Andrew Chesher

"Desublimating the Gestalt: Towards an Archaeology of Robert Morris’s Anti Form"

Saturday, December 16 // 10.15h // Kunsthalle Mainz


In his essay series ‘Notes on Sculpture’ (published in Artforum between February 1966 and June 1967) Robert Morris laid out what became an influential phenomenological conception of sculpture. At its centre was the notion of the gestalt. Morris took this concept from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose Phenomenology of Perception presented the thesis that the fundamental way in which the world allows itself to be encountered is as a gestalt, a situation-specific relation that exceeds the sum of its parts. The influence of Morris’s account can be judged by the fact that writers as opposed in their sensibilities as Michael Fried and Robert Smithson subjected it and its avatars to criticism. In the latter half of the 1960s Smithson, for his part, often revelled in images and experiences that polemically exploded what he viewed as the facile anthropocentrism of gestalt perception. Within a couple of years Morris himself seemed to depart from the focus of his earlier essays and the simple geometry of works such as his classic L-beams (1965-67) and to move closer to Smithson’s position. In the closing years of the decade he gravitated to the more entropic concerns of process and materiality, as espoused in his essay ‘Anti Form’ (April 1968) and exemplified by works made of piles of thread waste, earth and mirrors.

Throughout its changes of emphasis, Morris’s approach remained phenomenological in orientation into the 1970s; yet the concept of the gestalt was subsequently condemned as conservative and even reactionary by some theorists (Krauss and Bois’s Formless, A User’s Guide, 1997, being a case in point). One question this raises is the degree to which anti form, with its process- and event-orientation and its affective resonances, should be viewed as a development or contradiction of the gestalt-orientated conception of sculpture. The juxtaposition of a phenomenology based in a Merleau-Pontian gestaltist ontology and the espousal of desublimated, entropic materialism indeed throws up contradictions: whereas Merleau-Ponty’s gestalt ontology entails the subject as a moment within its conception of the phenomenal world, entropy, like its counterpart, information, imply a flat ontology with no need of a subject.

Rather than attempting to resolve these contradictions theoretically, this paper will approach them archaeologically and consider Morris’s various theoretical statements within the broader contemporary context. Specifically, it will explore the place that Morris’s gestaltist and anti-form conceptions of sculpture hold within the larger field of discursive and artistic practices in the late 1960s, and in particular how they relate to other post-modernist ‘dematerialising’ tendencies (Smithsonian entropy, in particular). What connects Morris’s earlier emphasis on the dissolution of the object into its situation and his later focus on its dissolution into process and matter? Where Krauss and Bois see the indeterminacy of chance and entropic processes signalled by anti form as the repudiation of the upright, unified phenomenological body, this paper will ask whether it is not possible to discern a congruence between anti form and other aspects of phenomenology, namely Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the incompleteness of the phenomenon and his critique of positivism, along with his focus on situated perception and concomitant repudiation of idealism. If, in the minimal work Morris was theorising, the sublimation of material experiences into ideal forms was evoked, anti form was the continuation of the artist’s long term interest in the desublimation of ideal and institutional forms into base material and experience. Phenomenology seemed to have offered a way of mediating these two tendencies.

Andrew Chesher is Year 1 Leader on the Fine Art BA course at Chelsea College of Art, where he teaches both in the studio and lectures on Art Theory. He completed a PhD entitled entitled Seeing Connections: Documentary as a Social Practice in 2007 and is the founder of the research community entitled Informed Matters at the University of the Arts, London, which explores the relation between models of matter, informational systems and art and design practices. Informed Matters second annual symposium takes place on 29 September in London under the title Disobedience and Complex Systems. His current research is focused on the historical and critical connections between Neo-avantgarde and post-conceptual practices and phenomenology, based on which he has given a series of papers at conferences in Switzerland, Italy, Poland and the UK. His documentaries Changing the System, on Christian Wolff's 1972 composition of the same name, and Knots and Fields, on the Darmstadt Ferien Kurse für Neue Musik, have been screened internationally.