September 27, 2007
Is Card File by Robert Morris the “first ‘purely’ conceptual work of art?”(1) At least two art theorists have weighed in on this 1962 artwork’s self-reflexive character and its “predominately linguistic nature”(2) that continues the inexorable attack on objects, “seeming to parody the modernist obsession with the autonomy of the art object.”(3)
The 44 index cards contained in the file document the “steps the artist followed in the conception and making of the work”(3) by using another system of representation, i.e., language. The linguistic advantage would be thoroughly exploited by others fairly quickly (Yoko Ono, Mel Ramsden, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, John Baldessari). Yet Card File subtly introduced another art concept that would remain somewhat dormant for a few years before erupting as process.
That the form of Card File is fully manifested through the process undertaken by Morris in its conception and making is clearly the essential element of the work. We understand the artist’s intention to be the documentation of a pre-conceived idea for an artwork through a series of actions and “thought processes” which result in the production of the work.
I absolutely concur that this work is indeed exemplary within proto-conceptual history and that it indicates the importance of process in the future development of the form that art would take. However, I must remind my fellow art theorists that Duchamp’s readymades paved the way for all post-Duchampian “assisted” readymades. Therefore, I nominate Marcel’s In Advance of a Broken Arm (the snow shovel readymade) as the first “purely” conceptual artwork. Predating Morris’s Card File by nearly fifty years, Duchamp's snow shovel (along with the Bicycle Wheel and Fountain) unveils the basic premise of art’s institutionalization as flawed or, at the very least, suspect. Duchamp proposed that the definition of art relied fully on its context and this is the initial thrust which later propeled Morris, Piero Manzoni and even Bob Rauschenberg to thier unnerving acts of conceptualism.(5)
Parenthetically, I wonder if the Centre Georges Pompidou allows visitor interaction with Card File whenever it’s shown? If not and they exhibit it in one of those hermetically-sealed and compulsory glass display case, then I respectfully ask Robert Morris to draft another of his legal documents officially withdrawing “all aesthetic quality and content”(6) from Card File. Its systemic relevance is best accessed by a participatory experience, therefore, as just another “art object” under institutional control it is effectively neutered under glass.
Image: Card File (1962); metal and plastic wall file mounted on wood, containing 44 index cards; © Copyright by Robert Morris.
1. Osborne, Peter. Conceptual Art,, London, 2002, 68.
2. Ibid., 68.
3. Wood, Paul. Conceptual Art,, New York, 2002, 26.
4. Op. cit., 68.
5. Rauschenberg’s famous declarative telegram that asserts, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so,” thus extending the definition of what constitutes art begun by Duchamp.
6. “Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal” was Morris’ legal declaration that he had rescinded the “aesthetic quality and content” from the Litanies artwork after payment had not been received from the purchaser, Philip Johnson.