How Do You Do It? – Jason Stopa interviews Robert C. Morgan

 Portrait of Robert C. Morgan. 2013.

On-Verge: You’re a critic, artist, poet, art historian and professor.  How do these varied interests affect one another?  And how do you allot time for each?

Robert C. Morgan: First off, I would like to rephrase the question. I am an art critic — this is true, but I am also a practicing artist. After completing my MFA in 1975, I was encouraged to pursue a Ph.D. and wrote the first dissertation in this country on Conceptual Art. I soon discovered that being a critic/scholar and an artist was incomprehensible to many, even though there are precedents throughout the history of art, ranging from Goethe to John Ruskin, from Roland Penrose to Robert Motherwell, among others. In China, for example, the artist/scholar (or literati) go as far back as the Song Dynasty in the 10th Century, and later flourished in the Yuan Dynasty during the Mongolian period in the late 13th Century. 

As for the allotment of time, one simply does what one has to do. I am an artist, so I paint and, less frequently, perform. Concurrently, I am a writer and critic, so I write, probably more than I have ever written before. I have developed a schedule that allows me to move effectively from one to the other. It took a while to figure this out, to make it work the way I wanted. The point is that I do it.  I am also invited to various parts of the world, functioning mainly as a critic.  In addition, I continue to teach, but no longer full-time. Twelve years ago, I made the decision to cut back on my academic involvement in order to regain the freedom I needed to do my work, to regenerate my position as an artist. It was not easy, but I believe it was the right decision. Regardless of what I am doing, it all relates to art and how I think as an artist. This is the source of all my varied interests and involvements, regardless of what level I work.

OV:  You’ve written several books on art over the years, some historical, others critical essays.  What is your take on contemporary criticism?

RCM: In fact, I have written and edited many books on contemporary art and criticism, published in the United States, with several translations made by foreign publishers. Probably the best known is a book called The End of the Art World (NY: Allworth Press, 1998), which drew a certain amount of controversy when it first appeared. It was the possibly first book to argue against the kinds of art associated with investors in contrast to individuals who collect.  I also made a distinction between inner-directed artists and out-directed artists, which, in retrospect seems somewhat superficial. Nonetheless, the examples I gave were empirically based on experience where I tried to clarify the recent history of contemporary art and suggest avenues by which the social atmosphere was changing in a way that did not appear positive. The book was either embraced by artists who identified with the position or attacked by those who felt I was demeaning the presumed “cutting edge” as a mere trope by which to seduce big money into the art world.

I discovered many misreadings of what I said, including those who felt I was against dealers and collectors, which I was not, and still am not. This is too general an assumption to have any meaning. I have to say that many of these individuals are brilliant people who have a clear affinity for art and for the artists they represent and/or collect. Many are loyal to their constituents and have a great deal to offer in terms of their knowledge and points of view.

As for criticism today, I am honestly not certain that it exists. There are many comments and attempts at theory, but few of these are serious or even original. Many alternative publications (including websites) have now fallen into step with mainstream marketing in terms of editing or deleting original points of points. The lack of tolerance for meaningful criticism today is insufferable, and there are few editors willing to defend this principle. Criticism is not marketing and should not follow an academic or institutional prerequisite. It should be equally knowledgeable and liberated as any significant advanced art is supposed to be.

OV:  You recently had two exhibits this past winter.  Can you tell On-Verge about these?

RCM: I showed a partial series of recent abstract geometric paintings at two small, not so visible galleries. These paintings continue to explore the use of ultramarine and umber with metallic pigments.  As mention previously, I am interested in the immediate sensation of the reflection and absorption of light. I understand this as an Eastern idea, primarily from the Tao Te Ching. This sixth century B.C. document suggests the absence of polar opposites in favor of a complementary integration that erases opposition. I have been interested in this idea since 1968 when I lived in Santa Barbara, California. My first series of geometric abstract paintings (oil on canvas) was called Paintings of the Tao Te Ching.

Robert C. Morgan. Aerial Diagram For Triangular Symmetry / Swimming & Ancient Wars. 1988.
Crayon and marker drawing on paper. 17″ x 22″.

The two small groups of paintings in two galleries from East and West Chelsea explored copper, gold, silver, and bronze acrylic paint on canvas. The initial concept has not changed. I am interested in the instantaneous effect, but without pretension.

The show on Orchard Street in the lower East Side, in a gallery called Rooster, is a spectacular, albeit, small gallery, run by two young art entrepreneurs. I was very happy to show a series of my early works (1974 – 88) related to issues of translation as a metaphor of swimming. The work, titled The Swimming Lessons, includes a series of 10 drawings that resemble musical scores (with small color photographs). These were shown on the street level gallery with an audiotape of two young women struggling to translate the meaning of the fragments included in Duchamp’s Green Box from French to English.

Robert C. Morgan. Pools. Video Still. 1974 – 1979.

Downstairs was a film, entitled Pools (1974-79), shot in California, Wichita (Kansas), and the Northeastern United States. Also included was a vitrine of my artists’ books based on images of swim models in dry land positions, appropriated from 1937 swim manuals as they attempted to imitate fluidity though in dry land positions. This result is ultimately absurd, which attracted me greatly.

Both exhibitions are about translation and the evolution of knowledge through swimming.  The psychology in these works is not so much about an empty mind as a swim mind.  Because these works are not known in New York (even though the concept was presented on the 4th floor of the Whitney Museum during my “Translocation” performance in 1976) I wanted to re-present it again as a section of time that would finally lead me back to abstract geometric painting, which is where my work continues to reside. The major difference between my early period and my work today is a better understanding of Eastern thought and how non-duality works in relation to intuition and the transmission of thought as art.

OV: What new developments have you noticed taking place in NYC?

RCM:  There are aspects of the art world today that are both positive and negative. At the same time, one must be aware of external contingencies that are pressuring artists, such as real estate. The lack of adequate legislature to protect artists in terms of living and studio space, particularly in developing areas, needs to be realized. A serious, culturally defined tax incentive to encourage property owners to maintain a base rate for artists needs to happen. This would be a great boon to the brave new mayor and his administration who aspire to retain New York City as the world’s leading multicultural center. Let’s hope they vote in support of artists who continue to make this happen.


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