Artist Robert Morris, whose career stretched for more than half a century, and embraced vanguard dance, sculpture, Land art, and quite a few other modes, has died at the age of 87. His death, of pneumonia, in Kingston, New York, was confirmed by his wife, Lucile Michaels Morris, to Ken Johnson in the New York Times.
The artist’s early work, in the first half of the 1960s, which helped pioneer the language of both Minimal sculpture and Conceptual art, would have been enough to secure his place in the canon of postwar contemporary art, but he continued restlessly to experiment in the coming years, producing works with draped felt that suggest bodily presences, experiments in scatter art, and large-scale works that took the form of mazes.
Besides his wide-ranging work as an artist, Morris was also a perspicacious, and sometimes acerbic, critic, and he published essays on sculptural theory as well as the output of other artists. In 2008, some of Morris’s writings were brought together by art historian Nena Tsouti-Schillinger for a book called Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993-2007.
At stake in much of Morris’s writings and art is the nature of perception. “Notes on Sculpture Part III: Notes and Nonsequiturs,” the third in a series of essays he published in Artforum in 1967, begins: “Seeing an object in real space may not be a very immediate experience. Aspects are experienced; the whole is assembled or constructed.”
A number of Morris’s sculptural works from the 1960s and 1970s play on this notion. His 1965 piece Untitled (L-Beams), an iconic works of Minimalism, features L-shaped forms that were constructed from plywood and presented bent over the floor, lying on their side, or standing upright, so that viewers could walk around them. Other pieces involved mirrors, which bring the surrounding exhibition space into the work itself through reflections. For Morris, Minimalist sculptures heightened their viewer’s sense of space, and as the critic and art historian Michael Fried put it in his influential essay “Art and Objecthood,” the artist’s work “includes the beholder.”
Morris was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1931 and attended the Kansas City Art Institute, the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He also served for a period in the Army Corps of Engineers, and that military experience seeped into some of his art and writing.
Morris’s early sculptures often seem as though they were produced by a machine—they make use of industrial materials, and rarely appear handmade—yet the presence of viewers’ and performers’ bodies were often essential to these work. For his 1961 piece Passageway, viewers were invited to enter a tight 50-foot-long corridor with plywood walls. As they moved through the pieces, their movements became constricted.
And some of Morris’s earliest efforts were produced with dancers in mind. (From 1956 to 1962 he was married to the dancer and choreographer Simone Forti.) He created works for the Judson Dance Theater in New York in the early ’60s, and he occasionally made pieces in which he himself performed. For Untitled (Box for Standing), 1961, for example, he was the one who stood stoically in a box. These earlier efforts prefigure perhaps the most famous—and certainly the most notorious—image of Morris: a 1974 Artforum ad for a solo show at Sonnabend Gallery in which he poses shirtless gripping chains that are slung over his shoulders.
Morris’s practice was intensely interested in questions of power and politics. In 1970, he shuttered his Whitney Museum exhibition “to underscore the need I and others feel to shift priorities at this time from art making and viewing to unified action within the art community against the intensifying conditions of repression, war and racism in this country,” as he put it in a statement. War proved to be an ongoing point of interest for him. During the 1980s, he produced a series of monumental abstract canvases that resembled fiery bursts, a reference, he said, to nuclear war. (These works, unlike his art from earlier in his career, did not receive positive notices from critics.)
In addition to creating essential Minimal artworks, Morris produced quite a few major works related to Conceptualism, looking at how art is defined and how artworks can record ideas and activities. In his 1962 Card File, Morris created a work that chronicled its own making. Through a series of typewritten texts on cards that are indexed alphabetically in a metal box, the work details Morris’s process for creating it, starting with the artist purchasing the cards and continuing through his conception of the piece while he was in the New York Public Library. (He also made sure to note when this process was interrupted, by such people as the artist Ad Reinhardt.) And 1961’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making is a small wooden box with a concealed internal speaker that plays the sounds of Morris crafting the sculpture.
Morris’s work has been deeply collected by major institutions, and in 1994 the Guggenheim Museum in New York presented a retrospective of career, and an exhibition of new works by Morris is currently on view at Castelli gallery’s location at 24 West 40th Street in Midtown Manhattan.
Some of Morris’s sculptures made using dirt, broken glass, and other materials, all of them arranged in piles, are currently on view at Dia:Beacon in upstate New York. These works are related to Morris’s series of Land art works from the late ’60s and early ’70s, for which the artist crafted natural materials, such as steam and dirt. Occasionally, these works would involve the literal sculpting of land—for a project known as the Observatorium (1977), Morris shaped a field in Lelystad, the Netherlands, into a primordial-looking circular form. He called the work a “modern Stonehenge.”
Last year, Morris told critic Phyllis Tuchman that the dirt works were meant to test art’s limits. “Of course Dirt is more than dirt,” he said. “It speaks to the ongoing dialogue that we call sculpture, what we take sculpture to be, what we think it can be.”