Michael Morris: Of Words, Wiliness and Wisdom

Michael Morris, Delta, 1965, oil on canvas, 138.5 x 168.5 cm. Both images pages 84–85 collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia. Gift of Michael and Irene Jeffery, 2010. Photograph: Michael R. Barrick.

Sometimes it seems as if art styles, theories and movements tumble around, like clothes in a large, philosophical dryer. This past year, on the West Coast anyway, the art that has cycled by most frequently is that of the 1960s and ’70s—and the setting has been HOT. Exhibitions such as “Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980” at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970” at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery and Allan Sekula’s 1974 photonovel This Ain’t China at the Simon Fraser University Gallery overlapped in illuminating ways. Particularly compelling—because it renewed our awareness of an experimental artist’s past work while also demonstrating its relevance to the present day—was Michael Morris’s solo show, “Back to the Problem of Nothing.”

Installed at Kardosh Projects in Vancouver’s South Granville district, the exhibition spotlighted a series of new, digitally scanned etchings of concrete poetry or “letter drawings” that Morris had first created in Letraset, Zip-A-Tone and India ink in 1969. (Some of the originals were on view, too.) The geometricized works allude not only to the visual properties of letters and numbers, but also to architectural forms and styles (from ziggurats to Art Deco), Russian Constructivism, the graphic side of pop art—and Busby Berkeley movies. Working during the 1930s, at a time when fantasy was a significant component of moviemaking, Berkeley was famous for shooting his precision-choreographed routines from above. In them, crowds of uniformly shaped and costumed dancers unfolded into kaleidoscopic patterns of snowflakes or water lilies. “I was interested in the Busby Berkeley dance sequences because they are surreal,” Morris noted. “They’re soft-core Surrealism.”

Still Life Documentation of Rainbow Picnic, Proposed Postcards, 1970, C-print on matboard, edition 1/5, 67.9 x 38.0 cm. Gift of the artist, 2007. Photograph: Howard Ursuliak.

The exhibition also included gleaming new Plexiglas sculptures that asserted their own light-inflected presence but which Morris envisioned as maquettes for possible public art projects; paper fans screen-printed with scattered letters over colours evoking the seasons; and small abstract paintings in gouache. For me, the gouaches are entrancing, subtly beautiful in their conception and execution. They consist of semicircles and rectangles composed of multiple narrow, straight lines of graduated colour. Hand-drawn with a meditative degree of precision, they suggest not simply a revival of the tropes of abstraction, but also the kind of spiritual state associated with mandala paintings. The semicircles appear to emerge and recede, like the sun in and out of clouds. Like small, geometric epiphanies.

As Morris guided me through his exhibition I was reminded of his enormous contribution to art in this place. He obliged me by telling an abbreviated version of his life: his birth in England in 1942, his immigration to Canada with his widowed mother in 1946, his childhood in Brentwood Bay, a small community near Victoria on southern Vancouver Island, his art education in Vancouver and London, England, his participation in Vancouver’s alternative art scene while he was in his 20s and 30s, and the 18 years he spent in Germany in the middle of his career. He also spoke of his return to Canada in 1998 to care for his ailing mother and of his struggle to re-establish himself. “When I came back here—to go from Berlin to Brentwood Bay—I had to reinvent everything,” he said.

One of the most acclaimed and influential Canadian artists of his generation, Morris championed the kinds of interdisciplinary practice that aimed to dissolve art-world conventions in the 1960s and ’70s. His understanding of and involvement with avant-garde and international trends and disciplines—including Fluxus, Conceptualism, mail art, performance, installation, concrete poetry, video and photography—put Vancouver, formerly identified with landscape-based painting, on the postmodern map. (Many argue that Morris helped pave the way for Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and other members of the internationally renowned Vancouver School.) Decades before Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, Morris practically invented social networking in Vancouver—although in the context of experimental art practice rather than electronic communication. In 1969, he and his partner Vincent Trasov created Image Bank, an international correspondence art network that saw the exchange of thousands of inventive images, ideas and ephemera, much of it through the post.

Metallic Phallic, 1966, gouache, acrylic, oil and watercolour on paper, 32.0 x 57.0 cm. Gift of Gary Bell, 2001. Photograph: Howard Ursuliak.

Yes, the post. The system now denigrated as snail mail was then a radical (and inexpensive) vehicle for making and circulating art and fostering cultural dialogue, all of it far outside the institutional and commercial realms of museums, galleries and academia. Partly through his convivial personality and partly through his crowd of international contacts (he and some of his Vancouver colleagues also participated in Robert Filliou’s Eternal Network, which similarly connected artists in far-flung places), Morris became known as the person who could hook you up with leading-edge artists, poets and critics in London, New York and Los Angeles. The material traces of this correspondence, along with other documents, artifacts and ephemera generated by Morris’s and Trasov’s other collaborative and individual projects, now reside in the voluminous Morris/Trasov Archive, housed at the Belkin Gallery.

Morris’s wide experience and connections were also hinted at during a public conversation he had this past winter with the American interdisciplinary artist, Eleanor Antin. (The event took place at the Belkin Gallery in conjunction with the exhibition “State of Mind: New California Art circa 1970.”) After Antin read from her autobiography, Morris sat beside her and the two chatted about conceptualist friends and colleagues, about Vincent Trasov’s 1974 run for mayor of Vancouver, undertaken in the guise of Mr. Peanut, and the 1978 campaign by media artist and acupuncturist Lowell Darling for governor of California. Although Morris and Antin knew all about each other—they had moved in the same creative and mail art circles—they had never met in person before. Still, Antin remembered sending one of her 100 Boots postcards to Morris with the note, “Dear Michael, Don’t you love me anymore?”

As with the opening reception for Morris’s show at Kardosh Projects, his conversation with Antin took place in front of an over-capacity crowd of young and old—artists and art historians, students and lecturers, curators and collectors and culturati. Both events signalled, once again, the upsurge in interest in the period of radical change and counter-culture idealism that Morris and Antin represent. Toward the end of their conversation, Morris alluded again to his nearly two decades in Germany, and then repeated, in his soft voice, “You came back and had to reinvent yourself.” Speaking in the second person seemed to distance him from himself—an act of melancholy disassociation that occasionally underlies his otherwise buoyant practice.

Morris studied painting from the time he was a child and in his youth was deeply folded into Victoria’s surprisingly lively art scene. After a brief stint at the University of Victoria he transferred to the Vancouver School of Art, where he was accelerated into third year and where one of his instructors was modernist painter Jack Shadbolt, a dominant presence in the local art scene. Morris was considered a prodigy; immensely talented, he exhibited his paintings in public venues while still a student and won a raft of prizes and awards, including a Commonwealth Scholarship in 1964 to do graduate work at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. That would be “Swinging London” in its fashion, music and youth-revolution heyday. The city’s pulsing and revolutionary cultural attitudes were a revelation to the young Canadian.

“When I was at the Vancouver School of Art, the idea at that time was that art was something that you could aspire to eventually,” Morris said. “If you really worked at it for a lifetime, you might get the picture.” He recounted how lucky he was to find himself, in his early 20s, in a place that was completely reimagining itself. “In London, it was your generation to do it—to address the world,” he said. “It was a completely different sense of perspective.” He encountered the “new scene” paintings of David Hockney and R B Kitaj (who was one of his instructors), hung out with Pop artist Alan Jones and took in a big Marcel Duchamp retrospective, which has influenced him to this day. He also made contact with the European Fluxus movement and with international concrete poetry, meeting poet and artist Emmett Williams and composer, poet and printer Dick Higgins (both of whom he would later invite to Vancouver to undertake residencies and performances). Morris was influenced too by the Indian miniature paintings on exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In crowded and expensive London, he was struggling for lack of studio space. With their small scale, flattened perspective and opaque colours, the Indian miniatures inspired him to work with gouache on card.

Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov, Colour Research, 1972–74/2006, C-prints, 20 x 25 cm, collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia. Gift of the artists, 2007. Photo: Howard Ursuliak.

Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov, Colour Research, 1972–74/2006, C-prints, 20 x 25 cm, collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia. Gift of the artists, 2007. Photo: Howard Ursuliak.

Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov, Colour Research, 1972–74/2006, C-prints, 20 x 25 cm, collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia. Gift of the artists, 2007. Photo: Howard Ursuliak.

Indeed, the gouaches he brought home to Vancouver in 1966 won him an immediate following. They were also the basis for a series of highly acclaimed and award-winning abstract paintings, some of them executed on shaped canvases. The first painting Morris completed when he returned was The Problem of Nothing, which neatly consolidates hard-edge and pop art idioms—and the crisis facing his medium at the time. Its primary composition is an up-tilted box against a ground of vertical stripes, the box seeming to speak through a word bubble filled with horizontal stripes. In a 1986 Globe and Mail review, John Bentley Mays wrote, “The title immediately refers to a two-sided technical issue in painting in the 1960s—the problem of how to make a pure, empty, utterly neutral art, without theatricality, personal expression, subject matter and so forth, and how to keep on making art after that has finally been accomplished.”

Initially, Morris seemed to solve the problem by conceiving his paintings in terms of interdisciplinarity, folding ideas about performance, photography, sculpture, criticism and concrete poetry, along with Marshall McLuhan’s communications theories, into their development and exhibition. When the Belkin was exhibiting his 1967–1969 series of “Letter Paintings” last spring, Morris remarked that he imagined these works as “props” before which a dance performance might take place. Large, ambitious, vertically striped abstractions punctuated with panels of Plexiglas and inwardly slanting strips of mirror, these “Letters” express the pivotal role light plays in painting while also expanding the discourse between art and audience.

Scott Watson—poet, critic, curator, educator, Belkin gallery director and leading Michael Morris scholar—is in the process of writing a major essay about the artist. He is also compiling a comprehensive chronology. (Evolving out of the “Letters” exhibition and including contributions by guest essayists, the Michael Morris monograph is scheduled for publication next fall.) In a recent interview, Watson talked about Morris’s early achievements as a painter—and the challenges of documenting them. “In the late ’60s, after Michael came back from the Slade, the activity of his career is breathtaking. He’s in a show either on his own or with somebody else practically every month. And he’s being written about every couple of months, not just locally or nationally but internationally.”

In fact, it was an artforum reproduction of Morris’s Problem of Nothing that attracted the attention of New York-based Fluxus artist Ray Johnson, the man often cited as the inventor of mail art. The conceptually fraught work inspired Johnson to write to Morris, initiating what would become a long, rich and revealing correspondence and also demonstrating to the Vancouverite that you need not live in New York (or London or Paris) to be part of the international art dialogue. Johnson was among the influences leading Morris away from painting and all it symbolized.

“At this very time when Michael is being valorized as an up-and-coming art star,” Watson says, “he and the people around him are moving away quite quickly from the idea of the singular artist toward these fake identities, these associations, these collaborations.” In 1968, these associations and collaborations included Prisma, a mirrored environment with accompanying sound and light, which Morris created with Gary Lee-Nova for installation at the Vancouver Art Gallery. In 1969, Morris co-curated, with Alvin Balkind, an exhibition of concrete poetry at the University of British Columbia Fine Arts Gallery. In 1970, Morris and Glenn Lewis exhibited a large, live Holstein heifer alongside a 19th-century painting of a cow at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In 1971, Morris and Trasov organized the ambitious “Postcard Show,” which debuted again at the UBC Fine Arts Gallery and was toured across the country by the National Gallery of Canada. “It was really too successful,” Morris ironically recalled about the vast number of cards sent to Image Bank. “We couldn’t handle it.”

“Michael Morris: Back to the Problem of Nothing,” 2012, installation view, Kardosh Projects at Marion Scott Gallery, Vancouver.

Image Bank also worked closely with Toronto’s General Idea, the well-connected Morris becoming a mentor to that nascent artists’ collective, sharing contacts and strategies with them. A widely reproduced photo of Morris shows him as pageant winner “Miss General Idea (1971–83),” partially draped in a vintage dress with the “Hand of the Spirit” emerging rather spookily from its neck. “That was career suicide,” he told me. The photo and its staging were intended as an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s pseudonymous Rrose Sélavy (that name a pun on “Eros, c’est la vie”), Morris explained. In some Canadian circles, however, the reading of it was “drag queen,” exposing him to an icy and excluding blast of homophobia.

In 1973, undaunted, Morris, Trasov and six other Fluxus-influenced artists and musicians co-founded Vancouver’s iconic Western Front, one of the first artist-run centres in Canada and also a model for artists’ live-work spaces in a cooperatively owned building. Assuming pseudonyms (Morris was Marcel Dot or Marcel Idea, Trasov, of course, was Mr. Peanut, Glenn Lewis was Flakey Rose Hip, Eric Metcalfe and Kate Craig were Dr. and Lady Brute) they evinced an interest in exploring myth, persona and performance. These “fake identities” were also part of a project of self-reinvention, of reimagining what art could be, from the opening of mail to the making and sharing of meals. As with his Western Front colleagues of the time, Morris extolled art as a social rather than aesthetic undertaking, something that could be realized in a heightened attentiveness to everyday life—but also in the unsettling of bourgeois strictures and conventions.

He also believed—still does—in the creative possibilities of play, as revealed in a number of the photographs, videos, performances and interdisciplinary projects he undertook with Trasov throughout the ’70s. Many of their collaborations evolved on a 16-acre rural property shared with other like-minded folk. Dubbed “Babyland” and located on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, north of Vancouver, it was the site of numerous performances, counter-culture activities and media-artmaking, and a destination for visiting artists, writers, filmmakers, critics and craftspeople. It was also where Morris and Trasov developed “Colour Research: The Endless Painting,” composed of thousands of small painted blocks of wood that could be arranged and rearranged in any number of settings, rural and urban, to create any number of compositions. Created between 1972 and 1974 and the subject of a number of films, photographs and videos, the “Colour Bar” work encompasses a multitude of forms and ideas. Four decades after its inception, it is still circulating among national and international galleries.

In 1981, at the invitation of the DAAD Berliner Künstler-programm, Morris and Trasov left the West Coast for Berlin. Watson has written that Morris was “a refugee from Canada’s crushing puritanism, entrepreneurial manners and suspicion of artists.” Morris rather sweetly said, “We were exotic in Berlin. They didn’t know any Canadian artists at the time.” Then he added how easy it was to live there, and how inexpensive. The media-based collaborations continued, as did intense networking. At the same time, Morris returned to painting, producing deft watercolours of a range of subjects, from male nudes to urban parks, pathways and architecture. He also produced an impressive series of large abstract paintings, some of which he exhibited at the Evelyn Aimis Gallery in Toronto. In 1988, he told Now magazine, “I don’t want to say this is a postmodern Michael Morris quoting from himself. The paintings have a life of their own, informed by the breadth of my experience and understanding of my discipline.”

That breadth of experience and understanding permeated the work on view in “Back to the Problem of Nothing” at Kardosh Projects last winter. Morris’s first solo show in a commercial gallery in Vancouver in more than 30 years, it reverberated with all those decades of wisdom and wiliness, humour and melancholy, wide connections and focused solitude. It also spoke—in the first and second person—to a dedicated project of reinvention.

Robin Laurence is a Vancouver-based writer, curator and Contributing Editor to Border Crossings.