Despairing of ever making a living as an artist, I took graduate courses in art history in the early 1960s in New York City. However, I became too involved with art making after the master’s degree to attain a doctorate, which would have enabled me to secure a professorship in an art history department. In the course of these studies I took a seminar in Oriental art with Ad Reinhardt. Although the course was listed as Japanese art in the catalogue, Reinhardt nevertheless insisted that because art always comes out of art, a certain prelude to Japanese art was necessary. A certain amount of preliminary or supplementary consideration had to be given to the precedents in other parts of the Orient, some of which eventually found their way as influences into Japanese art. Or as he put it, “I’m going to start with India then move on to China, Southeast Asia, concentrating on Cambodia, then up to Nepal and Mongolia, and then get to Japan.” He further stated that he gave everybody a “B” except those people who tried not to get a “B,” and that the final would be relatively simple: “Just organize Oriental art.” “Meaning what?” someone asked. “Just list the dates and locations of all the major monuments of India, China, Mongolia, Cambodia, Nepal, and Japan.”
Reinhardt showed about 500 slides a night, each of which he had taken himself. He had been to every major site in the Orient. All he ever said was, “That’s Classical,” or “That’s early Classical,” or “That’s Archaic,” or “That’s Baroque.” The final was what he said it would be. I had gotten to know him a little by then and asked him afterward why he gave such a test. “I always had a terrible memory and wanted to be able to do that,” he said. He said he had traveled summers all over the Orient just to get away from the family, and he said art was too serious to be taken seriously. Toward the end of his life he painted his series of black paintings, each subsequent one a bit darker and less distinct in its divisions than the previous one. I would occasionally visit him in the late afternoon at his studio on Broadway and Waverly. We would sit in gathering dusk, each with a shot of Old Crow, looking out of his large windows, watching the girls leave NYU across Broadway. On such an evening he got a call from MoMA. They had finally bought one of his black pictures, but someone cleaning the walls had spotted it and they were calling to ask him to come fix it. I heard him say into the phone, “That won’t be necessary. I’ve got one here that’s more like the one you’ve got than one you’ve got.”
Excerpted from Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993).
ROBERT MORRIS is an American artist based in New York.