Robert Morris is represented in the Panza holdings by more than two dozen works dating from the 1960s and 1970s. During that period, Morris’s sculpture consisted primarily of large geometric forms produced of plywood, fiberglass, aluminum, and steel, and a series of works in cut felt. Derived from the construction industry, these materials were foreign to conventional sculpture making before 1960. Moreover, the works demonstrated an additional historical departure in that they abandoned the aesthetic notion of an “original” sculptural object. Within this body of work, there is no original per se; instead, a given work is understood to be replicable, each iteration being no more or less authentic than another.
Morris’s works were intended to heighten our physical and perceptual experience of objects in actual space. Placed directly on the floor and scaled for a one-to-one relation of the object to the body of the beholder, the sculptures are blank in character and show no refinements of craft. Instead, level of fabrication is sufficient to produce a clean, stable object, and nothing more. Works were produced only when required for an exhibition; if unsold, they were generally dismantled or discarded. At first, working with plywood and then fiberglass, Morris produced these large objects himself, a process that, for fiberglass, included mold making and casting. But the physical toll of working with fiberglass finally motivated the artist to delegate fabrication to a professional shop. In addition, as the demand to show Morris’s work rose, the artist came to permit the fabrication of “exhibition copies,” which were executed according to his instructions but often without his personal supervision.
These conditions prevailed throughout the period of Panza’s interest in Morris’s work, which he collected when it was new. In a number of cases, Panza bought works out of exhibitions. Some objects were shipped directly to him in Varese; others took the form of instructions or proposals to be executed there. The artist rarely supervised Panza fabrications, and the quality of the results greatly varied. In addition, works in the Panza collection, which were sometimes displayed in multiple exhibitions, have suffered various damages and now show many signs of wear.
Good fabrications, faulty fabrications, and objects that are largely unexhibitable due to condition: this is the range of works by Morris that entered the Guggenheim Museum when it acquired Panza’s collection of Minimal and Post-Minimal art in 1991. As a result, the museum is presented with a number of questions regarding preservation and display of the work.
For our case study devoted to Robert Morris, the Panza Initiative team assembled an extensive record of archival material. This includes documentation of Panza’s collecting history and Panza’s correspondence with the artist, as well as other extensive correspondence between Morris and the museum from the time of his 1994 Guggenheim retrospective exhibition. In addition, we have compiled a full exhibition and fabrication history for each work in the collection along with a comprehensive photographic record. Close examination of most of the works was also conducted, with an analysis of the current state of every object. This was done in part with the participation of the artist himself, who agreed to speak to us about the practical, historical, and philosophical considerations regarding his fabrication practice overall. Those interviews represent a significant addition of information to the historical record. Our database also includes all relevant secondary literature on this period of the artist’s work, along with published interviews.
As with our examination of the work of Dan Flavin, the Morris project culminated in a two-day meeting of the Panza Initiative’s Advisory Committee, which is composed of conservators, curators, and historians from other institutions. For this conference, which occurred in March 2012, we installed twelve large works by the artist. The entire event was held in the exhibition space, where we engaged in a lengthy consideration of the archival evidence, the artist’s interviews, and, above all, the physical state of the objects themselves. A record of the two-day proceedings, which has now been compiled, will deeply inform our deliberations concerning the future of the works.
Of particular interest to the project team and the Advisory Committee has been the artist’s sometimes liberal approach to criteria and standards with respect to refabrication. His consideration of these issues is, to be sure, grounded in obvious historical and practical conditions: which medium was specific to the work when it was first produced and which medium is now thought to best serve the specific structural and aesthetic needs of the work, regardless of historical considerations. Yet, within that context, there remains a margin for multiple options. That is to say that, according to the original terms of the work, its parameters have always implied the potential for changing determinations over time, and, moreover, that Morris’s evolving thoughts on treatment versus refabrication continue to reflect this.
One work in particular from the collection, Warped Bench, demonstrates many of the issues that have been raised. Panza acquired the first iteration of the work, which was produced by the artist himself in fiberglass for an exhibition at the Virginia Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles, in 1966. Over time this object has accumulated dirt, scuffs, and other damages that compromise the appearance of its surface, making it inadvisable to show it. Such problems cannot be solved through cleaning, which, in this case, is largely impossible. But treatment toward restoration would require patching, sanding, and repainting, a process that would efface the original surface. One question being asked, then, concerns the status of this object. Should it be preserved as is, an artifact that still possesses useful historical information about the work’s early appearance? Furthermore, in choosing to make a new fabrication of Warped Bench for display, another question arises: is the work to be remade in fiberglass, the original medium, or plywood, which Morris has come to feel is probably better suited to the precise execution of this particular form? Indeed, the museum is already in possession of a plywood version of Warped Bench, which was produced for an exhibition in 2004 but was never actually shown. The plywood copy was authorized by Morris, although he only recently saw it for the first time.
Extrapolating from the specific circumstances of Warped Bench, we can raise one further concern. If the museum seeks to establish a single, “authorized” iteration of a work from this period, it will fix the work, perhaps permanently, in that form. This would effectively erase any future ambiguity regarding the work’s material identity. But doing so would risk neglecting the conceptual capacity of Morris’s work to tolerate iteration over time. If we choose to maintain the potential of the work in that regard, then, as we determine how to proceed with the fabrication of a new object, we will also seek to establish standards according to which other versions can be produced in the future.
In so doing, however, still other complications emerge. These relate less to problems of conservation than to matters of curatorial choice. If multiple versions of a work exist, for example, are they all equally viable? And, if so, according to what criteria do we choose to show one or the other? We might be presenting Morris’s work in a historical context; in that case, failing the existence of an early example, a refabrication in the original medium would appear to be called for. For an exhibition in which historical specificity is less significant, however, should the original medium simply be overlooked?
Additional concerns pertain to installation. Some of Morris’s work of the 1960s appeared together in groups for the purposes of a gallery show. In such instances, the works were all produced at once, and were therefore fairly homogeneous in appearance. Over time, however, as objects age or are remade, homogeneity of this kind no longer obtains. Can one imagine creating an entire group of exhibition copies in order to approximate this aspect of the history of the work?
Questions regarding installation also extend to individual works, such as Stadium. This is a large work in steel (Panza originally acquired the first version in fiberglass, but the work was refabricated by the Guggenheim in steel at Morris’s behest in the early 1990s). The work, which first appeared in an exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1967, was conceived to be variable, its individual elements to be reconfigured–according to a restricted set of possible variations–while on view. This principle applied to most of the work in the 1967 show. Over time, however, Stadium has repeatedly been shown in one form only; hence the title, an unofficial designation that has become routine. Moving ahead, it seems clear that in future exhibitions, the variability of the work should sometimes be engaged.
Indeed, permutation of this kind corresponds to issues of replication, of changing mediums, and of varying standards of display: For all that Morris’s early objects appear to be strict or rigorous in their geometry and rule-based in their conditions and terms, a striking degree of mutability must also be taken into account.