Thursday, 20 September 2007



(First published 28th March 2007)

Sarah Morris is noted for large-scale, geometric abstraction that builds planes in perspective from heavy or wide outlines, with flat colours in house paint. Morris also makes short movies that are shown as DVDs and these sometimes display sources for the paintings, elsewhere explore related events and personalities. Here focus is on the paintings.
These are lively for their combination of Minimalism with computer-based design (see also Post 14). Works build Minimalist perspectives from grids, or Minimalist grids from perspectives, depending upon one’s allegiance. Either way, the work provocatively returns to the venerated legacy of parallel lines (stripes) single or flat colours and hard edges. There is something both mocking and nostalgic about the ease with which these designs are executed in our digital age and their application to painting. The works feel perfunctory or no more than designs, but once we see this, it is hard not to say the same of a Noland, or Davis, for example. A Stella might labour the execution, in materials and technique stripped to a minimal effort, but never the design or drawing. A Morris skips the pantomime although retains a Stella-like preference for industrial paints and cuts to the issues of scale and location. Not surprisingly, she undertakes imposing mural commissions or applies designs equally to rugs. But the old dream of a seamless integration of painting with architecture and a larger civic purpose is just nostalgia now. The all-encompassing urban design was never popular, pertinent or permanent enough. Painting prospers by its protest.
The allusions to architecture and especially skyscrapers in her work marry the civic ideal to cyberspace, and the virtual architecture of information. The three-dimensional frameworks extend endlessly, are minimal and yet mutable. Morris varies line width, colour, interval and angle of intersection, builds information from permutation. Designs derive from actual buildings or cities Miami, Los Angeles and Morris codes colour, line and shapes accordingly (although her sources seem fairly arbitrary). Whether or not they reflect their sources in subtle or vague ways, all the same, line and colour traits associated with ‘Miami’ or ‘Los Angles’ become a way of configuring grids and spaces, become virtual places within her schemes, and merit the same attention as a Mondrian or Marden.
The play between abstraction and architecture, 2D and 3D, can exchange outline for volumes, as in the work of Al Held, can toy with spatial ambiguities, as in a Victor Vasarely or Joseph Albers, indeed all the way back to The Bauhaus heritage. For Morris, grids and perspectives have led to less certain layers or planes, and in her recent show at Friedrich Petzel NY, she adopts the linked rings of the Olympic Games logo, its periodic variation offering local and historic nuances, inspiring other allusions. In other works she has turned from the steady angles that build depth to more crystalline arrays, in the Origami works. As the title suggests, the works are derived from the patterns of the ancient paper-folding art. But the results are hardly diagrams, and while one can detect the key diagonal axis, the distribution of colour and surprising asymmetries make it clear the works are about a family of angles and colours, although hardly some tidy mathematical ‘tiling’ exercise (these not without artistic potential of course).
Origami provides the proportion and angles but Morris abstracts them with colour and tone (or shades of a colour) as another deft interface between two dimensions and three. The ‘folds’ or axes now allot colour and tone to a range of shapes across the picture, without revealing how they might combine when folded. Again, range of colours, shapes and line, whatever their use once folded, here serve to organise the picture, create ‘places’ or spaces just as her grids and perspectives do.

Where origami will lead Morris remains to be seen. But it does at least point to the largely forgotten issue of variety of angles in geometric abstraction, and perhaps to earlier efforts, particularly in the 50s, by artists such as Richard Mortensen, Olle Baertling, Jo Delahaut and many others. Names that tend to get overlooked in recording the triumphant march to Minimalism. Morris is clearly not a dedicated formalist and her ambivalent attitude toward abstraction and painting, makes some observers sceptical. But she obviously recognises the need to revisit and preserve their foundations. Her raids upon the borders are one way of refreshing and inspiring them.

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