Conversation with the Sound of Its Own Unraveling
Object Sculpture, 1960–1965 | Robert Morris, Julia Robinson, Jeffrey Weiss
Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Artist Dialogue Series Event
New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Margaret Liebman Berger Forum, New York
The legendary artist Robert Morris doesn’t often participate in live interviews, whether in public, in person, or on the phone, so a recent appearance by him at the New York Public Library was a rare treat. Indeed, as the scholar and curator Jeffrey Weiss noted at the outset, “Agreeing to speak is not something he does too freely.” But when Morris, Weiss, and the art historian Julia Robinson gathered in celebration of Weiss and Clare Davies’s new book, Robert Morris: Object Sculpture, 1960–1965 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), the ensuing conversation was a frustrating affair.
How could such an experienced crew bungle this rare opportunity? It certainly wasn’t the fault of the articulate, soft-spoken Morris. Rather it was the disorganized and unprepared Weiss and Robinson, whose cluttered thoughts belied the sharp focus of the book. Weiss, a senior curator for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, fumbled with his faulty microphone for several minutes as the conversation began and demonstrated a serious “um” and “uh” problem throughout the event.1
What’s worse, though, is that he and Robinson, an assistant professor in the Department of Art at New York University, had great difficulty asking a simple, straightforward question, as both were plagued with the malaise of offering a garbled comment in place of a question. When a question finally did come out they immediately tried to answer it themselves, offering several possibilities before Morris could even respond. Furthermore, the pair constantly stumbled when describing and interpreting the images of the artist’s work projected on the screen behind them. This was all a pitiful shame considering Weiss’s excellent, insightful articles recently published in Artforum on the refabrication of Morris’s classic 1960s work and on the value of damaged and destroyed art objects through the lens of two recent exhibitions of them.2
Despite the obfuscating efforts of Weiss and Robinson, Morris told entertaining and informative stories about his early career, the period covered by Weiss’s book. The artist confirmed with Simone Forti, a dancer, choreographer, and his wife at the time (who was sitting in the front row of the audience), that they had arrived in New York in late 1960. Even though he had been painting through the late 1950s, Morris didn’t consider himself to be an artist during his initial time in New York, when he was studying art history at Hunter College. “I spent a lot of time reading,” he said. It was inexpensive to exist in Manhattan back then. Living in large lofts with no heat and hot water, Morris said he was poor but comfortable.
At Weiss’s prompting, Morris talked about the first two works he made in New York—Box with the Sound of Its Own Making and Column—both created in January 1961. The former is a nearly 10-inch-cubed wooden container that encloses an audio recording of Morris building the work with carpentry tools. The latter was an eight-foot-tall rectangular box built with plywood salvaged from the street and stored uncomfortably in his room, whose ceiling reached only seven feet high. “This might have given me the idea of permuting this work,” he joked of the decision to re-create the piece several times from the lost or discarded original. A garbled comment-question from Weiss attempted to address the size of, and process involved in making, the two works, and the curator seemed astounded that Morris could simultaneously produce large and small works (and unrelated ones at that). “Just literally making them,” the curator gushed, “in and of itself, reflects a certain level of…” before trailing off.3 Did the two bodies of work intersect, the curator asked? “I never felt obliged to think much about the connection,” Morris responded, who went on to say something about the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s concepts regarding the self that was not picked up by Weiss. In fact, Morris’s deep knowledge of Western philosophy was an area that Weiss and Robinson should have fervently pursued but, sadly, did not.
Robinson mumbled something about how the Box with the Sound of Its Own Making performed or demonstrated temporality and also literalized time. Painting was static then, she claimed, but process brought time back. This may have been a cue for Morris to describe his processed-based works from the 1950s, for which he spread a canvas on the floor and moved across it while sprawled on a short scaffold. “I was just using oil paint,” he said, “putting it on with my hands.” (Does this work still exist?) Robinson stated her interest in Hans Namuth’s famous photographs of the action painter as well as Allan Kaprow’s 1958 essay, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock.” She knows her book art history. “Activating work with time was a way out,” Morris said to appease Robinson. Because he didn’t resolve the issue of time, he quit making this work. Among other reasons, Pollock had succeeded where he had not. While Morris failed to recognize these paintings as performance, he did acknowledge a “temporal involvement.”
Weiss asked Morris if he had a series in mind when making Box and Column. Not yet, the artist replied. “The large works had a kind of apparent continuity … in form,” he continued, “whereas the small objects didn’t.” (Weiss and Davies’s book presumably gives the smaller pieces, which Weiss calls “object sculpture” but Morris identified as “process type objects,” that missing continuity.) Box for Standing—or was it Column?—was a leftover from a Forti performance. “I had this box,” Morris slyly recalled. “It kept getting in the way. I kept moving it around the studio. Finally I decided I would expropriate it and make a sculpture. It was really very easy because it was already there.” The works from the early 1960s “were much more contingent than they appear today,” he mused.4
Morris, Robinson, and Weiss talked about the avant-garde milieu in San Francisco and New York, which featured characters such as Forti, Anna Halprin, Henry Flynt, and LaMonte Young. Robinson simultaneously asked and told Morris about his own history—while offering her own interpretations of it—a strategy that resulted in a confused, fragmented chronology. Moving on, Morris told the story of when the radical composer John Cage visited his Upper West Side apartment, where he asked to listen to the entire three-and-a-half-hour recording of Box with the Sound of Its Own Making. Robinson commented to Morris: “Did you ever ask him later, ‘What the heck was that?’” Did she truly find it incredulous that Cage would want to listen to the complete tape?
Morris recollected several experimental dance performances in which he took part. For one Forti piece he pretended to be a rock. For another he was directed to remain on the floor (“Whatever happens,” Forti had told him, “you gotta lay flat on the floor”), while another performer, Robert Huot—a man twice Morris’s size—was instructed to tie him to the wall. “A battle occurred,” Morris declared, “and that was the movement…. A fight with a rope, two guys—I mean, there wasn’t any expression there at all, just defense and scratches and bumps.”
The conversation dragged when Robinson pressed Morris about the mysterious, nefarious controllers of a bifurcated Fluxus scene of artists, dancers, and musicians surrounding Young in New York. Morris admitted that he had written texts for the group that are not widely read because he pulled out of the scene. “I find it really hard to give a reason for that,” Morris mused. “I must have been feeling especially hostile.” Regarding the writing, he explained, “I was using language to make drawings.” The nature of this discussion wasn’t clear, but the three speakers seemed to be in the know. Maybe it was all just gossip.
“You became a pretty serious critic pretty fast,” Robinson noted. She also noticed a difference between Morris’s private writing in notebooks and his published words in the 1960s. “The need to go on record became important,” the artist said. And he liked doing it, even though he considered himself to be a lazy writer who didn’t produce articles often enough. In fact, his advisor at Hunter College, William Rubin, kept bugging him to finish his thesis on the Romanian modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi, even after the professor had left the school for a curatorial position at the Museum of Modern Art. “I usually wrote about things after finishing a body of work,” Morris said.
Halfway through the conversation Morris loosened up, while Weiss and Robinson continued to grope erratically. The artist recalled the artist Ad Reinhardt’s famous class on Japanese art at Hunter, which he said didn’t follow typical chronological or geographic lines. Instead, Reinhardt showed slides from different eras, periods, and locations, saying “That’s classic. That’s baroque. That’s early classic.” Reinhardt would show “five hundred slides a night,” Morris remembered. When showing an image of the Venus of Willendorf, Reinhardt deadpanned “That’s really primitive.” A student exclaimed, “That’s not primitive—that’s pregnant!” The professor, Morris punchlined, did not reply. Morris also recalled that Reinhardt’s slides of monuments and artworks from foreign lands—once a year he traveled to another country, by himself—were frontal and bilateral. Many students, Morris said, declared these photographs so well taken that they depicted the actual sites better than seeing them in person.
In the early 1960s Morris worked in the Art Office of the New York Public Library, in room 313, where he answered mail, filed things, and used the card catalogue. It was during this time when he conceived of Card File (1962), while drinking coffee one day in the library. Weiss felt Card File is neglected, misrepresented, and singularly understood as a form of categorization—perhaps because we never can actually read the cards filed into it. (Weiss read a few of them aloud; his book publishes transcriptions of each one.) “It’s unending, theoretically,” Morris said of the work, but “it has a narrative.” It’s also, Robinson added, “indeterminate.”
The influence of narrative, Morris revealed, came from Marcel Duchamp, in particular the focus on text and language found in Robert Lebel’s 1959 book on the French-born artist.5 For Morris, Duchamp’s Large Glass (1915–23) represents process—materials and their transformation—through a puerile story about the proverbial bride and nine bachelors, a metaphor, Morris said, of the Artist screwing Art to become Famous. Morris also admitted the influence of Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages (1913–14) when creating works like Three Rulers (1962), for which he estimated imperial measurements by eye. The hand-drawn inch was intentionally a “mistake,” Morris said, claiming that Duchamp had become the “new standard of measurement” for artists.
The classic gray-painted plywood boxes from 1964, Morris said, “were competently made but not expertly made.” It was easier for him to construct them for exhibitions and toss out afterward than to build permanent works. “I said at some point there are no originals of these,” he noted. “There are only reproductions. Nobody [back then] wanted to hear that.” One time he sent assembly instructions for the pieces to a museum, whose workers “built them too well—and that offended me. If you make these things too well, they look like God made them.” These sculptures presented preexisting forms in the world, Morris explained, such as columns, benches, and gates; he also used materials other than wood. Although fiberglass works well for the curves of a boat, the artist said he was disappointed with the material’s response to edges, which became frayed. “It was a mistake” to use the material, he said, “but it has a certain quality that’s different from plywood.”
For a private exhibition at SurroundArt in Brooklyn in 2012 and a public exhibition at Sonnabend Gallery in Manhattan in 2014, Morris instructed fabricators to use quality woods such as walnut, cherry, oak, poplar, European beach, and maple when making replicas of older work—or in his words, “recent work that recollects earlier objects.” For example, Box for Standing went from pine in 1961 to walnut in 2011, and Wheels (2012), first made in 1963 with street lumber, was reconstructed in cherry wood at a slightly larger scale. These fabrications are obviously salable pieces for private collectors and museums, but Weiss and Robinson didn’t engage Morris about these cash cows. Instead, the artist offered an alternative view: “I have a compulsion to revisit some of these things.”
During the audience Q&A, a woman sitting behind me pestered Morris with several questions about Duchamp, which the artist answered with good nature. “Did Duchamp really smoke a cigar?” was the last one she got in before the library’s representative, Arezoo Moseni, judiciously cut her off. When an artist stood to lament (in a kind of calm hysteria) the state of the New York art world today—the dispersion of artistic centers, the lack of easy living, and finding a voice in an art world in which everything has seemingly been done—Morris recanted a story about the New York Art Strike, which took place outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 22, 1970, when approximately five hundred people sat on the steps to protest war, racism, and repression. After the ten-hour event ended, a few stragglers remained to clean up the steps. While sweeping up cigarette butts, the artist Carl Andre remarked to Morris, “You never know how good an artist you are, but you always know how good a sweeper you are.” Morris said that life was hard back then but leisurely so: you could see your friends and think about things. Paraphrasing Albert Einstein, the artist declared, “Creativity is the residue of wasted time.” It’s certainly unfortunate we don’t have that kind of time today. And although this story sidestepped the audience member’s concerns, Morris seemed to suggest that she work at her own pace and within her own competencies.
In Terms Of count: 1.
1 Similarly, speakers at any level of experience must simply get over their fear of amplification. Likewise, academics should be required to learn about microphones, projectors, and PowerPoint as an integral part of their jobs.
3 During this time Morris also made what he called performance switches. A fourth body of work was the set of boxy plywood structures first exhibited at Richard Bellamy’s Green Gallery in 1964.
4 From the audience, Forti recalled that Morris had made two boxes; he only remembered making one.
5 Lebel’s book was translated into English by George Heard Hamilton in that same year. Duchamp’s notes from The Green Box were published in 1960.