Robert Lee Morris: Rebel with a Cause

Robert Lee Morris is a one-man revolution in the contemporary jewelry industry. What first comes to mind when you hear the name Robert Lee Morris? It’s hard to pin down a single image regarding this man. His innovative jewelry designs from the middle ‘70s are certainly still a dominant force in the field. But there have also been handbags, belt buckles and accessories, table top designs for Swid Powell, Elizabeth Arden cosmetic cases, and a list that continues to grow month-by-month.

Robert Lee Morris, the entrepreneur, is one possible description. But it’s one that would overlook what is probably the most important segment of his life. And that segment is Robert Lee Morris the gallery owner, collector, and supporter of the notion of jewelry as art to wear.

In the following interview, which took place several months ago in his atelier that overlooks the skyline of New York City, Robert Lee Morris talked about his views on collecting and the need to support the work of artist/jewelers. He also spoke of the “jewelry as art” debate, its problems, its potential, its future. Finally, he provided an innovative definition of himself as an artist/craftsman.

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Work by Robert Lee Morris. Photograph by Teresa Misagal.

DS. Let’s talk about where the idea of “jewelry as art” came from with regard to your career.

RLM. I began exhibiting at the Sculpture to Wear Gallery in New York City in the early ‘70s. It was a stable of artists that included Picasso, Braque, Calder, Max Ernst, and Man Ray. They did jewelry as a sort of after dinner hobby. But all the jewelry at Sculpture to Wear was either produced in limited editions in ateliers where the artists had total control over the design and creation of the pieces, or it was the efforts of the individual artists, like Calder, who made the work themselves.

It was truly a remarkable assemblage of work by artists who were very famous for work other than jewelry. But, and this I feel is very important, the transition from one medium to the next was wonderful. These artists were able to translate perfectly the sensibility, the innate creativity and world view that they brought from large-scale painting or sculpture into the jewelry that they created. There was no loss of artistic concept or input. Jewelry was truly represented at Sculpture to Wear as art and art was jewelry.

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Consequently I learned at a very early age the difference between craft and art. No matter what a piece is made from – glass, metal, ceramic – when the primary idea that comes from it, first and foremost, is its artistic concept, and there’s an intellectual punch to it, then it’s art. When the primary concern is about an object’s craftsmanship, about the material and how it was put together, the intellectual or artistic concept becomes a secondary concern, and that makes it a craft.

This problem of craft versus art used to come up while I was still at Sculpture to Wear. Very often students, many of which were graduate level, from various design schools would show their work to the dealers.

But the problems that most often arose were that these students were very frustrated because they had been taught every technique known to man but didn’t know what to do with it. They were having the worst time figuring out how to express themselves, and they would be told that although their pieces were made very well, they didn’t say anything.

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Work by Robert Lee Morris. Photograph by Teresa Misagal.

DS. So what do you call yourself? Artist? Metalsmith? Sculptor? Designer?

RLM. In the beginning I made a decision not to spend a lot of time worrying about that. Is my work art? Is my work not art? People should just do their work, do their best and not worry so much about what category they fit in. I feel that the worrying makes you self-conscious and your work becomes market driven instead of being driven by something inside.

I think it’s dangerous to call yourself an artist. I think it’s fine if other people call you an artist. So when you ask me what do I call myself, I call myself a designer. I design all day long. I design jewelry, flatware, handbags, belts, accessories. I design packaging and I think about designing cars and yachts and things that have speed to them.

I also think that I design with a strong, artistic content. I have a world view: a point of view and a style that is very important. I have a very distinctive style.

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I feel that as an artist it is one of my duties to help teach people how to look at things in a new way. And that’s really what being an artist is all about – helping people to see that which is before them that they can’t see because either it’s too obvious, or it’s just not there.

So when I collect jewelry it’s very often with that in mind. These are the artists who I think are responsible, in one way or another, for having helped raise people’s ability to see – their work is also provocative and raises issue, without relying heavily on technique.

Work by Robert Lee Morris. Photograph by Teresa Misagal.

DS. Why did you open Artwear?

RLM. Except for the Fairtree Gallery, also in Manhatten, which was open around the time of Sculpture to Wear, there weren’t any galleries that just exhibited and sold jewelry. The Fairtree Gallery was a multiple craft gallery. I started Artwear in 1977 when sculpture to Wear closed. I had to open my own gallery because I didn’t relate to any existing establishment.

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At the time that I opened the gallery I only showed one-of-a-kind pieces, and limited editions. But unlike Sculpture to Wear I choose to show relatively unknown jewelers. I didn’t like the idea of building a business based on already-famous people.

I felt that there were plenty of people like myself around, newcomers, who believed that their jewelry was their art form. So I began to ally myself with people who had a strong conceptual basis for their work. I guess I became a champion of artists who used jewelry as their medium of expression.

But by the end of the ‘70s I had to stop taking new people into the gallery. I felt I couldn’t represent more than 25 or 30 artists. So I started spreading the word “Go open your own gallery.” The more galleries there are out there, the more we have a field. One gallery does not make an entire industry. I would love some competition.

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Look how many painting and sculpture galleries there are out there. Look how many places there are for other art forms such as theater workshops and dance workshops. But how many jewelry galleries are there or have there been at one time?

Work by Robert Lee Morris. Photograph by Teresa Misagal.

DS: Let’s go further with this. There are many large and famous museums, just in this country, that do not have jewelry in their collections. And for the most part, the ones that do, have period pieces from Tiffany or the Wiener Werkstatte or the like. Very few show contemporary jewelry and even fewer acquire pieces. Why is that?

RLM. For one thing there are very, very few galleries out there. As an industry we are minuscule. We don’t have much clout. There are not many of us doing this thing, yet there is some support. The American Craft Society has always been very supportive of all the crafts. And it’s probably better business to spread yourself a little wider.

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When you open a business it’s risky to focus on just one area. So, if you have an area for glass, and one for ceramics, and one for furniture, and one for jewelry, chances are you’re going to survive.

Glass, ceramics, and furniture have all made it into the museums – much more consistently than jewelry. I’m not sure why these areas seem to have more support than jewelry but I think probably there might be more talent in those areas, more power in those areas.

Nothing could make me happier than to see museums start to collect more jewelry. But then again I don’t blame the museums. There’s not a lot out there that I would collect if I were a museum curator. I would collect Tone Vigeland and Robert Ebendorf – I think that there are perhaps a dozen, maybe two dozen people who have made real contributions to this field. And their work stands on the same level as that of any artist working in any area.

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Work by Robert Lee Morris. Photograph by Teresa Misagal.

DS. About the collectability factor: Do you think that someone who could afford to go into a gallery such as Leo Castelli’s or Mary Boone’s and purchase something, would have trouble going into a store such as Artwear and buying a piece as if it were a painting or a piece of sculpture? Should this difference matter?

RLM. It matters a great deal. The jewelry collectability issue cannot be compared to the collectability of a major painting by a major artist. The people who buy Lichtensteins or Kellys or Tuttles are buying into a market that is as established as the gold or diamond market. It has been established world-wide through places such as Christies or Sothebys. And even today, sculpture is still not valued as much as paintings.

The precedents have been set by such sales as Van Gogh’s Irises. So the concept of fine art being more investable has already been proven to be true. You do not hear of a Robert Lee Morris going to auction, a piece that was designed in 1969 and made of brass, for $150,000. You do hear of paintings from the same period going for five to ten times more than that. You might hear of a Calder necklace going for $50,000 or maybe, even a little more.

It’s possible that we are too young a field to be compared to the fine art market. Even though jewelry is more ancient than painting, in terms of the concept of jewelry as art, it’s a relatively new idea. Lalique was one of the few people to create art jewelry in the late 19th century. But by that time Rembrandt was already collectable.

And also, we’re not talking about fine jewelry – diamonds and gold. We’re talking about jewelry made of non-precious materials by conceptual artists. These are people who work with twine and rubber and silk and string. This is a very new idea and I don’t know if the world is ready for it yet. So we must be patient and wait for our turn in history.

Work by Robert Lee Morris. Photograph by Teresa Misagal.

DS. When did you start collecting?

RLM. As a gallery owner and curator of exhibitions, I’ve had an incredible opportunity to look at people’s work. I started acquiring pieces shortly after I opened Artwear. It started off with trades. Then, as my business began to strengthen, I began to buy more and more pieces. This, in part, was because some artists needed the money to keep them going so I would buy their pieces in order to show my support for their work.

I can remember showing people for two or three years in a row who didn’t sell anything but I continued to show them because I believed in their work and felt that they made a statement.

Then there were also times when I just had to have the work. Each situation was unique because Artwear as a gallery has always had a very focused point of view. It was always easy for me to select from any of the artists I represented since their work fit within the same philosophy.

By 1988 I had collected enough significant pieces to install a very impressive exhibition which we did on the mezzanine at Artwear. It was our 10th anniversary. One half of the mezzanine was my collection of jewelry by artists other than Ted Mueling. On the other half of the mezzanine was just work by Ted Mueling. Simultaneously, on the ground floor I did a retrospective of my own work which cover over twenty years.

Pavel Opacensky, RLM Collection

DS. You mentioned that if you were a museum collector you would collect Tone Vigeland and Robert Ebendorf plus maybe a dozen or so others. Whose work have you collected? You’ve already mentioned Ted Musehling.

RLM. Tone Vigeland is, in my opinion, the supreme example of an artist who has chosen jewelry as her medium. She makes one of a kind pieces that are very expensive but not necessarily precious. I think of her as one of the leaders in the field of art jewelry. Her pieces reflect the spirit and angst of the Viking culture. There is this strong, moody image that comes out of every piece she produces. I believe that some day her work will be in the museums along side Ellsworth Kelly.

There are really strong elements in my collection that also are pretty much the tripod that has been Artwear for many years. Ted Muehling, myself, and Cara Croninger. We form the three legs that have held up, with all the other artists fitting somewhere in-between us, in their own niches.

Cara has a wonderful color sense coupled with her use of plastics and sculptural forms. She has a shamanistic sensibility and Ted’s is ethereal. He has a melancholy ability to transform any material into something completely new and delicate with a poetic sense to it. And then myself with metal – metal sculpture – mechanical stuff.

That’s the foundation of my collection. Then I have pretty equal amounts of pieces from people I don’t even represent anymore to people who aren’t even making jewelry anymore but who are continuing to make strong statements. Douglas Ferguson is an example of this direction. He has incredible energy but has started to evolve into other areas, and no longer does the painted mesh and leather.

I also have early Hans Appenzeller when he was part of the conceptual jewelry group in Amsterdam – pieces such as his Foam tubing collars and bracelets and so forth. I have a lot of pieces from the stable of artists that showed at the Dutch Gallery Sierra Jomerie Ra in Amsterdam. I have pieces from some of the early English designers, Caroline Broadhead and Susanna Heron.

So my collection, even though it has historical perspective, is mostly what I’ve brought in through Artwear. This includes some international movements which I have shown in the gallery. I have pieces by Thomas Gentile, the Yugoslavian designer, Pavel Opacensky, and Giampaolo Babetto.

Susanna Heron, RLM Collection

DS. With the size of your collection, coupled with this extraordinary space, have you thought about putting all of it on display, to create your own museum, so to speak?

RLM. When I first began to build this place I thought about taking one room and creating a museum-like space. It was a way of bringing the collection out of the boxes, suitcases, and the trunks, out of the vault, and putting it all on view. But since this is a working atelier, the only people that would see it would be my staff and buyers. So I have plans to show it but it’s on hold for the time being.

Giampaolo Babetto, RLM Collection

DS. So what plans do you have for the collection?

RLM. First, I want to document the collection by simply photographing every piece and, hopefully we’ll be able to some day turn them into a book. Next would be to move towards creating a foundation that would enable us to put the collection into a public access space here in Soho. It would be a permanent installation similar to the DIA Foundation.

And, associated with that would be a book store that would house jewelry books – all the best jewelry books so that it would be a jewelry resource center. And this is my big dream and my big plan that I hope to accomplish within the next ten years.

Every artist I represent, and have ever collected deserves their own book. Anyone who wants to collect anything likes to support that with a publication. It gives it a validity and credibility. So, hand-in-hand with the installation of the collection there would have to be the publication of these books.

One of the exciting things about our current exhibition program at Artwear is that we’re finally starting to document them with catalogs.

Hans Appenzeller, RLM Collection

DS. At present you are still probably the most visibly recognized supporter and advocate for the “jewelry as art” medium. In addition to your dream of a museum, what is going to continue going on in this field?

RLM. Artwear is a small part of my company. That is why it is strong and still surviving. If it were to exist entirely on its own, it would have been gone by now. So, Artwear has been my biggest charity. When people say that you have to support the arts, I have been for over fifteen years. Especially now that the economy is still down. It’s very important to maintain and keep those doors open because now is the easiest time to collapse and let go.

Coupled with the fact that we are exhibiting pieces that are really very difficult to sell, I feel owe something to my public which has come to think of Artwear as a source for exciting, new and innovative jewelry. I think it is important that people know of the constant support for a field that doesn’t have a lot of other support. It’s sad that there are so very few galleries that focus on this field. I wish that more collectors would get involved.

I like to look at things from an anthropological viewpoint which is, that everything that we make and everything that we leave behind are artifacts. Between my own work and that of the work I have collected over the years, I would like to think that I have contributed a great many artifacts.

Dorothy Spencer is a writer living in Philadelphia.

By Dorothy Spencer
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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