PRINT September 2001


STÉPHANE MALLARMÉ'S DREAM of the ideal book, a book capable of encapsulating the entire universe, depended on a recognition of the meaning of format that moved against the “artificial unity that used to be based on the square measurements of the book.” The late-nineteenth-century poet called for a precisely reckoned and designed volume in which everything was to be “hesitation, disposition of parts, their alterations and relationships”—one in which typography and even the folding of the pages would achieve an ideational, analytic, and expressive significance. In the twentieth century, this challenge was taken on many times.

One such undertaking was the double issue of Aspen magazine guest-edited in 1967 by Brian O'Doherty (who later assumed the artistic identity Patrick Ireland). Launched by Roaring Fork Press publisher Phyllis Johnson two years earlier to appeal to skiers, wildlife preservationists, and lovers of cool jazz in the comfortable environs of Colorado's Red Mountain, Aspen found its genteel origins abruptly buried when impresario David Dalton, a rock critic always in the swim of things, took over the magazine in 1966 and commissioned Andy Warhol and Marshal McLuhan to edit issues 3 and 4, respectively. Warhol's Winter 1966 issue was hip beyond measure, resembling a rock and roll press kit, complete with posters (the Exploding Plastic Inevitable), movie flip books (Warhol's Kiss and Jack Smith's Buzzards Over Bagdad), clippings on the antics of the Rolling Stones, and writings by, among others, Lou Reed, Timothy Leary, and Robert Chamberlain. McLuhan's Spring 1967 issue was equally smart. Nattily designed by his flamboyant collaborator, Quentin Fiore, it featured a thirty-two-page press proof of the two authors reading from their recent publication, The Medium Is the Massage, texts by other writers on themes such as “The Electronics of Music” and “The Anti-Environmental Man,” notes by John Cage titled “How to Improve the World,” and a psychedelic poster of “The TV Generation.”

But O'Doherty immediately saw the opportunity to do something very different with the unusual box form of the magazine: Dedicating the volume to Mallarmé, he set out to put into practice the French poet's hermeticism and the level of interaction it demands from the reader (who in order to decipher the text might have to spend as much time as the poet did in composing it). Out of the eight-inch square, three-inch deep snow-white box that had none of the slickness, sexiness, or glamour of its predecessors tumbled essays, fiction, four reels of 8 mm film, five floppy vinyl phonograph records, and an array of “data” (as the work by visual artists in the box is called in the table of contents). The marvelous compilation revealed the mysterious, powerful creativity of a throw of the dice, which, governed solely by unpredictable rules of chance, improbably manages to link normally separate and unrelated objects.

O'Doherty placed his cast of characters in a strange dialogue with one another. Replete with countless self-references, the intricate network of correspondences woven by the box's players spread its web across time and space, creating a dense circuit of interrelated information. Thus the narrative lyric of Michel Butor's Conditionement reticulated the exhaustive reflexivity of Dan Graham's Poem Schema, and the drawling invective of William Burroughs reading from Nova Express meshed with the measured exactitude of Alain Robbe-Grillet reciting from Jealousy on the flip side of the record. The effect was one of an unforseeable collective creativity over individual invention. Roland Barthes proposed a way to navigate the complexity of such a composition in his contribution to Aspen 5+6 when he argued that: “Everything is to be distinguished but nothing deciphered; structures can be followed, ‘threaded’ (like a stocking that has run) in all its recurrences and all its stages.” O'Doherty recalls that Barthes, whose work he had followed in the Evergreen Review, was teaching in Philadelphia that year: “So I invited him up to New York to explain what we were doing, and he told me that he had a short piece that would be appropriate. About three weeks later he sent ‘The Death of the Author.’ This was its first publication. I've always felt bad that we were never able to pay him the $300 promised.” Barthes also deferred to Mallarmé in this seminal essay, as he deflated the array of overpowering personalities by insisting that “it is language that speaks, not the author.”

In his choice of participants, O'Doherty was concerned with reinstating the often maligned legacy of European modernism extending from Russian Constructivism and the Dada tradition of paradoxical thinking to the predetermined structure of serial music and the nonmetaphorical writing of the nouveau roman. Tape recorder in one hand, address book in the other, he scoured the rich boscage of New York culture in search of people who were then heroes to a younger generation: “I assembled all that was of interest to me and the group of artists I was a part of at the time [including Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham, Mel Bochner, Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, Ruth Vollmer, and Peter Hutchinson] in a kind of election of ancestors and contemporaries, held together in several conceptual schemata, cross-referenced through traditions and themes, and summarized in the language of set theory.” Thus he convinced Marcel Duchamp to read “The Creative Act” and some texts from “A L'Infinitif.” He recorded the psychoanalyst Charles R. Hulbeck reciting four vowel poems of his Dada youth, when he went by the name Richard Huelsenbeck. He interviewed Merce Cunningham and got Naum Gabo to narrate his 1920 Realistic Manifesto and Max Neuhaus to perform John Cage and Morton Feldman. Also concerned with problematizing history, O'Doherty included provocative essays by George Kubler and Susan Sontag that called on time and space as witnesses to the conventionality of historical narratives and the impact of those narratives on future perceptions.

Time, in fact, was one of the chief preoccupations of Aspen 5+6. Even today the issue has to be experienced in irregular temporal chunks. One has to borrow an 8 mm film projector to view the films of Hans Richter, László Moholy-Nagy, Robert Morris, and Robert Rauschenberg. One has to find a phonograph with extra-slow settings to hear Gabo read his manifesto and Duchamp his prescriptidn for a dictionary haphazardly assembled according to the laws of chance. One has to put together Tony Smith's Minimalist sculpture, The Maze, presented in the box as a miniature cardboard cutout. And the astonishing texts and “data” included each demand their share of time. Sontag's “The Aesthetics of Silence” considers how to listen to the modern artist who continues speaking, but in a manner that his audience can't understand, and certainly Beckett's utterly self-negating “Text for Nothing #8” is unintelligible until heard several times.

O'Doherty's aim, as he wrote in the volume (under the pseudonym Sigmund Bode), was “to construe a situation in which persons, things, abstractions, become simply nouns and are thus potentially objectified.” The sentiment again echoed that of Mallarmé, whose promotion of an excess of meaning (and the difficulty attendant on such excess) went hand in hand in his signal work Un Coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard with the reader able to take in two pages of the poem simultaneously. For Mallarmé, excess too was firmly anchored by the physicality of the book where words both stood for and became objects.

The analogy with music and its irregular formations that nonetheless obey their own laws was also one that Mallarmé encouraged. Indeed, the closest approximation to the effects of Un Coup de dés in O'Doherty's Minimalist box was found in the score for Morton Feldman's The King of Denmark, for solo percussionist: Notes rendered in the form of letters and numbers hauntingly, despairingly, defiantly float over the void, suspended in time: black and white, white on black. O'Doherty and others interested in serial composition had carefully studied Mallarmé's instructions for reading Un Coup de dés as they were published in a 1965 issue of the journal Die Reihe, coedited by Karlheinz Stockhausen. LeWitt's Serial Project #1 a multipart sculpture with regulated changes presented in Aspen 5+6 as a separate booklet of diagrams and text, took its point of departure from the serial compositions of Arnold Schonberg, which disregarded melodious and harmonious categories and established the principle of relationships in advance. Similarly, O'Doherty's own eloquent contribution, Structural Play #3, consisted of a meticulously measured series of moves performed by two actors sent along right-angled paths through a gridded space recalling a board game such as chess. And Mel Bochner's Seven Transluscent Tiers was composed of a series of plus and minus signs printed on transparent paper. Although the sheets of paper were, in his words, “discrete, self-canceling, isomorphic, serialized tiers on an orthogonal grid,” they were also nonhierarchical and capable of being moved around. Such dismantling of conventions of composition and reading structure—e.g., having a beginning and end, linear narrative, an internal evolutionary logic—summoned again the legacy of Mallarmé's modification of the reader's task.

From another perspective altogether, Sontag's “The Aesthetics of Silence” illuminated the basic motifs of the entire O'Doherty endeavor. Her first sentence stated that “every era has to re-invent the project of ‘spirituality’ for itself.” She then traced the modes of spirituality in the modern era. Hers is a story of glorified ruins, of exaltation without issue, of abnegation unto death. Or rather, unto silence. Sontag's whole argument—one that is a matter of distinguishing rather than deciphering—inexorably suggests danger. The themes of reduction, renunciation, and artistic suicide persistently rise to the surface, casting their dread pall on her now optimistic, now dejected speculation. “Through its advocacy of silence, reduction, etc., art commits an act of violence upon itself, turning art into a species of auto-manipulation, of conjuring—trying to help bring these new ways of thinking to birth.” Which is true in general of O'Doherty's elegant and finely wrought project.

The recordings of live voices speaking, reciting, and performing was a vital component for Aspen 5+6. The five vinyl records feature a multitude of accents, cadences, timbres, and tones. O'Doherty carefully arranged the voices in a dialectical structure that supported a series of polarities: Noise was opposed to silence, multiplicity and excess to simplicity and reduction. Thus the casual, almost conversational, euphonic voice of Duchamp is contrasted on one record with the gutteral, inarticulate, cacophonous sounds of Huelsenbeck. However, the paradoxical nature of the dialectical structure emerges in instances where the opposites unite, indicating that what seems a polarity is only so in initial appearance—as in Cage's meditations on the interplay between silence and noise, or in the juxtaposition of Beckett's whispered text with the muted effect of Burroughs's slice and splice method.

Similarly, in the area of visual production O'Doherty opposed artists of “plenitude” like Rauschenberg against those of “reduction” such as Smith. Though each of the objects placed in the box could be said to be representative of one of the six “movements” listed on what served as the table of contents (Constructivism, Structuralism, Conceptualism, Objects, Tradition of Paradoxical Thinking, and Between Categories) and could be received according to one of the three “themes” of the project (Time, Silence and Reduction, and Language), a multiplicity of meanings is located in their arbitrary relation to each other. Thus it is crucial to find the sense that emerges interstitially between the categories, where the layers of texts, images, sounds, and structures meet. For each object and artist functioned like the center point of concentric circles of influence that radiated impulses throughout the box like ripples on a pond.

What the constellation of piquing texts and data wonderfully revealed, however, were the complex interconnections of modernism across time and space. Today, the experience of looking through the box is not unlike that of opening a cultural time capsule. Yet the continued prominence in their various spheres—literary, musical, critical, artistic—of those included in Aspen 5+6 attests to O'Doherty's remarkable acuity in putting the issue together. That this acuity could ultimately be forgotten is one drawback, of course, to the transitory nature of the very medium through which the project was disseminated. “Irony of ironies,” O'Doherty recalls of Aspen 5+6. “Although I'd not planned it as an ephemeral project, in the end I was devastated to find that most people just threw it away.”