Robert Morris Dishes the Dirt on Dia!

THE DAILY PIC: Robert Morris's 'Untitled (Dirt)', recently installed at Dia Beacon, is an antidote to over-clean art.

THE DAILY PIC (#1682): It’s not every museum that has the courage to display a work of art that more or less repudiates the esthetics of almost everything else it shows. That’s pretty much what’s going on with Robert Morris’s 1968 piece known as Untitled (Dirt), recently unveiled at the Beacon, New York, outpost of the Dia Art Foundation. The work is nothing more (and couldn’t be anything less) than a big mound of detritus, including the dirt of its title and also bits of metal piping and wire and almost anything else that might be swept off the floor of a sculptor’s studio. The Dia curator James Meyer has referred to “its amorphous form and repulsive Materiality” and to the “undifferentiated perception of ‘stuff,’ ” that the piece triggers in a viewer. When it was first shown at the Dwan Gallery in New York, it stood as a very deliberate, rhetorical rejection of the clean-limbed minimalist sculpture that the gallery, and in fact Morris himself, had stood for until then. As Meyer explained in a recent catalog essay on the Dwan Gallery, “Morris’s dirt dump was as little an ‘object’ as sculpture could be, and for all purposes uncommodifiable. He offered the unruly sculpture for the exalted sum of $4,080 — the highest price of any work in the show — or the equally absurd price of three dollars per pound. In this imagined scenario a collector would arrive at the gallery with a shovel and trash bags, scoop up the preferred amount, have it weighed — and lug the mess home.”

Dia Beacon is a glorious place to look at art, and its Minimalist treasures – including newly installed plywood sculptures by Morris – look better there than anywhere. But in that posh-perfect setting, they do risk having all their (conceptually) rough edges smoothed out.

Morris’s dirt pile is a reminder of the post-industrial chaos that surrounded the birth of Dia’s treasures, in the pre-oligarch SoHo of the 1960s and ’70s, and that they were born in a context of debate and contention, not market-bred peace. (Works ©Robert Morris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, photos by Lucy Hogg)

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