Robert Morris

Untitled

1967–8, remade 2008

Artist
Robert Morris born 1931
Medium
Felt
Dimensions
Overall display dimensions variable
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Tate Americas Foundation 2013
Reference
T14224

Summary

Fixed to the wall at a height of approximately 2.5 metres, Untitled is an abstract sculpture made of thick black felt that looms above the viewer and tumbles forward onto the floor. Morris made long diagonal slits in the surface of a large felt sheet, cutting in such a way as to keep it intact as a single piece of fabric. To install the sculpture, handfuls of the felt are pushed through a hidden wall bracket from which the entangled ribbons spill over and down, assuming sprawling new shapes each time it is shown. Explaining how to display Untitled correctly in a 2008 email to Tate, Morris instructed technicians to ‘spread and adjust the bottom pile of tangled felt according to taste (!) or photo’ (Robert Morris, email to Tate curator Mark Godfrey, 10 February 2008, Tate Acquisition File, Robert Morris, A32433).

Morris had been working with manufacturing materials such as lead and plywood while living in New York City during the 1960s. In 1967 he became interested in the sculptural possibilities of softer materials. He experimented with different kinds of felt before settling in summer 1967 on a heavy, industrial variety that had the necessary balance of flexibility and stiffness, and which became a recurrent feature of his practice. The original version of Untitled was exhibited in 1968 at the Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris, but was apparently lost or damaged soon after. The version in Tate’s collection was remade by the artist in 2008 and acquired in 2013. Although Morris has referred informally to this series as ‘tangles’, the work has no title (Morris quoted in an email from Barbara Bertozzi Castelli to Mark Godfrey, 24 July 2009, Tate Acquisition File, Robert Morris, A32433).

Morris first attracted international attention with a series of essays published in the American art journal Artforum in 1966 which established him as a leading theorist of the emerging minimalist movement. Works such as the mirrored cubes of Untitled 1965 (Tate T01532) present the ‘simpler forms that create strong gestalt sensations’, he had advocated (Morris, ‘Notes on Sculpture, Part 1’, reprinted in Morris 1993, p.6). However, Morris soon moved beyond these ideas. His felt works were first exhibited at Leo Castelli’s New York Gallery in April 1968, and were accompanied by an article by Morris in Artforum, ‘Anti Form’, which expressed many of the concepts Morris was exploring in the early felt pieces and became a manifesto of postminimalism. Inspired by the way that Jackson Pollock’s (1912–1956) drip technique had exploited chance and the fluidity of paint, Morris relinquished control of the final form of Untitled and drew attention instead to the supple plasticity of his material. In a 1995 interview he commented that ‘if there had been a fourth Fate perhaps she would have been Entropy – the one who tangles the thread: a kind of goddess of antiform … antihumanism personified’ (quoted in Christophe Cherix, Robert Morris: Estampes et Multiples 1952–1998, Geneva 1999, p.53). Morris’s later felt sculptures were often given more defined shapes.

Although non-figurative, critics have often pointed to an anthropomorphic quality in Morris’s felts, whose sagging forms and wrinkled surfaces seem reminiscent of human flesh. The curator Thomas W. Sokolowski argued that despite their formal indeterminacy, the felt works exert a strong physical presence through a ‘deviously sensuous deployment of an otherwise recalcitrant material’ (Sokolowski, ‘Foreword’, in Grey Art Gallery and Study Center 1989, unpaginated). Later, these works became case studies for the influential notion of the ‘formless’ in art developed by critics Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois in the 1990s (see Krauss and Bois, Formless: A User’s Guide, New York 1997, pp.978).

Further reading
Robert Morris: The Felt Works, exhibition catalogue, Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, New York 1989.
Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, Cambridge, Massachusetts 1993.
Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1994.

Hilary Floe
May 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Display caption

In the summer of 1967, Morris began to purchase rectangular sheets of industrial felt and cut into them with a series of straight lines. When suspended, the strips of felt would tumble from their own weight. Morris wanted to question the fixed geometric shapes of minimalist sculpture. As he wrote in his essay ‘Anti-Form’, the alternative was to let materials determine their own shape. This meant relinquishing control of the final appearance: each time this work is displayed, its precise arrangement will change.

Gallery label, January 2016

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