Robert Morris: I Won’t

Shadows on my studio wall

When artist Robert Knafo wrote to request a studio interview with Robert Morris, this was the response he received back. Knafo describes this as the best No he ever received. “I love how he calmly shoots the art documentary cliches, holsters his gun, and walks away,” Knafo wrote. “Thank you Robert for making me think again about what I’m doing.”

I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made half a century ago. Minimalism does not need to hear from me. I do not want to travel to distant places to give talks about art I made yesterday. Contemporary art is making enough noise without me. I do not want to be filmed in my studio pretending to be working. I do not want to participate in staged conversations about art—either mine or others past or present–which are labored and disguised performances. I do not want to be interviewed by curators, critics, art directors, theorists, aestheticians, professors, collectors, gallerists, culture mavens, journalists or art historians about my influences, favorite artists, despised artists, past artists, current artists, future artists. A long time ago I got in the habit, never since broken, of writing down things instead of speaking. It is possible that I was led into art making because talking and being in the presence of another person were not requirements. I do not want to be asked my reasons for not having worked in just one style, or reasons for any of the art that got made (the reason being that there are no reasons in art). I do not want to answer questions about why I used plywood, felt, steam, dirt, grease, lead, wax, money, trees, photographs, electroencephalograms, hot and cold, lawyers, explosions, nudity, sound, language, or drew with my eyes closed. I do not want to tell anecdotes about my past, or stories about the people I have been close to. I refuse to speak of my dead. The people to whom I owe so much either knew it or never will because it is too late now. I do not want to document my turning points, high points, low points, good points, bad points, lucky breaks, bad breaks, breaking points, dead ends, breakthroughs or breakdowns. I do not want to talk about my methods, processes, near misses, flukes, mistakes, disappointments, setbacks, disasters, obsessions, lucky accidents, unlucky accidents, scars, insecurities, disabilities, phobias, fixations, or insomnias over posters I should never have made. I do not want my portrait taken. Everybody uses everybody else for their own purposes, and I am happy to be just material for somebody else so long as I can exercise my right to remain silent, immobile, possibly armed, and at a distance of several miles.

Some find this to be an unduly aggressive response. Others have pointed out that it speaks to the luxury of being an artist who is so famous he can do whatever he wants. All true. But the appeal for me is something deeper.

My fundamental experience has been that much of what makes art so compelling and important cannot be languaged or articulated. And shouldn’t. That isn’t a notion that is necessarily in fashion right now. As John Seed pointed out in his piece, I Don’t Deconstruct, this unwillingness may be the result of my coming of age when spontaneity and engaging with the ineffable were in vogue. Those art school values have been replaced with a deconstructionist/postmodern/intellectual approach to art making, all of it very language dependent.

From Seed’s article:

Being able to “deconstruct” requires speaking and understanding a certain type of language, and subscribing to certain intellectual theories. People who are comfortable deconstructing converse in a language I call “artspeak.” Artspeak is—for contemporary artists, curators and critics—what Latin was for Medieval priests: an esoteric language that separates and elevates.

Some art lends itself to talk, talk, talk. And that verbally enhanced visuality can be stimulating. But Morris’ list of things he will not do marks off a territory where engagements with visuality are free to be unexpected, compelling and mysterious. Much of the “retinal flutter” (Marcel Duchamp‘s term, originally coined as a pejorative but my favorite phrase to describe those transcendent moments) will continue to exist outside a languaged explanation. That flutter is ambient in its natural state, always a bit furtive and endlessly undefined.

(Thank you Mira Schor for sharing this memorable Morris-to-Knafo response.)

11 Comment

  1. Sally Reed says:

    Superb. I think it would be an illuminating exercise to write twenty times in the left hand column I Do Not Want. And then fill in the blanks. I intend to try it. My list will probably be petty, but still …

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Great idea. I’m doing it too.

    2. A poem just might result.

  2. I know a lot of artists, myself included, who, if they were honest, would wish to be brave enough to say what Robert Morris said.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Jane. I’m with you on that.

  3. Tim Rice says:

    brilliant…thank you!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Feels good to read Morris’ words, I can’t deny that.

  4. jdsmlks says:

    First, a general comment about blogs, especially this one, how it brings up compelling ideas and references, what I might not encounter otherwise. Thank you. And it leads me to the library or bookstore or ebay or Amazon and a pile of books frequently. Morris seems a bit strident, however, I imagine someone has called, written, or knocked on his door too frequently over the years (not an issue for me). I went to John Seed’s (good name) article (and now I will seek out more of his writing) and found his notions about what is important to put into words reassuring. I recall writing a statement/proposal several years ago for a regional exhibition, attempting to respond in artspeak to the organizer’s artspeak. I’m moving away from that approach.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you for your words and for stopping by.

  5. Love this, Deborah.

  6. deborahbarlow says:

    So glad you resonate with this too Diane.

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