It had already been clear for some time that monumentality and size were not necessarily linked. In the right hands, Oldenburg's for instance, a small typewriter eraser could be magnified to monumental proportions and also become monumental, while the imposing specific gravity of Joel Shapiro's miniature houses indicated that they had made the same journey in reverse. Then, as always, artists were, in the lingo of gallery press releases, "forcing us to reassess our assumptions about art." Or trying to, since for every artist who successfully takes on this pragmatic task there are a hundred who fail, and who deserve extra demerits for failing to deliver what they've promised.
Owen Morrel is emphatically in the former category. Instead of wanly inviting us to join in some sort of debate, his sculptures actually pull us in, and the resulting "reassessment" actually leaves us feeling invigorated rather than irked. "Generous" is a word he is apt to use in connection with his work-not in any self-congratulatory way but with a note of surprise, like an admiring parent whose offspring have succeeded beyond expectations.
As with other site-specific artists who became prominent in the seventies (Mary Miss, Siah Armajani, Donna Dennis, and Morrel's close friend, the late Gordon Matta-Clark), the groundwork- or literally, spadework in the case of Smithson- undertaken in the previous decade became a kind of anchoring tradition from which each would shortly take off in surprising directions of his or her own. Morrel's started out, perhaps with a cue from Oldenburg, as sassy, subversive, even menacing- for example, 1975 Desk Axis, which cantilevered an office desk out over a New York street six stories below and dared the viewer to sit in it. Though danger, or the perception of it, remained an element in works that followed- as with the 1978 Asylum, a vertigo-inducing cage again mounted on the roof of an office building, or the 1980 Omega, an even more ticklish platform slung out over the gorge of the Niagara River at Artpark- the theme had shifted from provocation to invitation, even though the occasion to be experienced seemed not without an element of risk for the viewer.
1998 Lighthouse is perhaps his finest, most thoroughly realized work yet, and it seems to have brought his career full circle, allowing him at last the opportunity to play the dual role of memorialist and provocateur to the hilt, and thus providing him access to a higher, more all-inclusive level of achievment. It is a very exciting stage in the career of this "loner" and makes one eager to see what he'll do next.
From early childhood, Morrel's impulse has always been to react with his environment, if possible from a ringside seat. Born in Massapequa, Long Island, in 1950, he says he spent as much of his childhood as possible in or on the water, sometimes surveying it fom a kind of crow's nest he had his father build on the mast of the family sailboat. Climbing to the top of things, trees in particular, was his passion and, at the age of four, he made his first ascent of the family refrigerator- "to look out over the vast kitchen landscape." When he was twelve, he created what he calls his first "reflected-image piece" by placing two large mirrors on the floor and against a wall of his bedroom, and spraying the walls with streaks of Day-Glo paint. He recalls standing on the mirror and drinking in the giddy spectacle he had just created. A few years later he "discovered" Coney Island and made "sculptures" inspired by the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump, and the Steeplechase.
He set out at nineteen, like so many of his generation, to see the world without any fixed goal in view, settling for a while on the Greek island of Paros, where he studied classical Greek ceramics and learned how to use the potter's wheel, though characteristically he was even more interested in tearing his artifacts apart to get at the inside, sometimes coloring it with acrylic paint. Always a great reader of poetry, he met the English poets Lee Harwood and Bill Butler at that time, and expanded his list of favorite poets (Frost, Eliot, Cummings, Jeffers) to include Yeats, W. C. Williams, Eluard, and Cocteau. At the same time he was exploring theoretical physics, particularly "theories of invisible phenomena."
After a time in Mexico, he returned to New York in 1975 more intrigued by sculpture than ever, having discovered the Russian Constructivists, especially Tatlin, Lissitsky, Rodchenko, and Popova. He knew he wanted to do something in the line of sculpture, but not what. It was a period when, in his words, he spent time "climbing to the tops of buildings to relocate the horizon," taking photographs of abandoned water towers ('primitive huts') and dreaming of turning them into observatories- anything so as "to altar the New York skyline." Works from that period have the polemical thrust of much of the conceptual art of the time. But the shift toward objects that were beautiful as well as unsettling was under way, though Morrel to this day insists that "objecthood" is secondary to the spasm of emotion and vertigo released in the spectator.
Still, it is only in the last few years that he seems to have solved the problem that was never entirely resolved in the earlier work, namely: How to keep these structures active for the eye at whichever of a multitude of points of view it happens to accost them, and, at the same time, offer a kind of arena for experiences of many kinds, including extra-visual ones. I think he has transcended this question magnificently in the present suite of works. There is nothing tentative in the multiplicity of these works. They are rather an encyclopedia of forms, linked and separate, but all in the service of Morrel's multi-chambered vision - a panopticon that is not a prison but a pleasure dome, a sphere for high adventures of the mind and spirit.
Essay by John Ashbery