which is to say a function of the distance between the object of the gaze and the viewer. The shape of the objects of the gaze, and through them, space itself, are a function of the particular point of view adopted on them by the viewer. Besides, it is symptomatic that the concept of the “spatial” coined by Morris here is immediately articulated in his essay with the notion of “depth,” a notion that is absent from the artist’s earlier texts.46 This notion allows the artist to place even more emphasis on the link between the point of view of the perceiving subject and the object’s mode of apparition, insofar as depth refers to the very situation of the spectator in the world, the standpoint from which the distance with surrounding objects is counted. Morris writes: “The perception of things in depth returns us to our consciousness of our own subjectivity […]. An object has no stable perceptual place or size or relation to other objects. For these are a function of our own positions as perceivers.”47 And this reference to the notion of depth is not unlike Merleau-Ponty’s use of this same major concept, the articulatory node of his conception of space. As Merleau-Ponty puts it, depth is not a dimension of the object of perception itself, it does not belong to it the same way height and size do. Depth can be equated to a “breadth seen from the side,” in Merleau-Ponty’s words, only by a spectator who has abandoned his or her point of view on the world; the same spectator who can see the labyrinth in the plan view in Morris’ text. On the contrary, depth is established by the subject. It is the sign of the distance of an object for a subject situated in the same space. It refers both to the situation of the perceiving subject in the world and to his or her relation to objects. Merleau-Ponty writes: “[depth] is not impressed upon the object itself, it quite clearly belongs to the perspective and not to the things. Therefore it cannot either be extracted from, or even put into that perspective by consciousness. It announces a certain indissoluble link between things and myself by which I am placed in front of them.”48 Depth is thus a clear sign that the way an object unfolds in space and its formal characteristics are in fact inherent to the way it appears to the spectator. That is to say that the former are inseparable from the spectator himself or herself and from his or her place in the very same space, a space of which depth constitutes the primary experience—one only knows space by the objects in it, writes Morris. Depth designates the mode of perception of objects by a subject in the same space: that is, the “spatial” mode described by Morris.

  • 49 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, pp. 166-169.
  • 50 Ibid., pp. 169-170.
  • 51 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., p. ix.
  • 52 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, p. 171.

14To conclude, we might suggest that it was this experience of the Peruvian site, of horizontality and of depth, which led Morris to address once again the issue of the relation between the perceiving subject and the perceived object. From this experience, he learned that the lines on the ground, their shape, cannot be separated from the movements of the spectator. The reason is that these things do not appear to a spectator withdrawn from the world but rather to a spectator implied in the coil of the labyrinth, perceiving the world according to a “landscape mode.” The neutral and objective model, the plan or the diagram upon which every side of a thing appears as though seen simultaneously, no longer structures experience the way formalist modernism would have it. Such an objective model can only be designed after the wandering, afterwards, as the act of writing always implies, as Morris insists.49 And in his opinion, that is what compels him to consider the site of Nazca and its lines both as concrete landscape and as symbolic abstraction.50 As we can read in the preface to Phenomenology of Perception, in order to close the parallel, “To return to things in themselves is to return to that world which precedes knowledge, of which knowledge always speaks, and in relation to which every scientific schematization is an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to the countryside in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is.”51 To argue then that it is impossible to resolve “the subject-object dilemma in real space,” as Morris does, is to say that there is no object or form independent of the way it appears. But it also refers to the proximity in which things stand around us. Indeed, at the end of “Aligned with Nazca,” the artist stresses the centripetal and intimate nature of the site, in spite of its immensity.52 For if the site seems close or familiar, it is doubtless because it is from the one who discovers it and according to his or her standpoint that it unfolds.

Notes

1 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, pp. 26-39, reprinted in Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, 1993, p. 165.

2 Robert Morris would have learned of this work by Merleau-Ponty from its translation into English in 1962. E-mail addressed to the author, November 12, 2007.

3 Greenberg writes, “The human body is no longer postulated as the agent of space in either pictorial or sculptural art; now it is eyesight alone […].” Clement Greenberg, “The New Sculpture,” Partisan Review, vol. 16, no. 3 (June 1949), version augmented in 1958 reprinted in Art and culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 143. In addition, he writes that modernist works must be “grasped only in an indivisible instant of time” like a “sudden revelation.” Clement Greenberg, “The Case for Abstract Art,” Saturday Evening Post (August 1959), in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4. Modernism with a Vengeance 1957-1969, John O’Brian, ed. (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 80-81. Fried speaks, in his turn, of the sense of modernist sculpture delivered wholly in each moment. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, vol. 5, no. 10 (Summer 1967), pp. 12-23, reprinted in Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 167.

4 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture,” 1966, pp. 42-44, reprinted in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: Dutton, 1968), p. 223.

5 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2,” 1966, pp. 232-233.

6 James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 161.

7 Wolfgang Köhler, gestalt Psychology (New York: Horace Liveright, 1929), p. 3.

8 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2,” 1966, pp. 233-234. Our emphasis.

9 Tensions which had already been raised by Lizzie Borden in “The New Dialectic,” Artforum, vol. XII, no. 6 (March 1974), pp. 44-45.

10 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), trans. Colin Smith, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 204-205.

11 Ibid., pp. 60-61.

12 Hal Foster, “The Crux of Minimalism” [1986], in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), p. 47.

13 See also Alex Potts, The Sculptural Imagination. Figurative, Modernist, Minimalist (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 244-246.

14 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., p. 4. See also Renaud Barbaras, “Merleau-Ponty et la psychologie de la forme“, Les Études philosophiques, no. 2 (2001), p. 159.

15 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., p. 432.

16 Rudolf Arnheim, Art and Visual Perception. A Psychology of the Creative Eye [1954] (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1971). Robert Morris wrote that he had “probably” read this book during the period that he wrote “Notes on Sculpture” in 1966. E-mail addressed to the author, July 3, 2008.

17 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture,” 1966, p. 228 and 234.

18 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 4: Beyond Objects,” 1969, pp. 50-54, reprinted in Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, 1993, p. 53. Our emphasis.

19 Ibid., p. 57.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 Anton Ehrenzweig, The Hidden Order of Art [1967] (Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 21-22.

23 Ibid., pp. 55-66.

24 Robert Morris, “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making,” 1970, pp. 79-81.

25 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 4: Beyond Objects,” 1969, p. 57 and 61.

26 Ibid., p. 57.

27 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, pp. 150-156.

28 Ibid., p. 154.

29 Ibid., p. 158.

30 Ibid., p. 158. Our emphasis.

31 Ibid., p. 166.

32 Ibid., p. 164.

33 Ibid., p. 159. Morris renews here with the issue of the primacy of form over substance which he had raised as early as 1968 in his article “Anti-Form,” pp. 33-35.

34 Ibid., p. 166.

35 Ibid., p. 169. Let us note that the continuity between the world and the space of the self supposes a more pronounced interest for physical space rather than for psychological space, following the distinction proposed by Morris himself. The works at stake here are the ones close to earthworks rather than works like Hearing, Voice, etc.

36 Ibid., p. 166. Our emphasis.

37 Ibid., p. 169.

38 Ibid., p. 165. On this subject, see the commentary Gilles A. Tiberghien provides in Gilles A. Tiberghien, Land Art (Paris: Éditions Carré, 1993), pp. 188-189.

39 Ibid., p. 166.

40 Erwin Straus, Vom Sinn der Sinne; ein Beitrag zur Grundlegung der Psychologie (Berlin: Springer, 1935).

41 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., p. 341.

42 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, p. 147.

43 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., pp. 341-342.

44 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, p. 151.

45 Ibid., p. 156.

46 Unless we are mistaken, the only other occurrence of the term among the group of texts that address this question of perception is in “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making” (1970, p. 89), in which it is not expanded upon.

47 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, p. 166.

48 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., p. 256.

49 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, pp. 166-169.

50 Ibid., pp. 169-170.

51 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, op. cit., p. ix.

52 Robert Morris, “Aligned with Nazca,” 1975, p. 171.

Table des illustrations

Titre 28. Robert Morris, Untitled (Battered Cubes), 1965. Painted plywood, four units, each 24 × 36 × 36 inches (61 × 91.4 × 91.4 cm).
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3828/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 68k
Titre 29-30. Robert Morris, Untitled (Threadwaste), 1968. Threadwaste, asphalt, mirrors, copper tubing, and felt, dimensions variable.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3828/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 243k
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris, Musée d’art contemporain of Lyon and Blaise Adilon. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artits Rights Society (ARS), New York, Blaise Adilon (Photographer).
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3828/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 141k
Titre 31. Robert Morris, Looking Down on a Nazca Line Drawing, “Aligned with Nazca,” Artforum, vol. 14, no. 2 (October 1975), p. 28.
Légende Courtesy: Robert Morris. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3828/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 207k

Auteur

Art historian, postdoctoral fellow FRS-FNRS / Université de Louvain.

© ENS Éditions, 2015

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

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