Robert Morgan: A Portrait of an Artist by a Collector
Everyone in the room laughed at him, including the teacher. It was the first day of school, and he had been asked to introduce himself to his fellow third-graders. “Hi! I’m Bobby Morgan and I am an artist,” he proudly proclaimed. The laughter hurt his feelings, but It did not deter him. Even at eight years old, Robert Morgan knew himself and was comfortable in his own skin.
He was raised in Lexington by loving parents. His father ran the Fayette Cigar Store in the First National Bank Building, which is now home to 21c Museum Hotel. They had little money, but his mother was an artist, and she taught Robert how to make things from brown paper bags, paper plates, and other treasured finds of the day, even at pre-school age.
In my career as a collector, I’ve met hundreds of artists, all interesting in their own ways, but few as fascinating as Robert Morgan. I admire his self-confidence and his art-centric lifestyle. While he still is not wealthy in a conventional sense, he has a priceless calm and peaceful demeanor, an open and loving face that shows no signs of worry or stress. Robert and I are the same age and both were raised in Kentucky; yet we’ve had very different adventures in life. But, we share a creative spirit and it is my honor to call him a friend.
Aware of his attraction to men at an early age, Robert was 19 when he met his muse, Henry Faulkner, who was both famous and infamous in the region. Faulkner lived and painted in vivid colors, and was quite pleased with himself when a police raid on his house was reported on the top of the fold of the Lexington Herald-Leader that he had been arrested for “promoting immoral acts.”
Robert lived with Faulkner for a period of time, during which Faulkner taught him more about how to be gay than he did about painting. Living as an openly gay man in the 1960s could be a dangerous proposition. If he approached the wrong man for a tryst, or even just to pose naked as a model, the chances were high of being rewarded with a black eye or a bloody nose!
After attending the University of Kentucky, Robert went to San Francisco, lived on the streets as a hippy and did his share of drugs and alcohol. When I asked if he was homeless at that time, he quipped, “Homelessness is a state of mind”. When the AIDS epidemic swept through the country, he selflessly helped his dying friends in their final days. “Sometimes all they needed was someone to hold their hands,” he recalled.
The wall sculpture, The Jackal, which is featured in this exhibition, is a piece Robert created in 1995, remembering that time in his life when so many of his friends were put into the ground. He refers to it as the “rifled coffin.”
Now, Robert is back in Lexington and living in a small house that is so filled with his visual diary that there is hardly room to walk around. Having been there several times now, I know there are certain places where you can actually sit, which includes the leopard print couch covered over luxuriously with a red bed spread. One end of the room is filled with an alter or shrine, created by layers of little towers made of thousands of objects and figures of all sizes. Faceted gems of plastic or glass and maybe some sequined fabrics sparkle with moments of light in an otherwise dark and mysterious abyss. Even I am seduced as I remember my childhood daydreams of being the ringmaster of my own circus. Robert is the soft-spoken master of his own universe. A place where he has had many erotic adventures. A place that is also a sanctuary where the red covered couch has been the only home to some of the young men for whom he has provided refuge and guidance.
Beyond his attraction to them is a desire and willingness to help those who are in a place to accept help. All of the faces in the photos on the piano, the banners hanging like prayer flags and the mug-shot-like pillows are of the men in Robert’s life, most of whom accepted his help in bettering their lives. All had a story to tell even though some of them didn’t think they did. Some have success stories like his own, having managed to climb out of their hopelessness, and others have not. Some were gay and some were straight. Some are still living and some are not. At least one has taken his own life.
Dominating his home and transported here to share with viewers are Robert’s sculptures, which also pay tribute to the friends of a lifetime. Shrines, in a way, that embody the memory of a lives worth remembering. Recreated here too is Robert’s bedroom, because I wanted visitors to experience, as much as possible, the totality of Robert’s creative genius. He is an artist who never leaves his palette behind. A gentle soul who mourns and celebrates life with every breath. A man who sleeps with his fears and desires. He is the artist that did not veer because of laughter.
Steve Wilson, 21c Co-Founder and Collector
Robert Morgan: Myths and Stories
A glittering, shattered headlight, a fistful of rubber snakes, a shard of measuring tape, a spoked wheel, bottlecaps and pull-tabs and glitter, color on top of color. Children’s toys, a derelict keyboard, a frisbee, all wrapped and bound by electrical cords, encrusted with beads and rhinestones. Baby dolls and mounted fish. A plastic bird in a cage made for a lightbulb. Throw away trash, what most would discard without a thought, yet soaked with memories and hidden meanings telling countless myths and stories.
Robert Morgan creates his works in the back yard, in the shade of mature trees, working only when the weather is suitable. He composes assemblages from broken objects and forgotten toys, glued together with a mixture of paint and glitter and trash, and bound by wire and tubing. The overwhelming intensity of each work comes from the massive number of objects used to create them as well as the history and lives represented by every object, each hinting at its own story known only to the creator. Are these objects random trash, recycled, treasured keepsakes, or complex objects of veneration? Beyond the immediate impression, these layered works form sculptures telling a larger story, often of a lost or unnoticed friend, a dying lover, or a young person hurting themselves and others.
Morgan was a teenager when the Vietnam War began. When the conflict intensified, he joined a medical LSD study, which provided a draft deferral and a grant to pay for college. This allowed him to enroll in the University of Kentucky‘s visual art program in 1969. Morgan continued his sculptural work but also became involved in an underground group of performance artists who were creating street demonstrations and guerrilla theater. Morgan had so much trouble with faculty at UK he says, “I was considered laughable,” and the dean sent campus police to his first exhibition at the school because the show’s poster included the word “queer.”
After leaving college, Morgan entered a period of wandering through the big city art and nightlife scenes. Most of this time he wasn’t making art but archiving the stories that would later inspire his work. Morgan says, “I can never impress upon people how desperate and horrible those years were. I wasn’t sure if I would die too. There was no end in sight.” Clean and sober since 1985, Morgan now lives his life as an artist and activist.
Morgan makes almost no distinction between artwork, the objects of normal daily life, and the objects waiting to become art. Instead of a television, the entire wall of his living room is a colorful altarpiece. The walls are covered in art by fellow Kentucky artists and every inch is filled with vibrancy. For decades, Morgan has used photography to capture what he calls his muses, the men surrounding his life, some young addicts or alcoholics, some struggling artists, or simply the men who inspired intense attraction, and these haunting remembrances fill his home. The Young White Male series displays a group of these muses posed like martyrs and saints from holy cards or icons, but printed on vinyl and hung from metal grommets like prayer flags. The Sweetheart Pillows on the bed are sequined mugshots of young men, begging to be touched. The Bad Fairies, a series of portraits encased in ornate, cheap, and gaudy frames, fill a table in his living room, their sentimental, dime-store nature contrasting with the challenging realities of the young men whose likenesses are captured.
Robert Morgan: Myths and Stories at 21c Louisville is a survey of works from multiple projects over the span of his decades-long practice. His works depict a lifetime of loving those around him and trying to honor their stories: “I count how much time I have to make a difference,” Morgan says, “I promised a lot of people I would tell their stories.”
Alex Brooks, 21c Regional Director of Museum Operations
More about Robert Morgan:
Robert Morgan (born 1950) is a second-generation Kentucky artist who tells people’s stories through his artwork. Since childhood he has assembled, reassembled, and transformed discarded treasures, curious objects, recyclables, broken toys, electronics, and sentimental souvenirs into what the artist describes as “speaking cultural artifacts.”
Morgan survived the turbulence of the 1960’s, the radicalization of the 70’s, and the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s by turning the personal stories of his life and the lives of others in the communities around him into art that is both narrative and symbolic. Morgan’s exhibition at 21c Museum Hotel Louisville includes multiple bodies of work created over the span of his decades-long practice.