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1A paradoxical body of work. A voluntarily self-contradictory body of work that forcefully resists the interpretations and labels to which we might wish to reduce it. An elusive body of work, impossible to pin down. A body of work, therefore, that does not lend itself to being compressed into a laudative preface to the proceedings of a symposium held on the 20th, 21st and 22nd of November 2008 at the Lyon Museum of Contemporary Art and at the École normale supérieure of Lyon.

2The research center which hosted the symposium had always been keen on affirming its double mission: promoting research and welcoming practice of all sorts. The Center for Studies in Poetics1 provided a space where creative practice was considered an expression of research and research a major form of creative practice. Robert Morris embodies this double articulation. He is himself a visual artist creating work in a discursive field and a writer articulating the terms of that same field in which his artwork participates. Since the middle of the last century, he has theorized and clarified through numerous articles and seminal texts—such as his 1966 Notes on Sculpture—the evolution of art, its rapid transformations, decisive mutations, and its links to scientific, technical, logical, philosophical, and poetic knowledge. A poetic mode of access to understanding the real is also at the heart of this. Like Robert Morris has always done, the vocation of the center that endeavored to welcome and to honor him was to go beyond the borders between disciplines, between ways of doing, ways of working and making art. Just as the artist goes beyond his field to research disparate forms of knowledge production, the center went beyond its limits to work in direct collaboration with artists and their institutions (art schools, museums).

3Morris has long maintained a close relationship to the Rhône region: the Saint-Étienne Museum of Modern Art organized his first significant exhibition in France in 1974, and the Lyon Museum of Contemporary Art extended three invitations to him in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Over three successive years, he produced three installations or groups of significant installations: Passageway and Portland Mirrors in 1998, Labyrinth in 1999 and White Nights in 2000. The final two projects related to one another, producing a hyper-reflexive space typical of the artist’s practice. Labyrinth was a wooden maze whose corridors led to impasses showing videos from his choreographic performances of the 1960s, and White Nights was a reworking of the former doubled by a mise en abyme of memory, through the projection upon its labyrinthine walls of approximately a hundred archival images of German-occupied Lyon from 1939 to 1945.

4Morris is an artist who has, at times, been designated as an “intellectual artist” (one critic even went so far as to suggest that he might be “the intellectual artist par excellence.”) This description might warrant some suspicion were we to understand the work as encapsulated solely in its concept, or to think of its existence as minimally sensory, objective or material, or to read it as a simple exercise verifying an a priori theory of art. Instead, this characterization designates the fact that Robert Morris is an artist whose work explicitly converses with its culture, is nourished by it, and informs and transforms it in turn. He is an artist who has read Freud, Marcuse and Reich, the works of anti-psychiatry as well as Michel Foucault, but also Chomsky, Cage, Duchamp and Wittgenstein, who is steeped in German philosophy, in phenomenology, in the different structuralisms, in the classics of social critique and in the great actors and theorists of the modernist vulgate, as well as in the European pictorial tradition, Goya, Cézanne, the great Italians, and so on. At the same time, he immerses himself in scientific culture, as demonstrated by the almost obsessive presence of “entropy,” of entropic decay and disorder, from his Memory Drawings of the 1960s through White Nights in 2000.

5He is thus an “intellectual artist” if by that one means an artist who is also a critic and a philosopher. Morris is an artist who permanently produces the theory of his practice and then invites us or incites us through his concrete “investigations,” material or immaterial, formal or informal, to consider the perpetual “alteration” and accumulation of his project. Even so, it is a project whose unity (whether formal, thematic, psychological) many commentators have struggled to grasp. The elusiveness is a consequence of the heterogeneity of Morris’ artwork. He has gone from painting to choreography, from sculpture to installation or performance, from autobiographical or auto-fictional writing to the different compositions of text and image with the mobility of a historical subject who has both initiated and traveled the major moments and movements of the adventure of modernity following abstract expressionism. To identify only a few: minimalism, anti-form, conceptual art, land art. Morris’ project complicates further when, after his brilliant and decisive contribution to the accelerated change of forms and the radicalization of the new which occurred between the 1960s and the 1980s, this hero of the most acute experimental modernism performs a critical about-face against “modernist,” formalist, positivist, “progressive” and puritan practices and ideology, returning to painting, ultra-narrative or symbolic representation, baroqueness, apology of decorative art. The violence of this stylistic rupture has shaken many.

6The meaning of this rupture, and whether, contrary to appearances, it was truly a rupture, remains to be determined. This is for exegetes and historians to assess. For Morris, there is always something of the past that returns and gnaws at the present. In the 1999 Labyrinth, we witness the return of “the baroque, Piranesi-like spaces of the stockyards, railroad yards and industrial spaces of Kansas City in the ’30s.”2 Kansas City, the city where he was born in 1931 and the setting of his childhood. Emergence and resurgence define Morris’ practice, his is a move against the illusion of linear development, against the illusion of a simply legible and naturally or immediately decipherable trajectory. I suppose one must take the artist at his word when he concedes to us, in an interview published in 1997, the freedom to reconstitute links and coherence in his work, and to locate dialectical connections between his successive, different or divergent formal choices. As he explains: “Life doesn’t make sense as a ‘whole’. Why should art?”3

7I began these remarks by speaking of a paradoxical body of work, one that gives itself to us as it resists us, one that perhaps even offends us, and that produces itself in contradiction. What better homage might we give this master of the labyrinth than to assure him that we accept his invitation (or at least attempt) to maneuver his work physically and in our imagination, to move with it, to grow disoriented among its corridors and mirrors, to enter into the network of questions it raises. To literally accompany him there.

Notes de bas de page

1 The Center for Studies in Poetics or Centre d’études poétiques (CEP) has since been replaced by the Center for Comparative Studies in the Arts (CERCC).

2 Robert Morris, From Mnemosyne to Clio: The Mirror to the Labyrinth (1998-1999-2000), ex. cat., 2000, p. 167.

3 Robert Morris in Penelope Curtis, “Interview with Robert Morris,” April 26, 1997, kept in the Robert Morris Archives, Gardiner, NY, quoted in Katia Schneller, Robert Morris, sur les traces de Mnémosyne (Lyon/Paris: ENS/Éditions des archives contemporaines, 2008), p. 21.

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