Robert Morris is widely known as a major contributor to postwar American art. His works are reproduced in surveys of modern art and his writings helped shape Minimalism as an art movement in the 1960s. His Steam Work for Bellingham belongs to a period when Morris was moving away from Minimalism, into freer form, or even anti-form, as he called it. When he visited Western in 1971, Morris spotted a U-shaped pipe above ground where steam escaped in one area from the University’s heating system of underground pipes. This sparked the idea for Steam Work, which was finally built in 1974. In 1998, the piece was closed down because of an accident and not opened again until 2007, after being rebuilt in a safer way. Morris re-planned this source of regulated but fluctuating power; he determined the amount of steam to be released, reconfigured its visual appearance, and re-sited the work in the rolling landscape of south campus.
When the steam is turned on, the viewer experiences the duration of the piece and sensually feels his body in the natural landscape of rock and steam often found in nature in the Northwest. When the fountain is turned off, only rocks fill the plain square container and the viewer has only his memory of the steam and how he experienced it.
Each individual visitor’s response to the work will be unique. If you revisit Steam Work, you will have a different experience, depending both on your own emotional state that day and on the physical conditions. Morris has said that he intended “to create a work of art with no stable form, but that is part of the earth.” Indeterminacy and responsiveness to the surrounding nature are built into the work. Natural environmental factors such as sun, wind, and condensation in the air affect the rate of evaporation and the shapes the steam will form. Steam is elusive, allowing ever-changing natural forces to take action.