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Art In Conversation

Robert C. Morgan with Phong Bui

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Within a few days after the closing of his two one-man exhibits Metaphysical Paintings, Performance, Conceptual Art, 1970–2009 at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (April 4–2009) and Bjorn Ressle Gallery, New York (April 18–May 23, 2009), Publisher Phong Bui spoke to Robert C. Morgan about the evolution of his work as an artist.

Phong Bui (Rail): In college, did you study painting or sculpture?

Robert c. Morgan: Neither. European History was my interest then. For a good period of time, I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. I also taught disadvantaged children in a school out in California. But I’d always wanted to be an artist so I started painting on my own right after school, and began to show my work at the Institute of Contemporary Art and a few other places around the Boston area. It was at this time that I decided to apply for an MFA. I was accepted in two places. One was the San Francisco Art Institute and the other was the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I chose the latter because they offered me a full tuition waiver, plus a teaching associateship which meant I would get paid and, of course, I had to support myself, so that was great. Even though I had started as a painter, the painting was in a proverbial way coming off the wall. This was partially informed by my conceptual and performance work. And so, with the painters at UMass being quite conservative, they weren’t interested. But the sculptors liked what I was doing, so they accepted me in sculpture. That was how I ended up getting a Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture. I learned casting and welding, but I was really focused on ideas in relation to art. I was doing some performance, which involved the movement of the body where I was drawing in sand, very similar to one I did at the Sideshow Gallery last May (2009), or I choreographed four synchronized swimmers in a pool, which I photographically documented—

Rail: —which was included in your other show at Bjorn Ressle Gallery.

Robert C. Morgan, Routines, 1974, performance, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Robert C. Morgan, Routines, 1974, performance, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Morgan: Exactly. It was shown along with other pieces that diagramed a set of diagonal line patterns that were actually designed for the swimmers to follow as they swam in predetermined configurations that produced constellations, you know, point moving in space. In fact, I observed these points in the constellations as the swimmers were moving and draw them in a sandbox. These sand drawings were photographed and placed beside the diagrams. Then ten years later, I did the drawing with charcoal on sandpaper from memory. What I was doing was using geometry as a way of working with performance. At the time, I called these works “structural events.”

Rail: There were also paintings on paper and canvas as well as other collages and mixed media pieces. Over all, they reveal an attraction to conceptual, performative and minimal art, which was then not yet a part of the academy’s teaching.

Morgan: That’s right. It was around 1970 and 71 when I was staying with a Danish physicist named Hans Fogerby, who I had met earlier in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time, he was doing his doctorate at Harvard. We became friends and he invited me to stay at his farm house in Vekso outside of Copenhagen, where I would paint. This period of time became an important transition for me into conceptual art. Hans eventually ended up teaching physics at the famous Bohr Institute. The three works on paper that you saw at Bjorn Ressle were done there. My intention was to bring geometry into a structural sense of time. That was partly informed by discussions I had with Hans. He was getting me excited about quantum physics and so forth. It was then that I began to understand that time was reality and that the art had to somehow include time, so I moved from that 1970’s work of the horizontal bar to producing sequences of forms, which would infer a kind of progression and development of time that I used in the swim constellations.

Rail: The earliest work in the show is two works called “Acoustical Variations”?


Morgan: Exactly. They were both from 1970 — pure geometry. I always thought of these forms in relation to sound, which prompted me to take the static idea of space and move it into space/time. Naturally, when I got into the MFA program five years later, I was thinking in terms of performance and concept in relation to one another for which such ephemeral materials as sand, water, steam and so on became very important in my work.

Rail: In addition to your reference to the specific time, space/time, and place that you made them, while seeing the way they’re painted, were there particular painters whose work you felt close with at that time?

Morgan: Theo Van Doesburg. I was interested in his idea that in the future “everything will be art.” And I was equally interested in the way he thought of the diagonal in relation to the horizontal and vertical. From my point of view, he had this ability to expand his parameters and his references in a way that some of his De Stijl colleagues did not.

Rail: Yeah, and his introduction of the diagonal, which prompted Mondrian to say in a letter that he wrote to him, “After your arbitrary correction of neo-plasticism, any collaboration, no matter what kind, has become impossible for me…”

Morgan: At that point, Mondrian and Van Doesburg stopped collaborating, and found new, separate directions. For me I discovered that the marking lines in the tile at the bottom of the pool could have this kind of calligraphic presence as the swimmers were moving at a very slow pace through the water. That interested me a great deal because it coincided with my fascination with Chinese paintings, especially those of the Sung and Yuan Dynasties. I must say that the Asian influence got into my work quite early on. Also, a couple of years before that, I think it was 1966-67, I started learning calligraphy through a master teacher from Osaka, who I met at any exhibition in Boston. His name was Kongo Abe. He was in his late sixties when I met him. At any rate, I left Massachusetts in 1967 for Southern California. And it was there that I had the opportunity to meet Roshi Shibayama, who at the time was the leading Sensai in Kyoto. This encouraged me to continue my studies in Asian art.

Rail: Tell us about your piece performed at Artist Space in 1976. I thought that while it contained geometric elements, the knocking on the walls somehow evokes the sound ambience derived from your early “acoustical” painting

Robert C. Morgan, 50/50: Learning to Swim, photo-document of performance, 1974
Robert C. Morgan, 50/50: Learning to Swim, photo-document of performance, 1974

Morgan: That’s correct. The tape on the wall is in fact returning to three sequential “Vekso” paintings. The sound of knocking on the wall referred to the earlier “Acoustical Variations.” Behind the dividing wall in the gallery at Artists Space, there was a video camera. In front of the wall where the audience was seated, Rebecca Gabriel and I began knocking as we moved from a central axis out to the periphery of the wall and then back into the center. The video camera on the other side of the wall (which was completely white) panned out from a telephoto lens moving to a full wide angle as it followed the sound of the knocking. After a pause, it then moved back into telephoto again as we progressively moved to the central medium. The monitor that the audience was watching as we performed could only see a white screen as they also detected the movement. Again, that became a kind of Zen idea of time, space and nothingness.

As a result of seeing this piece, Marcia Tucker, who was then the curator at The Whitney Museum of American Art, invited me to participate in an exhibition that same year with Robert Wilson, Stuart Sherman, Richard Foreman, Simone Forti, among others. It was an important show. For one afternoon, I had the entire fourth floor in which to perform, working with steam, sand, projected images, and dancers that I choreographed.

Rail: Were you aware at that time of Robert Barry and his invisible media performances?

Morgan: Robert Barry was one of the major figures along with Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, John Baldessari, and a number of others whose work I later published as a book in 1994, Conceptual Art: An American Perspective. In the course of working on the whole conceptual movement, Barry and I became close friends. I was very much in tune with what they were doing in those years.

Robert C. Morgan, Captives, 1986, mixed/media, 14 X24”
Robert C. Morgan, Captives, 1986, mixed/media, 14 X24”

Rail: What about the show “Conceptual Art and Conceptual Aspects,” which was considered as the first exhibit dedicated to conceptual art at the New York Cultural Center in 1971—

Morgan: It was actually preceded by another earlier exhibition, titled “Information” in 1970, at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by Kynaston McShine. The show you refer to—“Conceptual Art, Conceptual Aspects”—was curated by Donald Karshan. It was an important show, though because I was living in Boston, I never had a chance to see it. Again, what I was doing then was similar to what they were doing but somehow I didn’t think of it as conceptual art until 1972.

Robert C. Morgan, Meta/Angle, 2008, acrylic/canvas, 22 X 28”
Robert C. Morgan, Meta/Angle, 2008, acrylic/canvas, 22 X 28”

Rail: It probably was in the air. Those of us who were interested in working with ideas rather than just with objects would have felt the collective urge towards a new way of making art anyway. There were so many things that happened between the early 60’s to the late 70’s: in addition to the Fluxus artists who followed Kaprow’s Happenings, was Sol LeWitt’s famous essay “Paragraphs On Conceptual Art,” which was published in 1967.

Morgan: Right, in the summer issue of Artforum. That year marked the progression from minimal to conceptual art. Two years later he then published his other essay, “Sentences on Conceptual Art” which was also published in Art & Language in 1969. When I encountered the work of LeWitt and some of the artists we’re talking about, it was so exciting for me and I had no problem in terms of writing in a scholarly way about these people as I continued to do my own work. But I was very naïve in thinking that I could continue to be a scholar and critic and people would still accept me as an artist. Although there had been examples such as Theo Van Doesburg and Robert Motherwell who were doing both, I thought, you know, this will be easy—I can do what I want, I can curate shows, I can write criticism, I can be an artist and it will be understood. Well, in fact, as the market continued to become increasingly aggressive with a few ups and downs, I found that that kind of openness, in relation to what Roman Jacobsen called the “aesthetic project” was no longer possible. The art world became far too obsessed with artists who could produce one thing they can identify with. Needless to say, that became the reason why I started taking a position against the kind of investment strategies, which led to my book, The End of the Art World (1998). It was my attempt to argue against the notion of art as a marketable investment in favor of aesthetics. I still very much believe this, even though I am back in the game, so to speak, as an artist.

Rail: Let’s go back to the genesis of the diagonal line patterns that appeared in the early works.

Morgan: Well, sand and water were the two materials that were familiar to me in my early upbringing in Southern California on the beach. I liked the idea of the swimming pool, which is contained space like a painting is contained and I was thinking of constructivism insofar as it was conceived as an intuitive evolution. I wanted to create this diagonal pattern that was in fact a parallelogram within a rectangle, and then I wanted the sections that were being swum to somehow create a complexity in a very slow and deliberate way so that the whole performance can be observed from point to point in time. In other words, the observation of observing points in time was the intuition and the visualization within the intuition was the constellation. By drawing in the sand while observing it in water, I felt ecstatically that the notion of time was being carried out through two seemingly inseparable and simultaneous activities.

Robert C. Morgan, Meta/Angle, 2008, acrylic/canvas, 22 X 28”
Robert C. Morgan, Meta/Angle, 2008, acrylic/canvas, 22 X 28”

Rail: Would you say that your concept of such structures in relation to constellation correspond to the work of Dorothea Rockburne?

Morgan: Yes and no. I felt that Rockburne’s work extended constructivism in terms of her folding and bending of paper and vellum according to her interests in mathematics and astronomy, but it was spatially different than mine. Hers was invested in the calculating space in terms of celestial bodies whereas mine was more in relation to earthbound formation. Besides, due to the ephemeral nature of my early performance pieces, I had to figure out a way of documenting them. For example, one piece I did at the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1972 involved various physical exercises in the gallery such as lifting weights and so on. From there on, I learned how to use the camera and became very interested in filmmaking. I remember doing a piece when I was a graduate student in, I believe, 1974 or ‘75 where I was filming these kids swimming in a pool while slowing moving the camera in the form of a helix. On other occasions, I would concentrate entirely on still frame allowing the movement to occur within the frame. A lot of the films had to do with construction, people that were either constructing or tearing down houses—anything that had to do with constructing and deconstructing. This was an idea that came back to me when I was in Korea on my Fulbright in 2005. It had a big influence on a lot of the work that was shown at Sideshow Gallery.

Rail: Have you seen many structuralist films by Hollis Frampton? Although he hated that term.

Morgan: Yes, but the more direct influence on my film was Michael Snow’s “Wavelength,” and some of Tony Conrad’s work. Snow I came to know later, and visited him a couple times in Toronto. The amazing Paul Sharits stayed once over night at my loft in Rochester. But, on the whole, I admired all those structuralist filmmakers.

Rail: How do you see Kaprow’s Happenings in relation to what you were doing?

Robert C. Morgan, Neruda/5, 2005, conte/acrylic/paper, 13 3/4 X 16 3/4
Robert C. Morgan, Neruda/5, 2005, conte/acrylic/paper, 13 3/4 X 16 3/4

Morgan: Kaprow figured out an extended form that by moving the work out of the limitation of gallery space, he was able to create works in the context of real time and real space. He wrote many wonderful essays, such as his three-part series,” The Education of the Un-Artist”, “The Real Experiment,” and so on. “Non-Theatrical Performance” (published in Artforum in 1976) was less an influence than a comfort. It gave a sense of permission for what I was doing, and I felt that Kaprow was one of the first artists who understood the differences between the work of public scale which he called “Happenings” and the work of intimate nature which he referred to as “Activities,” and the fact that he could move between and create works in either form. Kaprow was a very formidable figure in terms of my work and my attitude about art. There’s no question about that.

Rail: Similar to Kaprow’s Happenings and Activities, I felt that what actually ties your work together as a whole is a tension between geometry and gesture. But then there was a period that you stopped working in terms of making objects. This was also true of Kaprow, as he became more theoretical about performance. What were you doing then?

Morgan: The last works I made in the early ‘90sI were photographs of Renaissance paintings in which I layered gears and mechanical elements, wires and so forth, on top of photographed reproductions in black and white. I placed these elements at precise intervals as they were being exposed. In fact I had a show of them at Eric Stark Gallery in 1992. I mention that because, as you mentioned, I stopped working as an artist from ‘92 to 2004. But I never stopped working with the intention that I would not work again; I knew that at some point I would work again. However, during that time period I published nine books, the last two being Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003) and Victor Vaserely (2004). Toward the end of 2004 I resumed working, but my intention was not to go back where I left off in ‘92 but to go back to where I started. Do I began playing with the geometry in a different way, doing these Conte drawings while reading Pasolini’s poetry in Italian so I wrote fragments of his poems in Italian. From Pasolini I moved to Neruda where I did the same thing with his poems only in Spanish. The layering of the geometry over the writings—as I call them wedges—is my own attempt to construct a palimpsest — writing over writing—while at the same time concealing it with geometric blocks. That idea came from Manfredo Tafuri who taught at the architectural school in Venice. His book Architecture and Utopia especially influenced me. Tafuri thought of architectural history not as a linear progression nor as a dead academic subject, but rather as an open form for debate. The person who turned me on to that book was Dan Graham. Anyway, so the idea of this Neruda work, which is, as you pointed out, about both gesture and geometry, though it came to me intuitively.

Rail: The two opposing elements are, for the first time, being employed in your recent Neruda series where you combine the writing in conte in the background, which is gestural, and the layers of geometric forms, which are structural. What was the impulse behind this group of work? Are you referring to Neruda’s love poems?

Morgan: Primarily his Residencies on Earth.

Rail: Which includes a lot of surrealist poems and political manifestos!

Morgan: That’s right. Keep in mind I’m taking fragments and that’s something I started doing earlier in relation to swim manuals. I used that in my performance at Sideshow, which I read in French as a translation of an English text and vice versa. Like the fragments from Gauguin’s journal that I read in English, this overlay of translation and meaning is a form of palimpsest that I find very generative.
Rail: As for Pasolini poems, do you mean his Roman poems?

Morgan: Yes. One day I discovered that all three writers, Pasolini, Neruda, and Tafuri were Marxists, which may and may not have shown up in my work. I am not politically or ideological involved with Marxism. My curiosity comes from a distance, maybe even a coincidence, if this is possible. But the critique of Capital is interesting in that it so accurately defines the way investment works.

Rail: You spoke earlier about your strong attraction to Eastern philosophy, especially the Sung Dynasty, which was quite interesting in that it lasted for more than 300 years and was the only time in Chinese history where the positions in government were no longer held by the aristocrats, but were given to people with great education instead. I mean Literature and Art excelled, and this rise in culture coincided with Confucianism.

Morgan: Of course, the Sung Dynasty was the beginning of the literati in terms of the scholars who chose to focus their lives on mastery of art rather than political careers. What interested me is that there was no inhibition between being a scholar and being a painter. I also love the nature of the ideogram and the brush. When you put the first stroke down it can either become language or it can become painting—it can go either way. But, in the West, we don’t have that kind of ideographic reference so there is a compartmentalization or a separation between what is written and what is painted. I preferred the Eastern way because it was the way I understood myself and it was very encouraging for me to discover the painters and writers that were involved with this magnificent period in Chinese history. However, I tend to be critical of the idea that the theory is put in front of the work; that’s something that I have always resisted. I feel that even in the context of conceptual art, the theory should not be in front of the work; it should generate the spawning of ideas. In other words, what you are getting are ideas that perhaps even the artist was not consciously aware of, but, at the same time, they’re ideas. That was one of the reasons that I spent half a year as a Fulbright fellow in Gwangju (Korea), instead of spending my time in Seoul like most other fellows did, I went to the end of this peninsula, where many great musicians, dancers, potters, basket weavers, and calligraphers came from during 9th to the 13th centuries. Then it revived itself again during the 17th century. In Gwangju, I lived right in front of this great mountain called Mu Dung-san, and I would go there every weekend to meditate in the bamboo forest. I went to the actual pavilions where some of the Korean literati wrote their poems and made their paintings. Clearly, I wanted to take advantage of this. I went to some of the great Buddhist temples and I talked with the monks, I slept on the floor of the temples, I got drunk with the monks. It was absolutely an exhilarating experience for me, an experience that I wouldn’t mind repeating whether it is China or Indonesia. I must say that even though I am an American born I have always been slightly at odds with the culture of my own country. I am not particularly interested in sports; I’m not interested in material consumption, not television or other digital gadgets. I’m interested in art. The artists and writers that I’ve championed in my critical writings are people that I connect with as somehow being contrary to the status quo. When artists or writers go deeply within themselves, they become universal. I feel that Pollock and Rothko did that. So did Louise Nevelson. And Jean Genet. And Simone de Beauvoir. And Anais Nin. In spite of their challenges and difficulties there was this ability and this fortitude to really be artists and to stand apart from the overriding consumerism that I believe is an infestation in this culture.

Rail: I agree with you. Do you think that your new work, in which you utilize the Korean alphabet, is a personal synthesis of both calligraphic gesture and geometric structure at the same time?

Morgan: I certainly hope so. In fact, if you go back to “Acoustical Variations,” the horizontal stroke that lies above the center of the painting is my first Korean sign. My attraction to eastern culture has widened its possibilities ever since. The first Korean sign right there, the horizontal, it’s all right there. One reason that I am so attracted to this Hangul is because of exactly what you said.

Rail: How do you balance between writing and making art, especially now that you’ve just had two simultaneous shows?

Morgan: Well, whatever happens with the writings, I don’t think about it too much since everything that one does in life should follow a natural course. I do feel that my life has already changed from the experience of the two shows. I’m really in it for the long haul and I can say that I’m so excited by the work that I’m doing now as an artist.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2009

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