Robert Morris’s Untitled is a significant, late-career, wall-mounted, monochrome sculpture from the mid-1990s, created by the artist using his instantly recognizable and highly distinctive choice of heavy industrial felt, a material Morris first started working with in the late 1960s. Intriguing, challenging soft sculpture felt pieces such as the present example are among Morris’s most well-known and successful art works. The artist produced the present work by making long, horizontal slashes directly through and across most of the surface area of a large section of textile, constructing a work that—because of its shape and malleable structure—will when it is displayed assume different appearances, rather than one fixed, unchanging guise. Fluidity and flexibility are essential characteristics of the current work and of the process-oriented genre that Morris pioneered. In this key respect, Morris’s felt pieces are in marked contrast with sculptures made of durable materials. “Among those nontraditional materials used by the artist, perhaps the most interesting was industrial felt. Between 1967 and 1996 Morris produced a remarkable number of works that employed industrial felt as a sculptural medium. Whether rolled on the ground like a carpet ready to be stored (exhibited as ‘raw material’), or piled up, stacked up, hung from the wall, with or without cut slits…Morris’s felt works reveal his interest in the property of the material, the role of gravity, and the idea of liberating form through chance. …Morris, explaining his choice of felt as his working medium, maintains that ‘felt has anatomical associations; it relates to the body—it’s skin-like. The way it takes form, with gravity, stress, balance and the kinesthetic sense, I liked all that.’” (R. Morris and N. Tsouti-Schillinger, Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993-2007, Durham, N.C., 2008, pp. 7-8).
Morris designed Untitled to hang suspended by grommets attached to the top left and right corners of the piece. The heavy nature of the material, together with the downward pull of gravity, lends the work a flowing, physical quality. “Resting and hanging evoke different responses, and the tension produced by a form which does both at the same time is provocative. …Space and material are equally crucial, so that the structure of (the felt pieces) is indistinguishable from the space in which the piece(s) exist” (M. Tucker, Robert Morris, New York, 1970 p. 38). Early in his artistic career, Morris became intrigued by the idea that a work of art could be a record of the very process of making art. A founding figure of the art movement that came to be known as Process Art, Morris employed actions such as cutting, dropping or stacking ordinary, common materials to achieve random or varying effects. The artist emphasizes the mercurial nature of these artworks, which would assume different forms every time they were installed in a new location. Reflecting the “process” focus of the current work, the artist’s handling of the pliant material allows it to assume, entirely by chance, whatever shape develops as a result of the interaction of the qualities of the felt, the artist’s actions and the pull of gravity on the heavy material. Because of the inherently variable nature of the soft material—altering with the forces of time, gravity and context where it is displayed—works such as Untitled allow the artist to explore themes of chance, temporality and ephemerality. Untitled reflect Morris’s fascination with sculptural forms that cannot be predetermined when presented for display.
The artist’s decision to begin using his signature felt material starting in the late 1960s diverged dramatically from traditional sculptural practice, with its preference for hard or rigid substances such as bronze or marble. Through this choice, Morris was reacting both to classical ideas about what sculpture should be, and also to what he interpreted as the object-focused orientation of Minimalism, an art movement Morris himself helped to establish. By choosing to work with common, everyday materials, the origins of Morris’s art had affinities with complementary avant-garde movements of the 1960s, such as the Italian Arte Povera. The artist’s decision to work with free-form, changeable materials allowed him the opportunity to deconstruct the conventional qualities that make up an art object, a pursuit that has been a goal of his throughout the mature phase of his artistic career. This “anti-form” approach (the term comes from an influential essay authored by Morris for Artforum) placed Morris in the company of fellow artists Eva Hesse, Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman.
In creating works such as the current example, Morris strives to make art whose meaning will be independent of its context, instead relying on individual environmental circumstances and allowing for each particular viewer’s reaction to determine meaning, thus making his art experiential, art objects to be understood intuitively by each viewer. Morris art requires viewers to perceive the arrangement and scale of the sculptural forms themselves, to physically move around his sculptures and register how perception shifts as one moves in relation to the work. Morris has striven to encourage the viewer to have a pure engagement with the object, without attempting to impose meaning from outside the viewer’s own experience of the artwork. “Morris’s works show us, rather than tells us, about ourselves and the world. The act of showing is a process, slowly unfolding and revealing itself to us—a process infinitely more satisfactory than the didacticism of telling” (M. Tucker, Robert Morris, New York, 1970, p. 55).
A polymath sculptor, painter, choreographer, video artist, installation artist, writer, critic and theorist, Robert Morris was a central figure in most of the challenging, influential, groundbreaking avant-garde art movements of the 1960s-1970s, including Minimalism, Performance Art, Land Art, and Process Art. His interdisciplinary work encompasses objects, sculptures, drawing, performance art, film and writing. His strategies of using industrial materials, emphasis on each viewer’s subjective experience of the sculpture-object, and handling of the materials to introduce chance into the display of the sculpture, has influenced both contemporaries working in the Minimalist vein, such as Donald Judd, Fred Sandback and Jo Baer, and also younger artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres.