Artist: Ree Morton
Venue: Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Exhibition Title: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison
Date: February 16 – June 14, 2020
Full gallery of images, press release and link available after the jump.
Images and works courtesy of © The Estate of Ree Morton; courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York and Annemarie Verna Galerie, Zurich. Photos by Jeff McLane.
The Plant That Heals May Also Poison is the first major United States exhibition of artist Ree Morton (1936-1977) in nearly four decades. The exhibition features several rarely seen works, including a selection of installations, drawings, sculptures, paintings, and archival materials which span a single decade of artistic production before Morton’s untimely death in 1977.
Throughout her career, Morton produced a philosophically complex body of work rich in emotion. Though celebrated by peers and younger artists, Morton’s influence on contemporary art remains considerable yet muted, her legacy widely underrecognized. The eclectic arc of Morton’s practice was rooted in Postminimalism, the inclusion of personal narrative—through literary, theoretical, and autobiographical references—and use of bold color and theatrical imagery infused her objects with sly humor and a concern with the decorative, generating a feminist legacy increasingly appreciated in retrospect. Reimagining tropes of love, friendship, and motherhood, while radically asserting sentiment as a legitimate subject of artmaking, Morton’s conceptually rigorous work demonstrates generosity towards the viewer, its spirit of playfulness and joy inflecting all aspects of the exhibition.
Organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, the exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue co-published with Dancing Foxes Press with texts by Kate Kraczon, the exhibition’s curator; artist Nayland Blake; Kathryn Gile; and scholars Roksana Filipowska and Abi Shapiro.
Ree Morton’s initial engagement with drawing influenced much of her early work. While living in Jacksonville, Florida, with her three young children, Morton took evening drawing classes at a local museum; she later committed to focusing on being an artist, completing a BFA at the University of Rhode Island in 1968 and an MFA at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in 1970. Wood Drawings (1971) is the earliest work in the exhibition and marks a transition from the minimalist and loosely gridded forms she produced while in graduate school. These intricate small sculptures covered in felt-tip markings signal both an interdisciplinary approach to drawing and Morton’s nascent fascination with wood as a material, both the natural structure of found branches and logs as well as commercially cut wood. Paintings and Objects (1973), installed adjacent to Wood Drawings, features four wooden armatures that prop and push at a canvas pinned to the wall—one of the few remaining sculptural works from this period of Morton’s practice. Nearly all of these early pieces were repeatedly reconfigured into various formations that she leaned against the walls and corners of her studio, rejecting traditional systems of medium specificity and combining elements of painting, drawing, and sculpture.
She presented Souvenir Piece (1973), inspired by a summer in Newfoundland, Canada with her three children, as an installation for her fall 1973 solo exhibition at Artists Space, New York. Only two sections of this work remain, one of which is included here. Like many of Morton’s pieces, the numbers three and four can be counted among the objects—four split logs on the low green platform, for example—and she references her three children by name, as well as friends and family, in many other works. The wood and stones assembled on the table may allude to an accumulation of mementos and memories from that period of her life. She would continue the wood motif from this body of work in the sculpture See Saw (1974) and her later Woodgrain drawings (c. 1974).
Of the artist’s surviving drawings from the early 1970s, many gesture toward a form of mapping that became increasingly explicit in her early installations. With borders and fences, dashes that enclose, and silhouettes or tracings of objects both present and absent, works such as Game Map Drawings (c. 1972–73) and the series Newfoundland Drawings (1973) reveal concerns with landscape, limitations, and organic shapes that she maintainedthrough her final bodies of work. Game Map Drawings depicts aerial views of pathways and hills in a countryside. Morton created the Newfoundland Drawings (1973) after her vacation on the Canadian island, which Morton told her friend Marcia Tucker (former Whitney Museum curator and founding director of the New Museum in New York) was the happiest summer of her life. The drawings’ cartographic references are rooted in the knobby texture of logs and branches Morton sketched in the notebook she kept during her trip.
Looking to other disciplines outside of the arts, such as philosophy, literature, and botany, Morton’s work often referenced her personal life. Before pursuing
an arts education, she studied nursing, which greatly influenced the Line Series (1972–74), one of which are included in this presentation. These drawings feature soft, lyrical lines that roam across the surface of the paper around an array of other shapes, reminiscent of the chromosomes that Morton recalled observing under a microscope during her studies.
In the summer of 1974, Morton discovered two horticultural texts that were highly influential, Weeds of the Northeast: Aids to Their Identification by Basal-leaf Characteristics (1970) and Wildflowers Worth Knowing (1917). Drawings of this period, such as Untitled (Woodgrain, Scaley Bulb), Yellow Clintonia, Bitter Buttons, and Broom-Rape Family (all works produced in 1974) depict wildlife species from nature and outline the names, images, and descriptions of various flora; The Plant that Heals May Also Poison, a wall sculpture which opens the exhibition, names plants that have medicinal qualities yet have some toxic properties. While Weeds of the Northeast became the namesake of a series of Morton’s drawings, installed here on woodgrain wallpaper as Morton did for their debut presentation in 1974, the comical Victorian moralism of the 1917 publication became a primary source of text for many of her drawings and sculptures.
Morton worked with celastic, a textile infused with plastic that becomes malleable when wet with solvent, for the first time in spring 1974 while teaching at the Philadelphia College of Art. After a male colleague’s snide remark that “women should stick to bake sales” in response to her participation in the school’s Women’s Faculty Show, she used the material to create bows and drapery decorating the wall behind a platform where she and her students displayed cookies and cakes as the work Bake Sale (1974).
She continued to experiment with celastic as a visiting artist at the University of Montana, during a period that seemed unproductive to the artist initially but signaled an important turn in her work. For Bozeman, Montana (1974), created during this time, Morton applied celastic to clay letters and painted the surface once hardened. The playful, celebratory wall piece names her students as well as various activities, such as playing pool, fishing, and drinking beer. The work marks two important milestones in Morton’s developing practice: in addition to using celastic with text for the first time, she also introduces the use of electric lightbulbs to the sculptures.
Morton’s practice expanded to incorporate performance and public works that reflected upon her community of friends and fellow artists. In June 1975 Morton installed the ambitious outdoor project Something in the Wind (1975), a collection of over one hundred nylon flags strung across the rigging of a nineteenth-century sailboat docked in New York’s East River. This was a public project with the South Street Seaport Museum, and each flag was dedicated to family members and friends, including many
New York-based artists, such as Laurie Anderson, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Cynthia Carlson. These flags celebrated her wide-ranging personal and social relationships; for Morton, sentimentality was a critically important component of her work, visually articulating her role not only as an artist, but also a teacher, a mother, and a friend. This exhibition presents a selection of the flags from Something in the Wind, as well as a short film documenting the exhibition at the South Street Seaport.
Maid of the Mist (1976) responded to a Native American folktale of the same name about a maiden’s annual voyage in a fruit and flower-covered canoe over Niagara Falls as a sacrificial bride to the river. In her outdoor performance, Morton, alongside other artists-in-residence at Artpark in upstate New York, carried a large yellow celastic ladder to a hillside leading into the entrance of the Niagara River, joining it with a life preserver adorned with celastic florals. Morton stood at the edge of the water with an additional life preserver tied to her waist with rope, and after throwing the preserver into the river, she cut the connection of the rope so it could float free. In performing a symbolic rescue of the maiden using a ladder and life preservers, Morton established a contemporary continuation of a narrative of feminine love and sacrifice.
Morton kept an extensive archive of materials, including a collection of notebooks now housed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and accessible online through the Franklin Furnace Archive. Presented here are select drawings, sketches, and studies alongside documentation that reveal the evolution of her practice, from slides of experimental work in her Philadelphia studio to installation images from exhibitions and projects throughout the United States.
Morton’s final project, Manipulations of the Organic (1977), focused on Chicago-based architect Louis Sullivan (1856–1924) and was developed as a frieze-like installation of fourteen paintings. She was a guest artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago that spring, surrounded by Sullivan’s architectural influence throughout the city and fascinated by his portfolio of drawings A System of Architectural Ornament, which was commissioned by the school’s library in 1924. The Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, created this installation in the originating presentation of this exhibition to approximate the drawings and studies she made leading up to her death in April 1977. Here, Manipulations of the Organic is represented by a series of drawings similar to those featured in the completed work.
The shapes Morton used in several celastic works, all produced in 1974, veer from the celebratory to the funerary—glittery banners and ribbons vying with the melancholic symbolism of gravestones. The pithy phrasing of Terminal Clusters mixes with more personal references such as those in Maternal Instincts, which includes the initials of her three children. Noting her experience as a housewife, Many Have Run Away, to Be Sure explores feminine clichés and the bow motif (or beaux, a homonym evoking the Beaux-Arts, a highly decorative, neoclassical architectural style) that began with Bake Sale. Similarly, Don’t Worry, I’ll only read you the good parts (1975) similarly radiates the dark humor that infuses much of this body of work.
The series Regional Pieces (1976) are paintings of various seascapes and sunsets produced during a winter spent as visiting faculty at the University of California, San Diego. The diptychs are framed by curtains made with celastic, adding a decorative flourish that is both theatrical and domestic. The top panel depicts a sunrise, culled from postcards the artist collected, and the bottom features images of local fish. Highlighting Morton’s time spent on California’s beaches, the Regional Pieces are also in dialogue with historical painting tropes such as still life and landscape painting.