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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

Robert Morris and the Spaces of Writing

W.J.T. Mitchell

Texte intégral

1What are the “spaces of writing”? Do they have any limit? Or are they all-pervasive, an infinite continuum so vast that, as Jacques Derrida famously put it, there is nothing outside the text? A familiar trick of language, of course, immediately substantializes that “nothing,” the void beyond writing, and seeks to explore the abyss that separates writing from whatever negates it, whatever erases or contradicts or simply stands apart from it, indifferent to the rule of language.

2My own view is that the spaces of writing are not infinite, but they do approach and sometimes cross over definite borders in the realm of sensory experience and semiotic signification. I think of writing’s place as a product of the intersections of the eye and ear, and the Peircean categories of icon and symbol, as illustrated by this fundamental “square of opposition,” (Fig. 33) a figure to which we will return. Writing, then, is centered in just one of the four arcs of expression generated by these intersections, consisting primarily of symbols for the eye as distinct from the icons for the eye known as drawing, the symbols for the ear known as speech, and the icons for the ear known as music.

33. Eye/Ear/Icon/Symbol: Square of Opposition Elaborated.

33. Eye/Ear/Icon/Symbol: Square of Opposition Elaborated.

3Michel Foucault also found a fundamental limit to writing in the image, and in the image’s treasonous refusal to play by the rules of writing, its insistence on playing by different rules, or perhaps even more radically, its resistance to any rules whatsoever. In Foucault’s reading of Magritte’s The Treason of Images the prim, well-schooled script that declares the basic law of language, the rule of negation, of “thou shalt not” and “this is not” (cf. Lacan’s “non” and “nom” of the father) is confounded by the drawing’s stubborn affirmation: “but yes, indeed, it is a pipe after all.” This revelation has two consequences. First, it introduces anarchy into the classroom. The teacher loses control as the image of the pipe begins to generate vaporous likenesses of itself. One might see a similar dynamic in Poussin’s famous painting of the Golden Calf, in which the delivery of the written law on its stone tablets, and most essentially, the law against the making of graven images, is shattered by the eruption of the image, and the uncontrollable energies it unleashes.

4A second consequence of Magritte’s revelation, according to Foucault, is the opening of a new space, a third space between writing and drawing that is difficult to name, except in the most elusive, metaphoric terms: it is a beach, an empty margin, and a no man’s land across which missiles and arrows are launched from the respective domains of the word and the image. It is a space of incommensurability, untranslatability which nevertheless serves as the seam between the great enduring orders of human understanding: for Foucault, the basic “strata” of the seeable and the sayable, the visible and the articulable; for Kant, the basic modalities of human perception in space and time; for Lacan, the blank, unrepresentable space of the Real that opens as an abyss between the Symbolic and Imaginary.

5Foucault’s thumbnail history of modern painting tells a story of the re-shuffling of the boundaries of word and image from Kandinsky to Klee to Magritte, culminating in Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans, and the emergence of a new regime of simulation and repetition in the spaces between writing and the graphic arts. But Foucault could just as easily have settled on the work of Robert Morris as the site of a new exploration of the irreducible dialectic between words and images. In contrast to Warhol, Morris is not so much interested in the merging of word and image in the soup of repeatable icons and logos—“Campbell, Campbell, Campbell”—as he is in tracing the trade routes and missile tracks across the no man’s land between writing and image. More than any other artist of his generation, Morris seems to have recognized that this blank space was, to echo Jack Kennedy’s hopeful slogan for the 1960s, a “New Frontier” for artistic exploration.

6Probably the most notorious announcements of this blank space were the gray plywood slabs that Morris fabricated in the early sixties. Impassive, hollow, and non-committal, these objects simultaneously refused both the Foucauldian regimes of the seeable and the sayable. John Cage went to the Green Gallery to view Morris’ new work, and reported back that he had not seen any art there. Michael Fried declared them “merely interesting” objects, utterly sterile and annoying in their literalness, their defiant lack of both figuration and readability. Even worse, Fried argued, the legibility of the works as art depended, not upon anything intrinsic to their material or visual properties, but to a whole discourse elaborated elsewhere, in the writings of the minimalists, most conspicuously Morris himself, in his series of Artforum essays, “Notes on Sculpture.” Morris had violated the fundamental rule of the modernist cult of the genius artist exemplified by Jackson Pollock: the artist must be seen and not heard, must produce images and not words, and insofar as the artist becomes a writer, elaborating a discourse to make his work readable, in that measure he is engaged in a “theatrical” performance that fatally mixes the arts of vision and language.

  • 1 Robert Morris, Card File, 1962. Metal, plastic wall file mounted on wood, containing forty-four in (...)
  • 2 Here I must disagree with those commentators who think that Card File has its most authentic statu (...)
  • 3 Robert Morris, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961. Walnut box, speaker, and three-and-a-ha (...)

7Of all the minimalists, Morris seemed like the most egregious offender against the fundamental modernist rule of medium specificity and purity. Had he not ridiculed the modernist idea of the pure self-referential opticality of the work in Card File, a literal compilation of the topics and considerations that went into the work entitled Card File, arranged in strict alphabetical order?1 Even worse, when Card File escapes the realm of readable, touchable utility by sealing itself in a glass box, thus entering the world of display and depiction, it seems to thumb its nose directly at the laws separating the verbal and visual media.2 In a similar way, the rule of the silent artist and artistic object was flouted by Box with the Sound of Its Own Making,3 which once again invoked the modernist rule of self-referentiality while violating the boundary between auditory and visual media. The tape recording inside the Box constituted another kind of writing emanating from the artist, the phono-graphic traces of the hammering, sawing, and painting that went on during the making of this appropriately colored Black Box. (Needless to say, a slide cannot do justice to this work!)

8The only critic who seemed to glimpse the real meaning of the gray minimalist slabs was Annette Michelson, who compared them to the mysterious slabs of Stanley Kubrick’s classic sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s slabs function as enigmatic teaching machines, transmitters of indecipherable messages from an evolutionary future. Their appearance signals the arrival of newness in the world, the onset of handtools among primitive human beings, the birth of a new, embryonic human form in a future realm beyond earth’s gravitational field.

  • 4 Robert Morris, Untitled (Fiberglass Cloud), 1967. Translucent fiberglass, nylon threads, 18 × 96 × (...)

9Morris’ slabs do not, I think, aspire to quite such grandiose or monumental stature. They remain within the scale of the human body, and are not generally posed vertically, but occupy the more humble position of a plinth, or a floating “Cloud.”4 They resonate simultaneously with overtones of innovation and primitivism, echoing the famous “slabs” of Wittgenstein’s canonical language games, on the one hand, and the ideograms of structural linguistics, on the other, as if they were three-dimensional sculptural embodiments of the Greimasian Square or the Lacanian L-Schema. They are not, in short, quite “dialectical images” in Benjamin’s sense, because they are not images at all. Call them “dialectical objects” that inhabit the blank, invisible and unreadable space between words and images, between an unnameable thingliness and an all too literal objecthood.

10If the slabs provided something like totemic figures for the new space of writing that Morris was opening up, many of his later works explored this space in the most intricate and loving detail. It may be helpful here to remind ourselves that the distinction between the spaces of writing and the spaces of drawing can be rendered visible and concrete in the most familiar and material supports for these distinctive activities. I’m thinking, of course, of the ruled writing tablet, and the unruled drawing tablet. Each is a “tablet,” a rectangular blank space or tabula rasa awaiting the arrival of marks. And of course, each is open to the marks of the other: one may draw on a writing tablet and write on a drawing tablet. No doubt the notes being taken during this lecture will veer back and forth between legible notations and random scribbles or doodles, with various pictorial, ornamental, and diagrammatic inscriptions occupying a kind of middle space. The blank space between the words and images of Magritte’s This Is Not a Pipe shades insensibly between the invisible ruled lines that govern the carefully measured, trained script of the legend, and the unruled space where the pipe makes its appearance.

11I call the space of the image “unruled” but of course it might be more accurate to say simply that it follows different rules, and is governed by constraints of resemblance, analogy, similitude, and by what Nelson Goodman called density and repleteness of inscription. But Goodman’s rules, as you can see at a glance, open the door to the most unruly effects and practices. The space of the image is infinite and infinitesimal; the tiniest mark or accidental blur is filled with potential significance. Every difference makes a difference, whereas the rule of the space of writing is a finite, defining, and negative rule: it rules out the accident, at least at the level of inscription, and it limits significance to the iterable, repeatable, and recognizable characters, limited in number, of a writing system. The scale, color, and texture of a written inscription are, in principle, irrelevant to its decipherment, and when they become relevant, we have moved across a threshold into calligraphy and typography, where the wide-open, unruly space of the graphic opens out into its infinite space of possibility. With alphabetic and most forms of pictographic or hieroglyphic writing, by contrast, there is not only a rule of unambiguous inscription, but a rule of sequential order, not to mention rules of spelling, and more or less firmly stipulated rules of compliance with phonetic utterances.

12It seems to me that Morris’ work is all about following rules, often blindly, to see what results they lead to, and to see exactly where they break down. This is the meaning of his distinction between what might be called “procedural” works that follow a set of instructions, as opposed to “process” works that allow for free, expressionistic improvisation. The series of Blind Time drawings perfectly exemplify this disciplining of the unregulated hand gesture by first setting out an array of spatial targets, measured amounts of graphite, or even a pre-imposed mental image to control the motions of the hands. This is then coupled with a set of temporal constraints that are completely independent of whatever the graphic results of the drawing might be. When the drawing is completed, a verbal description of the procedures employed, along with an estimation of the time error in the performance, is hand-written on the lower margin, often accompanied by quotations from philosophers, especially Donald Davidson.

13Morris’ approach to the spaces of writing may be usefully contrasted with Magritte, who insists on its rigorous separation from drawing, and with Paul Klee, who (as Foucault argues) achieves an ambiguous merger of the two orders in certain works. In the composition Foucault discusses, Klee deliberately confuses the marks of drawing or painting and writing, by inscribing lines that can function ambiguously as edges or boundaries of masses and forms, on the one hand, and as written characters, on the other. But Klee is exploring the writing/drawing encounter, not from the side of writing, but from that of painting. He has inserted his written characters in the unruled space of the image where they seem strewn about like so many letters from a Scrabble game. Klee shows us the elements but not the space of writing. The letters cannot form words, much less phrases or sentences.

14Consider, by contrast, a set of four ink drawings by Morris that combine expressionistic smears, stains, and blurs with rigorously stenciled inscriptions that form a continuous proposition running from one drawing to another: “THE SOFTEST/RULE SHEATHES/THE RAZOR/EDGE OF ERROR.” (Fig. 34-37) The inscription of the statement itself violates one of the “softest rules” of pictorial space, namely that everything in the image should remain inside the frame. The notion of the singular autonomy and self-contained perfection of the individual pictorial composition is literally violated by each picture’s insertion into the space of writing, and indeed, of printing. Like a medieval triptych, this polyptych or “quadtych” must be hung in a certain order to render it readable as a proposition as opposed to a set of phrasal units. But the readability is not that of a depicted narrative, like the Stations of the Cross, or a panoramic spectacle like the Last Judgment, but of a single proposition with its much more rigorous syntactical constraints.

34-37. Robert Morris, The Softest Rule Sheathes the Razor Edge of Error. Ink on Paper. Collection of W.J.T. Mitchell.

34-37. Robert Morris, The Softest Rule Sheathes the Razor Edge of Error. Ink on Paper. Collection of W.J.T. Mitchell.

Courtesy of Robert Morris and W.J.T. Mitchell. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

15And then, lurking in the waves, cascades, and veils of ink, there is yet another space of writing. Not the stenciled, printed writing of the master-legend, but a nervously hand-written text, a transcription of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” a Xerox transfer print of philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s notebook transcript of Poe’s text. The “bleak December” of the poem seems perfectly attuned to the dark skeins of ink through which it looms, and what I have called its “nervous” handwriting was Peirce’s playful experimentation with the boundaries of rule-governed penmanship. In contrast to the carefully measured schoolboy hand of Magritte, Peirce allows his hand to trail off in involuntary, spasmodic motions, so that the letters seems to sprout meaningless ornamental tendrils. The boundary between voluntary and involuntary, intentional and automatic writing is delineated in the inscription of the text.

16Morris is, of course, “finally” a visual artist, if we insist on some sort of closed finality about the location of his work. But the clue to his real achievement, in my view, is his effort not only to bring the spaces of writing to bear on the realm of images, but to open up the question of the limits of those spaces, mapping both their internal and external boundaries, the rules by which they are governed, and the moments when those rules are broken. Morris is well aware that writing is not always composed of letters, that the history of writing evolves from the pictogram through the ideogram to the hieroglyph to what is sometimes thought of (wrongly) as its final, perfected stage, the phonetic alphabet. Beyond letters and literacy, however, is the rule of numbers and numeracy, the writing of code, and the moment when the space of writing becomes virtual and cybernetic, when the graphic mark is not only graphic and grammatic, but pro-grammatic, involving self-executing commands, procedures, and routines. These automatisms can produce a melt-down of the medium and the space of writing, especially when a command such as “copy” or “send” is unleashed into a string of ciphers. Like the fatal letter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern carry from Prince Hamlet of Denmark to the King of England, it commands the immediate execution of the bearers upon receipt. The dreaded “.exe” file extension in an attachment threatens to unleash a self-executing virus waiting to infect your operating system and bring it down with a crash.

17So far I have been assuming that there are basically three spaces of writing: first, the one-dimensional string of characters that obeys a set of sequential rules coordinating spatial position with temporal ordering; second, a two-dimensional coordination of the visible mark with the auditory utterance, exchanging, as Marshall McLuhan once put it, “an eye for an ear”; and third, the virtual spaces of description, narration, and both figurative and logical language that open out as the meaning of a text is taken in by a reader. If writing converges with or borders on the space of the image at the level of inscription (as we saw from the example of Paul Klee), it re-converges with the image at the level of a world projected by a text. This is the place where the ruled space of writing once again moves into the unruly space of depiction.

  • 5 Robert Morris, “The Labyrinth and The Urinal,” 2009.

18But I want to conclude with a fourth space of writing, one in which the rules move to another level, that of metalanguage and perhaps the geometry of thought itself. Morris had hinted at this sort of ruled space in the most literal way when he tried drawing rulers themselves, estimating the discrepancy between a standard foot long ruler and one drawn free-hand. But perhaps the most comprehensive version of this move brings us back to the quadrilateral shape of the slab, and its relation to the system of dialectical operations that make writing, and indeed, language itself, possible. I’m thinking, of course, of the famous Greimasian Square of Opposition, and its many adaptations in narrative and psychology, from Fredric Jameson’s readings of ideological allegories to Jacques Lacan’s use of it to map the relations of subjects and objects. Morris used it in an essay entitled “The Labyrinth and the Urinal” to produce what he calls “The Quadratic Logogram of Almost Everything.”5 (Fig. 38) This diagram maps the intersecting oppositions of Space (S) and Objects (O) with Language (L) and Image (I). But the diagram becomes most interesting when Morris “deflates” it to “The Quadratic Logogram of Less than Everything,” and exemplifies it with a fourfold array of totemic emblems or badges: the Labyrinth for Space, Duchamp’s Urinal for Objects, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations for Language, and the Duck-Rabbit for the Image.

38. Robert Morris’ Quadratic Logogram of Almost Everything in Robert Morris, “The Labyrinth and the Urinal,” Critical Inquiry, no. 1 (Fall 2009), pp. 76-99.

38. Robert Morris’ Quadratic Logogram of Almost Everything in Robert Morris, “The Labyrinth and the Urinal,” Critical Inquiry, no. 1 (Fall 2009), pp. 76-99.

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

19I will not try to reconstruct here the thumbnail history of modern art that Morris develops around this quadrilateral. In some ways it recalls the whimsical table of oppositions that produced the 4 legged table with Duchamp, Edward Hopper, Joseph Cornell, and Jackson Pollock at its corners in Morris’ hilarious Art in America hoax of 1981, in which his tabulation of the most important American artists degenerated into a food fight with an angry editor (also played by Morris himself). What interests me is the question of exactly what sort of “space of writing” is constituted by this sort of logogram. In the history of Chirography, this is known as “asemic writing,” a “wordless, open form” that has “no semantic content.” It is associated with the contrary forms of, on the one hand, “primal scripts” such as doodling, scribbling, everything from the enigmatic scripts of cave paintings to children’s drawings. On the other hand, it is linked with “postliterate” forms of writing, pictograms or ideograms that await filling in with discourse, and that operate as the fundamental structures of systematic thought, insofar as it involves what Nicklas Luhmann called “drawing a distinction,” tracing the contraries and the negations of a concept, so that (in a famous instance drawn from Lévi-Strauss), the category of the Living is opposed by its Contrary, the Dead, but also by its Negative, the Inanimate, or that which has never been alive. Finally, the fourth corner of the diagram remains to be discovered as a perhaps surprising “negation of the negation.” In this case, I have proposed the category of the “Undead” as the only logical solution.

20The asemic ideogram, then, forms a kind of limit case for the spaces of writing. It offers a machine for the generation of both discourse and narrative, and it is open to the rule of both logic and rhetoric, both the strict negations of S and not-S (we might think of this as Site and Non-Site), and the more qualitative, experiential oppositions of S and O, Spaces and Objects, or Subjects and Objects. In this regard it shows how, even at the farthest reaches of meta-linguistic abstraction, writing re-engages with imagery, and the duplicitous figure of the Duck-Rabbit re-appears, not merely as one corner of the square of opposition, but at its very heart. In this final drawing by Morris (Fig. 39), we see his answer to a challenge I posed to him some years ago, to give the Duck-Rabbit, which has always appeared simply as a detached head, a body as well. I should have guessed what Morris’ solution would be. As a sculptor, the only way to produce an adequate body for an ambiguous two-faced figure like this is to employ the time-honored trick of contrapposto, and allow the figure to twist around its own axis. Is it a duck or a rabbit? Or a third or fourth thing for which we do not yet have a name? Like the enigmatic slabs that inaugurated Morris’ fame as an artist, this ideogram will remain open, a teaching machine the lessons of which are still being invented.

39. Robert Morris, Duck Rabbit in a Square of Opposition. Ink on Paper. Collection of W.J.T. Mitchell.

39. Robert Morris, Duck Rabbit in a Square of Opposition. Ink on Paper. Collection of W.J.T. Mitchell.

Courtesy of Robert Morris and W.J.T. Mitchell. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


1 Robert Morris, Card File, 1962. Metal, plastic wall file mounted on wood, containing forty-four index cards that retrace the process of making the work, 27 × 10 3/4 × 2 inches (68,6 × 27,3 × 5,1 cm). Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Reproduced in Robert Morris. The Mind/Body Problem, ex. cat., 1994, pp. 126-129.

2 Here I must disagree with those commentators who think that Card File has its most authentic status when it is touchable and readable. I regard its confinement under glass as its true destiny, like those enigmatic cupboards that Morris designed, in which the key to open the door has been locked forever inside.

3 Robert Morris, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961. Walnut box, speaker, and three-and-a-half-hour recorded tape of the process of building the box, 9 3/4 × 9 3/4 inches (24,8 × 24,8 × 24,8 cm). Seattle Art Museum, Seattle. Reproduced in Robert Morris. The Mind/Body Problem, ex. cat., 1994, pp. 104-105.

4 Robert Morris, Untitled (Fiberglass Cloud), 1967. Translucent fiberglass, nylon threads, 18 × 96 × 96 inches (45,7 × 244 × 244 cm). Tate Gallery, London. Reproduced in Robert Morris. The Mind/Body Problem, ex. cat., 1994, p. 111.

5 Robert Morris, “The Labyrinth and The Urinal,” 2009.

Table des illustrations

Titre 33. Eye/Ear/Icon/Symbol: Square of Opposition Elaborated.
Fichier image/jpeg, 23k
Titre 34-37. Robert Morris, The Softest Rule Sheathes the Razor Edge of Error. Ink on Paper. Collection of W.J.T. Mitchell.
Fichier image/jpeg, 59k
Fichier image/jpeg, 61k
Fichier image/jpeg, 58k
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and W.J.T. Mitchell. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Fichier image/jpeg, 52k
Titre 38. Robert Morris’ Quadratic Logogram of Almost Everything in Robert Morris, “The Labyrinth and the Urinal,” Critical Inquiry, no. 1 (Fall 2009), pp. 76-99.
Légende © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Fichier image/jpeg, 9,2k
Titre 39. Robert Morris, Duck Rabbit in a Square of Opposition. Ink on Paper. Collection of W.J.T. Mitchell.
Légende Courtesy of Robert Morris and W.J.T. Mitchell. © 2010 Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Fichier image/jpeg, 134k


Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and art history, University of Chicago.

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