Arriving by train in Mönchengladbach with a group of travelling students eager to be impressed, I realized how important an exhibition of Robert Morris’ varied output could be for a new generation of artists. Turning the corner towards Museum Abteiberg, we were met by a newly installed version of Steam (1967/2009), his early site-specific installation: pouring damp air into the plaza above the museum’s grass forecourt, it was clear that Morris’ work is still confrontational – in this case, J.M.W. Turner meets the outer limits of 1960s institutional critique. Steam announced the exhibition’s intention to reveal the contemporary potential for Morris’ search for something between Minimalism and anti-form, while incorporating the artist’s own film and writing. Rather than present any pure idea of a ‘retrospective’, the show wandered bravely within Susanne Titz’ assertion that the artist’s was a ‘multimedia oeuvre from the start’.
Aside from presenting Morris’ concerns around the body in space, or tempting us to look at the historical relationship between his sculpture and Hans Hollein’s 1970s architecture, the labyrinthine installation’s primary focus was on associating his work with both that of other artists and with works in the Abteiberg’s collection. The reflective surfaces of (Untitled) Threadwaste (1968), redolent of Robert Smithson’s use of mirrors, sprawled over an entire space and bled into various entrances, while Untitled (Pine Portal with Mirrors) (1961) was placed near Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mirrored piece Attori e spettatori (Actors and Spectators, 1983–4). The inclusion of the film Mirror (1969) – which depicts, among other things, Morris carrying a mirror in a winter landscape – alluded to the artist as poacher and influential commentator.
Indeed, Morris always felt at liberty to borrow from others and, through this display’s inclusion of anti-form, mirrored and textual works by others, we were reminded that he sometimes appeared to have pilfered his ideas – a sticking point that led to resentment from certain artists of his generation.
David Antin’s perceptive catalogue essay, ‘Have Mind, Will Travel’, from Morris’ 1994 Guggenheim retrospective provides a wonderful take on this. In it, Antin discusses critic Roberta Smith’s labelling of Morris as a ‘kleptomaniac’, writing that Smith assumes that ‘ownership right is more often established through persistent employment’, a situation whereby the more a medium or ‘style’ is continually repeated, the more genuine it becomes. It’s this lack of traditional persistence that Smith and others have found ‘inauthentic’ about Morris’ work. His promiscuous or profligate methods act acceptably against the Modernist canon, but more uncomfortably against Minimalists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd, and rigorously singular artists such as Lawrence Weiner and Carl Andre. Morris’ aim was to exceed any simple prerequisite of formal logic and is varied in comparison with these artists. Smith suggests he demonstrates the tendencies of a Zeitgeist-hopping scene-artist, whereas Antin defends his inventiveness. One might choose to side with Antin after experiencing this exhibition, because the various trajectories presented demonstrate that, from a restless and intelligent artist, Morris’ radical meandering is actually a consistent position.
If anything, Morris’ lack of a consistent method might serve as an example for young practitioners under pressure to develop a marketable signature style. Going back to the intangible as a model, Morris said of Steam: ‘[It is] just a lot of hot air; a towering babble of hissing, wordless vapour; a physical-visual-thermal sigh [...] a damp, incoherent mumble of the delights of evanescence and multiplicity.’ Perhaps paradoxically, in this singular and concise example of formless evasiveness, we can still see a small glimpse of potential for itinerant, nomadic practices.