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November 2007, Interview with Robert C. Morgan, 9.6.07, NYC

November 2007,  Interview with Robert C. Morgan, 9.6.07, NYC


Robert C. Morgan has written and published over 1500 essays and reviews in more than 50 international magazines and professional journals. His essays have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Since 1992, he has served as a correspondent for Art Press (Paris). He is a Contributing Editor to Sculpture Magazine and the Italian publication Tema Celeste. He has contributed essays, features, and reviews to numerous magazines and journals of contemporary art including The Village Voice, Art News, Flash Art, Dialogue, The New Arts Examiner, Art Journal, Glass Quarterly, American Ceramics, Review, Cover, Domus (Milan), Arte Factum (Belgium), Art in Culture (Seoul), Art in America, Arts Magazine, Kunstforum (Berlin), Woolgan Misool (Seoul), Lapiz, Artscribe (U.K.), Afterimage, Camerawork, The Brooklyn Rail, and the Shanghai Art Museum Quarterly.

Ok Robert let us begin.

I am saying that I am flattered that I am being asked about my work as an artist because normally that is not the priority that people have when they come to talk to me.

From looking at your CV, I figured that would be the case.

But, in fact, my career began as an artist even before I went to get an MFA degree, which was back in the early 1970s and I decide to pursue that without an undergraduate degree in art, just based on my own activity.

An art history BA, right?

No, no, I had no BA; I had no background in art prior to that other than the desire to do it. I have to say that I had a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, completely self-trained, and a few cultural spaces, that kind of thing, when I was a young artist at the time in my twenties. I did not have any kind of commercial representation or anything like that, but I was very much into constructivism and I remember going to Europe, my second trip actually, 1970 to 1971, specifically to look at constructivism, including the De Stijl artists, all of them and the Russians and so forth, as many of them as I could find. Even when I went to look at Renaissance painting, or Spanish painting, I was always looking for, you know, the angles, the axial thing.

So, I guess I have some kind of classical basis to my thinking about art and that has informed a lot of what I do. On the other hand, I think that Robert Motherwell’s statement that I heard at a lecture at Harvard, which had a big influence on me in 1967, is that there is some kind of desire that pushes you in the direction of whatever you are doing. So, I think that the hybrid of the Classical and Romantic is a very interesting hybrid; at least I feel that it is interesting for me. I can feel myself at different intervals focusing on different kinds of issues. I can be extremely analytical, or I can go into a kind of, shall we say, transcendental mode, say from a phenomenological point of view. This is something that is very characteristic in terms of myself (points to a series of framed images on wall) and this is a return to where I started out over 40 years ago.

That was your initial medium?

That is right.

The ICA show being painting or I thought that there was some kind of performance?

Well, I am going to be having a show in November at the Wooster Art Space, down on Wooster Street in SOHO of painting from the last, basically, year and a half. I am going to select it very carefully and I am not going to crowd the space. I am not working terribly large, although people have recommended that I start thinking about that. So far I am very content, it looks like 36 inches by 30 inches, something like that I believe, if I am correct. And then I have some upstate. I have a small house up there where I have been working a little bit smaller, but basically the same idea.

Now those come from Korean letters. I had a Fulbright Fellowship to Kwangju, which is in the southern tip of Korea and I was living in this area, there were no Caucasians around, as a matter of fact there were just Koreans, and very traditional Koreans, ok, in the sense that their lifestyle was very much modernized. The point is that it is very family oriented. Meals occur at very regular hours, emphasis is on education, but also the men are big drinkers. It is more than just a – how can I put it – it is not so much a diversion, as it is a way of living, so when you go out to dinner in Korea you are expected to enjoy this drink called soju, which I cannot drink, so that’s a little problem. But anyway, I was living in this area with a lot of construction going on and a lot of these signs in hangul. Hangul is the Korean language that was invented, really, by the emperor of the 15th century of China, and then later Japan. They wanted a phonetic alphabet that could be understood by either the Chinese, or Japanese that was not related to the Chinese ideogram, ok. So they really invented, at least they say, the first computer language with the zero and the angle and in a way it is all based on phonetics. Anyway, I was interested in the hard edged-ness of this. I guess it referenced, for me, constructivism in the West, which I thought was very interesting. I am thinking of László Moholy-Nagy, in particular. I started working with this, but instead of working at it in a sequence, which I had always done as a younger painter, I would work sequentially in panels with an evolution of something happening. In this case, the evolution was already there, so instead of going that direction, I started laminating them one on top of the other to obliterate their meaning. But in fact, people can actually read these even though they are tiled instead of sequenced.

They can decode them?

Some people have been able to do that. But, what was interesting also was that I was using characters from different sources, like academic theses and books, but also advertisements, hairspray, green tea, that kind of thing, and sort of putting them together. It was really a kind of visual thing, but it was also the area that I was in; a lot of construction was going on. It was being built, or being decimated; one or the other and I like that kind of idea of something hovering between construction and demolition. So, I started doing a lot of these with conté crayon and with a very special clay in this area that was often used cosmetically by women, but it makes a very good pigment, actually, to work with, it is very close to sienna. Anyway, I brought some of these back and then I started working on these paintings as a way of opening up the space that was within the configuration of the letters and so the thing now is a kind of compilation of Korean styled constructivism from a pretentious American point of view.

Do you speak Korean?


Can you read, or were you decoding these and finding out what their meanings are?

With some of them I don’t, but the main purpose was to construct with a language, that was the objective.

They really do look like something that is in a netherworld between being built, or disassembled and like the product of someone living in a foreign country where they are the only individual of their nationality in their region.

That is the idea. Another aspect is that I am working with – this thing that I am talking about comes from Korea – but I also spend a lot of time in Italy and again I was interested in the sienna color, and yellow, and umber, and ochre, all those earth colors. I have been working just with them, in terms of painting over them, in other words, working with the light of the earth, essentially, in relation to painting. I was so taken by this landscape in Sienna and I wanted to do a, shall we say, constructivist take on the landscape. I certainly have a major tendency, a mindset that is about how things are ordered, even in a state of chaos, or ambiguity, how they come together in terms of not so much a revolution – interesting Freudian slip, I was going to say resolution, but I said revolution – I guess that I am sort of between on revolution because I don’t really want to create a composition, ok, which is resolution. I want to give it an edge, somehow, that allows entry because something is somehow incomplete.

I have to also say that my career is unusual in the sense that I stopped producing for 12 years. I stopped in 1992 and resumed in – that my writing was an extension of my art. Even though it is very much criticism, there is no doubt that it is criticism. And I began to think that in an era, in a moment where criticism has been completely usurped by a kind of theory that has taken over – I call it foregrounding of the text – where they are laminated in front of the work to make the work itself almost opaque experientially. And I am really interested in the critical, dialogical relationship to the art because I think that this is how you enter the experience and I think that criticism should really be a reflection and a problematic within art and within culture at the same time. But I am very much against self-conscious ideology, which is pervasive certainly in the American art world today. It either has to be an issue that stretches some limit in identity, and this can happen in many ways in terms of sexuality, in terms of gender, in terms of age – which is, I think, the latest permutation of this identity crisis. All these issues are somehow entwined with culture and at the same time, I think that the foregoing of research into history, including self-history, including self-lineage, has been replaced by a kind of false anxiety, in my opinion. This has become the obsession of too much art. I am not interested, personally, in those issues in terms of what I do, but as a critical analysis, I think that the extendedness of this kind of reification of identity crisis has become clear and that there is no escape that is going to help us in any particular way.

Would you tell me a little bit about the relationship between your very precise criticism and the realm of poetry, which I don’t think are necessarily oppositional, but certainly use language in very different ways. I am not very familiar with your poems, so I do not know your style and approach.

I think that the best poems that I have done over the past three, or four years is a series called Neo Victoriana. Where it is an opportunity to use the language, stretch the language in a way so that I can defy expectations of what I think a poem is supposed to say. In the past, I think that some of my worst poetry has been not exactly pretentious, but too overly predetermined in terms of a kind of mood. I think that the success of the Neo Victoriana poems is that they obliterate the mood in favor of absurdity, and therefore they have a kind of charm, they have a kind of wit, and they have this lingering Eros, and all those things I like. The problem is I had to give something up, in other words I could not be as epic, I could not have the kind of shall we say metaphysical enunciation of the earlier poems, but I think as poems they are better. Now, the criticism over general, in terms of making sweeping statements that may, or may not be the case and sometimes lack the kind of grounding that is necessary to really make them substantial, or read syntactically as substantial statements – some of the best criticism that I have written is focused on the work as almost a kind of rumination. I can move around and within the work as a mental act and I think that this kind of absorption, with what Husserl called the “intentional image,” can allow for some of the most precise and interesting criticism. And I have to say that criticism, for me, is an opportunity to bring out some of the issues that I think are problematic right now in art such as the issues of the overwhelming relationship that artists have to the issue of identity on some kind of theoretical level. I think that this self-conscious ideology or self-determined ideology is making art into an academic series of exercises that are ultimately trivial. What is amazing to me is how people think that they are the only ones that are doing that, whereas everybody is doing the same thing. It is not as interesting as it should be. We are losing a sense of diversity in our desperation for identity.

Does it come from the way that our art schools are providing a certain set of knowledge? If you look at MFA programs within the United States, or abroad, by in large the new glut of students that emerge each spring can be difficult to differentiate (aside from certain ones are cherry picked out of their final MFA critique).

I teach in the graduate program at Pratt and I have been there a number of years. It is a very international program and I can see some of the problems in terms of this foregrounding of the text where students are expected to prove somehow what they are doing. I disagree with that.

To validate through language?

I do not think any art can be proven and to validate it through language, which is a kind of proof. The way, or the style in which students have to foreground their intention, or their desire for meaning and often, to again, have to pull in identity issues as part of that. I know that the foreign students, particularly, are thrown off guard by the fact that they need to prove their Korean-ness, or their Chinese-ness, or their Thai-ness, or whatever, and usually these comments are coming from middleclass white people who are trying to convince them to –

– to exploit?

I think so, and it is unfortunate. There is too much language and too much theory that goes into the art academy nowadays, therefore, I would have to be opposed to certain artists that are teaching at places like Yale and UCLA who foreground (loud Police siren overwhelms the recording) oppressive amount in order to take a political stance, or an ideological stance, in terms of issues that they believe are important. There is no question that there are issues that are important in our politics, culture, and globalized society today, that this is a form to the expression of art. I feel that art is an expression, if it is not an expression, I would like to know what it is. You can say that it is a language, well certainly, that is a given, it is a language, but what do we do with that language and if anything is going to be communicated through that language it has to express on some level. This is a matter of degree and it depends on what specific works we are talking about. I think that some of the best conceptual works I have seen do express. Maybe expression is another word for communication as opposed to information exchange. I think that there is a lot of information exchange going on and not expression.

So what would you think of someone like Bas Jan Ader, someone who merged a rigor with a romanticism that seemed out of its time, that seemed far less hard edge than the conceptualism of the time?

I never trusted the romanticism of Bas Jan Ader. Frankly, the pseudo aspect of the romanticism bothered me. I felt that there was too much pretense in it.

The romanticism was theatrical and utilized –

– and cynical in a certain way, from my point of view.

I imagine that in that period it could read that way.

Well actually, I disagree. I do not think that there was so much cynicism, at least certainly not with the Americans. Maybe with some of the Europeans, that is probably true. Jean Le Gac, I think, but I would not even call that cynicism, I think that in the case of Le Gac it was more of an irony, which is not exactly the same thing because I see irony as within the province of art, I see cynicism as something else.

Tell me about your films, I see “Super-8” periodically pops up.

That is right, yeah, yeah, yeah, I did about 40 of those films and actually I had a show of them about a year and a half ago, all earlier films, but a couple of them I had re-edited and I think that the re-edits are finally the final versions of the films. It took me a long time to figure that out, but Super-8 is such an obsolete medium now and I discovered that when after two decades I took them to one of these tech places that would translate them and they completely destroyed the color and I had to go back five, or six times to get it right. I think that it was just unfamiliarity with the medium basically, of Super-8.

The transfer process, or the shooting?

Both. I think that it is a delicate medium. You are not dealing with a large frame and at least the way I worked with the film, the very subtle passages that are paid a lot of attention to, and when you are dealing with that kind of degree it is important, at least for me, and the translation to DVD was extremely problematic. However, I have four of the films on DVD now and I am going to get the rest on there at some point. It was a great experience for me to do these two re-edits, the re-edit is really the film at this point. Some of them are better left in the can, but some of them, I think, are important. I was in a lot of shows and I am surprised that there is not more interest on the part of Museums in these early films because I can tell you that the reception that I got for the showing was really quite, surprising, but extremely positive, the energy that I got from the audience.

Were these films from the 1970s?

I started in 1972, but I did not do what I would consider a decent film until around 1975 and even then it was kind off and on, but the more I got into it in the late 1970s and the 1980s – there were the festivals, the San Francisco Film Festival, and the Toronto Film Festival.

And what were the concerns of the films – you have talked about constructivism enough that I imagine that it must be have been an interest.

They were very structured. They were not dealing with the superficial. For example, you are looking at a piece that is eighty images from Ingres’ Turkish Bath, and they are separated by 4.5 degrees and they were shot on a circular format using a photogravure that I got that I think was pretty accurate in terms of the actual painting – I’ve seen the actual painting many times. I use that same photo print in versions of a film and a film installation that I did where I put the gravure on a turntable and I had the four speeds of the turntable that I was working with and using various diopters and so forth. It was really a marvelous series of films and that was actually shown, the whole series, was shown at the Anthology Film Archive in about the mid 1990s, around 1995, or 1996 with a very nice little text written by Catsou Roberts, who was the curator of the Arnolfini Gallery outside of London. Then it was shown at the Museum of Modern Art I believe in 1999, one of the films. Now the problem is with one of the best films. I was going to a party and I was in the back seat of a cab with two of my favorite people, one was Carolee Schneemann and the other was the art historian Denise Carvalho. We were talking and laughing and so forth and I realized that I left the film in the back on the seat when I paid for the cab and the film was forever lost. It is a shame. But fortunately, I had good prints, but I lost the master of it, which was unfortunate. I recently said in a statement for a show I had, in Bali of all places, where they set up a screening area for the films surrounded by these drawings, not exactly these drawings, but ones similar to them were on the outside space. Then, in the inside space, was a projection of the early films, so there were early Supe-8s and recent drawings. I began to think about this connection and I decided that just as constructivism interested me as a way to think and a way to work, framing is a part of constructivism and framing is within the realm of film. Even these, what could be called a kind of ideogram, although they are not really ideograms, these Korean symbols of hangul are a kind of a western idea, which is not really what they are, but in the sense that I am taking these angles and I am putting them over one another and building up a moment in time through this framing process. I see this as a connection, this desire to frame things and to alter through the frame.

Being an artist, a critic, and trained as an art historian – all this education happened after I was 30 years old, so it took me awhile to get to the point where I knew what I was doing and knew what I wanted. The problem is that it is difficult in communicating this because people want to put you in one category and for me it is just a continuation of the same thing, everything is continuous development. Whether I am working with plasticity in terms of painting, or working with optics as in film, or giving a lecture, or doing one of my Neo Victorian poems, or writing criticism – I think that part of my desire is a search for structure, which I suppose could be interpreted as a kind of ancient metaphysics, but that is not the way I see it, because I tend to see time less in terms of chronology, and this goes back many, many years to my interest in Buddhism, Taoism, and Eastern thinking. The fact that I have been in Asia seventeen times and this will be the eighteenth trip, to China – seeing Korean artists, Indonesian artists, Japanese artists – and I am bringing a lot of traditional thought – and when I am talking about traditional thought I am talking about philosophical thought of Taoism and Buddhism in particular – and this is spilling over into my writings on Western artists. For example, I just came out with a piece on Tom Doyle, a very underrated sculptor in my opinion. I see his work which deals with hard, extraordinarily cut beams that are in a tripodal format ascending into air – they are just beautiful pieces – I see something very much connected to the spirit of Taoism, to nature, to the sense of being and not being, to the sense of circularity, and so forth. It is not a practical way for me to live because I am not of that culture and I am not practicing, I have never chosen to do that, but I am interested in the ideas and they have become part of how I function in the world of art.

A desire to avoid categorization –

– in a way.

To have a multifaceted practice –

– yes, there you go, which is very typical there, by the way.

Right, but hence the difficulties for marketability. We can’t put you into a niche, therefore… Some people, like Rodney Graham, somehow do traverse a number of these different disciplines from film, to sculpture, to writing, and they do quite well, but perhaps there are funding differences.

Again, see a lot of my writing is criticism, and it is not just writing about my art, but most of it today is critical writing for monographs which puts me in a very different perception from what you are talking about because most people primarily know me as a critic, as an international critic. I am aware of this and given the amount I do this, this takes precedence and my art is less, in terms of the plasticity of painting and drawing and in film I have not really, except for these re-edits, been involved with for twenty years, so that is my history, a thing that happened. For the time being, I am very involved in painting; still, I have to say, even with my involvement in painting, the majority of my time goes into writing criticism. Now I recognize also that I am outside the normative stature, in the sense that I do not write for a major glossy in New York. I write for the Brooklyn Rail, I am a contributing editor to Tema Celeste in Milan, I write for Sculpture Magazine in Washington, occasionally I write for Art Press in Paris, I write for a magazine in Shanghai, which is part of why I am going to China this trip, I write occasionally for a Korean Magazine, and occasionally for a Polish magazine, since I have been to Poland a number of times. My cleaning lady is Polish and she is laughing, so I acknowledge that, and of course, there is constructivism within the Polish history over the last century. When Poland disappeared from the map in the nineteenth century, which is very interesting, I think that this is often ignored in terms of what we seem to configure in relation to Polish history and the tragedy of recent years in relation to Poland, which is unfortunate – that there is another side, there is always another side, I am discovering and the other side is that there are some really great intellectuals there. They have some fabulous periodicals and they are willing to translate my writing. As a matter of fact, I have a book coming out in Polish on the artist and globalization which will be out probably at the beginning of next year and many of the universities there, such as the University of Lodz, Warsaw, and so forth – Poznan – have very good, very, very serious work.

I would feel that I would be negligent if I did not ask you about your performance works, to cover every possible medium.

Well, it is kind of where I started, initially it was choreography and myself in space. I did a piece at OK Harris in New York back in 1974. There was a curator there by the name of Patterson Simms, who later went on to a museum, I believe, in the Northwest – there was sand that I would carry around the gallery that I would dump into elliptical patterns and I was very precise about the ellipse as I was constructing this. Again, getting back to this idea of structure and so forth, these are ellipses instead of angles. Then I started choreographing for swimmers in swimming pools and then started bringing the swimmers out of the pool and into real space to create interconnections that were related to water, a kind of Taoist idea, but in fact in real time and space. Some of these were filmed and there was some photo documentation of these, but I would say that I left that pretty much by – I did perform at The Whitney, however, which was a very important exhibition for me that year. It was not the elliptical sand pieces, but the swimmers outside the pool in space. I was actually using circular patterns, not ellipses.

You have written about Bruce Nauman quite a bit, so I imagine that there was cross influence there.

Well, you know, actually at that time there was absolutely no influence – at that time – that came later, much later. I do not know even if I knew of those pieces at that time.

The late 1970s studio pieces?

Yes, but I certainly have great admiration and respect for those and as an artist, certainly in terms of whatever was left of the avant-garde.

I think that is it, perfect, I barely had to say anything (click, recorder stops).

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Jan Van Woensel

Jan Van Woensel is an independent curator, art critic and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the curatorial advisor of Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer and curator of Studio Philippe Vandenberg. Van Woensel is professor at CCA, dept of Curatorial Practice in San Francisco; Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles; and NYU, dept of Art and Art Professions in New York. Office Jan Van Woensel, a team of assistant curators supervised by Van Woensel, works with international clients such as private collectors, art galleries and artists on exhibitions. Contact: 

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