Sarah Morris, 1984 [Rings], 2006, Household Gloss Paint on Canvas, 214 x 214 cm
Among the artists of her generation, those who formed part of her immediate environment in the New York of the 1990s, Sarah Morris has a special position in several respects: the issues she confronts in her pictures do not in any way relate to those that were developing around her at the time, such as those linked to the formalisation of inter-human relationships (at a time when artists such as Philippe Parreno and Rirkrit Tiravanija were close to her) or to American painting in fashion — John Currin, Karen Kilimnik, Elizabeth Peyton and Sean Landers, who were promoting a form of figurative art inspired by popular culture. However, her early works, as I saw them in her studio in 1995, used news items and headline stories from daily newspapers such as the New York Post as their basic materials: her credo was already to give information a definite and extremely solid form. What is common to us all, what we cannot escape from, is no doubt the guiding principle of a work that deals with the particular in such a way as to bring out its universal features, and becomes attached to circumstances with the aim of highlighting the cloud of information and ideology in which we live and breathe every day.
In its most general form, Sarah Morris’ aim is to create “a new visual language based on insights into contemporary experience”. And the “insights” that feed her formal vocabulary come mainly from the world of work: the architectural codes used in modern companies, from steel and glass frames to vast company lobbies, the design of large hotels to the logos and conventions used in corporate communication. Sarah Morris seeks essentially to depict daily life as it is shaped by the accumulation of capital. In other words, the consumer world, “in which everyone is a spectacle for everyone else, i.e. a world of division, otherness and non-participation”, to use the definition given by the Situationist International in 1960. Guy Debord believed that capitalist society develops by perfecting the art of the spectacle: capital accumulated to such a level that it makes a cult of every object, place and gesture. The places in which wealth is accumulated, the environments in which the watchwords of belated modernity are read, are thus the preferred settings for the art of Sarah Morris, who paints only the spectacular aspects of contemporary cities. It is this relationship between the writers and the players in the city, i.e. the transposition of the fundamental relationship that is formed between leaders and performers, which can be seen in virtually all her paintings and films, and which sets the overall tone. Whether we are looking at Las Vegas, Washington, Miami, Manhattan, Hollywood, the Pentagon, China or an example of modernist architecture, Sarah Morris portrays, every time, a certain type of power epitomised in a particular spectacle, i.e. a specific outline of an overall subjection. And abstraction is the basic vocabulary of this power: although it takes its forms from geometric abstraction and the supporters of concrete art, Morris sees herself first and foremost as a witness to an invasion of our daily lives by the abstract; this is reflected in the pictorial motifs that she uses and in the scenes that she captures with her camera. For many years, the natural relationship between abstraction and social reality has been reversed: while the modernist pioneers, from Mondrian to Kandinsky, based their approach on pure speculation or musical analogy, contemporary abstraction is more closely related to an allusive realism. It is longer a question of “abstracting” the visible object from the pictorial process; quite the opposite, as we can see in painters as different as Michel Majerus, Julie Mehretu, Franz Ackermann and John Tremblay, the abstract glossary can be used to depict a visible reality (architectural, social or economic) that capitalism has turned into an abstract painting. As a pictorial “genre”, abstraction has become a form of realism. This is no longer defined by an ability to depict visible or even intelligible reality. It is important not to confuse it, for example, with the documentary format or genre, which, since the late twentieth century, has been considered to be the nec plus ultra in portraying the world as it is. The years 2000 have been marked by the invention of Google, which has given a great boost to the random search for information, than by the arrival of Web 2.0 and social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Tumblr, which bear witness to a collective urge to document our lives: we now all archive even the most trivial occurrences in daily life, any event that we have witnessed. Sarah Morris’ films acknowledge this development: although they are attached to particular places, they only have an indirect aim to portray it and do not make any claim to documentary status. Nor do they seek to illustrate a point of view through images captured on the run; from Las Vegas to Hollywood, they use solid, legendary objects to portray the real, in the sense that Jacques Lacan gave to the word: what remains when the symbolic packaging of reality has gone. And this elusive real is capital in its raw state.
The individual submerged
Sarah Morris’ initial works were inspired by the human aspect of information: “The theatrical aspect and the stories relating to these media”, she explains, “affect not only how we are going to relate an event but also how we experience it when it is happening”. That was what mattered in her early days: observing the influence of an event, its repercussions and its evocative power. Then, gradually, anecdote was reduced to the essential: a newspaper headline, the modernist grid pattern, highlighting structures to the detriment of circumstances. Her references to urban development and the company world show the ambivalent nature of Sarah Morris’ paintings, which may be perceived not just as “non-figurative” forms but as foreground or zoom shots of our day-to-day environment. This use of stylised enlargement, in which the focal point is the point of view of an individual looking up at the Midtown skyscrapers on Manhattan, or reading a newspaper, reinforces the onlooker’s impression of being suddenly confronted with the detail of a vast object — such as the series of enlargements of tyres produced by Peter Stampfli in the 1960s, or most of the works of James Rosenquist. In front of a Sarah Morris canvas, you always feel the discomfort of being in a “nose to nose” position, faced with shapes that we sense represent only fragments of a huge entity, which is what the framing suggests. Morris’ abstraction makes the onlooker feel submerged, overwhelmed, gripped and crushed, a pure spectator, an inhabitant of a totality that escapes him. But over and above the social commentary that it infers, this portrayal of immersion reflects the stance of the artist herself. In a letter dated 1817, John Keats writes of the artist’s “negative ability”, i.e. “man’s ability to remain plunged in uncertainty, mystery and doubt and yet not carry out an anxious search for facts and reasons.” Submerged in Capital which shapes our urban systems, work areas and day-to-day objects, the artist and the onlooker both familiarise themselves with signs that flash here and there. The force of Sarah Morris’ paintings stems from the fact that they clarify nothing, they never stoop to offer an explanation; quite the opposite, they point out details of a world that has become foreign to human beings, as abstract as the flow of capital and the exchange of information via fibre optic cables.
In a series of paintings begun in 1999, Sarah Morris produced some pixellated portraits: the canvas is divided into coloured squares separated by perpendicular lines, making identification impossible. The parallel between the pixellated patterns and the geometric nature of the urban environment as she interprets it demonstrates the triumph of information over experience: dispossessed of all power over his environment, the subject who is deduced from his work (or rather: the individual who is thought to be its natural inhabitant) is none other than the native of the information era. What is shown in her paintings, with their Brutalist lines, and her films in which street scenes and abstract travelling shots follow on from each other, is the human being up to his neck in the urban spectacle — in other words, in Capital transformed into the author of our lives. In the wake of the revolutions begun by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud, who all contributed towards distancing the human being from the centre and giving him a more modest role in the cosmos, the biological chain and control over his own brain, contemporary art inflicts a further narcissistic would on its audience: in Jason Rhoades’ and Thomas Hirschhorn’s installations and in Sarah Morris’ paintings, the onlooker is never in a position to embrace the whole meaning or even the whole work that is presented to him.
From a strictly pictorial point of view, we can see the origins of this oceanic feeling in the California of the 1960s, in the vast highway landscapes of Allan D’Arcangelo and the visual universe created by Ed Ruscha. “Large trademark with eight spotlights” (1962), for example, shows the 20th Century Fox logo, which the artist has treated like a motif, in the same way that Cézanne treated the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. The logo is placed slightly off to the right, as if the observer has moved a few hundred metres away from it. The spotlight beams, which are located on the sides in the original logo, come from neighbouring buildings and are concentrated by Ruscha in the top left-hand corner of his composition. The vanishing point is as far to the right as possible and eventually reduced to a dot, forming a triangle. Ruscha’s interpretation of the symbolic object thus takes on the characteristics of a landscape, an objective fact. Living reality is perceived through a dynamic process: “26 gasoline stations”, in 1963, is a collection of photos of gas stations along the road from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles. Each photo is taken from the other side of the road, with no special effect: it would be difficult to take a drier, more frontal photo. At the same time, in Germany, Bernd and Hilla Becher were embarking on a similar enterprise: in 1959, they began a photographic inventory of workers’ houses, then industrial installations in the Ruhr Valley. Like Ruscha, the Bechers tried to create a totally neutral image: the cooling towers and blast furnaces are centred, the zoom lens is placed on a tripod and the aperture is very small to achieve a great depth of field. No human presence, a uniformly grey sky and a single twenty-second exposure time for each shot. Two years later, Dan Graham started out on his photographic essay, “Homes for America”, which was not published until 1967 in the magazine Art in America. “A celebration of suburban poetry”, he explained about this series of archetypal houses. Theme-based, sequential statements thus became a major art form: we collect the information, we sort it and organise it visually. In a way, it is a form of information technology emerging in art, a few years before the microprocessor was invented … And in this metaphysics of objectivity, something important is happening in the history of art, the effects of which Sarah Morris explores in her films.
Painting the codes
“We can make sense of cities through films and television”, explains Sarah Morris: this deciphering is essential to the composition of a film such as Capital (2000), in which every sequence opens with a number of interrupted narratives. Miami (2002) and Los Angeles (2004) are obviously about the psychology and aesthetics of American cities, but Sarah Morris’ point of view is similar to that of a fascinated ethnologist rather than that of an investigator. If we watch them at a single sitting, Sarah Morris’ films show us an encrypted, opaque world full of mysterious codes for which we do not have the keys. But an insistent view of a car race, an illuminated sign or the visible functioning of a factory gives us an insight into the real. In the period between the wars, the German sociologist and critic Siegfried Kracauer used the same insistent view to examine crime novels and hotel lobbies: “from the lobby of a modern hotel”, wrote Kracauer, “you can you can work out the entire rationale behind a city”. From a series of paper clips (Clips, 2011), Sarah Morris thus shows us the whole aesthetics of the tertiary sector and this decoding exercise can be seen in her pictorial treatment of them. Let us take the counter-example of Paul Cézanne: he never used the same approach to painting the ground and the sky. The direction, density and orientation of the brushstrokes created a space saturated with distinctive features in which each component was given a distinct “personality”. On the other hand, with Sarah Morris, a knot, paper clip, face or building are portrayed with a similar fascinated indifference: broad, solid colours that could be taken from corporate colour charts, a tight focus and an equally cold geometry. Codes that are always already consumed, subjects that come from the visual repertoire of large conurbations or from the history of economic modernism: if Sarah Morris’ art comes close to the documentary impulse, it is because she wants to portray the movement towards standardisation that is shaking up post -industrial society.
Even in the twentieth century, paintings, films and photographic documents brought back images of the distant to the nearby world. In a way, they belonged to that world of the distant in which the ethnographer was the scientific guarantor: he legitimised the distance that separates us from the Other. The documentary impulse, as a (more or less conscious) promoter of a cultural authenticity or essence, thus represents an ontology of the distant, which we are now seeing fall apart. Facebook, Tumblr and Google are showing us that the documentary now operates between family and friends, like a cloud of information that surrounds us. Through the chilling zoom effect of her paintings and her probing at the heart of our urban civilisation in her films, Sarah Morris restores a distance that allows us to contemplate our environment, not without a certain terror.