Date of Degree
Rose-Carol Washton Long
History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology
Robert Morris's oeuvre, unlike the work of most other so-called minimalist artists, is both stylistically and intellectually diverse. His range was broad: expressionist paintings, Duchamp-inspired objects, dances and performances, minimalist sculptures, large scale installations and sound environments, earth and land reclamation works, films and videos, and political acts against the museum, the labor economy, and the Vietnam war. The philosophical sources for Morris's art (he was a philosophy major at Reed College in the late-1950s) are equally rich: Herbert Marcuse, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, Jean Piaget, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Charles Sanders Peirce. As choreographer, writer of influential theoretical texts, and fine artist, Morris sharply questioned the pretensions of modernist art and culture.
Extending the discourse of art history, this dissertation exposes the complex relationship between Morris's work and the social and intellectual setting of the 1960s–a radical moment that witnessed a range of protest and dissent, from sexual liberation to the Vietnam war. Morris's archive and writings, most of which have never before been examined, reveal his close relationship to many of these causes, political ambitions ignored by a formalist art history and criticism committed to aesthetic purity and the social removal of "high art." Established readings of the minimalist movement center on more classical modernist sources such as the readymades of Duchamp, the phenomenological theories of Merleau-Ponty, and the formalist art of the Russian constructivists.
At least for Morris, however, Marcuse's call for the artist to reject modernism's repressive demands for stylistic unity served as an important means for liberating the artist from the limited institutional boundaries of the gallery and the museum. Functioning within the contexts of performance halls, advertising campaigns, land reclamation sites, and even the streets of New York City, Morris appealed to artists and their patrons to broaden the audience for advanced art. Extending from his earliest works of the late 1950s to his mature art of the mid-1970s, the dissertation represents a "test case" for understanding the avant-garde's intense questioning of the role of the artist and of art during a period of unprecedented social and cultural change.
Berger, Maurice, "The Politics of Experience: Robert Morris, Minimalism, and the 1960s" (1988). CUNY Academic Works.