Robert Morris: Untitled (Johnson Pit #30, King County, Washington), 1979

From Performance Assembles Publics: Contact Improvisation as Landmark

What remains unique to and impressive about Contact Improvisation is the distinctly noninstitutional yet highly public quality of the form. This characteristic is best clarified by linking it to the principles developed by Allan Kaprow through his earlier Happenings but equally also to the experiments in site-specific sculpture that emerged at the same time in what was essentially the same circle as Paxton’s, their communities intersecting at Gordon Matta-Clark’s Soho restaurant FOOD, for example.

In a public talk accompanying the commissioning of the untitled “land reclamation” sculpture in King County, Washington, Morris tried to frame the work (which at that point had not begun construction) through a reflection on Earthworks and site-specificity in general, and their potential public meanings as different artistic modes. He argued that this new work indeed had a commemorative aspect, but “not commemorative of great events or people; neither is it narrative in the illustrative sense. Rather, it is commemorative of one or another of the various aspects of the site itself.” Morris asserted that “such different assumptions, motives, responses, and results also do more than raise aesthetic issues as to what art can be. They raise moral questions, as well, as to where art should be, and who should own it, and how it should be used.”1

This strategy of objectifying a reflection of context is, of course, associated with what came to be called institutional critique, but there is also a bridge to similar efforts in dance in which improvisers often take up the exact physical material that constituted the performance—from the architecture to the weight of the body itself—as points of departure. Morris studied dance and performed at Judson Church, and his Earthworks were preceded by his experiments with participatory sculpture titled Continuous Project Altered Daily—a phrase he borrowed from Yvonne Rainer’s work (the exact project she withdrew herself from that gave rise to Grand Union).

Morris’s Untitled King County sculpture has yet to attract the kind of art world support that has recently (but only recently) surrounded Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. For now, while the expansive vista around the work has been filled in with suburban tract housing—Boeing’s shuttered Space and Defense Center can be seen in the distance—those attending to the work are the local public office holders and a local cultural nonprofit. When I visited the work in 2000, people had dragged couches down to the bottom and the empty beer cans gave proof of a different kind of social and contemplative activity than Morris probably originally envisioned but one of which he might have not have disapproved.

A generous and full record of the process of commissioning the work, including documentation of other projects, can be found here. The video above was produced in 2015 to document endangered sites in King County.

1 Unless otherwise noted, direct quotes from Morris in this text are taken from a presentation on Earthworks for the King County Arts Commission. See .

April 22, 2019

Curated by

Jeremiah Day