Rio (with Palms) [Las Vegas] 2000 is a large square painting featuring an arrangement of vertical and diagonal red lines that creates an irregular grid pattern across the surface of the canvas. The rhomboid and triangular shapes created by this red latticework have been filled with single colours, including mauve, blue, and lime green, although the most predominant colour used to fill these shapes is black. These geometric forms get smaller and thinner towards the bottom-left corner where the red lines become more compressed in a way that conveys a sense of vertiginous height, as though the grid represents a wall extending down beyond the picture plane. Made with household gloss paint, the work is characterised by an extremely smooth surface. It was painted by American-British artist Sarah Morris at a studio at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien gallery in Berlin during a fellowship she held there from 1999 to 2000 awarded by the American Academy in Berlin.
Although Rio (with Palms) [Las Vegas] is composed of seemingly abstract forms, its title – which refers to the high-rise Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas – suggests it represents something of the building. The painting’s sleek, even surface and the sharp lines of its geometry (created using thick masking tape to section off areas of the canvas) evoke the hotel’s dark, tinted glass façade, which is marked by long strips of red and blue neon lighting, while the blocks of green in the bottom-left corner might allude to the palm trees that stand in front of the building and which are mentioned in the title.
This work relates to Morris’s broad interest in urban architecture and forms of commercial design in particular, about which Morris has made site-specific installations and films as well as paintings. As the artist said in 1999, ‘I’m more interested in corporate hotel design than Le Corbusier although you can’t get one without the other’ (‘Sarah Morris Interviewed by Michael Tarantino and Rob Bowman’, in Museum of Modern Art Oxford 1999, unpaginated). In 1997, after completing a two-year series of billboard-sized paintings each dominated by a single word, Morris began a series titled Midtown, inspired by the façades of New York’s skyscrapers, which features paintings with all-over grid patterns and glossy surfaces similar to this work.
Rio (with Palms) [Las Vegas] is part of a series of works on Las Vegas made by Morris between 1998 and 2001, which explores the colours and geometric forms of the city’s hotels, casinos, roads and neon signage. The series includes the film AM/PM 1999 in which the Rio hotel also appears, shot at night with its red and blue lighting prominent. For critic and curator Jan Winkelmann a ‘semiotics of surface’ defines Morris’s work, as the high-rise façades she depicts ‘function as symbols of power and prosperity’, but ‘suggest no depth whatsoever’ (Jan Winkelmann, ‘A Semiotics of Surface’, in Museum of Modern Art Oxford 1999, unpaginated).
An early precedent for the geometric forms in works such as Rio (with Palms) [Las Vegas], and in particular for how grid patterns are emphasised and manipulated by Morris, may be found in the abstract paintings of the Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), in which fields of primary colours sit within black and white grids (see, for example, Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42, Tate T00648). Morris’s later series Dulles (Capital) 2001 (Tate P78599) contains nine prints depicting various grid formations that when displayed together (in a three by three format) form one larger grid pattern.
Rio (with Palms) [Las Vegas] was first shown in July 2000 at the White Cube gallery in east London as part of Morris’s solo show Rumjungle. In 2001 it became the first work by Morris acquired by Tate.
Sarah Morris: Modern Worlds, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, Leipzig and Dijon 1999.
Hybrids: International Contemporary Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate Liverpool, London 2001, pp.34–7, reproduced p.36.
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, ‘To Sit with the Speed Addict’, Parkett, no.61, 2001, pp.96–101.
Supported by Christie’s.