Morning Star Evening Star
June 26–August 29, 2008
The exhibition Morning Star Evening Star at Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers London presents a new body of work by the American artist Robert Morris whose groundbreaking oeuvre ranges from minimalist sculpture to conceptual art and performance. This new series of sculptures which originates from a period of 27 years consists of four wall-mounted reliefs entitled Morning Terror, Evening Terror, Normal Terror and Standard Terror. Like monuments for the victims of the ‘war on terror’, Morris’ timely sculptures can be seen as modern cenotaphs, public monuments erected in the memory of victims of war and other political disasters. A look at the dates of production, 1981 – 1987 – 2008, discloses the political climate in which these works were made: Ronald Reagan won the U.S. presidency in 1981 introducing a conservative government which by 1987 was highly criticised and weakened by the Iran-Contra affair leading to a regime change in 1989. The works were finally finished this year in a time which again is marked by people’s widespread dissatisfaction with the American invasion of Iraq. Taking into account the time frame in which these works developed this exhibition can be interpreted as an ongoing critique of U.S. politics and its global impact.
At first, the act of dividing terror into different categories, ‘morning’, ‘evening’, ‘normal’ and ‘standard’ seems absurd: how can the feeling of terror, an immediate and overwhelming emotion, be classified into specific types or even hierarchies? By differentiating between individual qualities of the feeling of terror, Morris manages to transform its abstract character into a palpable, real experience. The centerpiece of this exhibition is Standard Terror, a monumental American flag which can barely be contained in its broken frame. The latter consists of fiberglass casts of pieces of outdated weapons and discarded machinery, outstretched arms, organic matter, and hands scratching through this deadly material. Referring to the torture method known as ‘waterboarding’, Morris also included a black oak bench and two water buckets covered with lead sheeting. In 2007 waterboarding led to a political scandal in the U.S. when the press reported that the CIA had waterboarded extrajudicial prisoners. Through the use of these overtly symbolic objects the artist creates a visual language, which oscillates between figuration and abstraction, word and image. In Evening Terror the wings of an eagle, the national emblem of the U.S. and a symbol of freedom, are spread over the sculpture like a messenger of death. The upper relief has become visibly denser, it is filled with bones, skulls, fists clutching weapons and discarded bits of machinery. The reversed American flag made of thick black felt in the lower part of the panel is not flapping in the wind in its usual heroic way but seems to carry the weight of guilt on its shoulders.
In the second room Morning Terror focuses on the subject of the child, a theme which has been of interest to Morris throughout his career. The upper part shows skeletons, faces of adults and babies emerging like death masks out of a white background. Four articles of children’s clothing are suspended on a white steel rod which stretches across the panel. The alleged innocence of this image quickly collapses as the clothing is highly codified: the little girl’s dress symbolises the innocent losses of war whereas the hooded capes refer to the iconic photographs of torture victims in Abu Ghraib. The words Morning Terror appear in the lower part of the panel which is framed by two small wooden chairs covered with black lead sheeting. Normal Terror combines elements of Morning Terror and Evening Terror. In front of the dark relief, a silver and gold dress made of sheet lead hangs from the top of the frame.
The political urgency of Morning Star Evening Star does not override the formal rigour and the art historical references manifested in the work. The sculptures are deeply informed by the legacy of historical sculpture such as Renaissance church portals and particularly Auguste Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. The American flag is a reference to the work of Jasper Johns who was an important early influence for Morris. The painterly touches of Normal Terror and Evening Terror produced by using encaustic, which was first introduced by Johns, further indicates Morris’ roots in post-Abstract Expressionist art. This exhibition demonstrates that Morris’ work, while being fragmented, diverse and stubbornly resilient to art historical categorisations, is deeply rooted in the artist’s own vocabulary. Already in the mid 1960s Morris created lead reliefs experimenting with the flexibility of the relatively soft material. Morris’ interest in the relationship between the optic and the haptic, the eye and the hand lead to a number of plaster casts, such as Untitled (Fist) (1963) which re-surface in the Terror reliefs. The works in this exhibition represent a shift in Morris’ artistic oeuvre which can be traced back to the late 1970s when the artist who until then was primarily associated with minimalism, performance and neo-dada returned to the concept of the frame and the relief in the Preludes and Hypernerotomachia series. At this time Morris’ interest in political engagement, encouraged through his experiences as a soldier in the Korean war in the 1950s, and the disillusionment of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, resulted in the post-modern use of figuration. Explicit references to political disasters such as WWII are subject to Morris’ Investigations paintings of the 1990s, which use a direct representational language also manifested in the work of the current show.