The sculptor Robert Morris, one of the founders of minimalism, has died at the age of 87. Known for his controversial works, Morris was a key figure in the radical simplification of art that emerged in the 1960s alongside artists such as Donald Judd, Anne Truitt and Dan Flavin. Born in Kansas City in 1931,…
The sculptor Robert Morris, one of the founders of minimalism, has died at the age of 87.
Born in Kansas City in 1931, Morris studied art at Kansas City Art Institute and the California School of Fine Arts. Originally an abstract expressionist, he became involved New York’s downtown arts scene after moving to the city in 1959. It was here that he helped develop a style that would come to be known as minimalism. Using plywood, which he praised for being cheap and easy to work with, he constructed simple, grey-painted structures that confused critics but were celebrated in underground circles.
Morris was interested in drawing attention away from the work itself and towards the environment in which it was housed. He exhibited two L-beam structures at the seminal 1966 Primary Structures exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, while his series of essays on this new form of art, entitled Notes on Sculpture, helped cement his reputation as a minimalist pioneer.
Minimalism was not a movement Morris felt obliged to follow throughout the rest of his career, instead embracing many different styles in later life. Observatory, from 1977, was a huge outdoor work in the Netherlands inspired by English prehistoric sites such as Stonehenge. His 1980s work embraced figurative painting to investigate nuclear anxiety.
In 2009, Tate Modern staged Bodymotionspacethings, a recreation of his 1971 show at Tate that was closed just four days after opening. The original series of beams, weights, tunnels and ramps had encouraged audience participation – the first time the public were invited to interact with artwork in a gallery – but had left several enthusiastic visitors with injuries, including a sprained finger, a torn leg muscle and splinters. Decried in the press for being “no more than a child’s playground”, it now seems prescient of developments in public art over the following decades.
Morris could be controversial – notably promoting one show with a poster that showed him chained, topless and wearing a Nazi war helmet – and also cantankerous. When the Art Newspaper sent him a series of questions about the 1960s minimalist movement, he replied that the questions were “trivial, superficial, puerile, misdirected, irrelevant, egregious, distracted, dull, feeble, breathless, gossip-mongering, smarmy and lizard-like”.
But the sculptor, who died in Kingston, New York, from pneumonia, will be remembered as a key figure in the transformation of modern art through the 1960s.