Robert Morris is widely known as one of the founders of Minimalism. This perception is both correct and incorrect. Some of his works from the early to mid-1960s were incontrovertibly at the forefront of the then-emergent movement, as attested to by his benchmark exhibitions at the short-lived but influential Green Gallery, New York (1960–1965). Furthermore, in February and October 1966, Morris published—like a one-two punch—“Notes on Sculpture” and “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2” in Artforum.1 An openly polemical claim on Minimalism, the essays also constituted a thorough retort to the modernist naysayers who were virulently opposing the legitimacy of the new tendency. At the same time, the essays proposed a phenomenological reading of Minimalism, one that would be dominant for years to come.2 However, Morris’ art has always been too polymorphous—encompassing performance, texts, soft sculpture, and earthworks—and the artist himself too much of a polymath for either to be reduced to the label “Minimalist.” One might say his Minimalism was, without imparting a value judgment, a soft version, as opposed to Donald Judd’s hard version.3
The Walker Art Center’s relationship with Morris goes back to a series of group exhibitions that began with Eight Sculptors: The Ambiguous Image, which opened in the same year his Artforum articles appeared. In an eclectic mixture of abstract and figurative, industrial and humanistic sculptures, Morris showed four works—Untitled (L-beams), two identical elements painted in a neutral gray; Untitled (Four Mirrored Cubes); Untitled (Ring with Light); and Untitled (Rope Piece)—made between 1961 and 1966 and all now canonical art-historical examples.4 His untitled sculpture in felt, a medium he had started using the year before, entered the Walker collection in 1969. The work consists of eight differently colored felt layers with fourteen horizontal slashes through them. Hung on the wall with nails through the grommets at the two upper corners, it is pulled down by the force of gravity. Unlike his hard-edged, solid, industrial objects and constructions, which he was still making and exhibiting, his felt sculptures dealt with the plasticity of material. While called a “sculpture,” this particular work mimics the form of a painting, a medium rejected by Morris early on in his career.
Two years after his two-part “Notes on Sculpture,” Morris penned another essay, “Anti Form.” In it, he says: “Recently, materials other than rigid industrial ones have begun to show up… . The focus on matter and gravity as means results in forms that were not projected in advance… . Disengagement with preconceived enduring forms and orders for things is a positive assertion. It is part of the work’s refusal to continue aestheticizing the form by dealing with it as a prescribed end.”5
By the end of the 1960s, Minimalism had established itself as arguably the most influential and enduring tendency in postwar American art. Already questioning its postulates, Morris was then moving on to diverse areas of exploration.
“Notes on Sculpture, Part 3: Notes and Non sequiturs” and “Notes on Sculpture, Part 4: Beyond Objects” were subsequently published in Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967) and Artforum 7, no. 8 (April 1969). “Notes on Sculpture” and “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2” were published in Artforum 4, no. 6 (February 1966): 42–44 and Artforum 5, no. 2 (October 1966): 20–23. ↩
For an excellent explication of the historical significance of the essays, see “Morris’ ‘Notes on Sculpture,’” in James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001), 153–166. ↩
Morris’ development in its early phase took place in lockstep with Judd’s. Both showed at the Green Gallery, and later moved on to the Leo Castelli Gallery. See “The Emergence of Judd and Morris,” in Meyer, Minimalism, 45–62. ↩
For detailed descriptions of the works, see Rosalind Krauss et al., Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem, exh. cat. (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1994), 2–17. The artist was subsequently included in 14 Sculptors: The Industrial Edge (1969) and Works for New Spaces (1971). ↩
Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995), 46. ↩