Richard Allen Morris
Morris Code: Works from 1957 to 2007

March 21 – May 9, 2009
at Peter Blum Chelsea

Richard Allen Morris, "Morris Code, works from 1957 - 2007"

TimeOut New York

An artist redraws the boundary between insider and outsider.

Not too long ago, while conversing with a Chinatown gallerist, the subject of where art was headed came up. I offered that things seemed to be moving in a more subjective direction, though I added that I wasn't sure what I meant by that. "I think I do," she interjected. "One of my artists came into the gallery recently and said, ‘I've started making art for myself.'"

A wise move given the economy, but also an indication of just how far we've drifted from what had been a core tenet of modernism: that first and foremost, you created for yourself. If society caught up with you, so much the better, but it wasn't an expectation.

Today, artists set out to cultivate audiences from the get-go, mainly by rehearsing well-worn conventions of edginess. While this approach can produce good art—Pipilotti Rist's MoMA installation is a prime example—the more typical result is a Jeff Koons balloon dog. That such work represents the visual equivalent of a credit default swap seems to be lost on people with otherwise excellent taste, but then, the Wall Street mess was created by supposedly smart folks too. It would be nice if the art world learned a valuable lesson about the meaning of value from the current financial calamity, but I doubt they will. On the other hand, shows like this one by painter Richard Allen Morris suggest there may be hope.

Morris tends to work small, and his content runs the gamut from pure abstraction (gestural and geometric) to cartoony figuration in a kind of summary of art-historical styles. His efforts aren't likely to be everyone's cup of tea; I'm not even positive that they're mine, though I find his backstory compelling—admittedly, a writer's weakness. Still, the visual rewards are there, as is that rare ability to manifest grand ambition on an intimate scale.

Now 76, Morris has been laboring for more than 50 years in that exquisite limbo occupied by artist's artists. His admirers include John Baldessari and painter David Reed. If not for Baldessari, it's doubtful Morris's work would have ever surfaced. He's barely known outside of San Diego, where he's produced a rather large and extraordinary body of paintings in the junk-cluttered basement he calls home—all the while supporting himself by working in a bookstore. If this suggests the hermetic existence of an outsider artist—a sort of Henry Darger of the Golden State—Morris is indeed self-taught; he learned from piles of art magazines and books he collected over five decades. In a gridded canvas from 1961, for instance, he reproduced every page from the September issue of Art International magazine of that year. That particular painting isn't here, but it does demonstrate how he proceeded: Not as an outsider, but as someone so tuned in, he's out.

Morris's oeuvre is rooted in Abstract Expressionism, understandable given that he began to dabble in art during the Korean War while stationed aboard an aircraft carrier. The story goes that the Navy provided sailors with paint-by-number kits to while away their time at sea, but some of Morris's shipmates, finding the challenge too arduous, wound up giving their unfinished canvases to him. Morris used these for his own original compositions. Since then, apparently, he's never stopped coloring outside the lines.

The exhibition spans the 1950s to the present, and in all that time, the only thing consistent about his work has been its eccentricity. The straight-from-the-tube daubs of acrylic in the tiny abstract tondo Welcome to Indonesia (2007), for instance, seem to writhe together like a sea anemone on the ocean floor. A group of profiles from the late 1960s features men with large noses—one looks like Nixon; another, like a Blue Meanie from Yellow Submarine. There's a whole gallery of comic-book guns—reliefs, actually, made of bits of wood, fabric and studio debris. Envelope (1968), a minimalistic rendering of the back of the titular object, is limned over one of Baldessari's AbEx paintings from the '50s—which were all supposedly destroyed in Baldessari's first act as a Conceptual artist.

The sexual subtext of much of this work is unmistakable, especially in The Perfect Letter (1991), which crawls with spermatozoan squiggles of paint. But if Morris never quite pursues visions of Vivian Girls, he does chase the ghosts of postwar American art with a similar intensity. Like a primitivistic Richter, Morris splits painting into its constituent genres as a way of gaining personal mastery over art history. That nobody paid attention until now seems not to have bothered him in the least. - HOWARD HALLE