‘Glass Labyrinth’ by Robert Morris opens May 22 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

05/15/2014 3:01 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

While others observe Memorial Day weekend with the typical picnics, parades and cemetery visits, Kansas Citians will have an opportunity to stroll through a giant glass labyrinth.

On Thursday, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will hold a public celebration for “Glass Labyrinth,” a 50-by-50-by-50-foot glass triangle with a maze of interior glass walls. It was conceived by internationally renowned artist Robert Morris, 83, for the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park on the museum’s grounds.

Workers have spent the past two months setting the sculpture’s dozens of 7-foot-high, 1-inch-thick glass panels in place near the Henry Moore “Sheep Piece” in the southeast section of the park.

The sculpture, weighing more than 400 tons, represents a masterwork of logistics by Morris, his engineer, Erich Blohm Design, and the Nelson’s director of presentation, Steve Waterman. It was commissioned with funding from the Hall Family Foundation. The sculpture’s opening marks the beginning of the park’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Morris, a Kansas City native who attended Paseo Academy and the Kansas City Art Institute, will attend a public celebration and ribbon-cutting for the “Glass Labyrinth” Thursday. He’ll also speak in Atkins Auditorium.

The evening’s focus will be a chance to walk the labyrinth’s 43-inch-wide pathways and experience simultaneous sensations of enclosure and openness.

As Jan Schall, the Nelson’s curator of modern art, has noted, the labyrinth, unlike a maze, has only one way in and the same way out.

The Nelson’s new work is similar to a glass labyrinth that was temporarily installed in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, but the museum’s park setting is entirely different from the urban plaza the Rio piece occupied.

Over the years, Morris has produced multiple versions of the labyrinth, beginning with an 8-foot-high, gray-painted, wood version he created at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 1974. The Nelson piece is his first permanent labyrinth made of glass.

“Getting to the use of glass in constructing labyrinths did not come all at once,” Morris related in a recent email. “After making labyrinths of wood, marble and granite, I wanted to open them up and used stainless steel fencing for one built in Korea. Glass seemed like a next step.”

The transparent “Glass Labyrinth” asserts a less domineering presence than previous versions in wood, marble and granite. From a distance it nearly disappears, which seems in accord with Morris’ rejection of spectacle in art.

“I detest spectacle,” he told painter Wade Guyton last year in Interview magazine. “I’ve come to regard the itch for the big and loud required by spectacle as puerile and callow, and what the manifestations of spectacle do to the spectator is even more objectionable.”

The use of glass also relates to Morris’ longstanding interest in indeterminacy, going back to early works in felt and lead that could be displayed in different positions.

Throughout his career, Morris has resisted making art that is locked into a single static form. The “Glass Labyrinth” represents another twist on this idea: its appearance changes constantly with the movement of people within it and the flux of nature beyond.

As a child, Morris was fascinated by the ancient Egyptian art at the Nelson, where he took classes that involved drawing artworks, including an Egyptian relief, in the museum. The labyrinth is another centuries-old form that captured his imagination.

“I have often been attracted to ancient and prehistoric forms,” he said in his email, “and of course I did not invent the labyrinth form, the origins of which are lost in the mists of time.”

Morris has written extensively on the labyrinth, describing it as “a form that recedes back beyond memory.”

“Its function in ancient times remains a subject of endless speculation. Metaphors rise and fall here; labyrinthine meanings are reflected in the form itself.”

Over the years, Morris has repeatedly equated the labyrinth with the search for self: “Within the ‘labyrinth’ a paradox is allowed: We lose ourselves to find ourselves,” he has famously asserted.

In Greek mythology, a labyrinth was built by King Minos of Crete to hold the minotaur, a mythical half-man, half-bull creature, who was killed by Theseus.

The idea of the labyrinth as a site of violence and death recurs in “Indiana Street,” an essay by Morris in which he recounts his childhood memories of visiting the “ dense and stressful labyrinth” of the stockyards, where his father worked.

“I remember seeing crazed Brahma bulls rip eight-by-eight gateposts out of the bricks as if they were matchsticks and seeing 200 head of longhorns running wild eyed across an elevated chute,” he recalled.

When asked, Morris stopped short of saying that these vivid recollections influenced his choice of the labyrinth form.

“If the early stockyards experience was an unconscious source, I would not by definition know it,” he responded. “I think we all have so many strong early experiences that probably remain below conscious recall. Even conscious early experiences have for me been a source for many works.”

In his seminal 1966 essay, “Notes on Sculpture,” Morris argued for the importance of the “particular space and light and physical viewpoint of the spectator” for establishing the major aesthetic terms of a work of art.

In recent correspondence Morris also stressed the viewer’s role in extracting meaning.

“It is not possible for the artist to predict the experiences of others,” he wrote, “As (Marcel) Duchamp remarked, the artist makes the work and others tell him what it is.”

He added: “Transparency and flux, metaphor and spectacle, the sacred and profane, violence and the lyrical, movement and stasis, the deep collective past and individual memory, myth and the everyday. It seems that the labyrinth raises such issues for many people who confront these objects. I welcome all these responses.”

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

Opening event

A public celebration for “Glass Labyrinth” will be from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. The family event will include a ribbon-cutting at 6 p.m., demonstrations and activities led by students from Paseo Academy and the chance to walk through the labyrinth. The evening will include a discussion between Morris and his biographer, art historian Barbara Rose, from 7 to 8 p.m. in Atkins Auditorium. Admission to the talk is free but tickets are required; go to www.nelson-atkins.org or call 816-751-1278.

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