- Robert Morris
- painted steel
- 183.5 by 213.5 by 30.5cm.
- 72 by 84 by 12in.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1991
Robert Morris was an early exponent of Minimalism and one of its key theorists, producing a body of work that employed a minimalist aesthetic combined with a conceptual and performative practice as a means of engaging with and challenging traditional notions of art. Having initially worked as a painter in a loosely Abstract Expressionist tradition, in 1960 Morris’ work underwent a dramatic change and he began to focus increasingly on sculptural works.
Dating from 1962, Barrier is an important example of his Minimalist practice from this period and one of the earliest manifestations of a series of works that Morris would pursue persistently over the next three decades. These ‘frameworks’ – whether mirrors, frames, or screens – all interrogate the conventional relationship between both the frame and its notional content and between the frame and the outer context of its surroundings.
The minimalist simplicity of the design – in this case four intersecting white lines – belies a conceptual complexity. Barrier relates directly to another ‘framework’ from 1961, a wooden doorframe known as Pine Portal; the two works together provide a new spatial and theoretical environment for sculptural works. Discussing the relationship of the two pieces Annette Michelson describes Barrier as ‘a counterstatement composed within the same mode of address to the spectator, but articulated through a structure designed to impede passage. These two objects, made a year apart, form a pair of variations, couched in the dialectic of approach and avoidance, upon the frame as freestanding sculptural object. They challenge, respectively, by solicitation and obstruction, conventions of Modernist sculpture regarding spectatorial and sculptural space’ (A. Michelson, ‘Frameworks’, in Robert Morris (exhibition catalogue), Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1994, p. 57).
This interactive element, which was a central tenet of Morris’ artistic practice, provided the basis of what became arguably one of the most notorious exhibitions to be held at Tate Modern. In 1971 Morris installed a series of works (including the original plywood version of Barrier) that encouraged the physical interaction of the viewer – from climbing ramps to balancing on large spheres – with the aim of reducing the ‘self-importance’ of the object and emphasising the spectatorial experience. The show was forced to close after four days following a largely negative audience response and a media furore. The public of 1971 was not ready for Morris’ vision; when the show was reprised in 2009 it was much more successful, reflecting the extent to which an audience now expect to be involved as viewers. This same involvement is demanded by Barrier which, in providing a physical impediment for its audience to negotiate, exemplifies the radical and visionary nature of Morris’ art.