Ree Morton: At the Still Point of the Turning World at the Drawing Center
This article was a “Topical Pick from the Archives” in February 2011 to coincide with a current exhibition at Alexander and Bonin.
September 18 – December 18, 2009
35 Wooster Street, between Grand and Broome,
New York City, 212-219-2166
Ree Morton is known for her fast development and short career, for being a woman and for giving us a glimpse early on of what would become important much later. Looking back on her career we see the formative stages of a kind of art practice that has become a given today. Does this mean that Morton was influential, or someone for whom what was essential only became apparent or noteworthy to others much later?
Morton’s drawings in The Drawing Center’s main gallery exhibit a wide variety of styles and seemingly divergent concerns. What might make for an unsettling experience is grounded in the drive of her inquiring mind, subtly apparent underlying these works. From the serial repetition drawings of the early 1970s, which seem to reflect a coming to terms with the dominant trend of the time, to the highly idiosyncratic plant drawings from a few years later, which realize her move from grids to living things, Morton begins what are to become intense investigations of the decorative and the daemonic. Though many of the drawings struck me as pieces that would have been edited out had the artist had a longer career, the Drawing Center’s exhibition affords a view of the diverse origins of an artist and a chance to see what Morton might have synthesized had her oeuvre had more than a ten year span.
A trio of totemic wood block pieces from 1974, encased in plexiglas boxes at the entrance to the main gallery are studies for her Whitney installation of that year, To Each Concrete Man. Her use of living materials like skin or wood is consistent both with the anima one feels in them and her interest in Kachina dolls and Sumerian idols, items on her ‘like’ list, in a notebook displayed nearby. In attempting to locate her sensibility, the eroticism in the orifices of her early repetition drawings suggests the beginnings of a deeper interest in what moves from within. Another notebook entry from 1975 reads “The point in all cases is that the deities must be made to laugh.”
A series of plant drawings taking off from “Wild Flowers Worth Knowing,” a 1917 text by Neltje Blanchan, reflects Morton’s preoccupation with Nature. There is a curious relationship in these drawings between figure and ground. A hazy blending of colored pencils create a sensitive landscape where most of the drawing’s energy resides and which seems to be Morton’s real interest, and yet you can’t see much of it because of the headline banners hastily drawn in crayon that occupy most of the foreground. For example, “Conspicuous advertisements” is the banner text in Trumpet Weed (1974) which also lets us know that “The ranks of floral missionaries need recruits.”
Seen from today’s perspective Morton looks like an early ecology advocate, and the drawings betray her striving to relay that agenda. Yet her endeavors cannot be so reduced. On one hand, she has made an 180º turn in the plant drawings from the way the totemic pieces communicate and yet in terms of subject both they and the sculpture Devil Chaser2nd version (1975-76) speak to the loss of spirit in the landscape that the totemic works depend on for their efficacy. Morton’s language is highly individual yet at the same time doesn’t close itself down. It’s the opening of these kinds of problematics that give the exhibition its sustaining tension.
It’s no wonder she would portray the “Swamp Cabbage” or “Skunk Cabbage,” which according to Blanchan “ proclaims spring in the very teeth of winter, being the first bold adventurer above ground.”. Blanchan also tells us that these plants have their unpleasant odor in order to attract the flies that pollinate them. The rhythm of Morton’s colored pencil lines in “Swamp Cabbage” mimic the rise and fall of the stomach when encountering the banner text “Putrid nest”, giving a glimpse of the kind of synthesis that might have developed in her work between text and form. These drawings are for the most part awkward and as in the more purely decorative works that confront the legacy of Louis Sullivan, they evidence an uncomfortable collision of her formal acumen, intellectual pursuits and intuitive knowledge. Their latency gives us space to imagine, however, that her work would have born much fruit as evolution of her interests worked themselves out through her mind’s eye.
In the project space across the street Wood Drawings, in various drawing materials on found wood from 1971, are spaced carefully on a long wall. Her sculptural drawings are tasteful and clean in contrast to her funky approach to wood where sometime two or more pieces are fashioned together and then drawn on and painted on with hardware occasionally attached. The repetition of shapes against the wall brings irregular rhythms into play against the more regular patterns drawn on them. The bare nothingness of her found materials forces a hinge or a screw to appear in a new way, or the details in a piece of wood to reveal that it was once a living form. In one of them, Morton mimics the pattern of a hinge’s screw holes in pencil so that it feels like it is a knot in the wood. Many of the pieces have a strong aura that leaves one searching for a way to account for their being.
The repetitions in Morton’s work raise issues of counting in a way that recalls Yves Bonnefoy’s remark on the primary significance of number in the quatrocento: “There is a moment of seeming victory, when Number is taken to be a sort of gnosis”. Morton draws on a rich history – from the so called ‘dark ages’ to ritualistic objects – to give ballast to the whimsy of her execution, an opposition that brings these pieces to life.
Her move away from purely animistic works comes quickly and finds expression in Untitled (stretcher piece). Two tree stumps sit on a stretcher-like platform, the handles of which look like roughly hewn pencil ends. Each of the stumps is covered with doodling patterns in silver marker on the bark, which is partially hidden underneath. While doodling is also a way of foregrounding unconscious impulses, Morton’s redrawing of the patterns of the bark seems closer to Jean Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacrum which the French critical theorist was putting forward around the time these drawings were being made.
There is a subtext running through much of Morton’s works that laments the death of the soul in the things of the world around her, and certainly the tree stumps reinforce this reading. This bring to mind Joseph Beuys, both particular works such as his sled pieces and also the tenor of his shamanistic concerns. Morton’s Untitled (stretcher piece) serves as a warning.
The installation of Morton’s works in the Drawing Center opens more questions about her intentions than it resolves. At this point when Morton’s work is being revisited it serves as a welcome provocation.