PRINT October 1973

Hanne Darboven: Deep in Numbers

IN A WAY, HANNE Darboven’s work since 1965 is “all one piece.” Its beauty lies both in its wholeness and in its rhythmic, potentially infinite, expansion and contraction. The armature is provided by simple, but highly flexible number systems. Yet the content does not concern mathematics so much as the process of continuation—a process which takes time to do, which takes time as one of its subjects, and which takes from time (the calendar) its numerical foundations. Much of the work begins from the numbers that form a date (23.9.71, for example, add up as 23 + 9 + 7 + 1 = 40; and 40 becomes the basis, or K for Konstruktion, which in turn generates the work). The calendar is merely a vehicle, with no other meaning for the work, but by permutating its sequences of order (and leapyearly disorder) through endless cross-sums and progressions, Darboven creates her own time. This time, or timelessness, is what one experiences when experiencing her art. It is a time in which she lives, a time to “write,” as she calls her art activity. And like time, her art turns constantly back upon itself in a circular motion (the circles are sometimes small and sometimes immense); like time, it simultaneously extends an endless line forward, into physical space.

In Darboven’s April show at the Castelli Gallery downtown, the whole front room contained 14 huge frames, each containing 35 drawings, or pages, plus the index and initial sketches for this particular section. The smaller back room contained most of the indices for the rest of the work which, if executed on the scale of the section in the front room, would fill both galleries a hundred times over. There is, therefore, an ironic micro-macrocosmic relationship between the large physical space filled with work, that actually represents only a minute particle of the whole, and the much smaller, but denser, books that fill the artist’s home outside Hamburg. Although a large group of the books were shown at the Guggenheim International in 1971, the New York public is still so little acquainted with Darboven’s work that a combination of “wall” and “book” (as in her two one-woman museum shows in Europe) would have been preferable to the wall works alone at Castelli. Her art goes so far beyond gallery walls, no matter how large the space used, that it is only by this combination of books and framed drawings (“all different, all the same,” as Ad Reinhardt used to say of his own work) that the scope of her art receives its due. The books weren’t here because they have been treated so badly when shown in America.

The Castelli show represented the partial execution of a piece begun in 1966–67 in New York. Sol LeWitt acquired the index for it at that time, and the system is delineated in line drawings on graph paper which were the first works I saw of Darboven’s. This system, in turn, forms the basis for all the other work since then, best known of which are those based on day, month, year, century—the digits added, multiplied, and interwoven until they become too large to be manageable, at which point they are resystematized into progressively smaller areas, which then suggest new larger areas, and so forth. 100 Years in One Year, for instance, was shown from day to day over a year at Konrad Fischer’s gallery in Düsseldorf in 1970; each month consisted of 30 or 31 books, and each day a different book extrapolated that date. Darboven was executing the piece while it was being shown, so that her personal calendar was synchronized with that of the work. Later it was shown as a film, extending the medium itself into real time.

This variety, and the extent to which everything is possible within Darboven’s time-number frameworks, are indicated in the visual variations within her work. Her graphic vocabulary consists of handwritten numbers, typewritten numbers (and both for numbers spelled out in English or German), straight lines, squares (drawn or on graph paper), regular “brain waves” flowing ceaselessly over pages, and at times red and black inks to distinguish two interwoven paths. Combine these with each number system, each combination producing a visually different page, and consider the extraordinary faceted indices for each book or chapter or plan, and you begin to visualize the great tide of writing enveloping the artist, and finally the viewer. It recalls the pleasures of counting rhythmically out loud, especially in another language; the delight children take in endless songs, such as “One Little Two Little Three Little Indians,” “Found a Peanut,” or the circular “Row Row Row Your Boat” (Van Gogh said life must be round); or the ultimate experience of the mandala (though Darboven is much opposed to any mystical impositions on her work: “My secret is that I have none”). To understand these things is to begin to understand the fascination of Darboven’s page after page, book after book, stretching across space toward your own time. It is double-directional—expanding, then going back, “So I relearn where I came from. By doing it, it becomes not more and more, because it’s already there, but clearer and clearer.”1 Darboven’s systems are finite and she always finishes what she starts. But every time she finishes one set, an offshoot lurks behind it demanding to be executed too. “But I am the river, it is a tiger that mangles me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, alas, is real; I alas, am Borges” is a quotation she often adds to letters.

Darboven hates to read and loves to write. She says she can only read by writing, by reexperiencing the words or numbers physically. The time she spends writing is experienced visually by the viewer as a time-span that is “read” rather than “looked at” the way drawings are usually seen. Most of Darboven’s works are drawings, but she does not permit the eye to swim all over the surface. Even if one understands nothing behind the numbers one is reading (which is perfectly all right with the artist), one is still reading, left to right, horizontally, or in the case of the indices—in columns. It is impossible to look at her work without becoming physically involved in the process of writing. “I only use numbers,” says Darboven,

because it is a way of writing without describing (Schreiben, nicht beschreiben). It has nothing to do with mathematics. Nothing! I choose numbers because they are so steady, limited, artificial. The only thing that has ever been created is the number. A number of something (two chairs, or whatever) is something else. It’s not pure number and has other meanings. If I were making it up I couldn’t possibly write all that. It has to be totally simple to be real writing.

So the sea of numbers in which she has immersed her life since 1965, carefully structured and constantly revolving though it is, merely establishes a secondary aspect of her work. Counting is the most basic of progressions. What she does is take the stability of ordination and create in this block of numbers a diagonal fault, thereby creating a shift in the structure which by necessity creates its own supporting structure so as not to crumble. With the dates of the century, 2 provides the beginning construction; 12.31.99 = 61 provides the end construction. All of the constructions are then written out with their concomitant rises and falls in the process. In the Castelli piece this would have been particularly clear had it been possible to show the whole progression of “wave drawings,” or at least more than one chapter, for in that case Darboven used the size of the paper for each “chapter” to express the progressions. See the adjacent sketch: 3/3, a square, appears at bottom left as 9 x 9 cm.; then 5/3 as 9 x 15; 3 x 5 as 25 x 15; 5 x 5 as 25 x 25; and so forth, from square to vertical to horizontal to square to vertical to horizontal back to square. The conceptual “shape” which this piece takes when written out appears in the middle of the page. From this simple and clear beginning, the interweavings of the paths begin, as expressed by the various indices (see illustration of index). As usual, the piece generates itself, and Darboven becomes, quite literally, the medium by which its convolutions are made concrete. Even the layperson for whom the systems are initially impenetrable (I speak for myself), can follow visually, if not comprehend conceptually, the pattern created by the faults in the surface, the interweavings of the various paths.

What I, as that archetypal mathematical layperson, find so immensely fascinating about these systems I can see but cannot analyze, is the visual and intellectual beauty of Darboven’s obsession. The indices are impressive in a similar manner, because of the tremendous contraction they represent, and the springlike force implied by that contraction. Perhaps because I am a writer, my favorite piece is one in progress which Darboven calls “fiction,” “my novel,” “a real book.” It has already reached 15,000 typed pages and except for the indices, is all “written out,” that is, the numbers are spelled, in German. Based on the 42–19 system used in many other pieces (including 100 Years, but drastically cut after that particular usage), it constantly overlaps in each book, “so the last book is exactly where the first book would start again. It might have been the 43rd but it is the first again.” There are 42 hooks with 19 chapters each; each chapter has 42 parts. All of these divisions constitute plus and/or minus quantities, so the text can be synopsized by visualizing a perfect diagonal S-curve meeting a diagonal line at the zero point. It is not a mirror image because it is not static, and continues to move back in on itself. (“The circle as symbol of infinity, everything. What is beginning, where? What is end, where?”)

This “real” book has to be typed, partly because it is a real book rather than drawings and must therefore be printed, and partly because the number of pages if handwritten would be still more astronomical than the typed version. Nevertheless, Darboven wrote out the entire first book for the typists, and the rest of the books by shorthand (“1–10” instead of writing out all the intermediate ciphers; she typed the first pieces like this herself, but since this one is a book “it would be perverse to type it myself”). Then she writes out all the corrections when the typing of any part is finished. Once it is completed, she will do the whole piece in numbers instead of words, and thus the piece will be reduced, or cut, again, since more numbers will fit on a page than words. In the book, the first line (the words eins through zehn) regulates the length of every other line, so words are cut unsyllahically wherever the end of the line falls. “There are no esthetic tricks. It is that way. No search, no research, just writing. But the complete thing must be done before the typing begins.” She has been working on this book for four years now, but

still each time I have to write, it becomes so calm and so normal. There is no story there, nothing to figure out, not a secret, but still exciting. I feel myself not thinking what other people think, but what I think. I write for myself, there is no other way. This is for me. Going on is the enormous thing I do.

Consistent with this attitude, Darboven will not show bits of unfinished sections, will not make “prints” and will not participate in group shows if she is in the midst of writing out a piece. She is very busy writing. She lives alone in a small house on the grounds of her parents’ home outside Hamburg and works alone all day except for dinner. When a few times a year she goes to New York or somewhere in Europe for a show, it is pure “vacation,” “the necessary contradiction to art.” She has lived like this, in New York and in Germany, for years. Exhibitions are events which force her to “reduce” the work so she can expand again from a new base, a self-imposed valve to the relentless flow of her ideas. The work is there to do and, therefore, has to be done. To have something to read she has to be writing. But at times, even Dar- boven collapses so as to “rise again” in the rhythm of her work. “It’s exhausting. It’s good. It’s idea. It’s idea. It’s good. It’s exhausting,” she wrote in one of her Gertrude Steinian letters. During one of these periods, she began reading-writing Homer’s Odyssey instead of making all the work decisions confronting her. She wrote 500 pages of it, very small, the same size as the paperback from which she copied. “It was very hard to do, which was an experience. I will finish it some day.”

Hanne Darboven was brought up in Hamburg, the middle daughter of a manufacturer. After a complicated childhood and a brief career as a pianist, she spent four years at the Hochschule Bildencle Kunstin Hamburg, taking the straight academic art course. She enjoyed the routine and the discipline, but was “never in touch with any kind of discussion or argument because it was just myself I was talking to.” She intensified her isolation soon after leaving school by coming to New York in 1965. She was twenty-four and had never been on her own. She knew no one and met no one, but she did manage to find a small apartment on 90th Street and First Avenue and imposed upon herself another survival routine of daily rounds of work, galleries, and the art supply store, where she was considered eccentric and questioned about the reams of graph paper she bought. The independence partially balanced out the loneliness. Though rather a desperate time, it was one which brought her work to the point where it could sustain her intellectually and emotionally.

She had come to New York with some of the drawings done in Germany—black dots on white board following, less explicitly, similar systems. The large graph paper pieces with numbers, words, points, and lines defining numerical relationships evolved as a task, or discipline, necessary to go on making art which was, in turn, necessary to going on with life. Her own statements from this period reflect the pressures and joys involved, as well as the fact that the work is not about problem solving but about process and polarities:

I build up something by disturbing something (destruction—structure—construction). A system became necessary, how else could I see more concentratedly, find some interest, continue, go on at all? Contemplation had to be interrupted by action as a means of accepting anything among everything. No acceptance at all = chaos. I try to move, to expand and contract as far as possible between more or less known and unknown limits. At times I feel closer while doing a series, and at times afterwards. But whether I come closer or not, it is still one experience. Whether positive or negative, I know it then. Everything is a proof, for the negative that a positive exists, and vice versa. . . . I couldn’t recreate my so-called system. It depends on things done previously. The materials consist of paper and pencil with which I draw my conceptions, write words and numbers, which are the most simple means for putting down my ideas; for ideas do not depend on materials. The nature of idea is immateriality. All things have plenty of variations and varieties, so they can be changed.

She chose the systems because she had discovered in school and in music, that she was “too good at freedom,” which she found frightening and unsatisfying. During the first year of working directly from the calendar (1968), Darboven spoke of

not knowing any more of days, time; just take every day’s mathematical index, a great invention, fiction. No inquiry, no exploration, just to search into something between everything for a time while time is going on. . . . Nothing to write, nothing to read, nothing to say; something to do, contemplation, action.

One year is

just a detail of an unknown quantity to register, or none/ by using our math. system to make or to speculate years (backwards —> history —> existence!) is and is no more, was never/ taking further relations to time with this known system time compensates time, time neutralizes time/ No time at all/ Time total/ Within my limitation will have my stuff written as many times as possible/ always writing/ it’s impossible.

John Anthony Thwaites ended an article on Darboven (“The Numbers Game,” Art and Artists, January, 1972) with a warning on the danger that such work “could easily degenerate into a kind of Higher Knitting, with the female quality of patience, detail, and not much else. A pioneer or a Penelope of the 20th century?” Darboven’s reaction was “I prefer Penelope. What an accomplishment!” There has always been in her work that element of absurdity that Eva Hesse mentioned as a positive factor in repetition, an element which is as poignant as the obsession and discipline engendering it. (“Serious, not serial,” says Darboven.) When John Chandler and I saw the graph-paper drawings in the winter of 1966–67, we wrote that “the illegible but fundamentally orderly tangle of lines connecting point to point is felt by the mathematical layman more than it is understood rationally or visually.” We also compared her drawings to Braille: “They pass directly from the intellectual to the who ”saturate their outwardly sane and didactic premises with a poetic and condensatory intensity that almost amounts to insanity“ (”The Dematerialization of Art,“ Art International, February, 1968). It was LeWitt who first recognized Darboven’s kindred and genuine spirit. He met her in the fall of 1966 at an opening at Joseph Kosuth’s and Christine Kozlov’s Lannis Gallery (later the Museum of Normal Art, where she first exhibited), and became her best friend and guide through the art world, the few corners of it she entered at all. His work and Andre’s remain for her ”the most complete.“ Her drawings, in return, must have been among those which inspired LeWitt’s influential lines: ”If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics“ (”Sentences on Conceptual Art,“ 0–9, no. 5, January, 1969). In the catalogue of her show at the Westfalischer Kunstverein, Münster, West Germany, from October 16–November 14, 1971, Darboven quoted this and Andre’s ”A man climbs a mountain because it is there; a man makes a work of art because it is not there."

In 1966 the experience of Darboven’s work was not a familiar one. I remember being extremely moved, but also bewildered by this serious and honest and naive young woman deep in the infinities of choices presented by all those lines and numbers. The seven intervening years have made the form of the work more familiar but the experience still unique. Because of my own preoccupations with why artists are making art today, and for whom, I have to force myself to answer the unspoken “So What” which may be the reaction of many who saw the show or are reading this. To begin with, I can’t imagine anyone seriously confronting Darboven’s work in any volume without being involuntarily absorbed by the activity it represents. This activity is exemplary. The systems are accessible, but the least interesting part of the work. What I come away with is a sensuous imprint on my experience and a provocation to think about what produced it, which is pretty much what art is about for me—that combination of physical and mental stress that ultimately affects the way I see and think and live. Perhaps what any audience, educated or uneducated to prevailing taste, comes away with from a good or great work or body of art is an awe for the obsession, the total commitment, the time spent, the single-mindedness, resulting in some kind of beauty. Despite the fact that this pleasure may not apply often enough or powerfully enough to condone the amount of money and time expended on art when virtually every other problem seems more pressing on humanity, I continue to think that these things in themselves, aside from form, color, content, produce a grand vision, a grand example, an envy and a longing for such experience (even secondhand) in those not so endowed. When an artist is truly “inside” his or her own work, when the art comes directly from the artist’s own needs and compulsions, the experience of that work is more direct and meaningful to others. Whether or not you “I ike”or “understand”the processes within the books and drawings, the mesmeric sincerity and vigor of Darboven’s work can’t be avoided.

All quotations not otherwise cited are from the artist in conversation, or in corwas obvious, and with Carl Andre and Hesse, as artists respondence with either the author or Sol LeWitt.

#image 6#