A key component of curatorial work is the discovery of a new artist, the study of their continued output, and the development of a long-term, supportive relationship. Following an artist’s work over many years and investigating their growth or, in certain cases, their failure to evolve, is an essential endeavor for a curator. The sustained examination of the work of a single artist, and, often, collecting their materials in depth, sometimes culminates in the organization of a career retrospective.
The work of filmmaker Bill Morrison (American, b. 1965) first appeared at The Museum of Modern Art in a 1994 Cineprobe. (MoMA’s now-defunct Cineprobe program began in 1968 as a way to feature the work of experimental or avant-garde filmmakers.) Two decades later, Morrison is the subject of a comprehensive mid-career retrospective, Bill Morrison: Compositions, which I co-organized with my colleague Sally Berger.
Morrison’s short and feature-length films, which integrate archival footage in various states of decay into new artworks, are typically non-narrative, but they tell unambiguous visual stories by incorporating the effects of celluloid decomposition. For example, in his 2013 feature The Great Flood, Morrison repurposed documentary footage of the titular 1927 natural disaster that still bears the evidence of actual water damage. The primary story unfolds as the Mississippi River swells and consumes all in its monstrous wake. Morrison and guitarist Bill Frisell, who created an emotive score for the film incorporating dashes of traditional Southern rhythms and spiritual music, combine picture and sound to explore the flood as both a natural disaster and a menace to the psyches of the survivors. Death, destruction, and displacement are all manifested by the wrath of the flood waters.
At the start of his career, Morrison’s short films were made in 16mm and often functioned as visual components of performances produced by the Ridge Theatre. The themes of science and travel were common elements in shorts like Night Highway (1990), Lost Avenues (1991), The Death Train (1993), and Nemo (1995). In 1996 a clear narrative emerged in the 12-minute The Film of Her, which relied upon the tension of memory and archives to articulate the story of a lost love, film preservation, and the principal discovery of the Paper Print Collection at The Library of Congress. Not only does the film cleverly employ actual archival footage to propel the narrative, but the cannily self-reflexive story is narrated by a fictional archivist.
The Museum of Modern Art initially acquired Morrison’s early works in 1995, and in the ensuing decades the Museum has amassed a collection of 12 Morrison films. Additionally, to mark the reopening of the newly expanded MoMA in 2004, Morrison was commissioned by the Museum to create a new short, Outerborough (2005), which incorporates footage from the 1899 film Across Brooklyn Bridge.
There is an emotional richness to the Morrison films made in the early 21st century that so expressively incorporate decomposing footage. For example, culling footage from the 1926 James Young film The Bells, Morrison created the extraordinarily romantic short Light Is Calling, wherein two lovers forge an impossible relationship. The chemical decomposition of the nitrate film has formed splotches and other biomorphic forms on the frame that obscure and prevent the man and woman from reuniting. Morrison has said of his work, “I was seeking instances of decay set against a narrative backdrop, for example, of valiant struggle, or thwarted love, or birth, or submersion, or rescue or one of the other themes I was trying to interweave. And never complete decay; I was always seeking out instances where the image was still putting up a struggle.”
The “checklist” of how a curator goes about following the career of an artist and bringing new works into the collection has been thoroughly ticked with respect to filmmaker Bill Morrison. However, for curators, the investigation of an artist’s work does not conclude with the organization of a retrospective. The bar of consideration and regard just gets ratcheted up a few notches as we look ahead to new and innovative projects.
Bill Morrison: Compositions continues through November 21 and includes three live musical performances: Spark of Being on October 14 with Dave Douglas & Keystone; Cellist Maya Beiser performs with for the films All Vows, Just Ancient Loops, and Light Is Calling on October 23; and The Great Flood wraps up the retrospective on November 21 with a performance by composer and guitarist Bill Frisell with Ron Miles, Tony Scherr, Kenny Wollesen.