On ViewScully Tomasko Foundation
The Loggia Paintings: Early And Recent Work
September 16–November 30, 2022
That is why it was not until our digression by way of China that we could introduce the word dialectic, at last giving it its full theoretical resonance. —Hubert Damisch1
Severe yet expressive, hermetic yet lucid, circumspect yet luxuriant, the geometric abstractions painted by Robert C. Morgan are absorbing explorations of form. In the works currently on view at the Scully Tomasko Foundation, figure-ground interactions, along with color-light relationships, entice and betray the observer’s optical perception, giving rise to inquiries into the formalist, phenomenological, and sociocultural parameters of visual experience. How can the autonomy of abstraction cohabit with a study of the structures of consciousness, accord with the lived experience of color, or coexist with allegorical modes of meaning? Can western and eastern aesthetics resonate with each other and propose renewed experiences for the beholder? These are the questions prompted by Morgan’s commanding body of work.
Austerely adorning the walls of the Scully Tomasko Foundation’s West Chelsea exhibition space, this meticulously organized show traces the distinctive development of Morgan’s drawing and painting from 1967 to 2019 through thirty engaging works that aim to integrate Western modernity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Neo-Confucianism. Over the past five decades, Morgan’s travels across East Asia and Indonesia have been foundational to his artistic practice. As Richard Vine lucidly explains in the essay printed in the exhibition pamphlet, Morgan has absorbed “such time-honored principles as Zen mindfulness and Daoist wu wei (effortless action), while reacting both critically and creatively to the vibrant, sometimes confrontational art of contemporary China, Japan and Korea.”
Active as an art historian, a poet, an art critic, a curator, and a painter, Morgan has, it may be no surprise, carved out a distinctive niche within our cultural landscape. As the editor of the book Clement Greenberg: Late Writings, Morgan concludes his trenchant introduction by underscoring the cultural necessity of taste, criticism, and aesthetic judgment: “This is where Greenberg stood at the end of his life—firmly on the premise that the best art is always worth sustaining. The best art constitutes the basis of modernism, and herein lies the evidence of what gives a culture meaning. Without excellence in art, cultures become trivialized; and without culture, civilizations disappear.”2
Mounted on the south wall of the gallery, the series “Living Smoke and Clear Water” (1967) is comprised of thirty-three calligraphic drawings in Chinese ink and Conté crayon on paper. These stylized, partly representational drawings, executed under the tutelage of the Japanese artist Kongo Abe, are characterized by restrained gesture and a palpable painterly facture. By contrast, Optical Flip (2010), a diptych of abstract acrylic paintings hanging to the right of the calligraphic drawings, shows Morgan’s non-mimetic pictorial lexicon, characterized by geometric forms executed in a clear, linear mode. This geometric mode of painting, prevailing across the rest of the works in the exhibition, recalls such paragons of abstraction as Quadrilateral (1915) by Kazimir Malevich, Proun 1C (1919) by El Lissitzky, Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue, and Gray (1920) by Piet Mondrian, and K VII (1922) by László Moholy-Nagy. In their tenebrous palettes and well-considered composition of forms, Morgan’s paintings have sharpened abstraction’s ability to touch upon such optical phenomena as simultaneous contrast, the Müller-Lyer illusion, retinal pigmentation, illusion susceptibility, and space perception.
Morgan’s Gravitas II (1973), a non-figurative painting consisting of nesting rectangles in gray, white, and black, reveals a fundamental geometric vocabulary that would be expanded across various permutations throughout the artist’s project, addressing the viewer’s visual experience and the parameters of the phenomenology of perception. By focusing on the reciprocity of geometry and color, Gravitas II calls to mind Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” series. Begun in 1949, Albers produced over a thousand related paintings during the following twenty-five years. Not unlike Albers, Morgan would employ the formal elements established with Gravitas II, recontextualizing the geometric motifs and compositional possibilities, forcing chromatic interactions to contest, confound, and ultimately, preempt the formation of a clear gestalt. Perception, explains Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “goes straight to the thing and by-passes the colour.… Physics and also psychology give an arbitrary definition of colour, which in reality fits only one of its modes of appearance and has for long obscured the rest.”3
Thirteen intimately scaled paintings by Morgan, each measuring 22 inches square, carry titles that begin with “Loggia,” a word that can suggest a space both in between or beyond notions of interiority and exteriority. Executed in 2019, these paintings captivate our sensory fields, for they operate through a distinctive kind of luminosity induced by thin bands of metallic paint glowing within dark acrylic terrains. Reminiscent of Ad Reinhardt, the “Loggia” series permutates deep brown, midnight blue, burnt orange, metallic gold, and occasionally light gray geometric forms within systematized Cartesian coordinate formats. In the “Loggia” series, the gap between the physical fact of color and its perceptual appearance produces illusive sensations of volume and space, indirectly recalling the illusionism of the Renaissance perspectivists. Confronting a painting from the Loggia series, perceptual experience is determined primarily by the distance between the viewer and the surface—contingent chromatic interactions destabilize fact and fiction, abstraction and illusion as fundamental categories of perception.
At times, the slender, linear bands of Morgan’s compositions register as fragments of frames defined partly by the edges of the canvas and partly through parameters of the geometric figures occupying the pictorial field. We see this, for example, in Loggia XII, Loggia XVIII and Loggia XX. At other times, as in Loggia I, Loggia III, Loggia XIV, the linear bands, no longer attached to the peripheries, seem to move autonomously across the picture surface, although an exacting sense of calculation is hard to overlook, for a mathematical methodology appears indispensable to Morgan’s compositional universe. Despite this, the paintings are never formulaic and often elude our grasp. Glimpsed from afar, for example, their expanses of dark brown and midnight blue defeat our visual acuity, for such hues jointly signal “darkness” when juxtaposed with the unusual reflective qualities of Morgan’s lighter and metallic colors.
In their distinctive configurations of line and paint, of design and color, of plane and space, the paintings Morgan has produced over the past five decades reveal dialectical exchanges with both the pioneers of western modernism and the traditions of East Asian art. Indeed, it is the artist’s keen interest in Daoism that ultimately provides the most revealing glimpse of his creative process and way of thinking: “From my perspective," notes Morgan of the Tao Te Ching, “this fundamental Daoist document represents a binary reconciliation in which opposites merge together.”
- Hubert Damisch, A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting (1972 in French), trans. Janet Lloyd (California: Stanford University Press: 2022), p. 226.
- Robert C. Morgan, “The Crux of Modernism,” in Clement Greenberg: Late Writings, ed. Robert C. Morgan (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. xxiii.
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945 in French), trans. Colin Smith (1962; London and New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 305-6.