Hard Hats and Art Strikes: Robert Morris in 1970

Article excerpt

For his 1970 solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Morris: Recent Works, Robert Morris created process pieces-"spills" of concrete, timber, and steel-which filled the entire third floor of the museum (Fig. 1). These constructions, including a ninety-six-foot-long installation that spanned the length of the room, were the largest pieces the Whitney had ever exhibited (Fig. 2). Assembled over the space often days, the installations were built with the help of a team of more than thirty forklift drivers, crane operators, and building engineers, as well as a small army of professional art fabricators (Fig. 3).' An article in Tme magazine observed, "as workmen moved in with gantries, forklifts, and hydraulic jacks to help Morris do his thing, the museum took on the look of a midtown construction site."2 To accommodate the massive installations, the walls in the gallery space were removed, and there was concern that the floor might not be able to support their weight. Instead of a traditional opening, viewers were invited to watch the labor progress day after day, although after faulty rigging left an art installer injured, pinned under a steel plate, this component of the show came to a halt.3

Using machinery and multiple assistants to create large artworks was standard practice by 1970, and contemporaneous outdoor projects by Richard Serra (Shift, 1970-72) and Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty, 1970) dwarf Morris's Whitney exhibition in terms of sheer grandiosity. While most artworks of this scale require help from studio apprentices or installers, this exhibit uniquely theatricalized these workers' bodily involvement at the same time that it proposed an uneasy equality between artist and assistant. The pieces were made partially by chance; the workers rolled, scattered, and dropped concrete blocks and timbers, then left them to lie as they fell. In thus relinquishing compositional control, Morris insisted on an unprecedented degree of collaboration between himself and the workers who installed the show.

The show generated tremendous critical attention when it opened, yet it has been all but effaced from histories of the period, as well as largely overlooked within Morris's increasingly canonized oeuvre. Against this marginalization, I argue that the 1970 Whitney show was a vital turning point, and not just for the artist's own practice. It also critically redefined artistic labor, a crucial issue for the American avant-garde at this moment. Morris thematized the literal materials and means of construction work, and he enacted a work stoppage-an art strike-by shutting this show down early. By circumventing the studio and fabricating the work wholly on the floor of the museum, Morris figured the art itself as a specific kind of work, performed at a specific kind of work site.

In 1970, artistic work could mean anything and everything, from listing words on a sheet of paper to enacting task-based movements. This expansion and destabilization of artistic labor had significant political ramifications. "Work," broadly understood as a shorthand term for methods, process, and art pieces, also signaled the shifting relationship between artists and art institutions. This conception of the art institution as a work space was largely formulated by the Art Workers' Coalition (AWC) and the New York Art Strike against War, Racism, and Repression (Art Strike), two interrelated, short-lived, but important organizations. The AWC, founded in New York in 1969 to protect artists' rights, quickly expanded its agenda to include an ambitious slate of New Left concerns, including museum accessibility, diversity, and protest against the Vietnam War. The Art Strike, cochaired by Morris, came into being to initiate several antiwar actions directed against art institutions in May 1970 after the bombing of Cambodia by the United States military forces and the killing of several students during an antiwar protest at Kent State University. …