Robert Morris has comported himself for decades as the least minimal of the original minimalists. While sharing most of the core group’s characteristics — including the complementary artist/writer mode — he has in both word and deed proved more committed than the others to contingency and experimentation. Alternating, often abruptly, between cool objects and evocations of calamity, his artistic outlook remains — as the spot-on title of his collected writings suggests — a Continuous Project Altered Daily. Though no slouch when it comes to minimal severity, his thinking often drifts closer in sensibility to Robert Smithson’s macro riffing than to Donald Judd’s ideological finalities.
Minimalist theory made much of the viewer’s movement through space as part of what defined the sculptural. Morris, having come to this notion following a wider path of study than the others — a path that included engineering, art history, philosophy, and dance — found ways to follow intuitive offshoots that generated outward from minimalism’s basic premise. He took labyrinths and passageways, which were favored minimalist tropes, and superseded their phenomenological values with emotionally charged contexts that included prison architecture and Midwestern stockyards. Thus the jarring incongruence — to cite an extreme example — between his ascetic, process-oriented felt hangings of the 1970s and the apocalyptic Firestorm reliefs that soon followed. Keeping to a highly subjective route, he seems able to shuttle convincingly between the austere space of the artistically reductive and the emotionally charged arena of darker human experience, discovering along the way many disturbing links between the two.
Still working in his 80s, Morris has a current show at Castelli Gallery that offers an unusual hybrid of understatement and deeply unsettling imagery. The gallery’s two modestly sized rooms host figures set in pairs, each made of resin-soaked linen drapery that once encased a model’s pose. In parsing the show’s Joyceian mouthful of a title, MOLTINGSEXOSKELETONSSHROUDS, a visitor will likely take note first of the reference to shrouds, as the faceless figures are reminiscent of the hooded specters in Samuel Beckett’s later plays.
Because the figures come in pairs, one presumes a relationship of some sort between them. Yet reading them so proves a mere introduction to the work’s complexity. A pairing called “Maybe They Won’t Find Out” sees a kneeling and despondent figure supported from behind by another half-kneeling figure, which gesticulates in an encouraging manner. Yet when viewing the pair from the other side, the arm that initially looked as if it were resting on the lower figure’s shoulder actually misses that shoulder entirely, instead extending carelessly outward, as if to brace for a fall. The bond one had assumed between the two figures breaks down . Both now appear blind and helpless.
The interpretation is then further complicated from a third line of sight. Looking head-on, the back figure’s hooded and therefore unseen head still suggests a person speaking or whispering to the lower figure. Yet from this same angle the lower figure is clearly an empty void, deflating one’s sense that there is any communication at all and disrupting any resolution to the piece’s conspiratorial title.
“Keep it to Yourself” places two figures on rudimentary furniture. One of them, seated on a cubic plinth and bent over, as if studying the floor, may or may not be attending to the other, a reclining figure lying in an infirm pose, slightly propped up against the wall, one knee locked in an upright position. The raised knee suggests consciousness, yet the head falls back against the wall as if the figure has either expired or is in great distress. The bed, no more than a linen-covered slab cantilevering unsupported from the wall, creates a sense of weightlessness further enhanced by the recognition that the figure on it is just an empty shell.
Each figure in each pair is independently ambiguous, yet their proximity nudges the viewer toward inevitably elusive connections. “For Otto” — an epigrammatic nod I’ve yet to decipher — places one figure at the base of the gallery wall; despite its complete covering, the body suggest the general characteristics of the iconic 3rd-century “Dying Gaul.” But it’s not a perfect match; if anything, the figure’s drooping left arm reads more passively than the ancient soldier’s attempt to keep his torso upright. On the wall directly above is the second figure, seated on an invisible support, its back to the viewer, with arms extended in a manner that implies fatigue. And yet the sleeves of the drapery drop in a bilaterally symmetrical plane that resembles a wing span, suggesting flight, or at least an impending change of position. Thus, the lower figure appears resigned, while the wall figure attempts a pathetic escape.
From one piece to the other, ambiguity persists. Some pairings seem simpler, even literal at first, and then prove as paradoxical as the others. “Jumpers” — an unambiguous title, particularly this time of year, not long after marking the events of 9/11 — displays two figures suspended on the gallery wall, one upright, one upside down, as if in freefall. Yet neither figure’s drapery suggests the rushing air that typically envelops a descending body. They seem to have been purposely formed and cast on the floor, then fixed on the wall as if floating. Their precarious spatial reality is that of Renaissance fresco figures, particularly those that rely on a neutral floating quality to represent both ascent and descent, like in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” or Rodin’s “Gates of Hell.”
By using materials associated with painting (Belgian linen and varnish) to form shrouds of sculptural figures, Morris creates significant tensions: between the presence of the figures and their apparent absence; between the viewer in the gallery and their psychological relationship to each vignette; between the idea of sculpture as primarily spatial and that of interacting figures as primarily pictorial. With remarkably little material and no reliance on new techniques (canvas prepared with stiffening chemicals has been around for decades), Morris has managed to demonstrate — and perhaps remind us in the process — that genuinely human subject matter remains available to artists working in what others may judge exhausted theoretical contexts like minimalism. His work affirms how intelligently manipulated sculptural ideas can still address the human condition, without relying on literal and often facile references to current events, without industrial and expensive fabrication techniques, and with no digital magic — not surprising for an artist who began his career practicing the fundamentally human art of dance.
Robert Morris: MOLTINGSEXOSKELETONSSHROUDS continues at Castelli Gallery (18 E 77th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through November 14.