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Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993-2007

Have I Reasons: Work and Writings, 1993-2007

by Robert Morris


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Robert Morris, a leading figure in postwar American art, is best known as a pioneer of minimalist sculpture, process art, and earthworks. Yet Morris has resisted affiliation with any one movement or style. An extraordinarily versatile artist, he has produced dances, performance pieces, prints, paintings, drawings, and installations, working with materials including plywood, felt, dirt, aluminum, steel mesh, fiberglass, and encaustic. Throughout his career, Morris has written influential critical essays, commenting on his own work as well as that of other artists, and exploring through text many of the theoretical concerns addressed in his artwork-about perception, materiality, space, and the process of artmaking. Have I Reasons presents seventeen of Morris's essays, six of which have never been published before. Written over the past fifteen years, the essays, along with the volume's many illustrations, provide an invaluable record of the recent thought of a major American artist.

The writings are arranged chronologically, beginning with "Indiana Street," a vivid autobiographical account of the artist's early years in Kansas City, Missouri. Have I Reasons includes reflections on Morris's own site-specific installations; transcripts of seminars he conducted in conjunction with exhibitions; and the textual element of The Birthday Boy, the two-screen video-and-sound piece he installed at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence, Italy, on the occasion of the five hundredth anniversary of Michelangelo's David. Essays range from original interpretations of Cézanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings and Jasper Johns' early work to engagements with one of Morris's most significant interlocutors, the philosopher Donald Davidson. Have I Reasons conveys not only Morris's enduring deep interest in philosophy and issues of resemblance and representation but also his more recent turn toward directly addressing contemporary social and political issues such as corporate excess and preemptive belligerence.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822342922
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/14/2008
Pages: 290
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

Robert Morris (b. 1931) is Distinguished Professor of Art History at Hunter College, The City University of New York. His art has been shown around the world, including in retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato. He has been widely published in periodicals including Artforum, Critical Inquiry, Art in America, and October. His essays from the 1960s through the 1980s are collected in Continuous Project Altered Daily.

Nena Tsouti-Schillinger is an art historian and art critic. She is the author of Robert Morris and Angst.

Robert Morris (b. 1931) is Distinguished Professor of Art History at Hunter College, The City University of New York. His art has been shown around the world, including in retrospectives at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci in Prato. He has been widely published in periodicals including Artforum, Critical Inquiry, Art in America, and October. His essays from the 1960s through the 1980s are collected in Continuous Project Altered Daily.

Nena Tsouti-Schillinger is an art historian and art critic. She is the author of Robert Morris and Angst.

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Copyright © 2008 Nena Tsouti-Schillinger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4292-2

Chapter One


Daddy, I know I will look back on this time and remember it as the good old days. -MY SEVEN-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER ON A CLOUDLESS JULY AFTERNOON

From the mid-1930s to the end of World War II we lived on Indiana Street in Kansas City, Missouri. All the houses on the west side of the 5200 block were single-story bungalows set above the street on steep terraces into which single-car garages had been excavated. All these houses were similar but differed in color and minor details, stairs, porches, eaves, etc. They were probably built in the early 1920s when the city expanded tremendously after World War I. Our house, 5208, was the second from the corner.

I remember clearly that moment in 1935 (I was four), sitting on the warm spring ground and squinting up through the bright sun watching two moving men strain up the porch steps with a red mohair sofa and chairs. The house was small: a living room, dining room, kitchen and breakfast nook, two little bedrooms, and a bathroom. It had a full basement and a cellar door in back.

My parents were both twenty-nine when we moved to Indiana Street in the depths of the Great Depression.

The house on the north side of us, the first on the block, was painted a bright yellow and surrounded by flower beds of roses and hollyhocks. Soon after we moved in, a sturdy wire fence marked off this yellow house from the trespasses of my sister and myself. But mostly, I presume, I was the reason for the fence. A few years later this fence provided an excellent barrier for my first pole-vaulting efforts as well as commando-type assaults over imaginary enemy lines. Mr. and Mrs. Chastain lived in the yellow house along with their married daughter and husband. During the war a girl in her twenties, who had come from the country like so many others to work for the war effort in the city, also lived there. I never knew where all of these people slept in such a small house. Mr. Chastain was "elderly," as my parents called him. He drove a pristine black Model-A Ford coupe to work downtown at the Union Station where he ran an elevator. He dressed in bib overalls and wore a trainman's striped hat and red bandanna like the engineers who drove the steam engines.

I had little to do with the older Chastains. Both were always concerned about the state of their flower beds and it seems to me in retrospect that I was probably viewed as a menace to their lifestyle. Their daughter, Willa, was married to a man of French extraction, Frank Liquier, a dark, gravel-voiced fellow of stern demeanor who had been partially crippled by polio. Frank worked as a sign painter and walked with an abnormal gait. His stiff legs were so bent inward at the knees that there was no clearance between them. Consequently, walking involved a series of staccato lurchings or swivelings of the upper torso in order to generate enough force to get one leg past the other. His elbows flung out to the sides for balance, Frank lurched now to the left and now to the right, moving forward one slow step at a time. I never saw him with a cane or crutches, and he walked in this effortful fashion every day to and from the streetcar stop four long blocks away. I would watch him coming home at about 6 p.m., his body swiveling and pivoting down the street. Somehow he negotiated the steep stairs in the terrace. I remember his impassive, dark face with the bluish shadow of his beard covered in sweat as he reached the top step.

Frank built a boat in the garage that was set into the terrace. This was a motor launch and filled the entire garage. He always worked at night on the boat and on summer evenings I would loiter around the garage watching him. In the dark cavelike garage he worked in the dim glow of a single mechanic's "trouble light." Perhaps the project had something to do with how crowded the house above the garage must have been. He was generally silent but answered my questions carefully when I asked about the construction of the craft. He explained that he had put 3,000 brass screws into the boat. At the time, the summer of 1939, I myself was trying rather unsuccessfully to build a balsawood Stuka dive bomber in the cramped bedroom I shared with my sister. Frank explained that he had bought a small lot on Lake Lotawanna east of the city and was also building a house and would one day move there with Willa and the boat. I know that eventually they moved to the lake with the boat, but I have no recollection of when it was. What is most fixed in my memory is Frank's implacable will, seen in his daily walk of eight blocks and the relentless nighttime construction of the boat, his body squeezed between its hull and the stone walls of the garage. I never knew if this sense of bodily compression, the one knee pressed against the other with every step, the hull of the boat pushing against his torso (not to mention the absence of space in a tiny bungalow shared by five people), was finally relieved on the day he launched his boat onto the calm expanse of the lake's surface.

The house next door to us on the south was in my estimation a fraction smaller than ours. But I can recall no detail to substantiate such a judgment. Perhaps because it was occupied by only two people, as opposed to the four in our house and the five in the house to the north, it seemed smaller, illogical as that may be. The Vaurdamans lived there, Bill and Velma. Bill was a swarthy burly man in his early thirties with a chiseled profile. I thought at the time that he looked a little like the drawings of Superman in the comics. His wife was slim and tall. Bill worked on elevators, I was told. This is the only fact I ever learned about them. They kept to themselves and mixed little with the other people in the neighborhood, most of whom had children that played together and drew the parents into relationships of one sort or another. Looking into the Vaurdamans' window, which was directly across from the bedroom I shared with my sister, I often watched Bill shaving in the morning.

In the Vaurdamans' back yard was a magnificent box elder tree of, to a child, massive proportions. The bark of this tree was smooth, nearly silky in comparison with that of the rougher elms and oaks. Its enormous trunk separated into three slightly smaller ones a few feet above the ground, forming a kind of cup or seat. The upper branching limbs grew at almost right angles, making this a most lovable tree for climbing. I spent hours in its upper branches. From the lower branches I hung from my knees, once experiencing a cramp in my legs and falling to the soft earth headfirst with little damage. I peeled small sections of the bark away and examined the smooth, yellow, moist, and glistening surface of the living trunk. In the upper branches of this tree I saw at the age of eight the downy pubis of Joanne, an expert fourteen-year-old climber. She hung nonchalantly from her knees while her dress cascaded over her head to reveal, through old and shredded panties, this most absorbing sight. Attempting to lodge a long metal pipe in a vertical position between the branches, an experiment the purpose of which I no longer recall, I let go before sufficient friction was achieved and the pipe fell on my bare toes, causing a severe gash and plenty of blood. I changed the bandages for several weeks that summer, noting the odor of infection that the wound gave off.

Directly across the street was the house of Pop Harrison. The land on which the house sat was lower than that on which the houses on the west side of the block were sited. The yard was very large and sloped down behind the house into woods and a meandering stream called Brush Creek. The house had a certain spread-out aspect as if it had settled itself into its site. This was partly due to the large old elms, walnuts, maples, and oaks that surrounded it. People on the block said that Pop would never cut down a tree. Pop, a widower in his sixties, was also somewhat spread out and seemed settled into an imperturbable inner space. He never called any of the kids in the neighborhood by their given names but always greeted us with "Hello, child." He drove a 1933 Dodge coupe that had a rumble seat. Nominally black, the paint on the car was faded by the sun to a strange and subtle iridescent purplish blue that showed in certain lights. He sometimes arrived with the rumble seat filled with groceries. There was no garage and he parked under the pear tree in front of the house. Pop always wore dark three-piece suits with a watch fob buttoned into his lapel. His daughter, Lucille, and her husband, Harry, and their children Emma Lou and Sonny also lived in Pop's house. Unlike Pop, Lucille was jovial, loud, and talkative. But like Pop she weighed in at around 180. Harry had been in World War I and had experienced "shell shock," so the neighbors said. In any case, his hearing had been damaged and he wore a hearing aid that had a wire running from his ear to the battery and volume control in his shirt pocket. This device either never worked or he kept it turned down to low. Everyone shouted to Harry and he constantly said, "What's that?" A thin, wiry, good-natured man, his laughter, mixed with that of Lucille's, came out of the open doors and windows on summer days. Every Easter he and Lucille hid dozens of colored eggs throughout the large yard for the neighborhood children to find.

I remember the interior of their house as dark and cool in the summer. Unlike our bungalow its rooms were generous. Due to the slope of the land the basement was high and had been made into a kind of sun porch/sewing room that looked out onto the woods. My sister and Emma Lou often played there amid the heaps of colored fabrics that Lucille sewed into dresses. I remember the rustle and the color of the heaped material spread out on long tables and the early sun streaming through the open windows when I occasionally went to find my sister. In the lower yard behind the house was a stand of ancient walnut trees, and, further on, the creek where I once threw dozens of stones at a water moccasin that continued to raise itself out of the water to watch me in spite of the hail of rocks arriving all around it. In the late 1930s crews of stone masons from the WPA came to straighten out the meanders of Brush Creek and to push a large winding concrete and cut-limestone channel through the woods where the creek had once been. Since I considered these woods mine, I felt the WPA project was an invasion and went to watch the work progress with a mixture of curiosity and resentment. After this project had been completed there were several reports of a "prowler" in the neighborhood and word spread that someone had found cardboard boxes in the masonry tunnel where the creek passed under Indiana Street. The report was that the cardboard confirmed the prowler's presence and since it had been flattened he must have spent the night on it. These stories filled me with dread and for years afterward I compulsively looked in the closet and under the bed before turning out the light.

The back yards of the block of houses bounded by 52nd and 53rd streets on the north and south and Indiana and College streets on the east and west ran together into a kind of no-man's-land, a tangle of bushes and trees. I knew every inch of this terrain as well as the spaces between the garages that were located behind the houses on 52nd. One special space was formed by two garages that had a telephone pole planted between them so that only those with narrow nine-year-old bodies could pass between. It was with a secret pleasure that I squeezed my body between the pole and the side of the garages, making my passage usually at dusk. Although unnamed, and perhaps unnamable, such spaces, of which there were many around the neighborhood, took on a special character. I would usually visit each once a week. The woods beyond Pop Harrison's house across Brush Creek were full of secret spaces. There was the abandoned well on an old overgrown house site on which only a few foundation walls remained. I would peer down the well for what, in memory, seemed hours. I could see frogs and an occasional snake at the bottom at high noon when the sun penetrated to the depths of this hole. There was the abandoned limestone rock quarry with a steel cable swinging from an overhanging oak on the small bluff above. Such places had all the silent presence I recognized many years later in the late landscapes of Cézanne: breathless, unpopulated, sun-dappled, profoundly silent. I went to these spaces to be enfolded in their presence. It was as though I could feel time stop there, as though I was an unseen eye witnessing a certain infinity, complete forever in its light and drowsy heat.

On the west side of Indiana, from 52nd Street south toward 53rd, the houses diminished ever so slightly in size-from Chastain to Morris to Vaurdaman to Killbane to McEuen to Kincaid. Beyond the Kincaids' the character of the block changed. The bungalows became tiny, the road in front was unpaved, and I knew none of those families. Even in this lower-middle-class neighborhood there was yet a lower class. With few exceptions I did not associate with anyone from this lower zone. I do not remember any admonishment from my parents about staying away from the lower end of the block, but it remained a largely unknown and unvisited terrain. My territorial space ended with the Kincaid house. At the age of seven I engaged in a rock fight with Suzanne, a tough and threatening girl from the lower zone. During a pause in the throwing I peered out from behind my lilac bush in the Vaurdamans' yard to be beaned on the forehead with a piece of cinder hurled by Suzanne. There was blood and later a scar. I suffered a physical setback but a territorial victory. Suzanne did not invade the upper block again.

Gene McEuen, a fatherless boy who lived in the third house down from us, was given the status of undesirable playmate by my parents. I came to think of him and his house as misplaced or transposed from the lower block into our upper zone. He was slightly older and, according to my parents, had been in reform school. He had run away from home and his mother spoke to no one on the block. The shades were always drawn over the curtainless windows of his house. One hot summer day when I crossed their yard I glimpsed the shaded bare rooms through the open door. I could make out neither rugs nor furniture and felt a sickening curiosity pass through my body. One frigid and gray December day several boys from the neighborhood had gone to the woods behind Pop's house to play hockey on a wide frozen meander of Brush Creek. We had found a metal barrel and built a fire in it. Gene was there and stood around watching. He was a nonskater. But then he probably owned no skates. In any case he was too old to play with the rest of us since he was about fourteen and we skaters were nine and ten. Standing by the fire Gene began to speak of his desire for women and exposed his large, erect penis to show us how ready he was for such adventures. Preoccupied with his performance I unthinkingly embraced the hot barrel, getting painful burns on the palms of both hands.


Excerpted from HAVE I REASONS by ROBERT MORRIS Copyright © 2008 by Nena Tsouti-Schillinger. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

Indiana Street (1993) 17

Writing with Davidson: Some Afterthoughts after Doing Blind Time IV: Drawing with Davidson (1993) 41

The Art of Donald Davidson (1995) 51

Steam (1995) 61

Professional Rules (1997) 63

Thinking Back about Him: On the Death of Richard Bellamy (1998) 101

Cézanne's Mountains (1998) 103

Size Matters (2000) 121

Threading the Labyrinth (2001) 137

Solecisms of Sight: Specular Speculations (2001) 148

Thoughts on Hegel's Owl (2002) 163

Maybe the Angel in Dürer (2003) 167

From a Chomskian Couch: The Imperialistic Unconscious (2003) 171

Toward an Opthalmology of the Aesthetic and an Orthopedics of Seeing (2004) 186

Notes on Less Than (2004) 203

The Birthday Boy (2004) 205

Jasper Johns: The First Decade (2005) 225

Chronology 257

Bibliography 267

Index 271

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