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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

A Parallel Unfurling: The Problem of Description in the Work of Robert Morris

Ileana Parvu

Texte intégral

  • 1 Robert Morris, “Professional Rules,” 1997, pp. 307-308: “Could we say you always had a suspicion o (...)

1The recourse to writing might be explained by a disdain for the image which Robert Morris has sometimes invoked.1 The same could be said of his texts as of works that possess a tactile or acoustic character: a way to avoid falling into the order of the visual. This paper treats another facet of Morris’ writings. In question, here, are texts brought to bear upon “visual” works. These invite us to rethink the relations between sight, image, and writing.

  • 2 See Barbara Rose, ed., Art-as-Art. The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (Berkeley/Los Angeles/Lon (...)

2If we examine what the preposition “upon” means in the expression “brought to bear upon visual works,” we notice that Morris’ texts generally allude to a referent exterior to the world of writing. Their referential character distinguishes them from the writings of Ad Reinhardt, for example. A text like End, which poses the question of the end of painting, makes use of a layout and a quality of handwriting which liken it to a painting.2 It is in this way comparable to the artist’s canvases in which the superimposed layers of color produce a luminous blackness. The page of text appears as a painting made of words. The equivalency that exists in the work of Reinhardt between painting and text has to do with the problem of abstraction. The refusal to include the figure makes writing a different space of pictorial abstraction. Morris’ texts do not present such closure. The artist did not turn to writing for its capacity for abstraction. His texts spread beyond the system of writing to forge links with what is found beyond it. We cannot take them to be art criticism, however, inasmuch as they are not entirely absorbed in the relation with their referent. All the while commenting “upon” works, these texts also exist independently of them. They trace an intermediate path, halfway between art history and the literary text.

  • 3 Robert Morris, “Words and Images in Modernism and Postmodernism,” 1989, p. 343.

In the 60s that mode of abstract sculpture, later termed “minimalism,” began its ascendancy. Much of the accompanying textualizing of this late phase of abstract art was produced once again by the artists themselves. It seemed to some at the time that visual incident was being reduced in inverse proportion to theoretical elaboration.3

  • 4 Craig Owens, “Earthwords,” October, no. 10 (Autumn 1979), p. 123.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 128.

3Morris often ironically presents texts written by artists in the 1960s as resulting from the excessive simplicity of minimal art. The American critic Craig Owens takes them more seriously, considering that the generation of minimalist artists was responsible for the passage of the visual arts from the visual to the written.4 Most emblematic of this linguistic turn is the work of Robert Smithson: Owens describes the geophotographic fiction entitled Strata (1972) as the transformation of blocks of text into geological sediment, while inversely, disproportionately enlarged photographs of fossils seem to resemble a text. A similar reversal occurs when, referring to a note by Smithson on Spiral Jetty (1970) that compares the non-site to a system of signs, Owens concludes that the non-site constitutes a text and that, in consequence, Smithson’s texts should be considered non-sites.5 Sculpture thus transforms itself into text and artists’s writings take on the status of sculpture.

4In Morris’ work, there is of course Card File (1962) which the artist, in his article “Professional Rules,” juxtaposes to the following questions:

  • 6 Robert Morris, “Professional Rules,” 1997, p. 317.

Then language was also used as sculpture? Or would you say that sculpture was used as language? […] And what about these remarks? Do they make a kind of sculpture of words?6

5But it is difficult to imagine that Morris would be content with these reversals, which transform sculpture into text and visual art into literature. If Owens believes that there is nothing outside of language, Morris is not satisfied with this progressive textualization of the visible. Without giving in to this reduction, he postulates the existence of something completely other.

  • 7 Robert Morris, “Jasper Johns: The First Decade,” 2007, p. 245.

Postmodernism, first theorized in France, was dedicated to textualizing experience by a reduction to “reading.” Experience then becomes an empty signifier, a mere effect of language and power. But on the other side, from the empiricism of Locke and Hume down to American Pragmatism, experience is claimed to be all there is.7

  • 8 Ibid., p. 250: “What may never be made clear by cognitive science is how the interface between the (...)

6In texts by Morris which concern visual works, such as Paul Cézanne’s landscapes or Jasper Johns’ paintings, the notion of experience is central. It implies that one opens oneself to something that is not already akin to text. This alterity of visual work is what writing must seek to preserve. But how can one establish the back-and-forth between sight and speech? Before such artworks, Morris ponders the relation between visual perception and language. Citing the findings of cognitive science, which pose the existence of two different systems, he concludes that these will perhaps never be able to determine how the interface between the visual and language functions, not only in regards to a fluid relation between sight and speech, allowing for exchange between the two domains, but also concerning the complex and endless conflict that opposes them.8 In his article on the relationship between image and language, Morris is more interested in the way the iconic and the textual, although distinct, are blended and imbricated. According to Morris, the disdain they manifest for each other is explained by the interpenetration of their borders. And there is a danger in considering visual art as text, a process of “textualization” which he qualifies as linguistic imperialism.

  • 9 Robert Morris, “Professional Rules,” 1997, p. 315.

7The issues that Morris raises concerning the articulation between perception and language are properly those of description. In “Professional Rules,” certain remarks that accompany the Labyrinth of the Fattoria di Celle in Pistoia (1982) , attest to his interest in this question: “And we are trying to give descriptions here and not explanations.”9 How can one reflect upon a visual work without hastening its transformation into a text? How can one say something about it while respecting what in it resists verbal language? It is important to note, in this regard, the attention that Morris lends to the silence of Cézanne’s or Johns’ paintings: one must write about these works without being loquacious.

  • 10 Robert Morris, “Cézanne’s Mountains,” 1998, p. 817.

That [Cézanne’s last works] show more than can be said we readily admit; that they admit more than can readily be seen allows us to wedge the foot of a word in their doorway. But what does the attempted precision of our descriptions have to do with getting in the doorway?10

8Morris’ text on Cézanne’s Montagnes Sainte-Victoire (1998) poses the problem of description in terms of the impossible equivalence between an element of painting and a word.

  • 11 Ibid., p. 816.

If our urgency for a description is irrelevant to the activity that engaged Cézanne in producing the works, we nevertheless have an object before us that should, we think, submit itself to description. But we flounder in the metaphysics of identity in our descriptions. Identities in these works begin to implode in this field of ruptured, virtual objects (sky/sky? mountain/mountain? ground/ground?) that exchange forces with one another.11

  • 12 Ibid., p. 815: “What name is there for this so-called sky that transmutes with so little transitio (...)

9The sequence of the three words “sky,” “mountain,” and “ground,” repeated on each side of the slashes, and followed by a question mark, shows the impossibility of finding an adequate term to render what is happening in the upper portion of the picture. The sky blends in with the mountain, there is some mountain in the sky, and what about the background? The green brushstrokes of the mountain overflow onto a portion of sky, bluish reflections appear in the mountain. In the upper part of the painting, is it a sky, a mountain, or a background that we see? A bit earlier in the text, Morris had already wondered about how to designate this so-called sky that is transformed, with almost no change, into a so-called mountain.12

  • 13 Ibid., p. 814.

10For Morris, this impossible equivalency between a word and an element of the painting is linked to the problem of representation. He establishes a parallel between two kinds of relations: on the one hand, between word and image, and on the other hand, between the work and its referent. Between the painting by Cézanne and the Sainte-Victoire, we find all the distance that the term representation comprises. But the work is not deprived of resemblance. How can one understand the articulation between representation and resemblance, if, according to Nelson Goodman, whom Morris cites frequently, the two notions do not intersect? Indeed, anything can refer to anything else, and one twin never represents the other. Resemblance is not necessary in representation, and there is no representation in resemblance.13

  • 14 Ibid., p. 817.
  • 15 Ibid.
  • 16 Ibid.: “What is being reflected from them as the mirror of resemblance is perhaps dimmed?”

11To make sense of the relation between Cézanne’s landscapes and the world, Morris introduces a third term:14 the verb re-call which is particular in that it is both transitive and reflexive. It assumes a double function, on the one hand, of holding together representation and resemblance, whose relation seem to be one of mutual exclusion, and on the other hand, of referring to an image on the point of disappearing, which Cézanne reconstitutes from memory.15 The Sainte-Victoire Mountains represent less than they recall a landscape. But what about the resemblance that links them to the motif? Morris has recourse to the image of a mirror that has perhaps been fogged up.16 How should the notion of reflection—even if disrupted by fog—be understood before paintings that Cézanne qualified as attempts to build a harmony parallel to that of nature? The painter insisted upon the principle of equivalency in representation, but his assertion does not answer the question of knowing where the painting and its referent might meet.

  • 17 Robert Morris, From Mnemosyne to Clio: The Mirror to the Labyrinth (1998-1999-2000), ex. cat., 200 (...)

12The image of the fogged-up mirror links the problem of representation and of resemblance to the question of seeing. Reflection had been able to pass for a true image (at the end of the 19th century, in the painting of Gustav Klimt, to cite one example): when the real is redoubled, one sees better. In Morris’ work, however, mirrors are often associated to non-seeing. When Thierry Raspail and Thierry Prat inquired about the way mirrors had appeared in his work, Morris answered: “Mirror Cubes [1965] utilized the capacity of mirrors set below eye level to reflect the floor and disappear in the space.”17 The film entitled Mirror (1969) also included moments of invisibility associated with the movements of a mirror in a snowy landscape.

  • 18 Gottfried Boehm, “Bildbeschreibung. Über die Grenzen von Bild und Sprache,” in Beschreibungskunst (...)
  • 19 Ibid., p. 27.

13The writings of the German art historian Gottfried Boehm on the relation between sight and description can be aligned to Morris’ own reflections on the issue. To describe is not merely to render what one sees, in the sense of what one recognizes or identifies, writes Boehm, but to give more to be seen.18 It means to move beyond what we already know. It is not a matter of consigning in the text what we manage to identify in the painting, but rather to linger in spaces that resist the act of naming in order to widen the field of understanding. Boehm borrows this model of a kind of sight that goes beyond identification from another German art historian, Max Imdahl.19 The latter opposed a form of sight based on the tautology of identification (wiedererkennendes Sehen), to a form of sight taken up in the process of seeing (sehendes Sehen), borrowing in turn from the theories of Konrad Fiedler. Imdahl’s form of sight implicates the spectator in a visibility that is under construction. The identification of pictorial elements supposes a spectator who is faced with completed facts: there is nothing left to do but to record them. In the sehendes Sehen, through the process of seeing, the spectator participates in the very construction of the pictorial visible. Morris uses the adjective “inchoate” to describe Cézanne’s painting. (It is perhaps necessary to mention that it was also through Cézanne that Imdahl developed his notion of the sehendes Sehen.) Cézanne’s motif is under construction, it takes form before our eyes.

  • 20 Robert Morris, “Jasper Johns: The First Decade,” op. cit., pp. 225-256.

14Sight is the guiding thread of the text that Morris devotes to Jasper Johns’ first paintings.20 In it, Morris revisits several moments of a thematic of sight that is very present in Johns’ oeuvre. He mentions Johns’ comparison between seeing and eating, and describes the piece Target with Four Faces (1955)—plaster casts of faces cut just below the eyes, and to whom vision is thus refused—as an incarnation, a becoming-flesh of the sign. For Morris, the turning point of Johns’ art, not quite three years after his first works, occurs in a painting entitled Tennyson (1958). Its surface, coarsely painted grey, seems to Morris like a screen, an obstacle that prevents the viewer from seeing what is beneath: as if a shade had been drawn to forbid access to a more brightly-colored painting that shows through at the edges.

15Morris presents the lithograph entitled Voice I (1966-1967) as a descent into the interior of the body, into the throat, to the origin of the voice. At first, there is nothing to see. But, if one spends a long time in front of Voice—and Morris here uses the pronoun “I” in order to signify that the formation of these motifs depends on the spectator—monstrous faces start to emerge, comparable to the black paintings of Goya. To gain access to the image, one must cross through the opaque membrane of the black and white drawing, which Morris likens to a skin, to an epidermis. The acoustic dimension of Voice is not the flow of words, it is not language. What Morris hears is a melancholic, barely audible song, what a child murmurs to give herself courage in the dark. Like Tennyson, Voice draws the gaze toward the interior, toward the past, turning away from the exterior, public images of flags, numbers, and targets.

16What Morris says of Target with Plaster Casts (1955) goes beyond description: he gives us a glimpse of his own position as descriptor. According to him, this work is Johns’ subtle revenge for his experience in the army, and in it, he derides targeted vision, vision that aims to shoot.

  • 21 Ibid., p. 230.

The kind of vision the target invites, focused and conscious, will always deliver the fragmented, the partial thing in its box. The targets impugn conscious thought itself insofar as the “targeted,” what one consciously focuses on, is a kind of tunnel vision condemned to miss the whole.21

17Concentration on a fragment causes the totality to fall from view. This charge against targeted vision, a gaze that goes straight to its goal, perhaps recalls Johns’ assertion that looking at a painting should not require a particular kind of attention, a focussing such as the one required in church. The term that Johns employs—and that often recurs in his remarks—is “focus.” It is in the context of this focused vision that he formulates his noted phrase about looking at a painting in the same way one would look at a radiator. Johns seems to indicate that one does not need to concentrate on paintings, to look at them head-on, or to pay them any attention: the better approach would be to have them in the viewer’s peripheral zone of vision.

18In his own descriptions, Morris makes use of this fluid, unfocused vision, which is also a side-vision: either the spectator perceives the work in her peripheral zone of vision, or she herself adopts a side position in relation to the painting.

19Morris’ vision is not simply opposed to touch. It possesses a haptic quality, converts into touch. This leads to some surprising things, such as that sense of touch, in front of Cézanne’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire, that gains access to color perception.

  • 22 Robert Morris, “Cézanne’s Mountains,” 1998, p. 827.

This landscape becomes an abyss where visual depth darkens into touch, where touch is registered as color, as though touch could read color, as though color was accessed by touch, or as though Mnemosyne herself arrived by the touches of colors.22

20Touching the page as though he were touching Cézanne’s painting, in 1997 Morris produces Blind Time V and VI, with the Montagne Sainte-Victoire in mind, calling upon, as he notes at the bottom of the drawings, the memory of the first Cézanne he had ever seen (Fig. 43). These works are possessed of a surprisingly visual quality for works executed in the dark, with blindfolded eyes. What we have here, it seems, is sight transmuted into touch or touch that becomes vision.

43. Robert Morris, Blind Time V, 1997. Print, 19.9 × 25.8 inches (50.5 × 65.6 cm). Genève, Cabinet du Musée d’art et d’histoire.

43. Robert Morris, Blind Time V, 1997. Print, 19.9 × 25.8 inches (50.5 × 65.6 cm). Genève, Cabinet 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.

21Morris works with a form of sight that is intermingled with touch; for description, he uses the method of lateral vision, side vision. This describing from a slant, which he adopts in relation to paintings, gives him access to their different strata. Morris does not approach them frontally, in a face-to-face that is almost an attack. His descriptions do not attempt to clarify everything, to shed complete light on a work, or to have the last word. He accepts a position that does not allow him to see everything, that includes zones of invisibility. From the side, he gives the work time to accumulate thickness and to form strata. Johns’ first paintings resonate with the visual and acoustic environment of his time spent in the American army. Cézanne’s paintings thicken with the memory of the child’s gaze that had previously settled upon the motif. (To re-call is also to remember.) But this return to the past also offers a glimpse of what is to occur in the near future: the Montagnes Sainte-Victoire shed light upon the imminent disappearance of that landscape that was so dear to Cézanne.

22Johns’ military experience, Cézanne’s childhood landscapes, or the last gasp of a world at the beginning of the 20th century might all seem to be references exterior to the work. But this is not the case. They are not snippets of information that might take us away from the work in a movement of escape. It is not a question of avoiding looking at the work, of turning one’s back on it in order to concentrate on what is exterior, the life of the artist, the historical context. In Morris’ descriptions, what seems not to come exclusively from the order of painting is in fact anchored in the work, proceeding from the work itself and deepening our gaze upon it.

  • 23 Craig Owens, “Earthwords,” op. cit., p. 127.
  • 24 Robert Morris, “Professional Rules,” 1997, p. 298: “It is as if I wanted to say that my actions in (...)

23Moreover, for Morris, seeing is a constant test of certainty. In Earthwords, Owens introduces a distinction between the writings of modern artists and the writings of postmodern artists.23 If Malevitch, Mondrian and Kandinsky wrote, it was to compensate for the elimination, in their work, of everything that was not “purely” pictorial. Their writings were thus dependent upon their paintings, and took on an explanatory role. Owens describes them as “statements,” and opposes them to the “texts” of the postmodern artist. If Morris’ writings, however, do not constitute statements, it is not, as Owens would have it, because they are postmodern texts. Indeed, according to the critic, they enact a kind of modernist closure, insofar as nothing escapes the process of textualization. What Morris opposes to the statement is the question. The beginning of his article “Professional Rules” shows the intrication of these two types of propositions.24 For Morris, it is a matter of advancing hypotheses while immediately calling them into question. In his writings, to describe is to question, to dare to advance into where one sees poorly in order to push ever further the limits of seeing and knowing.

  • 25 Craig Owens, “Earthwords,” op. cit., p. 129.
  • 26 Rosalind Krauss, “The Mind/Body Problem: Robert Morris in Series,” in Robert Morris. The Mind/Body (...)

24Owens’s argument is obviously directed against the modernist autonomy of the arts.25 If Smithson makes the verbal and the visual interchangeable, it is, according to him, in order to compromise the integrity of both domains. When it comes to Morris’ writings, things are less simple. In closing, let us examine the relation between text and visual work in light of the layout of the article “Professional Rules” in Critical Inquiry (Fig. 44). Image and text unfold in parallel, forming two distinct columns that follow different modalities: the text is continuous, the band of images proceeds by addition. A back-and-forth starts to happen between the artwork and the text. The relation is not direct, Morris does not write “about” his sculptures. Rather, it is with his artworks in mind that he rethinks his work. This juxtaposition, without any direct link between artwork and text, calls to mind certain talks by Rosalind Krauss, which avoided reducing the artwork to an object of targeted commentary, unfolding instead an argumentative thread while images were progressively displayed on-screen. In her essay on Morris’ work in the Guggenheim exhibition catalog, there is—but this is probably a unique occurrence—this same lack of direct relationship between an artwork (Mirror Cubes) and a segment of text (on Freudian Unheimlichkeit).26 What links Morris’ sculptures to his text, in Critical Inquiry, remains subterranean, implicit, and sometimes mysterious. Each follows its own path, but at moments and in certain places, image and word meet. This series of meetings between an artwork and a piece of writing within their own distinct unfolding is perhaps Morris’ contribution to the postmodern idea of text.

44. Robert Morris, “Professional Rules”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 23, no. 2 (Winter 1997), p. 315.

44. Robert Morris, “Professional Rules”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 23, no. 2 (Winter 1997), p. 315.

Notes

1 Robert Morris, “Professional Rules,” 1997, pp. 307-308: “Could we say you always had a suspicion of the image? […] Still, there seems to have been in the past a certain conscious resistance to the ‘image,’ as if this offered you a certain purchase, a certain foothold (pardon the image here) from which to work.”

2 See Barbara Rose, ed., Art-as-Art. The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1991), p. 112.

3 Robert Morris, “Words and Images in Modernism and Postmodernism,” 1989, p. 343.

4 Craig Owens, “Earthwords,” October, no. 10 (Autumn 1979), p. 123.

5 Ibid., p. 128.

6 Robert Morris, “Professional Rules,” 1997, p. 317.

7 Robert Morris, “Jasper Johns: The First Decade,” 2007, p. 245.

8 Ibid., p. 250: “What may never be made clear by cognitive science is how the interface between the visual and verbal operates, in terms not only of the seamless connection that facilitates the interchange between what is seen and said, but the complex and endless conflict between the one and the other.”

9 Robert Morris, “Professional Rules,” 1997, p. 315.

10 Robert Morris, “Cézanne’s Mountains,” 1998, p. 817.

11 Ibid., p. 816.

12 Ibid., p. 815: “What name is there for this so-called sky that transmutes with so little transition into this so-called mountain?”

13 Ibid., p. 814.

14 Ibid., p. 817.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.: “What is being reflected from them as the mirror of resemblance is perhaps dimmed?”

17 Robert Morris, From Mnemosyne to Clio: The Mirror to the Labyrinth (1998-1999-2000), ex. cat., 2000, p. 175.

18 Gottfried Boehm, “Bildbeschreibung. Über die Grenzen von Bild und Sprache,” in Beschreibungskunst – Kunstbeschreibung (Munich: W. Fink Verlag, 1995), p. 40.

19 Ibid., p. 27.

20 Robert Morris, “Jasper Johns: The First Decade,” op. cit., pp. 225-256.

21 Ibid., p. 230.

22 Robert Morris, “Cézanne’s Mountains,” 1998, p. 827.

23 Craig Owens, “Earthwords,” op. cit., p. 127.

24 Robert Morris, “Professional Rules,” 1997, p. 298: “It is as if I wanted to say that my actions in making art fell on the side of the question rather than of the statement. But I don’t know whether to allow this feeling to remain in the form of a statement, or to recast it as a question.”

25 Craig Owens, “Earthwords,” op. cit., p. 129.

26 Rosalind Krauss, “The Mind/Body Problem: Robert Morris in Series,” in Robert Morris. The Mind/Body Problem, ex. cat., 1994, p. 15.

Table des illustrations

Titre 43. Robert Morris, Blind Time V, 1997. Print, 19.9 × 25.8 inches (50.5 × 65.6 cm). Genève, Cabinet 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/3834/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 379k
Titre 44. Robert Morris, “Professional Rules”, Critical Inquiry, vol. 23, no. 2 (Winter 1997), p. 315.
URL http://books.openedition.org/enseditions/docannexe/image/3834/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 82k

Auteur

Associate professor in art history, Haute École d'Art et Design in Geneva.

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