Last week, as my review of Robert Morris’s current exhibition at Castelli Gallery was going to press, I received the news that he had died at his home in Kingston, New York on November 28. He was 87.
As a young art student in thrall with Minimalist theory, my admiration for Robert Morris dates to the mid-1970s, yet it deepened over the years as his sudden turns and surprising interests revealed an agile mind steeped in theory but unencumbered by ideology. I tried to summarize this in a 2015 review I wrote for Hyperallergic:
He took labyrinths and passageways, which were favored minimalist tropes, and superseded their phenomenological values with emotionally charged contexts that included prison architecture and Midwestern stockyards.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 Firestormreliefs 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.
The Castelli Gallery show, Banners and Curses, is no swan song. It is unsurprisingly consistent with a body of work Morris himself characterized as a continuous project altered daily. It is intelligent, stimulating and typically open-ended. Its intuitive wisdom leaves us with plenty to study, to investigate and to build upon. Below is the review I wrote before learning of Morris’s death.
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The title of the current exhibition at Castelli Gallery on West 40th Street, though unequivocal, does not fully prepare visitors for the unrestrained broadside awaiting them within. Banners and Curses, a visual essay on militarism by the mercurial Robert Morris, is a full-throttle anti-war barrage of texts and images, front-loaded with political, art historical, autobiographical, and pop cultural resonances, all conceived in the spirit of what Morris terms “the sensibility of the cartoon.” The phrase comes from a. characteristically absorbing essay the artist penned for the current issue of the journal Critical Inquiry.
Much of the gallery is occupied by a pair of large enclosures created by 7-by-10-foot unstretched canvases hung from the ceiling, like banners, and extending almost to the floor. Each banner is composed of pictures and text photoshopped from a variety of sources. Imagery lifted from Goya’s Los Caprichosprint folio (1799) and Stanley Kubrick’s films are digitally collaged with photographs of Morris’s own sculpture and appropriated political cartoon portraits. The fiercely pragmatic Ignatz, George Herriman’s brick-throwing mouse from his Krazy Katcomic strip (1913-1944), makes several appearances.
The enclosure nearest the gallery entrance forms a five-sided pentagon, its thematic center a yellow banner depicting Nixon, Cheney, Truman, LBJ, and George W. Bush, all associated with a controversial war that went badly. Their heads, apparently lifted from period political cartoons, are mounted on identical shoeless effigies hanging from an executioner’s scaffold. Together, they are framed by a peripheral text that reads “Psychopath Mumble Fuck Imbeciles” in red letters. Another shows Ignatz aiming his signature missile at a target that is actually a photo of a Robert Morris sculpture from the 1960s. The remaining three banners reprise characters from Goya’s prints superimposed over the modern printer’s triad of primary colors: cyan, magenta and yellow.
The larger grouping of seven banners is anchored by a double panel titled “Dust Gets in Your Eyes”(2018). It brings together Stanley Kubrick’s grunting homo sapiens with his doomsday theorist Dr. Strangelove in a barren landscape with dust storm clouds billowing on the horizon. In “GENERALDICKHEADNEEDSTROOPS”(2018), the head of a charred corpse overlays an array of campaign ribbons; an Uncle Sam recruiting figure balances the lower portion of the composition, the upper portion festooned with burning Humvees.
Fiberglass panels cast in easel painting measurements, suspended from the ceiling at eye level (along with one hung on the wall), comprise the show’s sculptural element. Functioning as translucent word clouds, each cast reveals a three-line expletive aimed at financial, military and political targets that collectively suggestEisenhower’s military industrial complex. They hang in a single line, just outside the enclosures, like cartoon thought bubbles. Their titles repeat their content: for instance, “RACIST/MOTHER/FUCKER” (2017) an “AMERICAN/BIGDICK/MILITARY” (2017). Of uniquely current import is the one that reads “BRAINDEAD/SHITMOUTH/PRESIDENT” (2017); this is aimed at the individual Morris declares in his essay to be a caricature-resistant living cartoon.
Dissimilar in immediate purpose, there is a remarkable affiliation between the analysis of the cartoon in the essay and the visceral punch delivered by the art itself. Where the exhibition is scorching, the essay is erudite and scholarly. Yet they share moments of style and method as well as substance. To read and interpret Morris’s imagery requires a mental rummaging of art historical, popular and political iconography, the processing of which insulates one’s thoughts from the emotional impact of the exhibition’s unrestrained voice. Conversely, the essay’s audacious prelude that jumps from Einsteinian relativity to pre-historic cave paintings mimics a jump cut from a Coyote/Roadrunner episode.
Though war and the short-sighted ignorance that brings it on provides the artist his primary material, our current dilemma concerning civility in public discourse is an obvious subtext. For Morris, the question of whether to go low or high is apparently academic. The uncompromising rancor in the work may echo what we find these days in newspapers, on cable and in social media. But his thoughts on the method of its delivery, published synchronously with the exhibition in a peer-reviewed journal, indicates a much wider perspective.
Robert Morris: Banners and Curses continues at Castelli Gallery (24 West 40th Street, Manhattan) through January 25, 2019.
For overt political art, he’s got a point.
I was heartened, as a young art student in the early 1960’s to sit among my hidebound profs at Detroit’s urban university and hear Mr. Morris at the lectern say, “”The most important book in my library is the phone book.”
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