Sarah Morris

Concrete Ashtray

Ellsworth Kelly has always intrigued me as a riddle whose simplicity lies in color, geometry and shape. The forms that give rise to it are burned into my mind, retinal afterimages like when you look at the sun for too long. Newton wrote about it. It is not just about line, it is about negative space and its relationships and associations. It is also about serial production and one must stress, reception. It has entered the mainstream dialogue of architecture and design and even the seemingly taboo but sociological concept of ‘taste.’ Kelly is responsible for the abstraction in everything from architecture to advertising, and of course, art itself.

In 1999, I arranged and curated a group exhibition I banally titled ‘Concrete Ashtray.’ I organized it for Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York while I painted and prepared another exhibition for Modern Art Oxford. I thought in the meantime ( I like working in the spaces between things, it’s how I started making films. Literally while the paint was drying I would concoct excuses to be in situations and to make phone calls, one after the other. To me, art is ultimately about a series of conversations… ) let me try to create a setup, a theater of references, of contexts, of problems in relation to art, design and architecture. I assembled a set of works by Darren Almond, Charles and Ray Eames, David Hicks, Ellsworth Kelly, Jorge Pardo, Ed Ruscha, and yes, a painting from my ‘Midtown’ series, Viacom (Times Square Reflection) (1998).

The relationships between the arenas of art, architecture and design are constantly changing. The interfaces of these are in flux; meaning is open and ready to shift. Treatments are never neutral but range from psychological portraits to fragments of a functional environment. ‘Concrete Ashtray’ set up a series of juxtapositions between artists and designers I admire who are negotiators: negotiators of context, of scale, of exhibitions, of meaning. The exhibition proposed disjointed narratives, colors, geometry, function and even glamour – a subjective worldview where claims of objectivity are swamped by a constant rearrangement of the facts.

Kelly’s work interests me in a litany of ways: through color, serial production, form, line, psychological effects, scale, and of course, architectural play. His work in the show was Mirrored Concorde from 1971. Made of chrome-plated steel, it is at once a dialectic between the industrial and the organic (although personally, I can’t hear the word ‘Concorde’ without thinking of high-speed travel and J. G. Ballard and again, ashtrays and gin and tonics, suits and briefcases, grids and numbers, destinations and protocol.) It evokes a freedom that is perhaps a fictional tableau and ultimately a fantasy. I placed it nearby Charles and Ray Eames’s seminal film Powers of Ten (1968), Ruscha’s Magnetic of 1974 (made from blueberry juice on moiré), two details of David Hicks designed fabric and an ashtray he conceived and sold in his London store.

For me Kelly’s work possesses a nonlinguistic silence that requires an answer. Can abstraction ever claim to be non-social? How do we read these forms in the given time and space? Vision and visuality are never purely abstract; they are always social. One can never deny architecture, its ideological restraints and its power towards meaning. The meaning of the work is determined by the viewer and is at first visceral, it is certainly an ‘encounter.’ Vision is never just about line, never just about color, but about the artistic gesture in time, a chain of gestures and a series of competing chronologies. Color can never be divorced from its social use and its psychological and behavioral effects. These are studied phenomena and where Kelly starts to play with the seeming absence of meaning, the seeming absence of language, I pick up with the idea of social noise; as volume, as congestion, as a pictured virtual ‘mass’ and its distribution and propaganda; social pathways, diagrams of behavior and thought, always moving, always interfacing.

My paintings are never resolved images (neither are Kelly’s). Each generates the next; they are continually self-splintering, self-generating and potentially unending. It is not about a single image. It is about an experience, an encounter that replicates an earlier social situation, or a future meeting, or thought. It’s not about the idea of architecture being simplified to a subject but perhaps, art sharing certain strategies with it, along side it for a completely different set of goals. This parallels to the passenger who entered the Greyhound Bus Terminal, a corporate lobby in Philadelphia’s Transportation Building and walked next to Kelly’s Sculpture for a Large Wall (1957). A point of departure, an entry, a portal into the city or an emptying out of the day of commerce, a subtle mind erase at once conjuring up images of a workforce and suggesting a departure of such a social position.

Sarah Morris