Whitehot Magazine

Robert C. Morgan's Living Smoke and Clearwater Drawings at The Armory Show

Robert C. Morgan, Living Smoke and Clearwater Drawings (1967)

PROYECTOSMONCLOVA (Mexico City), The Armory Show, PIER 94, BOOTH 916  

By NOAH BECKER March, 2019

Whitehot Magazine:  How did the idea for the Living Smoke and Clearwater Drawings come to you, and how did this work come to be exhibited at the Armory Show in 2019?

Robert C. Morgan: At the time (1967), I was living and working in Santa Barbara, California. I had recently moved there from Cambridge, Massachusetts where I had studied calligraphy a year and a half with a Japanese artist from Osaka. I wanted to extend my interest in the brush by combining ink with graphite and conte, but retain the Asian spatial idea in cohesion with western “abstract” form. Over the years, I kept the drawings in a box as I moved from one place to another. In 2016, I had the good fortune to meet the gallerists from PROYECTOSMONCLOVA in Mexico City through my friend, the artist Gabriel de le Mora. Upon seeing the drawings and later exhibiting them in Mexico City, the response of the public was overwhelming. This incited the interest in presenting them at the Armory Show in New York.

WM: You mentioned the Japanese influence on your work at the time.  You were very young, in your twenties. What drew you to study calligrapher?

RCM: Throughout my career as an artist, critic, and writer I have constantly read books on Zen Buddhism and Taoism. By chance one day, I had gone to see a show at the ICA in Boston. Coming out of the building on Boylston, I noticed some activity at the Convention Center across the street. I entered the space and saw a Japanese calligrapher using a large brush in the process of writing an ideographic script on large sheets of paper placed directly on the floor. I was totally mesmerized watching this happen. Upon the completion of his performance, I asked if  I could be his student. This was the beginning.  

 Robert C. Morgan, Living Smoke and Clearwater Drawings

WM: What are the differences between these drawings and the geometric style work you began developing as a painter later in your career?

RCMIn retrospect, I like to think that calligraphy prepared me to work with geometry. From an Asian perspective, I felt that learning the space of the gesture was what made this possible. Yet I was also interested in what the early twentieth century artists in Europe were doing – particularly Moholy-Nagy, Max Bill, and Theo van Doesburg. However, as my knowledge and understanding of the Asian artists progressed, and as I was traveling more often to Asia than to Europe in recent years, the content of the latter has become increasingly more vital and clear. It is the relationship between the calligraphy and geometry that interests me. While difficult to grasp philosophically during the era of Living Smoke, I somehow must have intuitively understood it.  I can see it today in a way I could not see it in the process of my work many years ago.

WM: Are there other western artists you can think of that have had a Japanese or Asian influence in their paintings? 

RCM: In fact, yes. I recently worked on an exhibition with Pace Gallery on the paintings of Mark Tobey. Historically, Tobey learned a great deal both from the Chinese and Japanese ink painters, in particular. This became the basis of his evolution in the 1940s, a period in which he began doing his critically acclaimed “white paintings.” A decade later, he was working more directly with calligraphy, which he believed constituted some of his best and most important paintings. While there is no direct relationship between his aspect of his work and geometry, he chose to pursue variations on the gesture in a highly astute and sensuous manner.

Another artist, John McLaughlin, who I maintained contact with from 1970 – 74, worked in the opposite way. While fluent in the Japanese language, having lived in Japan in the mid-1930s, the direction of his work moved entirely towards rectilinear form. For McLaughlin, it was the concept of “neutral” space that informed his paintings more than calligraphic expression. The source of this came largely from the atmospheric “emptiness” he found in the scroll paintings of the influential 15th century Zen monk, Sesshu. 

Robert C. Morgan, Living Smoke and Clearwater Drawings


WM: What do you think viewers will experience or takeaway from viewing these drawings?

RCM: Like many artists, I would like the experience of looking at these drawings to have an experiential dimension. I believe this is the major function of art, even as it has been side-lined in recent years. I believe these thirty-eight drawings fulfill a necessary function in art today. They speak of the importance of intimacy as a means to restore selfhood through sensory input. Even as these works emanate from a historical period described as an era of Pop and Minimal art, there is always more than meets the eye, a hidden complex that reveals another side of reality different from what is persistently manufactured through media. Indeed I would like these drawings to stand in the face of media and to restore a sense of selfhood and dignity among those who struggle to retain values needed to get through everyday life.

WM:  What are you working on now?

RCM: As for what I am doing today, it’s back to geometry. I’m painting on quadrilaterals. They will not be shown to anyone until the series is complete, maybe by early summer, but it is impossible to know, and even less important, to say. WM




Noah Becker

Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023. 


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