featuresStudio visits
Saturday, December 11th, 2010

Elegant Systems: Robert C. Morgan on his work

Elizabeth D’Ambrosio talked with Robert C. Morgan during his recent show, Light Streak, at Sideshow Gallery, Williamsburg.  The exhibition ran from October 16 to November 14, 2010.

Robert C. Morgan.  Photograph by Enes Ozdil, 2010
Robert C. Morgan. Photograph by Enes Ozdil, 2010

Elizabeth D’Ambrosio: Although you are using traditional painting and sculptural techniques, I understand the body of work most recently exhibited at the Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg to be generally conceptual. Could you explain the role of a concept in your work?

Robert C. Morgan: I often use a concept in my work but at the same time I try and keep the work as open as possible. I don’t write anything about the work before I do an exhibition. That comes after the fact. A lot of the work process is intuitive. I should also say that having worked as a critic and having written about art for many years I’ve decided there is often too much explanation and not enough experience in art. I try and keep the work as experientially open insofar as possible. I’m very committed to abstraction in painting and I have been since I began painting, which goes back more than four decades. What I’m doing is a kind of philosophy in which I am working through the ideas in visual terms.

What are the visual terms of the exhibition “Light Streak and Dark Enlightenment”?

I have tried to do two things in this exhibition. The first is to present a very recent group of work that is working through visual signs and symbols. The second was to compare and contrast that work with an earlier work that had never been shown in New York, an installation that I call, “Dark Enlightenment”. I developed a kind of tight system in the front gallery that is based on abstract signs, of which there are six, and integrate them throughout the larger (30 by 40 inches) paintings. Then I have an earlier piece, which on one level appears unrelated, but on another level has a system related to sequential images taken from a swim manual published in 1937 that influenced my thinking in the1970’s and 1980’s. I’ve always been a swimmer and swimming is a kind of culture for me. I picked up this manual that I found at a used bookstore and was fascinated by these images of people on dry land positions, often standing or laying on benches, trying to simulate swimming. Because of the time period they were all black and white and very high contrast. There was something bizarre and kind of ghoulish if not ominous about these figures and then I realized that 1937 was a very difficult year. There was the outset of the war in Europe and also it was the year of the famous degenerate art exhibition at the Haus der Kunst in Munich. I thought the images were very potent and should be used somehow in art. I especially like the seriality of the images, which was kind of like Muybridge although they were more amateurish, which was part of their ghoulish effect.

There are three elements in “Dark Enlightenment” from the 1970’s and ’80’s that includes a sculptural installation of a circle of sand with a cast aluminum figure, two medium-size abstract figurative paintings on  adjacent wall, and a quotation from the Enlightenment philosopher, John Locke, letter-pressed on the wall. The front gallery includes the conceptual paintings. How did the installation of the two rooms come to be?

The sculpture was cast in 1974 based on a photograph taken from the manual. I had to imagine what the photograph would look like in three dimensions, and cast the model in aluminum using a lost-wax method. In the 80’s I started doing the same thing in painting by taking parts of the pictures and combining them through painting them in a kind of expressionistic way. I had never shown them together before and I had never shown them in a gallery in New York or anywhere else for that matter. I thought that they represented a system but they represented something dark as opposed to the non-objective painting in the front gallery. Those are more about light in terms of the metallic colors that reflect light and the dark space that holds the light reflecting symbols. But, I thought that there was something fresh about those 2010 non-objective paintings that I consider neo-metaphysical.

installation shot of the exhibition under review
installation shot of the exhibition under review

Could you discuss the origins of neo-metaphysics and how they are reflected in this work?

The term “neo-metaphysics” I picked up by Derrida. There was a lecture at Columbia, maybe twenty years ago where he mentioned the word metaphysics. The audience started chuckling or maybe nervous laughter and Derrida remarked, “Why are you laughing. I take metaphysics very seriously”. Now, I think that back in those days people confused Derrida with Wittgenstein in the sense that Wittgenstein was very clearly dismissing metaphysics in terms of his language philosophy. But that was never really the case with Derrida. He understood that dimension within language as the basis for his deconstruction. Even so, he made to bracket metaphysics in order to understand the assumptions of ideology behind it. I think we can consider metaphysics certainly Heideggerian in terms of the 20th Century philosophy. Heidegger pursues a quest for being, or a desire to grasp what it means, “to be”. I think that the process of thought is generally the way Heidegger worked in relation to that quest for Being. He didn’t see the kind of distinctions between language and the quest for Being that a lot of other philosophers, such as Wittgenstein or perhaps Derrida did.  I’m not saying that I concur with every aspect of Heidegger’s position, but, in general, I do agree that language functions more or less as a system of representation in accordance with Being.  If that is the case, which I would accept that what I am doing in both these pieces in the front and back galleries is neo-metaphysical.  I’m not going back to an early, shall we say Hegelian system for example. I’m really thinking of metaphysics in terms of what does it mean to be in the world today and how can we come to terms with that in a visual system of thought.

There is a large quote on the wall of the back room from John Locke. What do you anticipate your audience to understand in using that quote?

I try to emphasize the fact of intuition in terms of how the work comes about in accordance with my own system; sometimes, however, I intuitively discover comparative analogies, which is how John Locke comes into the formula. First, I had been thinking a lot about the Enlightenment and I had been scanning through a book of Enlightenment philosophy and one day I found a phrase that I thought was very interesting about intuition. Then I kept finding these passages that I thought were trying to explain the various parts of thought that occur in the human mind in terms of what is taken in through perception and what is done internally after the fact of perception. The system that Locke was dealing with in the 17th Century was something that I understood as a painter. I felt that there was something parallel in Locke’s system in mine but there was nothing I was trying to prove or illustrate in relation to Locke. I chose the quote because it dealt with the word “light” and often John Locke would talk about illumination through thought. It is only a quote that has been extracted, and does not explain the work. I think that people that try to illustrate philosophy with art or vice versa totally misunderstand philosophy and art. In the Jose Ortega y Gasset essay, “On Point of View in Art,” he talks abut the parallel between the two. I think “parallel” is the most appropriate term because philosophy is happening or has happened and the art is also happening or has happened. You can always find a point where they touch, but to use one to explain the other is problematic.

You claim that your work is invested in a concept or a system. Can you explain that system in formal terms?

Robert C. Morgan, LS (Tension Balance), 2010.  Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 inches.  Courtesy of Sideshow Gallery.
Robert C. Morgan, LS (Tension Balance), 2010. Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Sideshow Gallery.

It depends on what you mean by formal. First of all, I have to say I am not a formalist in the sense that I understood early Frank Stella, for example, the Black paintings from 1959. I’m fairly sure that the form became the content in that work. I don’t see that in terms of my work. I am trying to advance the idea from the content. I don’t see much difference between the formal and the conceptual in my work. I think that they somehow intervene upon one another and therefore are connected, not separate. When I talk about formal I’m talking about how something is formed in language. I suppose this comes closer to the idea of the Moscow Linguistic Circle in the 1920’s with people like Malevich, Jacobson, and the poet Khlebnikov were very involved with. The idea is that through language form evolves. That understanding of form is one that I embrace, but not the aesthetic idea of formalism. In other words, if I were going to talk about formalism I would talk about how a concept evolves into a form, not how the aesthetic involves into a form.

The front gallery of Sideshow has a wall balanced by 6 small paintings, each which holds a different metallic sign. The larger paintings throughout the room contain variations on combinations of these signs. Understanding your interest in linguistics, what is the role of syntax in this work?

I understand it as the bridge between the sign and the symbol is the syntax. This is why I lay out individually the 6 symbols, none of which are appropriated. This does not mean that there are not other similar signs that exist somewhere in the world. Where you get the transference from sign to symbol is where you start putting them together in the larger 30 by 40 inch canvases. The signs take on symbolic value through their relationship and association to one another in a contained space, the pictorial space of the canvas.  The symbolic value is dependent on how the viewer reads the syntax in which they are put together.  This again relates to Locke:  Everyone has a memory and it is through the association of perception and memory that some kind of meaning comes into place.

What was the process you used in the making the current “Light Streak” paintings?

Once I had painted the six individual signs or “elements” I moved to the larger canvases where there was enough space to accommodate the scale of these images in relationship to one another. That was an important move. Also I decided that I would keep the metallic painted signs on the same ground on which they appear in the six elements, either on raw umber or ultramarine.  In either case, these colors are painted on black to give the light a quality of absorption. I was very interested in the numerology of all this because there are two grounds and three metallic paints. The two grounds were ultramarine and raw umber painted over a black ground. The three metallic colors are iridescent gold, permanent sand iridescent silver mixed together, and bronze. Altogether there are three metallic pigments, a primary and an earth color. The use of the ultramarine and umber came from a Korean artist named Yun Hyong Geun — the only contemporary Korean painter that Donald Judd collected. I first saw Yun’s paintings at a show in Gwangju in 2000 and really loved the work. I discovered that he was using ultramarine and umber together. From an Eastern point of view the idea of color being one, like earth and sky, and close to the idea of the yin-yang. Rather than combining the colors I wanted them to be separate. If you see them symbolically as earth and sky that’s OK but its not what I meant. I deliberately put them vertically on the field as opposed to horizontally to make it clear that this is not a representation of some kind. I’m constantly thinking of how to work the system in the process of making these paintings because I want to be consistent. In other words if the gold sign belongs on the blue then it has to stay on the blue, and if it belongs on the umber it has to stay on the umber. The consistency of the image to the ground is something that is maintained throughout the process. I prefer the brushwork not to interfere. In “Light Streak” I am working more with an architectonic space than a gestural one. The work is emotional but through is a certain kind of intensity within the syntax of the space.

Several of the paintings utilize optical illusions in terms of manipulations or divisions of space. What compelled you to incorporate optical illusion in the work?

Well, I have to say the illusory aspect of the work is nearly invisible, or so I would like is to appear. I have to say that on occasion I have used optics in relationship to painting and sometimes not. In these particular canvases, I was interested in things being a little off. This is not because I was composing, because I’m never really composing. What I’m doing is looking at the parameters that are within the system, and seeing how they can function within their own logic. For example when I was painting the three vertical sections on the two 30 by 40 inch canvases, I realized I could not so easily create three equal parts. So, I would have two equal parts and one that was a little longer. It is only maybe an inch longer, but that’s enough to throw everything off in terms of the optics. So I used the irregularities to my benefit. I started putting these metallic forms on top in a way that would create a kind of flotation. I have light being absorbed by the umber and the marine, which are in both cases painted over black, and then I have light being reflected by the metallic elements. But there is nothing really on the surface in terms of light, and I like that idea. If you look at an Impressionist painting by Monet, most viewers are not thinking of Chevreuil’s philosophy of optics (which, in fact, was the scientific basis of Impressionism).  Instead, they are involved with the emotional effect or feeling associated with the colors. I don’t have that kind of emotion in my color but I think there is something about the light either being absorbed or reflected that is interesting. The light is either going in or it’s going out but there is nothing really in between. I think that adds to the intensity of the work.

Dark Enlightenment, reconstruction of an installation from 1974-87.  Courtesy of Sideshow Gallery
Dark Enlightenment, reconstruction of an installation from 1974-87. Courtesy of Sideshow Gallery

Do you think the type of conceptual painting that you do could be perceived as anachronistic in the contemporary art discourse?

I understand why you’re asking this question. The kinds of ideas with which I am concerned, including geometric or conceptual abstraction, couldn’t be further outside the discourse, at least in terms of the current international market. However, I do not see my work as anachronistic. I believe in the pursuit of what I do as committed to finding a visual language by which to articulate philosophy. I think that idea has to move forward.  It is an important idea just as human thought is important, just as Locke’s philosophy is important. Even though the medium is acrylic on canvas, I think the ideas are timely.  If I can say parenthetically … there is a certain pleasure I feel when I am engaged in painting these forms. It somehow connects with the quality of living– not in terms of materialism, but through a sense of Being. In recent decades, as virtual technology has accelerated, people have suffered from a lack of the quality in their lives even so far as understanding the concept of what this quality means. For example, one of the reasons I travel to Italy whenever possible is that I enjoy the kind of living experience that I miss in my own country. One aspect of my work tries to convey a certain elegance of thought. I believe this approach to art is one way to retain simplicity in the ways we choose to live.  I somehow believe that those simple ways are always at the core of the best art, even in the present and hopefully in our aspirations for the future.

Sideshow Gallery is at 319 Bedford Avenue, between South 2nd and 3rd streets, Brooklyn, (718) 486-8180 and at www.sideshowgallery.com