Ree Morton’s survey “Be a Place, Place an Image, Imagine a Poem” (titled after lines the American artist jotted in a notebook) takes viewers through more than 100 drawings, paintings and installations she produced in a span of nine years. Morton (1936-1977) left her husband and children at 30 to pursue a career in art and died in a car accident at 40. The show—roughly chronological—is cleverly arranged: it starts off low-key and ends with a succession of opulent, Rococo-inspired installations bordering on kitsch.
The first piece, an untitled assemblage dated 1971-73, occupies a small, otherwise empty gallery. Morton created this early work shortly after completing her graduate studies at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, which was one of the go-to cities for aspiring artists at the time. There she met, among others, Gordon Matta-Clark and Sol LeWitt as well as her mentor, New Museum founder Marcia Tucker. Two tall, white, varnished branches lean against the wall, supporting a bundle of pastel-colored branches in the crook of their forked tops. This structure frames a gouache on canvas that presents two Y shapes, quite clearly mirroring the branches. Ostentatiously facing the entrance of a concurrent exhibition at the Reina Sofía dedicated to Carl Andre, this work, with its almost primitive form, leaves no doubt that Morton was well acquainted with the cutting-edge art of her time and shared an interest in the formal questions raised by Minimal and Conceptual art. Further evidence of this appears in three untitled grid paintings, realized between 1968 and 1970 and exhibited in an adjacent room. Colored in a range of earth tones—from gray to dark brown—the grids are executed with utter disregard for geometric precision. Sometimes thicker, sometimes thinner, the quickly drawn lines are never completely parallel and form unevenly shaped squares, resembling magnified cells under a microscope.
Through her playful use of color, the found materials she frequently employed and the handmade, de-skilled character of her work, Morton manages to incorporate expression and a personal style—all of which Minimalism was desperate to exclude. Apart from that, the Y motif of the opening assemblage, suggesting a crossroads, not only poses the question of where Morton should position herself in relation to the art of her time but also testifies to her preoccupation with mapping territories. The retrospective offers six “Game Map Drawings” (1972-73). These aerial maps of parks with little ponds and hills are framed by doodlelike patterns of semicircles surrounding diamond shapes, giving the impression that we are looking at children’s board games. A photo in the exhibition catalogue suggests that the watercolors once served as fictional maps for a 1973 outdoor piece in a park. They would rapidly evolve into wall-hung maps in acrylic. In one of these, Paintings and Objects (1973), a dotted line echoes the edges of an unstretched canvas, and seems to be extended into the gallery space by wooden logs placed on the floor. From there, Morton was only a small step away from totally abandoning the wall, which she did in Souvenir Piece. In this 1973 installation she arranged various objects—stones, wooden fragments, tree stumps, all found during a vacation with her children in Newfoundland—into a small, imaginary landscape on a green platform resting on rickety knee-high pickets.
In 1974 Morton discovered Celastic, a fabric that could be shaped when treated with a solvent and that hardened when dry. With this material, her works became opulent and brightly colored, as she embraced decorative arts and even cliché with an ironic wink. The last three rooms of the show contain large-scale installations dedicated to this body of work. Ruffles are everywhere; bows appear on the walls as if poised to fly off like butterflies at any moment. However, none of the Celastic-based works are naive. As in her previous works, where she was coming to terms with contemporary art, Morton was exploring the formal aspects of her medium in these pieces. In For Kate (1976), yellow, red and pink Celastic roses on the wall surround a painted vignette of roses in a dramatic Celastic frame. The overdone painting and the flowers on the wall that could easily be mistaken for cake decoration are only one example of the artist’s continuous pushing of painting’s boundaries.
A drawing showing 14 basic forms of leaves in modernist architect Louis Sullivan’s book A System of Architectural Ornaments (1924) prompted Morton to make a series of acrylic paintings, “Manipulations of the Organic” (1977). Each painting pairs a black-and-white rendition of one of Sullivan’s exemplary symmetrical forms on the left with Morton’s own colorful, voluminous interpretation on the right. This last body of work, in her life and in the show, points to the broad range of discourses that Morton engaged.
Now that so much art looks like Ree Morton’s, it’s hard to imagine just how radical her work appeared in the ’70s. In her brief career (she got her BFA in 1968 at 32, and died in a car accident at 41) and without even seeming to try, Morton turned everything upside down. Although she was surely reacting to the male-dominated, pared-down, intellectually based art prevalent at the time and therefore can certainly be considered a feminist, Morton did not take a political stance as much as simply use art to make sense of her life as a woman. In doing so, she introduced feminine values (she once designed a series of nautical signal flags representing her friends, many of them women, and flew them from a schooner in New York Harbor), oblique personal narrative and droll aphorisms that could be seen as precursors to those of Jenny Holzer and the Guerrilla Girls.
Thumbing her nose at then current taboos, Morton blithely decorated her pieces with ruffles, swags and curtains, making everything—paintings, drawings, sculpture—in a natural, unstudied way that Lucy Lippard termed “confrontational innocence.” In a notebook, Morton said she aimed to be “light and ironic on serious subjects without frivolity.” Her work helped to legitimize decoration as well as personal notation and brought humor to an over-earnest art world.
This exhibition, “At the Still Point of the Turning World”(titled after a T.S. Eliot poem Morton kept above her studio desk), featured some of Morton’s smaller, more intimate pieces, which had previously been overlooked in favor of the flamboyant sculpture made of a plastic-and-fabric material resembling papier-mâché that became her signature medium. Along with examples of drawing-based sculptural works, there was a wall installation of what Morton called “Wood Drawings” (1971), which consist of small found fragments of wood, rough and punctured with nails or staples. More familiar were drawings from a series in which she riffs on Victorian botanical descriptions (“Jack-in-the-Pulpit: murderer of innocent benefactors, a gay deceiver, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, brother to dragons—comes from a rascally family, anyhow”), turning them into statements of a homey, sardonic philosophy.
Most poignant was the selection of notebook sketches and a series of small pencil drawings that Morton made when still a graduate student at the Tyler School of Art, in which she seems to take on Minimalism with the intention of infusing it with emotional content. She makes use of repetitive marks in these drawings in a way that stresses their slight differences one from another, so that her geometry assumes a subtle biological tinge; some marks resemble cuts or wounds, and others seem to quiver like paramecia under a microscope. Unpretentious as they are, the drawings contain all of the strength and vulnerability, intimacy and humor that would surface in the later work which made her so influential.
Photo: Ree Morton: Trumpet Weed, 1974, crayon and colored pencil on paper, 22 by 30 inches; at the Drawing Center.