Small cherubit Olympic mascots with a woman walking by

Sarah Morris, Beijing, 2008

Sarah Morris, Beijing, 2008

84:47 min., color, sound
© Sarah Morris. Courtesy White Cube

Born in 1967 in Sevenoaks, Kent, England, and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Sarah Morris has explored the psychologies of urban environments and the politics encoded in architecture since the late 1990s. Through examinations of facades and other visual surfaces, she reveals the power structures of cities, media, and bureaucratic institutions.

Morris lives and works in New York and London. She studied semiotics at Brown University from 1985 to 1989, spent a year at Cambridge University in England from 1987 to 1988, and participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program in New York in 1989. Morris received the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painting Award in 2001 and the Philip Morris Award from the American Academy in 1999–2000. Solo exhibitions of her work have been held at Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna (2016); Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio (2012); Moderna Museet, Stockholm (2005); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2005); Miami MOCA (2002); and Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC (2002). Her work can be found in many public collections, including Centre Pompidou, Paris; Dallas Museum of Art; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Museum fur Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate Modern, London; and Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

A painter and a filmmaker, Morris sees the two media as interconnected in her practice, or two sides of the same coin. Her slowly produced paintings—brightly colored, graphic representations of virtual spaces—contrast with her fast-paced, spectacular studies of well-known cities. Although her production of the paintings and films happens simultaneously, Morris explains, “the paintings came first, and film came after as a way to create this index of people, places, things—a set of references for the paintings.”

In the mid-1990s, Morris began creating large-scale text paintings that appropriated sensationalist news stories. She then reduced the text to produce single-word paintings using the vocabulary of magazine headlines and commercial signage. Words like “liar,” “mental,” and “nothing” filled the frames. As modern city dwellers encounter such language on a regular basis, this investigation led Morris to further analyze symbols of power and control inherent to the urban experience, particularly the architecture or constructed environment. Thus, the modernist grid and interrogation of its claims to clarity and universality became central to her practice.

In 1998, Morris began making the graphic, abstract paintings for which she is best known. These works feature bright, colorful grids tilted to create depth and recall the facades of skyscrapers. Made with glossy house paint, thereby underscoring the architectural nature of the imagery, the forms are rendered in colors Morris observed in an array of elements while traveling through a particular city.

Morris’s early works, from a series titled Midtown, suggest the corporate nature of the glass facades that are ubiquitous in Manhattan. Later Morris would create series of paintings that refer to other cities. For instance, she captured widespread disorientation in the Los Angeles series (2004–06), the onslaught of neon and glitz in the Las Vegas series (1999–2001), the controlling order and regulation of DC in the Capital series (2001–02), and sinuous rhythmic modernism in the Rio series (2012–14) in her signature abstract, diagrammatic style.

Alongside the paintings, Morris presents films that depict the urban scenes of these various locations. She captures the leisure, spectacle, industry, politics, and architecture of places that are well known, yet her films offer eye-opening views that appear new and fragments of stories that seem untold.

“Part of my work is setting up an approach and then letting it become an open system, letting it run,” Morris notes. Indeed, she is unrestrained when she edits her images, which lack rigid story lines. Moreover, the accompanying music is by artist Liam Gillick and not composed for the film. Morris states that “Improvisation is at play on many levels. Sometimes the music goes against the image and sometimes it goes with the image.”

Set to a pulsing beat, Midtown (1998) comprises montages of corporate plazas and passersby marching down long avenues shot over a single day in New York. Miami (2002) captures poolside glamour as well as an artificial, oppressive atmosphere. The spectacle of overseeing power as well as administrative order in DC is on view in Capital (2000). Morris also gained unprecedented access to events and individuals in Los Angeles in the week preceding the Academy Awards ceremony. As a result, the film Los Angeles (2004) reflects a sprawling metropolis within which indulgence and superficiality were magnified in advance of the event.

For Beijing (2008) Morris once again was granted direct behind-the scenes access to create a city portrait during the international spectacle of the 2008 Olympic Games. In addition to a set of large-scale paintings titled Rings, which feature diagrams of overlapping circles rendered in a range of colors to represent various Olympic Games of the past and future, the film Beijing captures an ever-shifting assemblage of people, media, and architecture captured in numerous montages from multiple perspectives. Morris capitalizes on the surreal nature of the event in which the life of a city is other than it is. A typically closed location, Beijing appears lively and open, but everything is orchestrated in the service of nation building.

Yet the hyper-mediated spectacle of the event magnifies questions that already have been raised about China. As the viewer observes workers toiling, locals shopping, leaders orating, and entertainers performing amid a barrage of media and technology, it becomes less clear what Beijing, or China for that matter, is or might become. As Morris acknowledged, “What interests me about Beijing is that it’s not resolved in any way…Or, more precisely, that China is a paradoxical state. Is it hypercapitalist? Yes. Is the government a supreme authority? Yes. It’s not yet certain what the country will become, and so today it is not even clear just what we are seeing.” —Kanitra Fletcher