By Trevor Coombs, Documentation Assistant
On January 9, 1961, the American artist Robert Morris entered his studio in New York and made a nine-and-three-quarter inch square box out of walnut wood.
During the three and a half hours it took for him to construct, he recorded the sounds he made – cutting the wood, hammering, sawing and sanding, etc.
By means of a small, internally mounted speaker, he enabled the playback of this recording from within the box. He then gave the work a title, Box with the Sound of its Own Making, and signed and dated it.
Morris had created one of the most self-referential works of art existing in the world today. It is what it is, a box with the sound of its own making, and any attempt to interpret beyond this is destined to fail. Some have claimed that this is the point, whilst others have persisted and tried to give it a larger meaning.
The artist has rarely commented on what critics and curators have made of the work, other than restating his aim of wanting his labour to be present in the work when it is displayed.
Morris’s art is classed as Minimal and sometimes Conceptual, two art isms rooted in the late 20th century. But how new is the artist’s intention?
Arguably, there is evidence of making in all works of art. It just needs to be found. The hand of the artist is unique – the way an image is composed, the preferred range of colours, the heaviness or lightness of touch in the application of pencil and pigment.
Art historians have built reputations on their ability to recognise the methods of their favoured artists.
Within Bristol’s collection of 19th century watercolours and drawings there are some which clearly show evidence of making. There are also photographs of artists at work and examples of their tools and materials, all of which give further insights into how an artist works.
To find out about some of the works of art which, to paraphrase Robert Morris, show the artist’s labour, visit our collections online.
Here the issue is explored in five themes: Artists and Their Tools; Paintings of Paintings; Unfinished Drawings; Photographs of Artists; and Cameras in the Avon Gorge.
- Featured image: Detail from A Sketching Party in Leigh Woods, by Samuel Jackson, showing an artist at work, drawn about 1830
- An unfinished drawing by James Johnson, drawn 1825
- A typical early-19th century artist’s watercolour box, constructed between 1829-1845