Robert MORRIS, Untitled Enlarge 1 /1


United States of America born 1931

Untitled 1969 Place made: New York, United States of America
Materials & Technique: sculptures, felt

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: display size 284.0 h x 363.2 w x 111.8 d cm lying flat 187.0 h x 538.5 w x 3.0 d cm variable 290.0 h x 378.0 w x 104.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1975
Accession No: NGA 75.152
Subject: Art style: Process art
Image rights: © Robert Morris/ ARS. Licensed by Viscopy
  • the artist;
  • from whom bought by Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, 1970(?);
  • from whom bought by the Interim Council of the Australian National Gallery, September 1975

Robert Morris, one of the foremost American Minimalist artists, is best known for his geometric plywood sculptures. From 1967 he also worked in felt. Initially the artist’s use of this pliant highly absorbent material was opportunistic (he was attracted by its cheapness or availability), but it became his preferred medium for almost a decade. In the earlier plywood works of the early to mid-1960s, Morris drew attention to the complex nature of the viewer’s experience of the object.[1] By emphasising the relationship between the work, the environment and the viewer interacting with his sculpture, Morris made the movement of the viewer and the changing conditions of the gallery into principal features of the work. In this sense, although his sculptures in wood look emphatically hard and immobile, they were intended to highlight the contingent nature of aesthetic experience.

In the later 1960s, in a series of texts including ‘Anti-form’ and ‘Some notes on the phenomenology of making’, Morris argued that to achieve this contingent aesthetic it was necessary to move beyond Minimalism.[2] He criticised his earlier, geometric sculptures for their over-emphasis on a pre-conceived approach to making―what he called the rational ideal of the ‘well built.’ This approach―now described by him as an arbitrary, imposed ordering system―did not sufficiently account for the processes of making accorded by the chosen material. He praised Jackson Pollock’s use of gravity and chance as examples of how one might allow the material itself to determine form. In opposition to building, Morris suggested dropping, hanging and leaning as suitable principles of making. These are the principles behind the production of this work, Untitled 1969.

Another way to read this work is to see the soft and pliable properties of the felt material as a way of obliquely referring to the human body. As the artist commented in a 1983 interview, ‘felt has anatomical associations; it relates to the body―it’s skinlike.’[3] In this sense, these works are not only about the idea of artistic contingency but also openly evoke the nature and experience of the body. In this way Morris moved beyond Minimalism’s subtle incorporation of the viewer’s movement into the experience of the work, to make open references to the material quality of the viewer’s body itself. Due to its variable nature, Untitled appears different at every installation. Depending on the profile of the felt, the work can suggest the look and feel of clothing worn close to the body; it can also carry a pathos, associated with the sagging, gravity-bound destination of all flesh.

Dr Anthony White
Lecturer in Art History
The University of Melbourne

[1]  See, for example, Slab (platform) and Slab (cloud)—first constructed in plywood in 1962, and remade in painted aluminium in 1973; collection of the National Gallery of Australia

[2] The two texts were first published in Artforum; in 1968 (vi/8 1968, pp 33–5) and 1970 (viii/8, pp 62–6) respectively; both texts have been subsequently republished and are often quoted

[3] Robert Morris: the mind/body problem, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1994, p 213

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: National Gallery of Australia exhibition SoftSculpture (reference )

Morris first began to make sculptures using felt on a trip to Aspen, Colorado, in the summer of 1967. He went to Aspen to take up a studio offered to him by the John Power Institute. At the time he was working in fibreglass, but found the setting of the fibreglass difficult to control at Aspen because of the altitude. The studio was an old felt factory, with remnants of felt still lying. Morris began to make use of them: 'Felt was used for a number of reasons-if reasons are necessary, or believable-one reason being that whatever I could pre-conceive in the cutting would be altered and often obscured in the hanging (which was never pre-conceived).1 Several of the early felt pieces were cut in the same way as the piece in the Australian National Gallery:

especially in the early works, some had [the] same, or very similar cuts and were hung in different ways. Some had, for me anyway a number of possible hanging positions. But when things go out of the studio they tend to get finalised. I never insisted that a given work be hung from time to time in another position (which I would have done had I kept the work). Well, Brancusi was a/ways rearranging those bases, so there is a precedent.2

Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.321.

  1. Robert Morris, correspondence with the Gallery, 19 May 1986.
  2. ibid.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra