Although Robert C. Morgan is known primarily as an art historian and critic, it was as an artist that he first made his presence felt in New York in the 1970s. His practice at the time—encompassing conceptual diagrams, films, artist’s books, and performances as well as painting—was aligned aesthetically with Duchamp and critically with Clement Greenberg. It was a heady, fractious moment, as a new wave of articulate, up-and-coming artists (including conceptualists Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner, along with painters such as Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland) challenged the lingering influence of the New York School, championing more analytical modes of art-making.
Morgan’s current exhibition, on view through November 30 at the Scully Tomasko Foundation in Chelsea, offers examples of two chronologically disparate bodies of work: sparse, stylized drawings from 1967 and hard-edged abstract paintings from 2010 through 2021. Eliding other aspects of his career, the selection invites a comparison of Morgan’s two principal modes of 2D composition, his chief artistic endeavor over the years.
The 1967 series “Living Smoke and Clear Water Drawings,” installed as a grid of 33 small framed works, points to the artist’s lifelong interest in Asian arts and philosophies. (Morgan has studied with the Japanese artist Kongo Abe in the US, traveled frequently to East Asia and Indonesia, and written extensively about many Eastern artists, most recently in a forthcoming book on contemporary Chinese ink painters.) Rendered in Chinese ink, graphite, and Conté crayon on paper, each image in the suite is deftly drawn, marked by a combination of restraint, finesse, and emotional response in the moment, the gesture translated into a subdued calligraphic flourish or pictorial haiku. The gray-scale circles, vertical bars, curves, and zigzags, each spontaneous yet nuanced, were generated through a traditional all-at-once compositional process, typically lasting only seconds or minutes, that permits no second thoughts and no corrections. Morgan—who had just discovered the Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way), the fundamental Daoist text espousing “effortless action”—completed the series in three days while living in his native California.
Almost all the canvases produced from 2010 onward, far more deliberative and strictly rectilinear treatments of rectangles, squares, triangles, and circles, feature dark grounds of burnt umber mixed with ultramarine and squares painted in iron oxide. Other forms, in contrast, utilize acrylic and metallic paint, the latter adding a reflective element that, like the sheen of gold foil in medieval and Renaissance works, conveys a hint of the spiritual. Thus absorption and reflection can occur in the same instant. When light strikes the painting’s surface, colors and shapes immediately react, subtly activating the composition in a dialogue between stasis and movement, stability and flux.
The show takes its name, “The Loggia Paintings,” from the newest series on view. A loggia is a columned, open-air gallery that is integrated into the structure of a building. It is a transitional space, a connection between inside and outside. The 13 modest squares in the eponymous group, all dated 2019 (although the series is ongoing), are likewise painted in subdued colors, and fully frontal. The heart of the show, they convey—in the interplay between large and small entities, geometric forms and joining lines—themes of transition and interrelatedness, connection and disruption. Across the series, shapes used throughout the recent paintings dance across the canvases, shifting in relation to the others but maintaining their colors and sizes, perhaps suggesting objects moved throughout a room or architectural elements recombined into different structures.
There may be a system to the variations and sequencing from painting to painting, or the repositioning may be intuitive. What matters is that each work can be savored individually, while the seriation functions as an optical chorus line, the repetitions reverberating with difference. It’s a fascinating experience, for example, to follow the iron oxide square in Loggia XII, XIII, XIV, and XX as it navigates the visual field, ending up in Loggia XX close to the same place it occupied in Loggia XII—just one instance of Morgan’s nuanced and deeply satisfying orchestration of forms and compositions.