Among the first works you see in "Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison" at the Institute of Contemporary Art are two sets of enigmatic pencil drawings. One set, Game Map Drawings, consists of diagrams for some unspecified and possibly nonexistent but golf-like game. The other set, Newfoundland Drawings, may be documentation drawings from an archaeological site.

They are, in their way, precise and systematic, but they are completely without context. You can study them in detail, but it may be impossible to know what these apparently informative drawings are actually saying. The artist was mapping something, but even she might not have known what it was. Is it better to have a map that does not make sense, or to have no map at all?

These drawings came near the beginning of an artistic career that started fairly late and ended extremely early. The first work in this survey of Morton's art is dated 1971. She had recently received her master's degree from Temple's Tyler School of Art and was teaching at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). The last is dated 1977, done during a residency at the Art Institute of Chicago, just before she died in an automobile accident at the age of 40.

Thus, the exhibition traces an artist's life's work, but it also focuses on a moment in the culture. Morton was an artist of the 1970s, and, unfortunately, only of the 1970s. It was a messy, disillusioned time that paradoxically opened new possibilities for making art and living life.

She had followed several pathways before she became an artist. Her parents, seeing an interest in nature that eventually became prominent in her art, thought her interest in science would lead her to be a nurse. Forsaking that path, she married a Navy officer and began a family. She came to Philadelphia as a single mother, and in 1972, she moved to New York without her children, who lived with their father, to pursue the career of an artist.

She was quite prolific during her short career, and although she was never widely known to the public, her work was widely admired within the art world and was exhibited at prestigious museums and galleries. This exhibition, organized by ICA associate curator Kate Kraczon, is the first comprehensive show of Morton's work since 1980.

The exhibition does not attempt to link Morton's work either to the events of her life or to the artistic trends of her time. Its approach is to simply show more than 40 works of art, some of them very large installations, and let viewers figure things out for themselves. (There are plans for a catalog, but it is not available yet.)

This approach is justified, to some extent, by Morton's interest in disorientation. Moreover, many of her works depend on words, which ought to be allowed to stand on their own without a lot of curatorial exegesis. The risk of this approach, though, is that today's museumgoers might miss what was exciting and important about her work at the time.

Detail from Ree Morton’s “Six Flags from Something in the Wind” (1975) at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Institute of Contemporary Art.
Detail from Ree Morton’s “Six Flags from Something in the Wind” (1975) at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

For example, one of the centerpieces of the show is the mysterious and melodramatic Sister Perpetua's Lie, which she made for an exhibition at ICA in 1973. On one wall, behind a sort of portal of short logs, she has copied a passage that describes a nun being asked, repeatedly, "Is this where the fugitives are hiding?" She answers no, "shaking her head from right to left after each peck of the winged creature."

If you are saying "Huh!?" right now, Morton has you exactly where she wants you. The rest of the work is an enigmatic stage set, more drawings, more logs, a sort of guillotine-looking object, a circle made in chalk. It turns out to be based on a passage from the early 20th century French Dadaist writer Raymond Roussel, which is not very useful to know.

Ree Morton, “Don’t worry, I’ll only read you the good parts” (1975), oil on celastic, at Institute of Contemporary Art
Institute of Contemporary Art
Ree Morton, “Don’t worry, I’ll only read you the good parts” (1975), oil on celastic, at Institute of Contemporary Art

What is important to recognize is that its sprawling hybrid quality — part drawing, part stage set, part sculpture — was unusual, if not wholly new. Also, the work is not about art but about something else, though that something else is quite hard to understand.

The following year, she had a residency in Montana, and her 1974 work Bozeman, Montana reflects a major shift in her work. It is a large, wall-mounted parenthesis, with glitter and colored light bulbs, inside of which she has named people and things, such as beer and fish, she enjoyed during her sojourn. It is made from celastic, a plastic-infused fabric that can be manipulated, then hardened.

Morton discovered celastic at precisely the moment that some artists and architects rediscovered ornament, something that had not been respectable for 60 years or so. Her work of the next few years featured bows and swags that evoke an unkempt classicism.

While the words she placed on them are sometimes mordant, this is a cheerful body of work. Let Us Celebrate While Youth Lingers and Ideas Flow, says a 1975 work, with a draped proscenium and a blue sky background. It may have some dark patches, but it is basically a feel-good piece. Signs of Love (1976) fills a wall and a half with words, ladders, and furbelows, but no irony.

The ingredient that Morton added to her art along with celastic, glitter, and light bulbs was sociability. Names and initials start showing up in her work. They are in the wall pieces and in banners she created for a boat at New York's South Street Seaport.

This work is exhilarating in its way, though it borders on cloying, and by 1977, Morton seemed to be getting beyond it. The final works in the show, with the collective title Manipulations of the Organic, are 14 canvases based on her study of the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. Like Morton, who did a series of drawings of weeds, Sullivan was fascinated by tendrils, leaves, and other plant forms. But he contained this natural profusion within a highly regular, disciplined structure.

Morton's brightly colored acrylics of plant forms make a sort of frieze around the gallery. They are very different from what she had done before. They are more conventional, perhaps, but they are really wonderful. One senses that she had made another breakthrough and found another very promising path for her art.

But by the time this show went up, Morton was dead. So we can never know.

Ree Morton, “Manipulations of the Organic” (1977), at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
Institute of Contemporary Art
Ree Morton, “Manipulations of the Organic” (1977), at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

ART REVIEW

Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison

  • Through December 24 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St. Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thurs.-Sun. (until 8 p.m. Weds.) Admission: Free. Information:  215-898-7108 or icaphila.org