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The Sculptor Robert Morris, at 86, Is Still Blazing Trails

By Phyllis Tuchman

The New York Times

March 19, 2017

During his long, illustrious career, Robert Morris has constructed sculptures that startle, question, challenge and flout expectations. Since the early 1960s, he has made, in a range of materials, spare, geometric forms; Dada-like objects; ephemeral works; land art; environments with sound systems that play scripted narratives; proto-selfies; dramatic pastel pictures with elaborate sculpted frames; performance art; and, not too long ago, a glass “Labyrinth” on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., that has become a popular gathering place. This body of work reflects Mr. Morris’s abilities as a consummate craftsman who possesses a fine-tuned intellect with a philosophical bent, the prowess of an agile athlete and the talent to draw like an old master.

When Mr. Morris, who’s 86 and was born and raised in Kansas City, and his first wife, Simone Forti, a dancer, moved to New York from the West Coast in 1959, the couple became an integral part of a downtown scene made up of avant-garde painters, musicians, dancers and performance artists. In this atmosphere, Mr. Morris built the seven large, plywood structures currently on long-term view at Dia:Beacon; they were first exhibited in his solo show at the fabled Green Gallery on West 57th Street in December 1964. Resting on the floor, propped against walls, even hanging from the ceiling, these smooth-surfaced, gray-colored sculptures are early examples of the art movement — and aesthetic — that became Minimalism.

The time was ripe for change, and Mr. Morris and his colleagues Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt obliged. Intriguingly, none of these Minimalists studied sculpture in art school. They never learned how to model in clay, carve marble or weld metal.

Mr. Morris set out to be a painter. While building props for his wife’s performances, he created a solo for himself with the Living Theater, featuring “Column,” his first important object. It was a tall rectangular box with a hollow core; and he stood inside of it for several minutes before toppling over. He almost got a concussion. But he had found his métier. He became a sculptor. Though he has been a trailblazer, he has always been the odd man out. Minimalism was just one of many stops on his six-decade journey through the art world.

He also published polemical essays about the nature of sculpture in Artforum. To earn a master’s degree in art history, he wrote a thesis on the work of Constantin Brancusi, the modern Romanian virtuoso. And, for many years, he was a popular art professor at Hunter College.

More than anything else, however, Robert Morris liked to make things. He has worked with lead, aluminum mesh, mirrors, dirt, felt, steam and steel. In November, Mr. Morris recalled that when Donald Judd wrote in a review, “‘The trouble with Morris’s work is that there is not enough to see,’ I knew I was on the right track.”

Now, decades later, Mr. Morris has been revisiting earlier work. His latest felt pieces, on view at the Castelli Gallery’s uptown space, 18 East 77th Street, include provocative words like “paranoid,” “blackops” and “assassin” cut into the thick, heavy material. And an installation providing seating has old-fashioned radios broadcasting a dialogue he wrote that echoes “Hearing” (1972), his scathing philosophical inquiry related to the Vietnam War.

With the multifigure groups on view at Castelli’s new quarters at 24 West 40th Street, Mr. Morris’s status as a renegade is more pronounced. Though most lack bodies and heads, much less faces, the meticulous way he modeled and cast cloaks, robes and mortuary shrouds while leaving many hollow cores visible suggests they’re more like statues than present-day structures. And Mr. Morris has conveyed emotional states in a way that emulates what he admires in the art of Francisco Goya: “Deft economy in depicting gesture and expression.”

His days as a Minimalist, however, are not quite in the distant past. Like the works at Dia:Beacon, these sculptures stand directly on the floor, rest against the wall, lie on the ground, hang from the ceiling.
But emotion, not formal language, sets the latest work apart from what Mr. Morris executed earlier in his career. In November, in remarks he delivered at a Dia benefit dinner, Mr. Morris suggested why. “We have only to experience late Donatello or Cézanne or Titian or Goya to see that it is in old age that the most extraordinary art is made by those few survivors who realize how terrifying existence is,” he said, “and at the end of life live totally in their art to escape this crushing world.”

These are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Morris, conducted in person and by email.

Why plywood sculptures?

In November 1964, Richard Bellamy offered me the Green space for December. I said yes, not knowing what I would do. But of course I had been thinking about and making a few large plywood works since “Column” of 1962. They were simple to construct. Deciding which works would go in the space was more critical, and I probably stewed over that awhile. I made all the objects in a month, dismantled them, trucked them to 57th Street, and nailed them back together.

Plywood was cheap, plentiful, standard and ubiquitous. It was unstressed as an art material, an “ordinary” material in the industrial world. The tools required to work plywood were common and readily at hand; the skill required to manipulate them was relatively undemanding; carpentry was another “ordinary” everyday skill in the urban late industrial milieu.

Acknowledging the wall made the works more a part of the room, anchoring them to the walls as much as the floor.

I doubt whether most of the plywood works of the early ’60s were abstract. “Columns,” “Slabs,” “Portals” — these “geometric” objects referenced parts of buildings.

Wasn’t it daring to place a sculpture in the corner of a room back then?

I assumed viewers, anyway some, might walk up to “Untitled (Corner Piece)” and see it had sides. The object sat away from the two walls as well as floated above the floor a few inches.

I suppose the question “Why?” might be asked. But I would rather short-circuit the question and hide behind Chekhov’s remark that art should ask questions rather than give answers.

The plywood works got nicknames like “Cloud,” etc., and were officially “Untitled.” Nevertheless, I always knew they were tainted with the “representational.” And not just tainted, but intended to be impure. I was an abstract artist as a painter in the ’50s. I’ve never been an abstract sculptor.

Wasn’t it a stretch to execute a sculpture from dirt?

I have always worked in more than one direction at a time. As the scorpion said after stinging the frog ferrying it across the river, “It is my nature, what can I do?”

Dirt is dirt, grease is grease, and bits of wire and metal are just that. I don’t see the work as “abstract,” but concrete. I don’t know if you are asking, “What does it represent?”

Of course “Dirt” is more than dirt. It speaks to the ongoing dialogue that we call sculpture, what we take sculpture to be, what we think it can be. Duchamp established the nominalism of art and changed the question from “what is art?” to “is it interesting?”

Are your latest “Felt Works” related to earlier pieces?

I can imagine you saying, “If anything is abstract, those ‘Felt Works’ are.” And all I can reply is: “I think of the ‘Felt Works’ as the Mother. Soft, large, enfolding, and yes, unpredictable, too.” Well, that is a lame answer, but it is the best I can do.

She didn’t like me swearing or throwing rocks, but mothers have to make some exceptions for unruly children.

In recent years, have you been more inspired by old masters rather than contemporaries?

I studied with Ad Reinhardt in the ’60s, and he has been a constant inspiration, but I suppose that by now he is in the category of old master, as is Duchamp, whom everyone has drawn on. Some of the ’60s drawings quoted Leonardo, but yes, the “Carbon Fiber” figures quote Goya and Rodin and allude to [Claus] Sluter, [sculptor of the medieval “Well of Moses” in Dijon, France]. Why, I don’t know, but these artists feel closer than ever now.

Now that you’re in what’s considered the late-style phase of your career, do you truly see art and, even more, the human condition differently?

What constitutes a late style? Is it more than what an artist does in old age? Edward Said thought he saw some old artists letting go and daring to do what they would not have when younger. Who can say? But I don’t think I see art differently now than I did years ago. As for insights into the human condition, I think I am the same pessimist I always was.

Are there things that can be expressed only with figurative sculpture?

Have my “Columns” evolved into figures? When I fell over in the first “Column” in 1962, was I desperate to get out? Or is it only now in old age when the creaking of the body can’t be ignored that it insists on full recognition? Now that I can’t do a back flip, do I need to make a figure leaping to remember? Are all these dark figures out of the past? Or are they coming to remind me of what is on the way?

A version of this article appears in print on March 19, 2017, on Page AR19 of the New York edition with the headline: Odd Man in: A Sculptor Forges Ahead.