LOS ANGELES — By the time a car crash ended her life in 1977, just shy of her 41st birthday, Ree Morton had participated in two Whitney Biennials, served as a guest artist or lecturer at institutions including the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of California San Diego, and participated in several group and solo shows. The momentum of her professional development was matched by her prodigious growth as an artist. Her career spanned less than a decade (1968–77). In that time, she tackled a variety of materials, techniques, and ideas at breakneck speed, as if she had been mentally formulating her art for decades.
In the ensuing years, Morton’s groundbreaking artwork has surfaced in a handful of group and solo shows, but for decades it was relegated largely to the footnotes of art history. The Plant that Heals May Also Poison — curated by Kate Kraczon at the ICA Philadelphia and currently at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (ICA LA), where it is organized by Jamillah James — is an ambitious corrective, one befitting an artist who remains vital to questioning what it means to be a woman in art history and society.
Morton was a homemaker and mother of three when she began taking art classes in the mid-1960s while living in Florida. In the late ’60s, after separating from her husband, she entered art school full-time, earning a BFA from the University of Rhode Island in 1968 and an MFA from Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art in 1970.
Although she was constantly charting new territory, certain themes recur throughout her oeuvre: natural growth and processes, spacial and social relations, language. “Wood Drawings” (1971), the earliest work in the show, nods to her Postminimalist milieu. Yet the wall installation of 16 wood fragments goes beyond formal concerns to suggest a kind of coded language. Marks drawn or painted on the fragments individualize each piece, but it’s the sparse arrangement that imbues the installation with a tension between the individual and the group or, more abstractly, between being one thing or another.
The following year, Morton began working with celastic, a moldable plastic-impregnated fabric. With her celastic works, she abandoned her muted palette for bright, carnivalesque colors, decorative elements, and sentiment; all of the energy and ambivalence brimming in her earlier sculptures and drawings burst to the surface.
For “Maternal Instincts” (1974), a yellow, horseshoe-shaped banner made of celastic wraps around three small celastic ribbons like arms; the ribbons, topped with glowing lights bulbs and bearing her children’s first initials, suggest children in bed. The simplicity of the message is destabilized by the banner format and all-caps text, which translates the title from an internal feeling to an external expectation of women.
Motherhood was a thorny topic for Morton. “Serious” was a word that surrounded her: “serious” artists dedicated their lives to art and “serious” feminists were not encumbered by children. (While she didn’t label herself a feminist, her later drawings trenchantly address men and sexism.) The artist, who voluntarily shared custody of her children at a time when mothers typically held primary custody, frequently alluded to togetherness and separation in her work.
Yet, Morton’s work was personal, but not confessional. By drawing on her experience she asserts that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Social relations — whatever the kind — are the central themes. For “Bozeman, Montana” (1974) the names of her students from a class she taught at Montana State University are scattered on a wall. Transforming names into a topography, the work is a melancholy comment on the construction of place through the mutable faculty of memory — a notion she revisits in a series of flags featuring names of her loved ones, originally part of the site-specific performance “Something in the Wind” (1975).
Brackets around the words in “Bozeman, Montana” create a frame that alludes to other levels of meaning, hinting at what remains unspoken in that which is spoken. Morton’s interest in language as a site of multiplicity is apparent as well in the exhibition’s title piece, a peach-colored banner that includes the names of plants with both medicinal and toxic properties, mounted on wallpaper with pictures of safari animals.
The word “serious” returns in terms of her approach to art. In Kraczon’s catalogue essay, she cites Morton’s friend Cynthia Carlson who noted that Morton increasingly “spoke about ‘getting serious.’” She was fiercely devoted to her art, preparing an exhibition for Chicago’s Renaissance Society shortly before her death. She had also accepted a full-time teaching position at the University of Colorado Boulder, a move that would provide a permanent home for her younger children and suggests she had found some equilibrium.
In retrospect, the poignant “Let Us Celebrate While Youth Lingers and Ideas Flow” (1975), in which three celastic ribbons hover against a cloud-covered ground, presages the tragedy to come. Yet it can also be read at face value, as the words of an artist who had already lost too much time and refused to let more life pass by unlived.
There will be a Zoom conversation on Ree Morton between Los Angeles-based artists Jade Gordon, Katie Grinnan, and Evan Holloway, moderated by ICA Good Works Executive Director Anne Ellegood on Thursday, July 16 5:30 (PDT). More information is available here.
Ree Morton: The Plant that Heals May Also Poison continues online at the ICA LA through July 19. The exhibition was curated by Kate Kraczon at the ICA Philadelphia and organized at the ICA LA by Jamillah James.