a boyhood interest in the art of tying knots

PK: The Guggenheim catalogue notes that your rope pieces of 1962–64 ‘reflect a boyhood interest in the art of tying knots.’ Can you tell us anything more about this interest, and its retrospective meaning for you?

RM: I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Kansas City which was not always the gentlest of environments. I had joined the Boy Scout group that met at our grade school, Graceland, on 51st and Montgall, on Tuesday evenings. At the second meeting I attended, on a balmy early September evening, the older scouts mutinied (I never knew why) and threw Mr. Garrett, the scoutmaster, down a flight of stairs and out into the school yard. The scout troop was dissolved. As I had been in the Cub Scouts (without any violent incidents occurring) and had made a knot board – oval in design with the basic knots tied in 3/8-inch hemp rope and carefully tacked to the shellacked board – I had looked forward to the Boy Scouts as a place primarily to tie advanced knots. I had hoped one day to achieve a mastery approaching my father’s magic with splices and double sheet bends. This was not to be. Shortly after I finished high school my mother revealed to me that in cleaning out the old chicken house she had discarded my Cub Scout oval knot board. Now the living record of even my basic, primitive knot knowledge was erased. Frustration. Loss. The return of the repressed, etc., etc.”

(Robert Morris, interviewed by Pepe Karmel in Art in America, June 1995.

the human distinction

“Why is it that from time to time I expound contradictory and irreconcilable processes for dreaming and learning how to dream? Probably because I am so used to seeing false things as if they were true, dreamed things as vividly as if I’d really seen them, I’ve lost the human distinction (false, I think) between truth and lies.

All I have to do is see or hear (or perceive with any other sense) a thing clearly to feel it to be real. It may well be that I feel two things that cannot exist at the same time. It doesn’t matter.

There are creatures who suffer for hours and hours because they cannot be the figures in paintings or on playing cards. There are souls on whom not being able to be people from the Middle Ages weighs like a malediction. I’ve had that problem. But not today. I’ve gone beyond it. But it does pain me, for example, not to be able to dream of two kings in different kingdoms belonging, for example, to universes with different kinds of space and time. Not having achieved this truly saddens me. It’s like going hungry.

To be able to dream inconceivable things by making them visible is one of the great triumphs that even I, great as I am, only rarely attain. Yes, dreaming that I am, for example, simultaneously, separately, unconfusedly, a man and a woman taking a walk along a riverbank. To see myself, at the same time, with equal clarity, in the same way, with no mixing, being the two things, integrated equally in both, a conscious boat in a southern sea and a printed page in an ancient book. How absurd this seems! But everything is absurd, and the dream is the least of the absurdities.”

(Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, from note 21 in Alfred Mac Adam’s translation, which is note 32 in Maria Aliete Galhoz & Teresa Sobral Cunha’s edition of the Livro do Desassossego.)

being unpublished

“Look: Tomorrow my best, my most intimate friend is going to Paris to stay. Aunt Anica (take a look at her letter) in all likelihood is soon going off to Switzerland with her daughter, who’s married now. Another one is going to Galicia for a long time. My second-best friend is moving to Porto. So in my human environment everything is organizing (or disorganizing) itself to drift away, and I don’t know if it’s to isolate me or to lead me to another path I cannot as yet see. Even the fact that I am going to publish a book is going to change my life. I am losing something – being unpublished. And so changing for the better, because change is bad, is always changing for the worse. And losing a defect or a deficiency or a negation is always losing something. Imagine Mother not living with her painful, daily feelings, a creature who is so sensitive!”

(Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, from note 2 in Alfred Mac Adam’s translation, which is note 10 in Maria Aliete Galhoz & Teresa Sobral Cunha’s edition of the Livro do Desassossego.)

a problem

There are two ways of living on the earth
Satisfied or dissatisfied. If satisfied,
Then leaving it for the stars will only make matters mathematically worse
If dissatisfied, then one will be dissatisfied with the stars.

One arrives in England, and the train station is a dirty toad.
Father takes a plane on credit card with medical telephone.
One calls up America at three-thirty, one’s fiancée is morally alone.
But the patient is forever strapped to the seat in mild turbulence.

Thinking of America along psychoanalytic lines, and then
                                     delicately engraving nipples
On each of two round skullsv
You have learned nothing from music but Debussy’s ions
And the cover of the book is a forest with two lovers with empty cerebella.

Beyond the couple is a second girl, her head smeared out.
This represents early love, which is now ‘total space.’
These are the ways of living on the earth,
Satisfied or unsatisfied. Snow keeps falling into the brook of wild rice.

(David Shapiro, discussed here.)

writers and their publics

“I had learned than historick romance must be true, apparently if not actually, accidentally if not essentially, implicitly if not explicitly. I had learned that the Form of it must be appropriate to the Matter in order to give it individual existence; and that with these must be included Potentiality and Actuality, all in a most correct Aristotelian formula. But above all I had learned something about the PUBLICK. I had learned that the PUBLICK has not much relish for the normal, but for the abnormal: asks of writers ‘some new thing,’ and leaves retailers of ‘chestnuts’ in the gutter. I had learned that the PUBLICK is like a plucky boy, who delights, who prefers (as I myself prefer and delight), to be taken out of his depth. Why? Because neither the PUBLICK, nor the plucky boy, (nor I who write), are the boors who neither can read nor swim named in the proverb of Diogenianos of Heraklea.* I had learned that the PUBLICK, very far from being the blithering simpleton, the blitomammas, designated by the Sage of Ecclefechan, or the shallow ovine smatterer insolently designated by that sententious Israelite, on the contrary is strenuous, is ardent, is strong, to discriminate between pap and pie; prefers the pie; and eagerly pounces on the task (for task it is, – and Task, when all is said and done, the PUBLICK loves) of picking out the plums. (Indulge my flippancy, o sober painter.) Otherwise, the PUBLICK never would have exerted itself to master Sir Walter Scott, Dr. Charles Reade, Mark Twain, and Henryk Sienkiewicz; or (to state the thesis not in my terms but in yours) otherwise the PUBLICK would prefer meek Academicks, and would never have taken pains to understand, to make a fashion of, Whistler, Burne-Jones, Byam Shaw, Abbey, and Anning Bell. Mediocrity, the generous PUBLICK tolerates. Individuality, distinction, it admires and cultivates. The custom of the English-speaking Race (said a certain Roman once to me), is to attempt the most inopportune time, with the most unsuitable equipment: but invariably it compels success, and covers itself with glory. Oh believe me, dear Kretan, the PUBLICK is no fool.

* ‘Μητε Νειν, μητε γραμματα· επι των αμαθων.’”

(Fr. Rolfe, Don Renato: an ideal content, pp. 24–25.)

machines for literature redux

“But I revolted; esteeming it apt and proper rabidly to inveigh against these heterodoxies, affirming that I for one preferred a dignified death by hunger, rather than to transform myself into a machine, which, when filled by a pig, would produce literature paragonable only to sausages, flabby, flaccid, enervate, and obscene. And upsetting my tea, I fell over the dog (of course there was a dog); and away I went in a rage.”

(Fr. Rolfe, Don Renato: an ideal content, p. 21.)

the poem as it is then typeset

“This morning, Charles [Alexander] was talking about how the poem as it was written seems to be somehow a little separate from and even replaced by the poem as it is then typeset and presented. I think I’m quoting you correctly. And what has happened there, is that there’s been a fusion of horizons between Charles and the typographer that he works with and the typographer has taken the original horizon and left it fused in a new form. And what we now see is this compound horizon, (what we receive,) and we look through the typographic one to an imagined version of Charles’s poem, but we don’t really know what Charles’s poem looked like in its manuscript form. We know that some of the words were even changed when it was typeset, but we look through it to the implied horizon, and we have this compound horizon which is what we actually experience. And this experience is what I feel when I go to a good Fluxus performance, a good art performance, or any of the other ones where they really work and where I find myself at a loss to verbalize why they work if I don’t use some methodology like this. So I offer this to you as a tool (not original with me) for approaching these kinds of things, in order that we be able to work towards a common critical vocabulary for evaluating these things over the years.”

(from Dick Higgins, “Hermeneutics and the Book Arts”, pp. 17–18 in Talking the Boundless Book: art, language, and the book arts.)

the abstraction of machinery

“In the idea of the faceless Imperson, technology conceals a powerful dream, the dream of not being like anything, of being nothing created. Natural forms all suggest comparison, but technical ones usually do not, so a device like a typewriter has a very decided identity but an unplaceable one. Like higher organisms, machines cover complexity with simplicity, and we forget what is inside a handpump or how typewriter linkage works, even forget that anything is there. They no longer have insides; their work is invisible and they are simply ideas, functions, powers.”

(Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces, p. 39.)

giving the mind an existence outside itself

“Like many books, it is working itself free of its material. The goal of learning and of this book as an act is that the critic feel himself a participant, that the describer become the doer. The end is not an actual building but the writing by which the writer becomes as every learner will the exemplar of culture himself. A book is a thought too big and various to be seen all at once, sturdy but unencompassable ideation, and the intimate excuse for a new one after all the other books is this of giving the mind an existence outside itself.”

(Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces, from the “Forward”.)

design over time

“The six large Victorian stations in London were built from 1852 to 1902 but the alterations and additions frequently made to them in that period homogenized the group considerably. It is difficult to describe railroad stations as architecture because they are experienced less deliberately than other buildings. One of Ruskin’s clearest failings is his treatment of them as so much iron and glass, for no one ever sees a railroad station empty in the architect’s model state he is talking about, and even the idle visitor is soon agitated by the hurry around him, in the middle of arrivers and leavers catches the construction of the building only out of the corner of his eye.”

(Robert Harbison, Eccentric Spaces, p. 39)