Every morning, Richard Allen Morris wakes up in his Golden Hill basement studio and, after begrudgingly tending to necessary health regimens, starts painting or drawing. There's not much room left in the octogenarian's studio, which is packed with remnants of a lifetime of creativity and collecting things like jazz records, books and other artists' work. But he makes do and continues to create, albeit on a smaller scale than he'd like.
Morris' art has always been partly influenced by the size of the studio space he could afford in and around downtown San Diego, which is where he's lived and worked since being discharged from the Navy in 1956. Throughout the years, he's been forced to destroy work— he smashed several sculptures with a ball-peen hammer in the '60s and cut canvases into strips in the '70s, which he ended up incorporating into future pieces—in order to fit into smaller spaces. And he's often had to sacrifice his desire to make larger, three-dimensional sculptures because he's never had adequate room to store them.
"Oh god, it's just so many people scuffling for an existence, just trying to get through day-to-day," Morris says, sitting on a bench outside Influx Café with his trademark black duffle bag at his feet. The bag's half-open, revealing a can of beans amid other items. He's shaking his head in frustration at the struggles he and others face daily just to pay rent; he often refers to the country's "greed syndrome" fueled by "capitalistic pigs."
"I mean, what the hell?" he says. "Most people don't have any time for art. That makes me sad."
Morris is the epitome of a starving counterculture artist who's always opted to work rather than worry about money. Despite his refusal to play by the rules of the artworld game, however, he did eventually find success. He's now widely considered to be one of San Diego's most skilled and prominent painters—known for both abstract paintings and figurative portraits, as well as quirky mixed-media work and assemblages. He's also big in certain parts of Europe, particularly Germany, where he has several dedicated collectors who buy his now-big-dollar art.
People who know the artist say that his strong, opinionated and critical personality, coupled with his steadfast dedication to art for art's sake, has been one of his greatest assets and biggest roadblocks. Many people familiar with Morris' work think he deserves much more prosperity and acknowledgment than he's received.
"But he sabotaged himself because all the people who wanted to give him attention earlier, he just said no," says Ron Stevenson, who's supported and represented Morris for almost 15 years and is preparing to open Richard Allen Morris: Work from the 60s at his La Jolla gallery this week. "He didn't want to show with many galleries back then; he just wanted to stay in the studio and paint."
When Morris did show work in the early days, it was often at alternative spaces "with flare," as he describes it— places like a Downtown frame shop owned by an eccentric European family, or a funeral-parlor-turned-art-gallery where a pig was known to scurry past people's feet at openings.
"He definitely undermined or outright rejected the kind of usual processes by which artists get to be commercial successes," says art historian and freelance curator Dave Hampton, who included Morris' work in Spitting in the Wind, a group exhibition of important midcentury work made in San Diego, on view at the Oceanside Museum of Art through Nov. 2. "That's just kind of who he is."
Morris' assemblage "First Prize" is one of the most eye-catching pieces in the show opening at R.B. Stevenson Gallery (7661 Girard Ave.) from 5 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13. It's constructed from reused art supplies and materials he found in his studio. The front of the piece is a mix of painted scraps of wood and large chunks of dried paint that look like they've been carefully peeled out of the bottom of paint cans. Morris has scrawled "Dick Tracy and ART" and "There is a nonjuried show in the back" in pencil at the top of the piece.
Morris' sense of humor, his deep knowledge of art history and his witty commentary on the art world often show up in his work. While he was never formally trained, he's considered by many to be a brilliant autodidact who reads as much as he paints. He worked in bookstores for many years as a way to support his art and describes a younger version of himself as unabashedly bookish.
"I always had one or two paperbacks and all kinds of newspaper articles jammed in my pockets—just bulging at the seams," he laughs, later pulling from his breast pocket pieces of paper with interesting or funny quotes he's come across in his recent readings, as well as a running list of possible titles for his work (the former poet takes great care in naming his art).
Another theme that shows up in Morris' work is a sense of anger, or at least frustration. But Hampton says it's almost always countered by his humor and love of making art.
"One of the things I love about Richard is this balance of his wit and the pure delight," Hampton says. "I can picture him painting and the gesture—the quick, sure gesture and the delight that comes with that. But there's also this anger and bitterness and force, and I love those aspects of Richard's work, too.... It's maybe too simple to call it anger, though, but I love whatever that is—maybe a darker forceful energy?"
Morris, who's heard the comment about anger showing up in his work before, says he's a bit embarrassed by it, but he says it's an inevitable result of his frustrations that stem from a long life in a world he considers almost unlivable, especially for those pursuing artistic, rather than financial, endeavors.
"It's a capitalist country," he says. "It's all about the moolah. It's just brutal."