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Words or Music?

If you assume poetry and art are far apart, think again. If you think poetry is made of words and art not, well, as the 19th century joke-phrase had it, you have another think coming. think? Thing? Judas Priest! Let's call the whole think off.

Some artists have written credible poems -- Michelangelo, Picasso, Arp, Schwitters, even Marsden Hartley. Poets like Baudelaire, Apollinaire, and even the slightly lesser light Frank O'Hara helped to create the art they wrote about as critics. In the latter case, would there have been a Larry Rivers without the inspiration, bedtime, and connections O'Hara neatly supplied? Pity they ever met, some would say, although probably not I, if forced to decide. But that is not the issue.

We are also willing to pass over the bad art made by novelists such as D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. Only novelist and poet Victor Hugo (Les Miserable, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and yours truly go against that sorry rule that the path between art and literature is a one-way street. In regard to Hugo, he produced over 4000 works on paper, mostly from 1848-51 when he gave up writing to concentrate on republican (in the original sense) politics, in his artworks sometimes using techniques not employed  again until the Surrealists and then the Abstract Expressionists. Like yours truly he sometimes used coffee as paint.

Once paper, pen-and-ink-well have been brought to the table, Victor Hugo sits down and without making a preliminary sketch, without any apparent preconception, sets about drawing with an extraordinarily sure hand not the landscape as a whole but any old detail. He will begin his forest with the branch of a tree, his town with a gable, his gable with a weathervane, and little by little, the entire composition will emerge from the blank paper with the precision and clarity of a photographic negative subjected to the chemical preparation that brings out the picture. That done, the draftsman will ask for a cup and will finish off his landscape with a light shower of black coffee. The result is a unexpected and powerful drawing that is often strange, always personal, and recalls the etchings of Rembrandt and Piranesi.                                                                                

                                          -- Charles Hugo


Victor Hugo, Untitled,
c. 1848-51.

Also on the positive side, we cannot omit the scholar-artists or literati of Sung and Ming China and then, later, Japan, who created a synthesis of calligraphy, poetry and painting, often using poems they themselves had composed. You are probably sick of hearing about them on Artopia time, those multitalented layabouts, those devious anti-Moguls, those Zen laymen.


And then there is the problem of the wordy Glenn Ligon, whose midcareer retrospective titled "Glenn Ligon: AMERICA," is now at the Whitney (to June 6). It is well-selected - use Google Images to find some of the weaker artworks that were not included. I do, however, like his online Dia piece that's not in the Whitney show. It's a page turner; a photo-album of personal and flea market family snapshots.


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 Glenn Ligon: Mirror, 2002.

"AMERICA" is beautifully installed and certainly worth seeing, but mostly because it inadvertently asks:


 1. Is Conceptual Art just another style?

Answer: No. It has become a language.


2. When is an art movement over?

Answer: Analytical Cubism lasted three years, two months, six days, and five hours, or something like that. Surrealism fell apart even before it began. Dada, of course, is eternal, but Pop was best in 1961. And Abstract Expressionism endured from 1945 to 1955, a relatively long time. I don't mean to say that artists didn't continue to mine -- or perhaps mind -- the fields they had uncovered, but once the train is on the track and up to speed, it takes another, faster train to get the old train out of the way. Neo-Expressionism was supposed to bump off Conceptual Art; it didn't. It only made it stronger.


3. Why is it that Ligon's survey, consisting of painted words, neon, texts of various sorts, photomurals, and other individualized variants of recent art, doesn't look like a group show?

Answers: A: The presentation is uniformly spacious and cool. B: Intelligence and irony prevail, although Zora Neale Hurston's phrase "I am not tragically colored" and Dream Book appropriations are certainly poignant, as well as complex. C: We now accept artists working in many genres -- sampling whatever is around, referring to previous art -- rather than repeating over and over a signature format, a branded style. Instead, artists now are taught to offer a plethora of products, the way GM offered not only Buicks, Chevys, and Cadillacs, but also station wagons, convertibles, and trucks. All GM, all different, all aimed at different uses and different market segments.


4. Is it possible to present direct social content in serious art?

Answer: Yes, if it is ironic and cool and beautifully presented. This in itself is ironic. Social content is no big deal, and no one even from the suburbs will blink an eye at Ligon's black and gay subjects. Some progress has been made. But poet e.e. cummings was wrong. Progress is not a comfortable disease. It can be won only by persistence and nerve.




Marsden Hartley: Portrait of a German Officer, 1914.

How Much Do You Need to Know?


Rifling today through the piles and folders of things that still serve as my voluminous collected works, in search of ... well, never mind, that's off-subject. I found instead a Xerox (!) of a piece I wrote for Artforum in November, 1980. I called it "Gay Art: The Critic Interviews Himself." It would be pretty tame stuff now -- except that I did make a distinction between homosexual and gay art.


But for the record I typed the following above the footnotes: "Originally published with the editor's ambiguous title: I'm Asking -- Does It Exist? What Is It? Who Is It For? Neither the editor (a big-time lesbian) nor the publisher (then in the closet) asked me or even warned me. It just appeared ... and thus my essay was conveniently buried.


Just as you really have to know that Marsden Hartley, gay as a coot, was in love with a German soldier who died at the front to understand that his "German" paintings were not pro- Kaiser but pro-love, you do have to know that Ligon is gay to discern the full meaning of his piece about Robert Mapplethorpe's infamous "objectifying" photos of black-male nudes. Theoretically, gay is not a problem anymore. At least in the art world, and certainly not a problem in art history. Formal analysis was never enough. You also need to know that Ligon is black and Mapplethorpe was not. But black is not a problem anymore, is it?


Which leads me to:


In regard to the neon Negro Sunshine on the front of the Whitney, passersby might know it is art because of where it is, but probably not know the artist's name or that the artist himself is black. You would need to know the latter to understand that the sign is not racist but ironic. And it would help to know that "Negro Sunshine" is a phrase from Gertrude Stein, giving it a high modernist pedigree.

This does not mean that the phrase coming out of Stein's typewriter early in the last century was not racist. Smiling, happy darkies? Oh, Gertrude! Will persons walking past the Whitney on their way to lunch get this? Does the man running the hotdog stand understand? Will the German-speaking or the Swedish-speaking tourists coming to the Whitney be able to follow this nuance?


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Joseph Kosuth: Untitled (Art as Idea as Idea), 1967.

Poetry Is Not Limited to Words.


A conceptualist at the dawn of Conceptual Art, who was using words instead of paint and otherwise quite literate, confessed to me he never read  poetry: too sentimental! He professed to have read Ludwig Wittgenstein, but didn't seem to know that Philosophical Investigations is as much poetry as it is philosophy.


Is there anything sentimental about Lautréament's "chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table"? Or Allen Ginsberg's


    I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by 
              madness, starving hysterical naked, 
       dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn 
              looking for an angry fix, 
       angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly 
              connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery
              of night...


There have been songs without words. Please save us from Mendelssohn's six volumes of such! But are there poems without words?


In the late '60s, a number of poets, some of whom were also art critics, jettisoned words and created what we called performance art, making in effect poems without words, whether by perpetuating a motionless one-man dance to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (yours truly) or following some stranger in the street (Vito Acconci), or trying to meet up with someone of the same name. Hannah Weiner the poet never actually met up with Dr. Hannah Weiner, the psychiatrist. That was probably an omen, for not too long after, Hannah began seeing words on people's foreheads and hearing voices, which threw her back into writing poetry again -- and that turned out great.



Hannah Weiner: Weiner's Wieners, 1969. (2008 reperformance  at the Lab, Belmar, Co.)

So we poets and writers were invading sacred territory, that of art. It seemed only fair. Artists were using words and little else to make what is now generally called Conceptual Art. Justice demanded that poets retaliate.


And then there was the problem too of Aram Saroyan, the publisher of my first book of poems. Some Conceptual Art that began to appear looked rather like his notorious minimalist poems. He even "published" a book that was merely an unopened ream of paper.


Fluxus? Mostly words!


Street Art? Graffiti means writing.


Well, it is all about intention and all about context. A wall is not a page; a page is not a wall. But some Conceptual Art took the form of books. Artists using language as their material gave a new, counter-intuitive meaning to the therapeutic motto that proclaims "a word is not a thing."



It's Only Words, or Is It the Word?


When I was trying to figure out how to come to grips with the Ligon survey, I actually considered producing an all-image, or nearly all-image, Artopia post. If artists can get away with words, then why can't art critics (or poets) get away with images? In the multimedia essay you are now reading, you can discern pentimenti of my struggle. The Image Portfolio of words in art you see below  -- with artists and titles added --- gives you an inkling of what my all-image post might have been.


But I slept on it.


Refreshed, I thought: No, this is unfair to the artist. I would be counting on the irony of my presentation, since explanations would not be possible in an all-image display. It might look as if I were trying to say that Ligon was entirely derivative, which is not what I had in mind for this witty switcheroo, this subversive sleight-of-hand.


Should I cast this entry as a poem? No. Not such a good idea. But I may do that some day, when I want to give all my secrets of composition away. When I want to torture you again with my braid theory of art and art history, of writing, of time, and of life.


The question boiled down to this: Would showing the precedents for Ligon's use of words validate or devalue his art?


I wanted to enrich the responses to the art, locate it, and suggest Ligon's originality in the changes he has rung. But for that, alas - or, I suppose, thank goodness -- we really do need words. In the meantime....





                                                       Kasmir Malevich: Aviator, 1914.

How Words Wormed Their Way Back Into Art


Medieval European art sometimes had word-ribbons floating about. But something more outrageous was about to happen in the 20th century. Russian Constructivists and the Cubists wanted the jazzy and everyday to be reflected in art, as painting otherwise veered toward total abstraction. Otherwise, art might be too mystical (as both Kandinsky and Mondrian, on another front, hoped). So typeface decorated the face of art. Words from posters, newspapers, magazines, labels on wine bottles and cleaning products. Juan Gris was particularly handy with the type-fonts.

The Surrealist displayed another tactic. Below his amended Mona Lisa, Duchamp could scrawl letters that, when pronounced, made a French pun proclaiming, "I have a hot behind." Magritte could include on the canvas itself the instructive words "This is not a pipe" below a painted image of a pipe. De Chirico was good at titling, too. Titles are, as it were, mostly off-screen. But if titles are part and parcel of a painting (I think they are!), then certainly the zany names for paintings of Max Ernst (Two Children Menaced by Nightingales, 1925), Salvador Dalí (Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to Blind Horse Biting a Telephone, 1938 ) and Roberto Matta (The Vertigo of Eros, 1944) are good examples of the marriage of poetry and art. One wit once remarked that Dalí was better at titles than making paintings.


Debris of an Automobile Giving Birth to a Blind Horse Biting a Telephone1938.jpg



In all of these cases, if we change the title, we change the image; we change the meanings. Try it. Change the Ernst title to The Triumph of Capitalism as Seen by an Hermaphrodite. Look at the Dalí as if it is titled How I Spent My Day at the Beach, Mom, or call the Matta Explosion of a Printing Plant Near Pluto.


And out of Cubism, Stuart Davis. And from Davis, Pop and Roy Lichtenstein's cartoon balloons.   And certainly Jasper Johns used a few words here and there.  And we then had to learn to put up with Robert Indiana's Love logo, in various sizes, colors, and even as sculpture. Or postage stamps. And on the West Coast we had William T. Wiley, who sometimes incorporated long texts in his Funky paintings. Ed Rucha in L.A. used and still sometimes uses floating, banal words.

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Stuart Davis: Owh in Sau Pau, 1951.



                                    Jasper Johns: False Start, 1959.


                                                           Roy Lichtenstein: Drowning Girl, 1961.

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                                  Robert Indiana: Love, c. 1965.

But the Conceptualists were out to use words plain and simple, transparently and not visually. The words were just there, a way of privileging ideas above objecthood. They claimed.


Why then is it so difficult, without labels or captions, to tell one Conceptual artwork from another? Is it any more difficult than telling apart Picasso, Gris, Braque in their Analytical Cubism period?


The Artopia Quiz 

Announcing the first Artopia contest. Identify the artist or poet who made each of the the works shown below. Send you answers to by midnight Eastern Standard Time, March 8. The first one correctly to identify the makers of all the works will have an image of his or her artwork published in Artopia. All other winners will be announced on the next Artopia post! 

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                                    *   *   *



No More Neon!

Ligon's four neon pieces are fine indeed, but in terms of neon in general, we have had quite enough. The only thing that could kill it off is a full-blown museum survey. Neon, of course, brings in commerce and Las Vegas. And if I select the word neon as my word-art piece, guess which will be both more fetching and fetch more money, the word neon stenciled on a wall or canvas or the word neon executed in functioning neon tubing? Which is more eye-catching, decorative, declarative, fun, and casts a new light on its surroundings? At least one of Ligon's "America" neon signs is painted black.



Bruce Nauman: The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967

Toward a Future Without Words?

So words and neon have already been done by many, many  artists, most of them Ligon's elders. Words and/or neon are art media in their own right, to be used when appropriate, the way artists feel free to use photography, video, and paint-on-canvas. Ligon, however, bends these conventions --- for that is what they rapidly became - towards more direct social content. As attractive as his word paintings are, he is not an innovator of forms. He is to Conceptual Art what Synthetic Cubism was to its predecessor Analytical Cubism. He is less abstract. In other words he is more like Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger than Lawrence Weiner.


                                   *   *   *


* Alternative Titles ----

                             Glenn Ligon: Fighting Words


    Genn Ligon: It's Only Words   


                                           Glenn Ligon: Paint It Black



                    Glenn Ligon: Words Are Swords



      Glenn Ligon: The Painted Word









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March 21, 2011 8:56 AM |


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