Michael Morrill


by Harry Schwalb, Pittsburgh Magazine: July 1981

Hewlett Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh PA

Hewlett Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh PA

Reductivist art has something of a bad name nowadays. With the high cost of gasoline, it simply isn't always worth the trip.  

That's why it is gratifying to report that the Michael Morrill sculptures recently on view at Carnegie-Mellon University's Hewlett Gallery would have justified a trip many times greater. 

These twelve new wall pieces provided a roomful of perceptual twists and decidedly non-minimalist spatial illusions that added up to one of the strongest shows of the season. 

At 29, Morrill is a young master. Using the simplest of means—strips of white pine—he takes a viewer on a journey into the farther reaches of design. Aptly enough, the gallery provided a map instead or a title sheet, with the names of the pieces shown in relation to the walls. 

Actually, that "simplest of means" I wrote above is a bit more complex. Morrill orchestrates surface contrasts: matte finishes play against high-gloss ones. And there is dimensional drama. While the initial effect is that of two-dimensional design, almost of drawings done with wood, he will build up areas through layering, or else he will extend strips at right angles to the flat ones, or—most dramatic of all—he will float small wood constructions (independently fixed to the wall) inside the "frame" formed by the outside strips. 

And then there is his use of color, acrylic paint applied as tiny squares here and there, or in thin strips along outside edges, or to outline an inside edge or two. These painted accents are actually ten to twenty layers deep, and they lie on the clean crisp wood like sensuous velvet for additional tactile excitement. 

Individually the works are impressive enough. Morrill's "Signal" is a T-shape whose 95-inch-long top strip ends in a dizzying spot of red; it is unlike anything you will have seen. And his "Trilogy of Squares" (using the floating interior constructions I mentioned earlier) fairly crackles with an architectural intelligence. 

But it's as an installation that these works compel, making the gallery into an ordered, comprehensible volume. A tribute, in a way, to the new Hewlett (for many years an impossible low-ceilinged den, in winter and summer alike hotter than a Marrakesh steam bath, and keeping erratic hours). The Morrill pieces were worthy of this fine new showcase. 

Looking at Morrill's newest works, offspring of the Russian Constructivists, you can almost believe, as they once did (though not Yale-trained Morrill), that a new art, "constructed" without reference to the past or even to observed reality, could help bring about a new social and political order. Or, as Mondrian himself came to believe, that mankind could be raised to a higher spiritual level through an art based on "harmonious" relationships. 

What Morrill's pieces seem to have that so many of the Constructivists in whatever country did not have is workmanship: a precision of performance, a New England craft, that is able to convert aspiration into its visual equivalent. Maybe what this international style needed all along was Yankee dexterity! 

Many people in art—artists, museum directors, curators, writers, collectors even—are coming to feel that The Idea alone matters, that execution is a poor second. They are wrong.