The formative American artist Robert Morris died last Wednesday in upstate New York, at the age of 87. With work that put him at the forefront of movements including Minimalism, Conceptual art, and Land art, Morris established a legacy as significant as any in the 20th century. ARTnews asked for tributes and remembrances from artists and others who worked with him.
Barbara Bertozzi Castelli
Director of Castelli Gallery
Over the years I got used to calling Bob almost daily with questions about his work. How high should this hang? Should this touch the ground? How much space should I leave around it? Any time I thought I was near grasping some kind of definitive understanding, something new unfolded, and a new door opened, like in his Photo Cabinet, raising new questions.
Artists bring a lot of secrets away with them, when they leave us.
In one of the last emails he sent me, after yet another question about the installation of his current exhibition at the gallery, he wrote: “My work has often been more for the body than the eye.”
The body is gone, may his spirit be joyful, as a friend wrote to me.
La Monte Young
Robert Morris was one of the most extreme conceptual artists of all time. I remember once when we were sitting in a car by the ocean in California, possibly in the late ’50s, we talked for a long time. I was impressed to hear him express his ideas.
Senior curator, Guggenheim Museum
I knew Bob for 15 years—he was a big part of my curatorial work and my writing and teaching, and I have what amounts to a volume of correspondence between us. Through it all, there was often a certain formality in his manner, one I came to respect. Bob was both reclusive and intellectually intense. His mind was always in high gear, even as he was also plagued by doubt. To me, the doubt was something constitutional that he turned into a form of skepticism, a philosophical position.
Every move he made in his work and his writing bore a critical relation to everything else—it must have been difficult, sometimes, and one could sense that, over the years, he had become guarded. Sometimes he wrote messages to me. But often, especially in response to one of my no doubt tedious historical questions, he would compose a standalone text and send it as an attachment. So I sometimes felt that I was communicating with Bob on one day and Robert Morris on another. But it was all part of the complicated pleasure of knowing both the artist and the man.
For all that he used to be thought of as intimidating, I found him to be warm and generous in his willingness to share his thinking and his reminiscences with me. I felt almost indulged. Perhaps this was the effect of age, although of course it could easily have gone the other way. In the past several years, both in his work and his writing and correspondence, he spent a lot of time dwelling on his childhood and his life before art. At times, I would forget the towering Robert Morris—deep in the forest of our exchange, I would lose my view of the imposing tree. But now, with his loss, the tree stands before me once again.
Director of Dia Art Foundation
Though we at Dia were able to work with Bob only later in his career, it was an education for all of us to understand some of his process of thinking (as well as his dry humor) while re-fabricating and installing the minimalist works originally presented at the Green Gallery in 1964 and the incredible earthwork Untitled (Dirt) now at Dia:Beacon. The grey plywood sculptures and the dump of dirt, grease, peat moss, brick, steel, copper, aluminum, brass, zinc, and felt that constitute his first earthwork point to Morris’s embodied exploration of perception and his equally emphatic physical manipulation of materials.
I am sure many at Dia will think of Bob sitting in the gallery curling wire for the earthwork and demonstrating the “throw” for the felt work Untitled (1967), but equally will be thinking of his memorable lecture that he gave when we honored him in 2016, at which he commented on the Green Gallery works: “These works are inseparable from their space, and that spatial relation I consider more than half 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. And if we can admit to always being mostly blind to what matters most, then welcome to my haptic world.”
Art historian and editor of Robert Morris (October Files), 2013
He was central to so many movements I cared about—Minimalism, Minimalist dance, Process art. And he was important as a theorist, as a writer, as someone who was really doing the work to make sense of these inchoate movements. So much of what we think of as the theoretical apparatus of Minimalism came directly from his writings about it. He was very prolific, and extremely articulate as a writer. The texts I cite the most, and the ones that have had the most impact, are the ones about sculpture. The four-part essay “Notes on Sculpture” that appeared in Artforum in the ’60s lays out what we now think of as the prominent claims of how Minimal sculpture proposes an ethics of spectatorship.
I think one of his most influential sculptures is Mirrored Cubes, from 1965—four cubes mirrored on every side. They perfectly exemplify his conception of Minimalism—when you are seeing Minimalist sculpture, you are also witnessing its display. You are seeing yourself seeing, and you are also seeing yourself in what you would call a specific environment made up of light, space, etc. And you are seeing all the people around you as well. You are implicated in the scene of spectatorship—that crystallizes a lot of what the possibilities of Minimal sculpture could offer.
I took for granted that he let me, as a graduate student, come to his house. He had this area for researchers, and he gave me free rein in his archives, all these file cabinets filled with pieces of correspondence, diagrams, and drawings. He let me be in there by myself for days at a time. That was an extraordinarily generous act.
Associate curator of media and performance, Museum of Modern Art
Thomas Lax and I organized the exhibition “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done” at MoMA. We didn’t really have much direct contact with him—we exchanged a few emails, and I remember him coming to some of the Simone Forti performances at the museum—but for us, doing research into Judson, it was interesting to see how he was present from the very beginning. In a way he’s present in every gallery of the show; there’s this proximity between the group and him as a very active member. In the exhibition we have several of his works, and they all come back to exploring the relationship between an object and the body that he always examined. It’s interesting that he wrote his “Notes on Dance,” in 1965, before his “Notes on Sculpture,” in 1966. He really understood the relationship between movement, bodies, and objects.
Simone Forti talks about how Anna Halperin, at her early workshops, told them to look at nature—and how Bob looked.
Young newlyweds in San Francisco, for a time Bob and I lived in the Seamen’s Union Building at Mission and Embarcadero, sharing the bathroom down the hall with retired sailors. Bob painted large canvases and I soon found dancer Anna Halprin, with whom I studied for four years. Bob would occasionally come to one of Anna’s classes on her outdoor dance deck at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais.
One time Anna had us spend time in the woods, observing the environment. We were then to take into our body an aspect of something we had observed. Bob had spent his time watching a stone. He stretched out on the deck and over a period of some minutes contracted himself until he was like a dense ball balanced on the least possible surface. I’m glad that over the past few years Bob and I again became friends, giving each other courage.