Known widely as a pioneer of Minimalism, Robert Morris’s early work, and his influential theoretical writings, were foundational to the understanding of the most important art movements of our time. An innovator of the Minimal, post-Minimal, process, land, body, installation, and conceptual art movements, his protean artistic output hovered outside of them all, while his insightful and articulate writings grounded them. His four-part essay “Notes on Sculpture,” which appeared in Artforum from 1966–69, expanded the understanding of sculpture beyond what Donald Judd called the “specific object” to include perception, context, and the implication of the viewer. While many Minimalist artists strove for an aesthetics of formal purity, Morris’s works were conceived as impure, allowing for myriad slippages of content into the work. He was not interested in Minimalist sculpture as a type of formally reductive abstraction, but as a new form of embodied perception, engaging and involving the spectator. His evolving development revealed a wide-ranging output, in a dizzying array of media and materials, which often seemed inconsistent but were undergirded by an uncompromising intellect and a vision both poetic and fiercely political.
Morris’s final exhibition, “Banners and Curses,” his 40th at the Leo Castelli Gallery, opened in late October, just weeks before his death, at age 87, from pneumonia. This final gesture, an urgent wake-up call, aligns Morris’s darkly expansive vision with a contemporary moment commensurate with its prophetic and sublime cynicism. At once a scathing political statement and an autobiographical mash-up, it reveals an artist whose late period was gaining steam and whose mind was more incisive than ever. An essay by Morris, “Toward the Cartoon,” complements the installation, and provides a concise argument for the primacy of the cartoon as a timeless and culturally imbedded art form. “Once we start looking for the cartoon, it appears everywhere, even at art’s origins,” he writes, citing examples from cave painting to Kara Walker. It is the horrific and comical etchings of Francisco Goya, however, that provide much of the source material for Morris’s new “Banners,” monumental works printed onto synthetic canvas and suspended from the ceiling with provisional panache. Goya’s nightmarish “Caprichos” (Fancies) and “Disparates” (Proverbs) are appropriated, combined, and juxtaposed with imagery from Morris’s early works, as well as from other sources, including political cartoons, patriotic propaganda, and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and 2001.
Like museum exhibition banners run amok, these oversized digital prints create a labyrinthine intervention into the gallery space, echoing Morris’s previous spatial manipulations, but compounding the disorientation with jarring and darkly satirical imagery. Collectively, they offer a searing assessment of the stupidity, carelessness, corruption, and greed of the Trump administration. It would be a mistake, however, to limit Morris’s critique to the current, transient occupant of the Oval Office. The exhibition is a cataclysmic excoriation of American militarism, in all its forms. It’s important to note that Morris’s experience with the military dates back to his service in Korea in the early 1950s. Previous presidents who presided over disastrous wars do not escape attention. In PSYCHOPATHMUMBLEFUCKIMBECILES (2018), the cartoon heads of Nixon, Cheney, Truman, LBJ, and George W. Bush are strung up like political piñatas on hangman’s knots and superimposed onto the bodies of identical dangling dummies. In another banner, Nothing Like the Old Dances (reproduced in the catalog, but not included in the exhibition), Goya’s Bobalicón (Simpleton)appears. The childlike dancing giant threatens two diminutive, cowering figures with arms aloft and a mindless toothy grin, his castanets replaced by hand grenades. Morris has redrawn the giant’s hair as an orange blur, instantly transforming Bobalicón into Trump with uncanny effect.
The other series on view, “Curses,” are also suspended from the ceiling. Hanging in a long row that bisects one end of the gallery, these translucent fiberglass reliefs echo some of Morris’s earliest Minimalist sculptures. As Pepe Karmel writes in his insightful catalog essay, in 1966–67 Morris remade some of his geometric plywood constructions with the more permanent fiberglass, giving those solid forms an ephemeral and spectral presence. This transformative effect is also evident in the “Curses.” Each relief is actually a three-word phrase created by molding wet fiberglass over extruded letters and allowing it to dry. The words are not immediately legible because of the luminous fiberglass as well as their arrangement, boustrophedon-style, with the middle word reversed. However, the titles of these works leave little doubt as to Morris’s intentions: BRAINDEAD/SHITMOUTH/PRESIDENT, AMERICAN/BIGDICK/MILITARY, HALFWIT/DIPSHIT/LEADER, RACIST/MOTHER/FUCKER.
While certain works in the exhibition focus the mind directly, the installation as a whole is not overly didactic. Intent is largely sublimated through the manipulation of space, color, and material, as well as through Morris’s engagement with the cartoon aesthetic and his irreverent and lampooning treatment of his own earlier work. In typical Morris fashion, the installation cannot be taken in as a whole, instead providing fragmented glimpses, as one moves in and through the “Banners,” their reverse sides acting as blank barriers obscuring any sense of a complete view. One has to decipher much of the meaning through physical engagement with the installation. Experiencing the work through the body has always been a central concern for Morris. As he stated in his 2016 DIA lecture, “These works are inseparable from their space, and that spatial relation I consider more than half of the work. The works have always been more for the body than the eye, more for sensing their presence against the body moving through the spaces they occupy.”
In his last decades, Morris’s art only increased its experimental quotient as he simultaneously expanded the poetics and politics of his earlier vocabulary. He produced new works in felt, which updated his earlier iconic pieces with the addition of text cut into the material. He also explored new sculptural processes and materials such as carbon fiber and linen saturated with epoxy to produce demonic and ghostly figurative works. It’s fascinating that a critical mind so sharply analytical would produce artwork of such a strong lyrical quality. Perhaps this is the essence of what made Morris so mercurial, and so resistant to easy consumption. As he wrote in his groundbreaking essay on the early work of Jasper Johns, “We have always wanted art to intrigue us with its physical achievements and tell us about itself. We want to be seduced by its wiles and graces. But we also look to art to tell us about our culture and ourselves. The better art always tells us about those aspects that are not apparent or easy to accept. Lesser art speaks to what we already know.”