Were New York's Robert Morris an actor -- not an artist -- he might be thought a major talent of our times.
An actor may play multitudes. Marlon Brando may impersonate the Godfather, Mark Antony, Napoleon and the Wild One -- and be applauded for his shiftings. But what the theater honors, the art world finds suspicious. Picasso, though permitted to change styles, must prove with every brush stroke that he remains Picasso. Artists are expected to show us one face only, or at least one soul, which Morris will not do.
Twice he's been the subject of major exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The first -- it was a beauty -- was mounted by the gallery more than 20 years ago. The second -- far more problematic -- went on view there yesterday. There is nothing these shows share. They might have been produced by two completely different men.
In 1969, in minimalism's heyday, Morris was a minimalist, and wore that label proudly. Placing him was easy then. It isn't anymore.
In 1969, his sculptures sang of clarities. His cubes of mirrored glass, his stacked beams of aluminum and his hangings of brown felt, all shared a simple thereness. They were utterly self-evident. They evoked no anguished messages. Each appeared to be exactly what it was. Morris, in those bygone days, employed the same materials -- rough construction timbers, expanded wire mesh, glass, steel plates and steam -- that that he might have encountered while strolling through Manhattan, contemplating Euclid. Morris, when a minimalist, drew pure, transcendent order from the chaos of the streets. He prefers disorder now.
Disorder and anxiety and ceaseless contradiction. Now he shows us atom bombs, and giant nightmare monsters gobbling their children, and firestorms and corpses. And now he uses words. His old minimalism's melted, his restraint has boiled away.
The present exhibition, curated with care by the Corcoran's Terrie Sultan, has a title that's well chosen. It's called "Inability to Endure or Deny the World: Representation and Text in the Work of Robert Morris." It has conflict at its core.
Instead of cubes and crispnesses, Morris here confronts us with a roiling stew of rags and bones. Fragmentary images -- of mass graves and movie stars, of jitterbuggers, dust storms, Leonardo drawings and classical Greek statues -- have been stirred into this heated mix. And fragmentary texts -- from abstruse philosophers (Wittgenstein, Derrida) and from delirious gangsters -- add a sort of verbal hiss to the simmering pictures on the walls.
That's right, to the pictures. Morris was a sculptor once. But he's a painter now.
There is not a single object here that tells us one thing only. Each speaks of oppositions. As pictures oppose words, reading fights with looking. The past fights with the present, and memory with action. Physically as well, a number of these pictures are divided into two. In many of them Morris works with two sheets of thin metal on each of which he's painted -- in encaustic -- the same appropriated image. Encaustic is a wax-based paint that melts when heated. By abutting two twinned images -- and then liquefying one of them -- Morris reinforces that aura of division. Sometimes it's like looking over wind-touched water: The landscape is seen twice, once clearly through the air, and once, in mirror-image, torn by waves and ripples. Sometimes it's like seeing an idea stated with assurance -- and then dissolved by doubt.
Many of these images are soaked in anger and disgust, much of it political. Morris often depicts victims -- of the death camps, or atomic war, or AIDS. Then he shows us who's responsible. His bad guys are the usual bad guys of the left -- say, Hitler, or the heedless, or the Western rich. In "HORDE HOARD WHORED" he hits with one tripartite pun mass-thinkers, and the miserly, and those who sell dishonorably. In "PRIVATE SILENCE/PUBLIC VIOLENCE" the victimizers portrayed, perhaps not surprisingly, are white men wearing suits.
His show is an indictment. Morris scorns our callousness, our armaments, our greed. In "ROTTEN WITH CRITICISM," a picture that combines that phrase with a trio of Goya's cackling women (he often quotes from Goya), Morris seems to be condemning all those supercilious critics who don't write from the heart.
That he is painting from the heart is clear from the beginning. The Morris we encounter here almost never smiles. The corpses of the death camps are not a laughing matter. Nor are Mussolini's crimes, or dense Midwestern dust storms, or the recent death of the artist's father, all of which are touched on by pictures in this show. No easy, gracious suavity undercuts its anger. Though Morris, through his long career, has made some superb objects, almost all are castings, constructions, or abstractions. No one could describe him as a skillful figurative painter. Even when he copies, and he mostly copies (excuse me, I mean appropriates), his brushwork is so coarse, so distrustful of the elegant, that it often seems inept. That ineptness feels intentional. Morris, in these paintings, shuns exquisiteness on purpose. These pictures aren't supposed to hum. They're supposed to howl.
Most of those who see this show will entirely accept the darkness of his vision, his horror at the Holocaust, his pessimistic passion. He really is unable to placidly endure, or optimistically deny, the evils of the world. The man is truly torn. We see that in these pictures.
And yet there is about the man something we do not quite trust. Something in his art, in all of it together, implants a seed of doubt.
Perhaps it's just his variousness. Minimalist, maximalist, scavenger and sculptor, dadaist, conceptualist, choreographer and dancer, performance artist, filmmaker, activist and poet -- no contemporary artist has dared to range more widely. Morris at his best is very good indeed. His big and fiery abstractions with their cast, bone-studded frames, his labyrinths and mazes, his scatter pieces too, and especially his perfect hangings of thick felt, are first-rate works of art. It's not such pieces that one doubts, but the peculiar gaps between them. It is the way he changes styles -- he seems to do so with the ease of an actor changing costumes -- that causes one to waver. There is something in his restlessness, his fickleness perhaps, that tends to leave the viewer feeling very slightly jerked about, betrayed.
Sultan has, correctly, countered that distrust by exhibiting the artist's new text-plus-image pictures in a Morrisonian context. Their seeds, she shows us clearly, were planted long ago.
Morris was a painter before he was a sculptor. Sultan's show includes big canvases he painted -- in a gestural, intense, sort-of-Jackson Pollock style -- more than 30 years ago. His naysaying has deep roots too. Among the works displayed is a 1961 drawing that presents us with the strong word "No." Nor is he a newcomer to works of art expressive of political concern. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, Morris made a series of grim word-and-picture paintings done in gray on the covers of the New York tabloids. They too are in this show.
Among the strongest, clearest works displayed are the "Investigations" drawings that Morris made last summer. These are pictures about memories. They layer fragments of the present (say, pictures of Madonna) on traces of the '60s (most often sculptures Morris made then) over images recalled from the artist's childhood (he was born in 1931) and from the years of World War II (Hitler's lair, for instance, or soldiers in the field, or Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial). Morris has investigated memories before. Sultan's show includes some pieces about memory that the artist wrote in 1963.
These might be called "word drawings." One is titled "Quotations From Memory," and that's just what it is. "Beware of art dealers" (here the phrase is Richard Bellamy's), and "I don't know what to do about hostility" (Henry Geldzahler), and "It's amazing how this junk has a way of lasting" (Robert Rauschenberg) are three of its quotations. That friendly and amusing sheet demonstrates that Morris was retrieving recollections, and using words as well, long before he started making the new pictures in the show.
All the older works on view are precedents, or anchorings, that try to prove that Morris is less fickle than some think him. See, they seem to argue, Morris was a painter once, and he's always been political, and he's been using texts for years.
But while these early objects bind the Morris of the present to the Morris of the past, they raise other problems. The portrait of the artist as a young man that they attempt to give us is deeply blurred and broken. We never see him clearly. Lots of other artists keep getting in the way.
That "No" of 1961 may be an early Morris, but it looks a whole lot like a '50s Jasper Johns. Those gray newspaper pages from the New York Post and Daily News are from 1962: They inevitably call to mind the well-known front-page paintings of the same New York tabloids that Andy Warhol was producing in 1961. Warhol started making movies in 1963; Morris started filming in 1969. Other early works by Morris -- say, his "Box With the Sound of Its Own Making" (1961), or his '60s metal cubes, or his spiral earthwork (designed but never built), or his "Three Rulers (Yardsticks)" of 1963/72 -- also seem indebted to pre-existent objects by Robert Smithson, Donald Judd or Marcel Duchamp.
Disturbing recollections -- of bald appropriations, or of David Salle's crudely drawn text-with-image pictures, or of various other postmodernist conventions -- similarly nibble at the new works in this show.
And yet you somehow know that Morris isn't copying. He is, as he has always been, too intense and too intelligent and too strong an artist to merely imitate his colleagues.
Morris has always been theatrical. That's part blessing and part curse. His 1969 exhibit at the Corcoran was a kind of stage-set. Its sculptures lured one here, and barred one there, and controlled one's every movement. That show was filled with spaces one could not enter, and with clear-cut paths. He long has been a dancer too. You can feel his fingers moving in the active and New Yorky 1950s abstract pictures that begin the current show. He's also been a playwright. His "Quotations From Memory" suggests a kind of skit written for his mind.
When Olivier, as mad King Lear, rages on the blasted heath the audience believes him. When Morris, in his paintings, storms against the unendurable evils of the world we believe him also. But even so, we sense that both are acting. Morris as a minimalist, Morris as a dadaist, and lately Morris the postmodernist, has always been attuned to the spirit of his times. He must have plumbed his memories, his politics and grief before he started painting the new pictures at the Corcoran. But he mines the way an actor mines. He's a minimalist no longer, but he's still playing a role.
"Inability to Endure or Deny the World: Representation and Text in the Work of Robert Morris" will remain at the Corcoran through Feb. 17.