Upon entering the Rooster Gallery in the Lower East Side of New York one is struck by its pristine interior installed with the delectable Robert C. Morgan exhibition The Swimming Lessons, 1981 (Translating Duchamp’s Green Box) that ran from October 30th to December 1, 2013. Apparently, this show was first conceived as a performance that he videotaped in 1981 of two women reading and transcribing random text from Duchamp’s Green Box notes. In the ground level gallery, we heart the recorded sound of two women struggling with the translation of Duchamp's notes from French to English. Although the Betamax imagery decomposed in storage over time, Morgan used the surviving sound recording to superimpose over his film stills used in a series of notational drawings mounted on the gallery’s two walls.
Duchamp's statement to Pierre Cabanne "...I didn’t just float along! I had eight years of swimming lessons" alludes to several aspects of this show. Ostensibly, the first is about swimming as a metaphor for expertise and indeed Morgan is an accomplished artist who has engaged with conceptual installations and performances since the1970s. In 1976 Marcia Tucker the then Whitney Museum curator invited Morgan to participate in one of the first museum exhibits with performance art and, in 1977 Helene Wiener held a solo exhibition of his appropriated photographs from swimming manuals at Artists Space. Consequently, Morgan has proven to be not only one of the earliest American artists to produce conceptual installation but also performance and appropriation type art.
Secondly, Morgan has a long history with swimming itself as a structural, psychological and social art-making device. When examining Morgan’s oeuvre and his many appropriated images from swimming manuals, his drawings of swimming directional charts, his paintings and his videotape they all confirm that the spirit of Duchampian instigation lives on. John Cage’s comment that there’s nothing new and that everything already exists challenges the viewer to look at the ordinary as art. By appropriating, de and re-contextualizing Morgan has created art that not only is original but also defies the ordinary.
In 1914, Duchamp visited an aircraft factory promising to give up painting in the face of this new technology that he thought was art. Contrary to his much admired Duchamp, Morgan is still painting but even his painting contains a conceptual basis in its structure. When looking at his painting B.B.O. in Rio #2 one finds structural corollaries as well as morphological ones as has his still from Page 9, of The Swimming Lessons, 2013. Many of his shapes allude to swimming pools and diving boards as well as directional swimming routes. The geometric hard edge is there even in his arcs seen in the drawings from The Swimming Lessons. Another example of the underlying structural aspects of his painting can be found in his use of the V pattern in a drawing such pool Diagram for Triangular Symmetry / Swimming & Ancient Wars, 1988 (Graphite, and Prisma Color on Graph Paper) when compared to an early painting, titled The Six Elements, 2010 (metallic pigment, and acrylic on canvas).
Morgan’s appropriated photographs of a man on a table in swimming pose in its irony is reminiscent of Duchamp’s readymade Bicycle Wheel, 1915. In the latter Duchamp decontextualizes and re-contextualizes the object by combining a bicycle wheel placed on top of a stool thereby denying the usefulness of both objects. Morgan’s Bather, is a hysterically funny parody of literality while simultaneously referencing his inspiration, and favorite pastime -- swimming. Swimming has always been at the forefront of Morgan’s imagination and as organizing and structural principle is underlying his painted works and appears more overtly in his films and diagrams. It deals with the idea of movement within stasis, and stasis within movement as found in the Tao Te Ching that implicitly contains all opposites as complementary.
Morgan has been influenced by Eastern philosophy and has special connections to China and Korea where he visited numerous times. He was particularly impressed by the works of the artist Yun, Hyong-Geun that he saw on the occasion of a Korean Monochrome (Danseakhwa) exhibition at the Gwangju Museum of Art in 2000. Morgan was especially impacted by Yun's use of the colors ultramarine and burnt umber that absorb light, which he later transformed into a hard edge motif as a counterpoise to his use metallic pigments that reflect light. Opposites reside in the Tao Te Ching in which the absorption and reflection of light are the same, a concept that Morgan represents subtly yet skillfully.
In general, Morgan's work focuses on time, space, light, and energy. These elements are present throughout his work, whether they involve searching for conceptual clarity through a translation or capturing the energy and light off the surface of a pool. Morgan’s art represents a kind of paradox between fracture and meaningful discovery. His recent paintings are about coming to terms with interior reality as a form of concrete abstraction. Each of his works is a statement as to how the most fundamental elements that govern the universe function within us and how they generate a clear vision of how we read our environment. In a traditional Asian way, Morgan’s art moves intuitively toward a synthesis of concrete and sensorial perception. It becomes a paradox of universal and specific qualities that defines our position in the world -- not through denial but through an embrace of perception and the perennial evocation of meaning through feeling. - Thalia Vrachopoulos, Ph.D.
Both images above, Pools (1974-79), S-8 film in DVD format, projection size (variable)
Dr. Vrachopoulos holds a Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and specializes in the Asian and contemporary/modern. She has published critical essays and lectured widely in the United States and abroad.