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Morris made this film forty-eight hours before the opening of his solo exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1971. Organised jointly by the late critic and curator, David Sylvester (1924-2001) and Tate Keeper of Exhibitions and Education Michael Compton, the exhibition was initially planned to be a mid-career retrospective of the American artist, whose minimalist sculpture and neo-Dada works of the 1960s were highly acclaimed. However, rather than producing a retrospective exhibition, the artist proposed an exhibition that was an artwork in itself: a sequence of sculptural arrangements that would run through the South Duveen, the Octagon and the North Duveen, each gallery representing a different type of interaction between objects and audience. The objects were to be constructed of materials, like scrap metal or shutter board, which could be recycled. In the event, the first space contained passive objects such as weights on ropes which visitors were invited to pull or drag, the next contained arrangements that were mutually interactive such as a large pipe which people could enter and roll back and forth. The final space contained immovable objects such as ramps and platforms that challenged people to move around and on them in any way possible.
Morris shot the fifteen minute film in a single evening. It features a naked young woman (Jill Purce, an artist and later a voice healer and author) and two clothed men (the artist and an unknown man) interacting slowly and solemnly with some of the sculptural objects. A giant section of pipe opens the film, rolling across the frame as it is propelled by the young woman. After several long shots of her, seen from behind, pushing it towards the wall, she is shown crouched inside it, rocking back and forth. It later appears rotating with Morris spread-eagled inside it. The naked female body features again, rolling a large wooden sphere inside the pipe and along the floor. Purce is seen lying next to a hemisphere under a large sheet of wood, balanced on the flat surface of the hemisphere, which she appears to be manipulating slowly over her body. The ball is filmed repeatedly rolling down wooden tracks towards the wall and rocking between two wooden sloping structures. The unknown man walks up one of these and Morris grasps ropes lying on the slopes’ surfaces. A hand moves mysteriously around an unidentifiable rectangular object. The participants’ faces are never visible, thus emphasising the connection between sculpture and (female) body.
Morris trained in theatre and experimental dance with Yvonne Rainer (born 1934) in the 1950s. In his work of the 1960s he sought to transcend the basic object-nature of sculpture, focussing instead on artistic process and audience experience. One of his first sculptural objects, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making 1961 (Seattle Museum of Art), is a wooden box containing a tape recording of all the sounds, such as hammering, generated by the process of making it. Untitled 1965, 1971 (Tate T01532), comprises four mirrored cubes and demonstrates the artist’s principle that perception of the work alters and is determined by the movement of the body. As the viewer walks around the four cubes, their mirrored surfaces produce complex and shifting interactions between the gallery and the spectator. Other works, such as the choreographed performance Site 1965 executed with the artist Carolee Schneemann (born 1939), emphasise physical action in the process of artistic creation, as well as confronting gender issues in a reference to Edouard Manet’s famous painting of the naked prostitute, Olympia 1863 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). David Sylvester has expressed his experience of Morris’s sculptures which, for him, evoke:
the kind of feelings that one may feel in front of humanist art, of figure sculpture ... one is very conscious of oneself standing there. One feels very conscious of every nerve in one’s body from top to toe, one feels sensation in one’s muscles and one’s shoulder blades ... One feels oneself very intensely and one feels one’s scale in relation to that of the work. And one feels too as if one’s scale were changing, sometimes becoming larger, sometimes becoming smaller. Exactly as one might feel with certain classical sculpture.
(Quoted in Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, p.261.)
Visitors to Morris’s Tate exhibition did not respond to the works with the quiet solemnity anticipated by the artist and curators. Instead, they started swinging weights above their heads and there are numerous tales of people falling awkwardly from wooden beams, rollers, ramps, a tight rope and a rolling ball. The noise at the opening was said to have been deafening and Tate records hold detailed lists of the injuries sustained. Four days into the show, sufficient personal injury had been incurred – with ambulances being called in and a first aid unit being erected inside the Tate – that the Director, Norman Reid, decided to close the exhibition. The interior installation was replaced with retrospective works from outside, and the exhibition reopened in a different form. Neo Classic is significant as a document of this historical event.
Robert Morris Exhibition of Works, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1971
David Sylvester, Tate Magazine, Centenary Issue, Tate Extra, summer 1997, no.12
David Sylvester, Interviews with American Artists, London 2001, pp.252-71