An Interview with Michael Turner on Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry
Michael Morris has been a key figure in the West Coast art scene for more than 4 decades. The current exhibition at the Belkin unites, for the first time ever, his six Letter Paintings, five of which are large-scale abstractions, each comprised of close bands of hand-painted colour. The sixth, his New York Letter, is a black and white photograph presented as a painting. The works in this series are divided into triptychs by strips of mirrors and Plexiglas so that one ‘band’ acts as a reflection of the space and creates a flash of interaction with the viewer, conflating the figurative and abstract. Morris’ simple composition belies the work’s intensity and impact in person. The title of this fascinating exhibition also points to Morris’ growing participation in the mail art network and his interest in the pictorial possibilities of text – several excellent examples of his and other artist’s Concrete Poetry are on view here. Co-curated by Belkin Director, Scott Watson and author Michael Turner, the exhibition elegantly situates Morris’ work with the Concrete Poetry which was becoming a global phenomenon at the time. We asked co-curator Michael Turner a few questions about the exhibition and he very kindly obliged:
Here and Elsewhere: How did you decide to work on an exhibition of Michael Morris’ work?
Michael Turner: The Belkin has for some years now housed the Morris/Trasov Archive (formerly Image Bank). Belkin director Scott Watson had always wanted to do an exhibition that would unite, for the first time, all six of Michael’s late-1960s Letter Paintings, as well as another exhibition based on the gallery’s substantial concrete poetry holdings. Originally these were to be two discrete exhibitions, but the more we cut into them, the more they bled together. Grisly metaphors, I know, but there is a forensic quality to historical research that, at its worst, produces Frankensteins, while in our case had the potential to present Michael’s multivalent practice as true to the intermedial spirit of the times — a practice that included his mid-60s concrete poems, his late-60s participation in Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School, and the unification of the two in his and co-curator Alvin Balkind’s Concrete Poetry exhibition at the UBC Fine Arts Gallery in 1969. Michael was a significant figure in the 60s and 70s Vancouver scene, someone whose resonance can be seen in works by Roy Arden, Geoffrey Farmer, Julia Feyrer, Isabelle Pauwels and Steven Shearer, artists for whom the archive is also a material.
H&E: We like the idea of the two originally discreet ideas ‘bleeding together’! How do you see Michael Morris’ Letter Paintings as relating to the examples of Concrete Poetry, the more delicate text-based works on view
MT: Michael’s letter paintings were painted in response to a series of site surveys (“New York Letter”, “Peking Letter”, “Madrid Letter “– there were six in total) published in successive issues of Art International, one of which, Kurt Von Meier’s “Los Angeles Letter” (1967), included a discussion of Michael’s work. The following year, in May 1968, Michael received a letter from New York Correspondence School “postmaster” and Fluxus member Ray Johnson in response to a reproduction of Michael’s The Problem of Nothing (1967) that Johnson had seen in Artforum. This letter was the beginning of Vancouver’s participation in the mail-as-medium “eternal network” that linked Fluxus artists the world over, a network not dissimilar to the concrete poetry network that linked concrete poets in Brazil, Switzerland, Belgium, England, Canada, etc. Michael had been exposed to concrete poetry while studying at the Slade in the mid-1960s, where he came in contact with Bob Cobbing, John Furnival and Ersnt Jandl. After working up his own concrete poems (some of which are included in this show) he arrived at the idea of collecting these poems, along with his collages, in a book, or an “imaginary museum,” as he called it, to be called The Problem of Nothing. This book is also included in the show – not as a book but as a poster called “Michael Morris’ Book”. You can see it in the LETTERS: Transparent and Opaque, Concrete Poetry in Canada, 1963-1973 section, peeking out from behind a Claes Oldenburg reproduction in one of the vitrines, part of a portfolio produced for the 1969 Concrete Poetry exhibition, a show that featured concrete poems and correspondence art from over 50 contributors. What is significant about this show, at least for me, is Michael’s decision to include correspondence art with concrete poetry, the relationship having more to do with the system they shared (the postal system) than what these works looked like as objects. This is key not only to understanding Michael’s practice but to the spirit and intent of Fluxus.
H&E: It’s interesting that Michael’s Letter Paintings, which are comprised of his signature bands of colour, are so formally composed but also include mirrors making the work interactive for the viewer. What do you think his impetus was in combining these seemingly contradictory approaches?
MT: The question of impetus is one for the artist. As to the question of these systems and their relationship to each other, I’m not sure how contradictory they are given Michael’s attraction to the colours and shapes light provides. You will find evidence of this in the b&w photo sequence to the left of New York Letter, entitled Alex and Roger (1970), where a naked man reflects light from a mirror onto another naked man, perhaps in an effort to enliven him. You will also find evidence of grey scale painting on the other side of the wall opposite New York Letter, a photograph of a graphite drawing arranged on a canvas to look like the other Letter Paintings it is grouped with.
H&E: As a writer, does some of your personal interest in working on this exhibition come from the show’s exploration of text and its visual and poetic possibilities?
MT: As a writer I can do a lot of things. I can put a book in a bookstore without being there to shelve it, just as I can get into your head and play with your mind. Curation is a writer’s medium. The essay is an exhibition, a sculpture — and the written essay is there to make sense of it as such. I am interested in the relationship between written and visual practices, and this led me to the writers, artists, dancers and filmmakers associated with Intermedia (1967-1973), of which Michael was a member. Some of the Intermedia writers were making concrete work well before Intermedia started, writers like bill bissett and Judith Coithorne, both of whom are included in the show. What is of interest to writers and artists exploring concrete poetry is not its expressive potential but its materiality, which often begins with the letter (that is the pun that emerges from the show — the letters we send to our friends and the letters we arrange to address those letters to them). The poet bpNichol was obsessed with the letter “H” — the eighth letter of the alphabet. Look at the two together — the “H” and the “8”. I imagine what Nichol liked best about the “H”, what distinguished it from its corresponding number (“8”), was how an “H” is just an “8” with its top and bottom open. If Greenberg were alive today, he might suggest that writing has been surpassed by oral and pictorial forms, or by code, so if it is to continue, it needs to examine itself, explore its form, perhaps through abstraction or collage. Something similar happened in the mid-1950s with the work of concrete poets associated with the Noigandres group in Brazil and Europe. It was inevitable that this kind of exploration should happen, given what happened to painting after WWII. That it happened in many places at once, independent of each other, is testament to its inevitability. The emergence of concrete poetry — the way it emerged — is an example of the far-reaching effects of modernism.
H&E: Earlier you mentioned Michael’s influence on artists working with archives. Do you see other aspects of his practice as being influential on a younger generation of Vancouver-based artists?
MT: Michael was trained to be a painter, back in the day when “artist” implied painter. Some artists are painter-first artists, just as some musicians are guitarist-first musicians and some writers novelist-first writers. But Michael was not content to be only a painter, particularly after returning from England (in 1966); so in that sense he, like local contemporaries Iain Baxter and Glenn Lewis, represent a break from the previous generation of painter-first artists like Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith. As to the generation that followed Michael, you can see his influence in the paintings of Attila Richard Lukacs, who has incorporated Michael’s fuzzy “hard-edge” striations into his canvases, just as you can see it in the assemblages of Geoffrey Farmer, who is building a new piece for Documenta using Michael and Vincent Trasov’s collection of Life magazines. Technique in Attila’s case, archival inventory in Geoffrey’s. Michael’s importance, if I had to reduce it to a line or two, is his contribution to the reorientation of the artist practice from medium specificity to the means by which an art work is made and considered — from research to meditation to implementation, all stages being important, all of them never-ending. In a way, Michael Morris is our Aby Warburg. In another, a skilled and brilliant painter.
H&E: Thanks Michael!