The large-scale Robert Morris sculptures grouped in a bright room at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the members of the Panza Collection Initiative (PCI) told us, were there for one reason. Derelict, fragile, or compromised in some way, they were gathered as part of the PCI’s ambitious project to preserve and conserve the Guggenheim’s large holdings of Minimalist, Post-Minimalist, and Conceptual works, many acquired by the Guggenheim in 1991 and 1992 from Italian collector Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. What are the questions we face in considering the collection, preservation, and display of works borne out of the innovative artistic practices of the 1960s?
When we think of Morris’s large-form sculptures, it is easy enough to conjure them in the mind’s eye: L-beams, boxes, frames, and hovering platforms, especially as pictured in the well-known photographs of the Green Gallery and Dwan Gallery shows from the mid-1960s. But to say specifically what these works are made of is more difficult. Plywood, fiberglass, aluminum? Yet in looking at two iterations of Morris’s Untitled (Warped Bench), the difference in material is palpable: the later one (2004), made of painted plywood, has a crispness of edge lacking in its earlier (1965) fiberglass counterpart, a difference resulting from the exactness of facture possible with each material.
In front of Warped Bench, and only minutes into the discussion led by Jeffrey Weiss, Ted Mann, and Anne Wheeler, it was already becoming clear just how complicated the PCI’s task is, given the tangled web of historical and technical considerations relevant to Morris’s work. Some of the different strands of consideration quickly surfaced: the history of the work, the possibility of its re-fabrication, the role of the collector, the limits of the work’s conceptual tenets, the artist’s own statements about the work, and so on. But back to the sculpture. Even more noticeable than the contrast in precision between the corners of each Warped Bench were the black marks, scratches, and dents covering the earlier version’s surface—the residuum of years of use, storage, and display. On this point, the group posed the question of history: to what extent does the history accumulated by a specific sculpture matter, and at what point do the visible marks of that history compromise its potential for display? Should a work be preserved because it was the Warped Bench exhibited in the 1966 Dwan Gallery show? Or, as the artist granted as permissible from the outset of his practice, should it simply be refabricated?
Indeed, Panza did have some of Morris’s works refabricated, with the artist’s consent but without his participation. Raising the question, then, of Panza as collector—and of the limits of the work’s physical and conceptual life over time—does the fact that a work can simply be remade change the way we care for it? And, are there limits to the “history” that one allows to be inscribed on these works? In other words, what constitutes use, and what constitutes abuse?
Despite Morris’s assertion that there is no “original” object, how does one square the conceptual nature of the artist’s practice—in which any iteration of the object will do, often with slight but significant differences in size, medium, and color—with the material reality of the object at hand? Do we treat something as precious that was never meant to be so? Yet despite these conceptual parameters, history seems to seep in. Morris, interviewed on the occasion of the 1994 Guggenheim retrospective, cited memory as a “tangled, murky zone where phantasy and images, desire and loss, and wit and guilt reside.” In a consideration of the installation of his “Anti-Form” sculptures, he quoted Wittgenstein (“Does he know that it is memory because it is caused by something in the past? And how does he know what the past is?”), saying he “went by the photo in hand,” a photo, that is, of the 1960s display.
As we stood in front of Untitled (Corner Piece) (1964), Weiss brought up Morris’s steadfast resistance to the oft-asked question about the specific shade of gray that one should use to paint a newly fabricated sculpture; the artist’s answer is usually along the lines of “whatever you think.” Corner Piece, made of plywood, is one of the works about which the PCI has interviewed Morris regarding its possible re-fabrication at some future date. Throughout the project, his responses haven’t always been consistent. Over time Morris, now in his eighty-first year, has certainly shifted his ideas about the permanence of the work, which raises the question not of history, as such, but of nostalgia. Many of the earliest works, executed by the artist himself, were destroyed unceremoniously, but the later ones were created by the hands of others. At this date, what would it mean to refabricate a work in a more (or less) durable material, such as fiberglass, as recently mentioned by Morris in relation to Corner Piece? And finally, documented statements and histories are the stuff of which art history is made, but what does it mean—as institution, care-taker, and “authoritative voice”—to interview an artist in such specific circumstances? In asking for the artist’s perspective, how do we frame the terms of the responses we receive? And how do we deal with any resulting inconsistencies?
I frame these thoughts as a series of questions because there is certainly no one right answer. The PCI’s challenge is to develop a series of guiding principles, rather than a single conclusion, that set forth a range of limits for treating the work: principles sensitive both to the works and to Morris’s articulations about how to deal with them. The questions posed above are among the factors constituting the framework from which the PCI will formulate its suggestions for preservation. They also call for a new methodology—one that is thoughtful about its consideration of the work itself and the contextual documentation that surrounds it, and one that has the flexibility to account for a multiplicity of situations and decisions.