Ree Morton died in 1977 at the age of 40, and although her life as an artist spanned only a decade, she had a pervasive influence. Observing this exhibition, which looked remarkably contemporary, I was reminded of how much the way of working we now call "installation" has its roots in the women's art of the '70s. Like Joan Snyder's paintings or Louise Bourgeois's sculptures, Morton's work is at once powerful and feminine, yet without being feminist--nothing didactic here. She was one of the artists who gave us permission to take the specific events of our lives and directly transmute them into art. There is a ritual quality to her work that makes it appear as if she were creating memorials to certain experiences, and to the people and places she loved.
While Morton often used the stuff of memorials--flowers, drapery--in her work, it is, at the same time, celebratory. There is a refreshing sweetness about it, a vulnerability, that never descends into sentimentality but appears to spring from the heart. Morton combined sculpture and painting through the use of a material called Celastic, which could be draped like fabric and then hardened. She was fond of banners or ribbons emblazoned with cryptic phrases spelled out in fat, gooey letters like those on a birthday cake. Solitary or Rarely 2 (1974) is one such piece, the words surrounded by swaths of yellow and two bare light bulbs. A diagonal banner announcing "terminal clusters" stretches across a freestanding, upside-down horseshoe decorated with rosettes into which, again, light bulbs have been inserted. "Many have run away, to be sure" reads the inscription at the bottom of a preposterously long and narrow apron, perhaps a reference to her own past as a Navy wife and mother of three.
Although Morton strove for a casual look, everything is very thoughtfully crafted; the result is a wonderful balance of awkwardness and precision. Regional Piece (1976) consists of two panels: the top shows ocean and clouds and the bottom presents a fish in the deep, both paintings whimsically draped in a way that makes each seem like a little stage. The fish is painted with the extreme tenderness and care that characterizes everything she did. Morton was a warm, open, generous person with an almost childlike trust in human nature, who accepted the hard parts of her life with grace. All of that comes through in her work.
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COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group