W. J. T. Mitchell
Robert Morris, one of the founders of the “Great Generation” of American minimalist artists in the 1960s and a frequent contributor to this journal, passed away on 28 November 2018. The New York Times (30 November) devoted a full page to his obituary, complete with photos of some of his iconic pieces in felt, plywood, and other humble industrial materials. Over the last twenty-five years, Critical Inquiry published many of his essays on art—its history, its many worlds, its follies and frustrations. In honor of his long relationship with CI, we will be temporarily opening public access to all those essays soon.
Morris was also a longtime personal friend, mentor, and inspiration to the editor of this journal. We enjoyed a running conversation about art, politics, and culture, along with specific discussions of the essays he sent to us. He introduced me to contemporary art in the late 1980s, which probably jaundiced my normally hopeful eye. I wrote an essay (“Wall Labels for Robert Morris”) for the catalogue of his 1993 Guggenheim retrospective based on a dream diary entry that he sent to me. He was also an occasional visitor to Chicago for exhibitions of his work at the Art Institute. And on 13 November 2013, when he was in somewhat precarious health, he agreed to come to Chicago to give a lecture/performance. He packed the 474-seat Logan Center Auditorium, dazzling the audience with four screens, two large ones with automated images, and two smaller ones that he controlled from two lecterns. Images from throughout the history of art cascaded forth as he proceeded, in steadfastly deadpan Morris fashion, to give two parallel lectures, the combination entitled “A Few Thoughts about Bombs, Tennis, Free Will, Agency Reduction, Museums, Dust Storms, and Labyrinths.” As I recall, one lecture was emphatically more negative than the other. Neither was what you would call positive or affirmative. From the lectern on stage right, Bob declared his refusal
to talk about art that I made half a century ago; minimalism does not need to hear from me. I do not want to talk about art that I made yesterday; contemporary art is making enough noise without me. I do not want to be filmed in my studio, pretending to be working. I do not want to participate in staged conversations about art, either mine or others, past or present, which are labored and disguised performances. I do not want to be interviewed by curators, critics, art directors, theorists, aestheticians, aesthetes, professors, collectors, gallerists, culture mavens, journalists, or art historians, about my influences, favorite artists, despised artists, past artists, current artists, or future artists. A long time ago I got in the habit, never since broken, of writing down things instead of talking. It is possible that I was led into art making because art making and being in the presence of another person were not requirements.
Moving over to stage left after a reflection on free will and determinism (“Now comes the hard part”), Bob switched from sardonic monologue to a Samuel-Beckett-style dialogue between two mysterious interlocutors:
One: “Ever hear the expression, ‘I have reached bed rock and my spade is turned’”?
Other: “Maybe. Why?”
One: “What do you think it means?”
Other: “Metaphors don’t have meanings.”
Other: “They just lead us to see one thing as another.”
One: “Hmmm. So where is the spade and rock leading you? Not the rock or the spade but the turning. The turning after it hit the fucking rock.”
Other: “OK, the turning. Where is it leading you? Something about going on without reasons. You never have reasons anyway.”
One: “There is more.”
Other: “Oh, no.”
One: “The way it goes is to begin with a qualification.”
Other: “Let’s hear it.”
One: “It goes, ‘I’m inclined to say,’ and then you get to the rock and spade.”
Other: “Well, that changes everything.”
At the end, Bob agreed to answer exactly ten questions from the audience, no more, no less. The answers were all quotations from famous philosophers written on slips of paper drawn out of Bob’s hat. In answer to the question, “what are you really trying to say in this performance?” Bob luckily pulled out a line of John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”: “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.”
I won’t try to make sense of all this for you. Bob’s critical intentions always seemed directed at puncturing the clichés of “artspeak” and the mystique of artist “personalities.” He loved labyrinths of thought, continually weaving metaphysics and everyday language. His sensibility was unrelentingly pessimistic, ironic, and quietly jocular, poised somewhere between Buster Keaton, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and George Carlin. In private, he was a gentle, considerate friend, with a deep reservoir of rage at cruelty, injustice, and pompous hypocrisy.
The first time I met him was at his invitation, sometime in the late 1980s. He had read my recently published book Iconology and wrote me a short note telling me that he liked it and would be happy to meet me if I ever came to New York. He mentioned in a PS that he had a show at the Art Institute of Chicago, which I duly attended. It was the debut of one of his numerous departures from his minimalist origins into a maximalist exploration of apocalyptic firestorm paintings laminated onto heated lead plates, framed in hydrocal structures riddled with impressions of body parts—fists, penises, skulls.
I suspect that I pissed Bob off when I said that “they look like ornaments suitable for Darth Vader’s boudoir,”but he seems to have forgiven me. I felt that the firestorm compositions were staging a paragone or debate between sculpture and painting, “insisting on the frame as an equal partner in the work”:
The hydrocal frames with their imprinted body parts and post-holocaust detritus stand as the framing ‘present’ of the works, trophies or relics encrusted around the past event, the catastrophe that left the fossils as the imprints in which it is enframed. Frame is to image as body is to the destructive element, as present is to past.
On my next trip to New York, I arranged to meet Bob for coffee at 4 PM at a café in Soho. We didn’t stop talking until midnight. For the next twenty years, every trip to New York included a meal with him. When he moved his studio to upstate New York, he let me use his top-floor loft on Greene Street as a crash pad, and I spent many lovely evenings there sitting out on the fire escape watching the crowds on Canal Street and the sunset over the cast iron buildings of Soho.
Most of our correspondence over the years dealt with his writing, but twice I was able to commission works of art from him. One was an illustrative cartoon for a lecture at MoMA entitled “How the dinosaurs broke into the Museum of Modern Art,” which dealt with issues such as neglected and deaccessioned holdings in the museum, as well as (naturally) Robert Smithson. MoMA’s director politely suggested that the museum would be happy if I were to give them Bob’s drawing as a gift, and I just as politely declined to do so.
The other, more serious commission was my request in 2008 that Bob make a drawing that would show the famous multistable image of the Duck-Rabbit with a body. He provided a straightforward sculptor’s answer to the challenge by resorting to the time honored technique of contrapposto, turning the creature’s body so that the rabbit is facing forward while the duck is twisting his body 180 degrees.
But he added to the image an internal framing structure based on the Greimasian “Square of Opposition” used by linguists to visualize the structures of negative statements, and later used by Jacques Lacan to produce his famous “L-Schema” depicting the relation of the subject with the Other. He mused about fabricating the Duck-Rabbit (with body) in glass, but I don’t know that he ever did.
After he sent me the embodied Duck-Rabbit drawing, Bob launched into a set of reflections on this “quadratic diagram” in a letter that will forever tantalize me with its plunge into a world of abstractions rendered concrete, visible, and structural, driven by his inveterate “Kunstwolling,” his drive to make ideas into things and vice versa:
12 December 2008
I hope your talk went well. Your visit here gave me a real lift. Our visits are too infrequent.
I was thinking about how to expand the quadratic ideogram to something like a quadratic equation; something which moves from a static map to a mapping of 3-D force fields. Desire gets expanded from just directional arrows-Eros to the animating axial force. So let Desire be the force moving from below where it transits first the Quadratic Ideogram of space-object and image-language. Here predilection, imagination, tropism cross the first filter/screen of the material. The next level-screen-filter is that of the Other where the dream of private language perishes, where Desire encounters existing models, where the Oedipal resistance of that which is “always already” in place intimidates. The third passage is Desire’s move through the triangular filter of Peircean signs of concrete material means where one seizes the stuff of forming (am I just Kunstwolling along here below a big mental model which I want to grasp?). The fourth and final filter to be crossed is that of Rhetoric/Logic. Here I do not have a clear memory of how you articulated this opposition. I can see it partly as taking the form of a Klein group (x-not-x; x-not-y;x-not-x or y, etc). This fourth level is also that of format and revision and where revenge is taken on the Other by means of signing and presenting the work-thought-object-art .
All this is extremely tentative. I don’t know the geometry of the four levels–squares? triangles? circles?
I thought you might be able to (a) play/expand/refine this quadratic equation,or (b) rip it to shreds.
As Morris’s apprentice, editor, and friend, I found these exchanges endlessly delicious and inconclusive, a wonderful meal that left me with renewed appetite for more. The idea that there will be no more conversations of this sort left me desolate and blue all day, until I received the following note of condolence from my old friend and former student, John Ricco, quoting from Sarah Ruhl and Max Ritvo’s book Letters from Max: A Book of Friendship:
No end, I swear by all that is holy, only the silence in between the movements. You know those silences in which the educated audience members at concerts don’t applaud? Because they know it is a ‘movement’ that’s just ended and not the end of a song? I think or hope that’s what death is. The silence between movements; those who don’t know any better applaud, but those who know music more intimately sit in silence and wait for the next movement to begin.
Actually, I was quoting my wife, Janice Misurell Mitchell, who didn’t like them nearly as much as I did.
W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago, 1994).