Writing on Ree Morton in A.i.A.’s January 1981 issue, the nimble and witty critic Lisa Liebmann (1955–2016) described the artist’s sophisticated humor, rebellious feminism, and engagement with questions of permanence and ephemerality in installation art. The latter topic became a poignant one after Morton died in a car crash in 1977 at age forty; her use of numerous discrete components posed problems for the subsequent display of her work. Liebmann’s article centered on a 1980 retrospective at the New Museum in New York and found a number of flaws in the curator’s “editing” of Morton’s output. “In some instances ‘better examples’ of work done within a certain period were excluded from the show in favor of a piece that could be more practically installed,” she writes. “In other instances, installations were just plain botched.”
“Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Be Poison,” which opened last week at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, is the first major US exhibition devoted to Morton’s work since the 1980 New Museum show and gathers a number of remarkable and rarely seen works. Ambitious curatorial research has corrected some of the problems identified by Liebmann; for example, the installation Sister Perpetua’s Lies was cropped in 1980 but appears in full at the ICA, which commissioned the work for its 1973 “Made in Philadelphia” exhibition series. A vitrine of photographs, notes, and sketches provides viewers with primary documents revealing Morton’s approach to assembling sculptural components. The show is on view through December 24, then travels to the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. —Eds.
The New Museum’s Ree Morton retrospective, currently on an extended tour of US museums, draws from six years of the artist’s only slightly longer career—beginning with two installation pieces from 1971 and ending with a series of drawings from 1977, the year she died in an automobile accident. The earlier pieces seem tentative and are the most restrained in the show. As it turns out, however, they are the first gusts of what proves to be quite a hurricane. From raw, introspective beginnings, Morton moved to extravagant improvisation—from silent cocoon-environments to wall regattas. In the months before her death, she changed direction once more, and seemed to be working towards a new kind of control.
The thirty-eight works in this show speak of an artist who was simultaneously a maverick and very much of her time. The body of work that survives—mostly unorthodox in format and material, and covering a wide range of themes—is an idiosyncratic mirror of the formal, conceptual, and political concerns characterizing vanguard art of the recent past. Morton examined and experimented with the dynamics of related, yet subtly different themes—ritual and theater, myth and narrative, the primal and the naïve (or faux-naïve), all with swashbuckling energy. Her work is emphatically subjective, at times even specifically autobiographical, but while in the earlier pieces Morton’s personality is present only behind the hermetic seal of their introversion, by the middle ‘70s her presence explodes, inebriating and ubiquitous, from everything she touches.
Morton’s installation pieces usually developed in specific museum or gallery layouts, with particular wall and floor materials. To many artists of her time and generation, permanence seemed a calculated if not philistine motive. Even Morton’s later pieces, which are less ephemeral, tend to engulf space and to be made up of many small parts. Until 1974, Morton often used branches and tree stumps of peculiar conformation, which have since been discarded or lost. Curatorial decision was therefore a key issue in this show, and at times the results are something of a problem. Wall label after wall label states “reconstructed for exhibition,” “dimensions variable,” and so on. Co-curators Allan Schwartzman and Kathleen Thomas had a truly Herculean task on their hands. Decisions had to be made about how to crop existing works, how or whether to reconstruct lost works, how to know whether an approximation is close enough to be considered authentic. In some instances “better examples” of work done within a certain period were excluded from the show in favor of a piece that could be more practically installed. In other instances, installations were just plain botched.
Leading to and announcing the entrance of the New Museum, for example, were two sloping ropes bearing painted nylon banners with Morton’s friends’ names on them, which once, as part of a 1975 CAPS project, festooned the Lettie G. Howard, a nineteenth-century schooner at the South Street Seaport. Here, hanging limply indoors, they had lost their bravado—they looked marooned. By and large, however, the curators managed reasonably well. The museum’s limited space—which includes a window on 14th Street as well as parts of the New School student lounge—made for an exhibition that felt crowded but (with the exception of the window, which had an unintended bargain-basement look) not stifled. In most cases the “editing” of the big installation pieces was sensitive. And the catalogue, written by the show’s curators, helps immeasurably in filling gaps and making comparisons between what is and what could be.
Much of Morton’s work done before 1974 has cumulative, rather than instantaneous, impact. Out of their original context, or abridged, as was often the case here, individual pieces appeared inchoate—a little as if one were being asked to deduce Stonehenge from a single cromlech. With Souvenir Piece (1973), the deductive process isn’t helped much by the fact that only part of the work is displayed. After 1974, the situation changes, for even blinkered scrutiny of a detail from many of the later works conveys the sensibility that produced it, and a hint of the larger context to which it belongs.
Morton’s career was so short and crammed with discoveries that one tends to focus on single years or even months with an intensity usually reserved for entire decades of a longer-lived artist’s work. For the sake of perspective, it ought to be pointed out that had Morton lived another forty years, say, the work here might be bracketed as a single period. Still, within the show, three general phases can be distinguished. The first, ending by late 1973, is one of charting and mapping. This work is inward in focus, is made mostly of found, natural objects, and has a primitive, archeological feel. The second, through 1974, is one of transition and is marked by the artist’s more fully blown preoccupation with myth and the dramatic. The third and most exuberant phase is launched by her discovery of celastic, a plastic clay-like sheet that can be molded when dipped in acetone. In taking up this new medium, she abandoned the earth tones, the Celtic and Pueblo echoes from before, and unleashed a profusion of baroque shapes and bawdy colors that struck a distinctly ironic and American key.
Two works from 1973, Souvenir Piece and Sister Perpetua’s Lie, both shown incomplete, are ripe embodiments of the themes and forms that concerned Morton in the first phase of her development. Souvenir Piece is a four-part installation of which two sections were presented. Originally, through what appeared to be casual but were in fact carefully distributed clusters, Morton had made a site-model for a frail but thoroughly contained civilization. The show’s “edited” version of the piece appeared reasonable—there was no outright distortion—but since Souvenir Piece is about topography, what remained was a partial map, and it was possible to get only so far with it. To the right, past the entrance of the museum, were four logs, halved, bark side up, on a low wooden platform, each propped to a slightly different height, like a pianist’s fingers suspended over the keys.
To the left was a higher stagelike platform, its bright green surface supporting an array of small wood constructions—little dolmens and wigwams—some of which, in turn, supported small stones or pebbles. On the wall behind were five roughly mounted canvases painted and drawn upon in black, white and green. Their markings—circles, dotted lines, squarish areas—give them the character of charts, and correspond, if imprecisely, to the forms on the platform. These rudimentary shapes, both two- and three-dimensional, evoke a small, primal, personal culture. They suggest, both in form and import, some of the visual vocabulary of Arshile Gorky, in particular his Garden in Sochi (1943), which shares not only the dotted lines, loose geometry, amorphous, and anthropomorphic shapes, but also the implication of a mythic scenario. However, Gorky’s forms are veiled by Freudian scrims—literally, thin washes of paint and shifting hothouse color gradations—while Morton’s are bluntly, stubbily present. Rather than locating and alluding to an already felt subconscious the way Gorky does, she seems to be rebuilding one—mapping its foundation.
With Sister Perpetua’s Lie, Morton went beyond the mere intimation of mythic scenario and worked directly from an actual text, Raymond Roussel’s proto-Dada narrative, Impressions of Africa, first published in 1910. Morton’s Sister Perpetua is perhaps best described as a DadaCatholic acrostic. (Morton herself was raised as a Catholic.) Like the book, it relies on sequential rhythm, not narrative sense, and, also like the book, it plays strongly upon notions of the heroic. A quote from Roussel is displayed in big letters at the center of one of the sections of the piece: “To the question, ‘Is this where the fugitives are hiding?’ the nun, posted before her convent, persistently replied ‘No’ shaking her head from right to left after each deep peck of the winged creature.” Around these strange words are twelve drawings, each schematically depicting a scene from the book. This board-game layout is defined and given spatial presence by a running line of thin black wood, which comes down off the wall and travels across the floor to a pair of blackpainted sentinel stumps in front. The visual equivalent of narrative voice, this line originally linked the three parts of Sister Perpetua. Only two parts were in this installation, however—the second being an enigmatic crib-cage construction. To compound this fracture, the two present sections were not, as they were meant to be, at a right angle to each other, but side by side along the wall, disjointed and awkward. In this instance more than any other in the New Museum’s installation of the show, curatorial license proved disastrous. An incomplete map at least implies charting, but a rhythmic sequence without rhythm gives nearly nothing. The problem, here as before, was lack of space; and the third part of Sister Perpetua did in fact join the show for its Houston showing. Sister Perpetua is by any standard one of Morton’s most hermetic works. The handling given it by the New Museum rendered it inscrutable.
The only example of Morton’s second phase was an important 1974 work, To Each Concrete Man. This was another work affected by transplantation, but not defeated by it. Although the work as installed at the New Museum was nominally complete, Morton had originally constructed the piece for the Whitney Museum, whose flagstone flooring she had turned to double purpose—first as a means to heighten the acoustical presence of the viewer, and second as a ground for her punning use of flagstone-patterned vinyl. Both aspects were lost amid the New Museum’s gray carpeting. Ambience and visual coherence, however, were preserved.
To Each Concrete Man consists of two confronting tableaux. On one side of the room are four tree-stump tables, with low-hanging rawhide shades over each—“a nightclub for forest gnomes” is how Peter Schjeldahl described this setting [in the New York Times, Apr. 14, 1974]. At the opposite end of the room is a rustic stage, covered with the fake flagstone, and on it are four upright wooden plaques resembling tombstones. The stage is framed by two slightly bowed vertical beams joined by a slack line of empty light sockets. As though by visual ventriloquy, the light that might have been cast by the missing bulbs is suggested by a large area of bright white paint on the wall behind—an ultimate silent screen. The other walls are a dull, mottled gray, punctuated by tabs of bright Color-aid paper, pushpinned on. Sleepy Hollow on one side, Spoon River on the other, To Each Concrete Man seems to offer transcendence at the same time that it holds the implication of danger.
By the end of 1974, Morton was already making the first of her works with celastic. Bozeman, Montana is the earliest of these in the show, and the mood is an entirely new one. Now all her references are very present tense—she has left behind her hints of lost or sleeping civilizations. The piece is upbeat, but also a little frantic. Bozeman is a collection of small, separate bits—sculptural doodles—attached to the wall. Between two parentheses of Vegas-type colored lightbulbs are several small, spangled objects of celastic that look a little like crazy crushed beer cans. Each bears a noun. One, in fact, does say “beer”; others name natural phenomena like “sky,” “mts.,” “pool,” “fish”; and still others declare first names: “Mike,” “Richard,” “Manuel.” We don’t need the title to know we are out West. Morton made the piece during a teaching stint in Montana; the first names are those of her students. The piece makes one think of her personal life more than did her earlier work, and it suggests a degree of turmoil. (This was, in fact, one of several periods of frequent travel in her life; when married, she and her family uprooted several times, as her husband was in the Navy.)
A piece she made soon afterward attests to both this conflict and its resolution. One of the most sumptuous, exultant works in the show, Of Previous Dissipations is a big, oval cumulus cloud of coral-colored celastic and paint on wood. It is pinned to the wall like a brooch. The bulbous celastic frame, bearing the title, embraces a disarrayed bouquet of painted confectioner’s roses. It is an ironic yet unselfconscious sendup of regrets—serious and not—and of romance—serious and not. Of Previous Dissipations (1974) also addresses the issue of “female art,” for it burlesques the kinds of formal components and colors traditionally ascribed to women: pinks, curlicues, roses, ribbons. (Celastic was an ideal material to use for a spoof, and may have prompted Morton to think in these terms.) Morton evidently felt ambivalent about feminism at the time. A slightly later work, Signs of Love (1976), articulates this concern in a more literal and comprehensive manner.
In 1975, she made a series of punning paintings called the Beaux Paintings, which are portraits of bows. The bows, like the roses, are sugary confections, and seem to carry a faint nostalgic tune—something like “I’m Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.” In these works, she adopts the formal restraint of a traditional picture format for the first time, although in some of them ribbons of celastic unfurl rebelliously beyond the borders of the paintings. By this time Morton had refined her use of celastic; instead of the clumpy cakeicing effect of the previous pieces, the celastic ribbons here are thinner and more suave, and resemble impasto.
These works of late 1974 and ‘75 are so “accessible” they become a parody of ingenuousness. Their sweet romanticism and rococo flourishes are always tempered with irony, and Morton’s uniqueness lies in the nature of that irony. Unfortunately, the otherwise excellent catalogue is somewhat misleading here, and rather mawkishly invokes the “greats” such as Duchamp, referring to her diary notes about them, and ultimately comparing her to them. Morton (like Duchamp) did have an enormous facility for “consuming and synthesizing concepts and visual means,” and she was clearly fond of, and good at, punning—but her similarities to Duchamp end there. Morton was a student of both art and art history, and, tragically, her career as an artist must remain forever a young one. Thus, it is hardly surprising that she saw one of this century’s greatest art heroes as among her mentors. What is surprising—and central to the importance of Morton’s work—is the tone of her irony. It is colloquial and self-referential in nature, and its occasional self-deprecation has far more to do with the humor of the “underclasses” than it has to do with Duchamp. Morton swaddles gallows humor in nursery colors, camouflaging pain with the evidence of a rather determined euphoria. The balance she achieves is special, but still it places her among the many women artists who emerged during the ‘70s into a professional climate of enormous pressure—a climate to revel in, but also to question.
In Signs of Love Morton was able to make a “big picture” through a multitude of close-ups on romance, both the cliched variety and its modern update. This enormous, sprawling work was abridged for this show with relative success. True, Morton’s work during this period is also concerned with lushness, and some of that is lost in the show’s reduced installation; but finally the piece manages to come across despite truncation.
It is made up of little paintings, sketches, celastic drapings and ribbons, stepladders and laundry baskets brimming over, and many rosettes. Words like “gestures,” “pleasures,” “moments” and “settings” deck the walls with a gale of domesticity. Two of the little paintings depict an almost-human rose. In one of these, Rose, like Maria in The Sound of Music, seems to burst with song on a hilltop. In the other, Rose, looking a bit worse for wear, lists towards a villa straight out of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. (I saw these as oblique self-portraits, each conveying a different side of the artist’s nature and emotional state.) These funny, sly little paintings both perform in and moderate this whole paradigmatic diorama.
Signs of Love confronts “femaleness” in a far more direct way than the earlier pieces discussed. The laundry basket, for instance, anchors the observer’s eye to the present and to the prosaic. Prevalent in this work, alongside all its flourishes, is a thick streak of gallows humor. As her work grew more and more exuberant—and she herself more and more successful—Morton seemed gradually to assume the voice of the underdog. Engaging though this voice is, the choice was perhaps unfortunate. By having so identified and aligned herself, Morton ultimately made “a woman artist” a term that fits her more conclusively than she would have perhaps liked.
Signs of Love gives the impression of an all-out performance. Her subsequent work pulls back from rococo excess, as well as from encompassing sprawl. The “Regional Pieces” of 1976 are a series of diptychs that parody traditional romantic landscape, alluding kitschily to an American tradition going back at least as far as the Hudson River School. Each of the diptychs (three are included in the show) superposes two horizontally rectangular panels, framed by celastic curtains like a marionette theater. The top panels are painterly seascapes, with a very low horizon line and lots of luminous sky; the bottom panels each depict a solitary fish, in profile, surrounded by a watery background.
Starting with a fixed viewpoint (the low horizon lines give the upper panels uniformity) and similar-looking fishsubjects, Morton alternated between panorama and portrait, shifting from ocher tones to pink ones, proposing a series of faux-naïve variations on her banner theme—subjectivity. Subjectivity is inherent in, and perhaps descriptive of, regional art in general. With this series, Morton became a kind of self-styled if itinerant regionalist.
Before she died, Morton seemed to have embarked on a new phase—now controlled by a technical elegance she didn’t have, and probably didn’t want, before. Manipulations of the Organic (1977) is a series of variations on the theme of a leaf, inspired by Louis Sullivan’s designs for architectural ornament. A couple of drawings and studies for the series are in this show, but they are not very strong or very telling. It is too bad that some of the paintings from this series were not included.
Morton was an interesting, energetic artist who got better and better. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of this show is the chance it affords to start out with her, stick with her and see how good she gets. The exhibition is clearly a tribute, but greater selectivity and care, particularly in re-creating works like Sister Perpetua, would have done more justice to her overall accomplishment.