PRINT Summer 2009


“Tango with Cows”

IT WAS NOT SO LONG AGO that museum exhibitions devoted to the historical avant-gardes—Futurism, Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism, and so forth—were all painting and no paper. The illustrated book and other forms of print media that had posited the page as an alternative space for artistic production, exhibition, and reception were rarely to be found. This despite the fact that printed matter, mechanically reproduced and circulated via the soiree and the post office alike, was the lifeblood of the early-twentieth-century avant-gardes. Borrowing from the Russian formalist Yuri Tynianov’s pithy formulation, one could say that the historical avant-gardes had moved print media out of the “backyards and low haunts” of artistic production and into the front parlor. But until relatively recently, the modern museum insisted on remaking the avant-garde artist exclusively in the image of the studio painter, in accordance with the centuries-old domination of the easel picture. Hidden from museological view, the avant-garde artists’ book defaulted into the hands of bibliophiles and librarians, in whose great debt we now stand.

The 1970s brought a sea change, particularly with respect to the Russian and Soviet avant-gardes. Comprising more than three thousand objects, the mammoth “Paris–Moscow” exhibition curated by Pontus Hultén at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1979 demonstrated the sheer diversity of media flourishing in the two cities between 1900 and 1930. Underpinning this expansion of curatorial horizons was the apparent exhaustion of a painting-centric model of modernism, the widespread turn to intermedia, and the reemergence of the artists’ book as a medium that might circumvent the gallery system. Equally fundamental was the fact that various foreign nationals, such as the Paris-based collector Marc Martin-Malburet, had recently begun to assemble substantial bodies of Russian avant-garde books and periodicals, acquiring these items from Soviet bukinisty (secondhand-book dealers) or directly from heirs. Private collecting accelerated exponentially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As prices escalated and the cold war came to an end, these collections gained increasing museological exposure, through shows ranging from the exhibition of the personal library of Maria Tsantsanoglou at the National Art Gallery—Alexandros Soutzos Museum in Athens in 1996 to a broad survey, in 2002, of the Judith Rothschild Foundation’s major gift to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“TANGO WITH COWS: Book Art of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1910–1917,” at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, refocuses our attention on the years immediately preceding and during World War I, delivering in the process a compelling new argument about the nature of the Russian artists’ book and its legacy today. Curated by Nancy Perloff with Allison Pultz, the exhibition draws on the institute’s own major holdings, the core of which is derived from the Getty’s 1988 acquisition of several hundred titles from Martin-Malburet. In comparison with the MOMA omnibus, the Getty show is small, comprising some thirty-odd books of poetry, one lithographic portfolio, and a libretto—an appropriate number of items given the institute’s scholarly mission and the intimate scale of its display space. Loosely chronological, the exhibition embraces the diversity of illustrated books of poetry and prose produced collaboratively by artists and poets like Natalia Goncharova, Olga Rozanova, Mikhail Larionov, Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei Kruchenykh, and Vasily Kamensky (whose 1914 collection of ferro-concrete poems, Tango with Cows, provides the show’s title), who worked within various competing and often overlapping trends such as neo-primitivism, Cubo-Futurism, alogism, ferro-concretism, and transrationalism. Most of the show’s works were produced in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s capital at the time, or in Moscow, but several hail from balmy Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to which Kruchenykh and others retreated during the war.

These books are not luxury livres de peintres but deliberately scrappy affairs. Many were mass-reproduced on inexpensive or repurposed paper, often in editions of three hundred or more by commercial printers using standard techniques such as lithography and letterpress or, more rarely, zincography, hectography, and linoleum cut. Variations were sometimes introduced at the printing stage, and watercolor or handmade elements such as collage were occasionally added. The earliest exponent in the exhibition is the tiny illustrated literary miscellany A Trap for Judges (1910), which measures just five by four and a half inches. A collaboration by the Hylaea group of poets and artists, this collection of verse, prose, and ten illustrations by Vladimir Burliuk—each a portrait of one of the book’s contributors—is printed by letterpress on the verso of sheets of cheap wallpaper, under which, as David Burliuk later noted with abject relish, bedbugs and cockroaches had once scurried. Opuscular in size but not ambition, A Trap for Judges declares war on the elegant refinement of contemporary Symbolist periodicals such as The World of Art and The Golden Fleece, with their Art Nouveau ornamentation, gilded leather bindings, deluxe paper stock, and substantial heft. Dramatically mounted together with these periodicals, A Trap for Judges faces off against Symbolism like David confronting Goliath.

This brings us to the perennial problem confronted by all curators—namely, how best to exhibit the book given that it is a handheld, time-based medium. Locked away in vitrines for legitimate reasons of conservation and security, the illustrated book is often best known for its front cover, which has tended to become an iconic, even hyperbolic synecdoche for interior contents that remain forever hidden. Tsantsanoglou’s collection, for example, was presented in Athens encased and salon style in rows of covers (along with the occasional opening); inexpensive facsimiles were available for further perusal. MOMA addressed the problem by opening multiple copies of single titles to different pages, displaying digital reproductions via touch-screen kiosks, producing an exceptionally well-illustrated scholarly catalogue, and embedding Flash files in an interactive website. The Getty exhibition pushes the matter of access still further. High-quality facsimile reproductions of a good number of titles, produced by an in-house photographic and conservation team, are freely available to handle. Multiple copies of some titles are displayed within vitrines. Four clusters feature touch-screen kiosks programmed with reproductions of various books. Specifically prepared for the exhibition, these digital books offer not only paging-through technology but also many first-time English translations from the Russian by Pultz (with Gerald Janecek and William Gunn), curatorial commentaries, and—most crucially of all in my opinion—sound files. The show has an extensive website of scholarly resources, with full interactive access to four of the digital books just mentioned, as well as PDF files of twenty-one books in all. “Tango with Cows” is a productive example of the role that exhibitions can play in our new era of digital humanities, offering an interesting twist on the Russian artist El Lissitzky’s avant la lettre demand for the superseding of print media by electronic delivery systems: “The printed sheet, the everlastingness of the book, must be transcended. THE ELECTRO-LIBRARY,” he shouted in the pages of Kurt Schwitters’s Merz in 1923. If the long-awaited advent of Lissitzky’s electro-library has led in some quarters to a transcendence of the printed page, it has also renewed our interest in, and expanded our knowledge of, Gutenberg’s extraordinary promise.

YET THE CORE ACHIEVEMENT of the Getty exhibition—and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors—lies in the unprecedented attention it affords the Russian avant-garde book as a medium of sound. Accessed via a handheld audio wand attached to each kiosk, the sound files for the digital books contain newly recorded readings in Russian by native speaker and scholar Oleg Minin. Minin’s crisp and cadent readings of the poems make us realize something very fundamental—namely, that for all these years we have been looking at Russian Futurist books with the sound turned off. This realization is especially crucial with respect to the collaboratively produced anthologies and miscellanies of so-called zaum—transrational or “beyonsense”—poetry that constitute the heart of the Getty show. Invented by the Futurist poets Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov, zaum embraced the sheer materiality of poetic language, promoting the phonic and graphic substance of the word not as a mere substrate of or vehicle for semantic or lexical meaning but as meaning itself. Its impulses were both futurist (rushing forward to build a new communicative system once oppressive “reason” had finally been destroyed) and archaistic (looking to the past to retrieve the long-forgotten or marginalized sound poetry of ancient chants, magic incantations, and orthodox, folkloric, and shamanistic rituals). Zaum is famous for creating neologisms through the absurd accretion of standard particles (Khlebnikov’s “Incantation by Laughter” [1910]) or the stringing together of growling syllables (Kruchenykh’s untranslatable “Dyr bul shchyl” [1913]). Impeding or even blocking referentiality, which its theorists derided as the task of everyday as opposed to poetic language, zaum typically does not make much normative sense. For this reason, sensory fatigue may eventually set in while listening—as Kruchenykh himself once said to the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, zaum is like mustard: You can’t live on it alone.

But you can for at least an hour or two, as was demonstrated by a compelling companion event held at the Getty in February, “Explodity: An Evening of Transrational Sound Poetry.” This performance lent further support to Perloff’s pioneering emphasis on the phonic dimension of the Futurist book. Indeed, it broached the argument that the ultimate legacy of the Russian experiment lies not in the avant-garde’s descent into the Great Terror in the 1930s but rather in the proliferation of sound poetry since the ’60s. The first half of the program alternated between, on the one hand, Minin reciting selected zaum poems against a backdrop of giant reproductions of said poems, and, on the other, Pultz, along with legendary sound poets Steve McCaffery and Christian Bök, reading aloud English translations (or empathetic approximations). The drama escalated precipitously in the program’s second half, when McCaffery and Bök each performed a historical repertoire of sound poetry (from Aristophanes to F. T. Marinetti to Schwitters and beyond) and a selection of his own contemporary work. Raging and rollicking through long and often distended passages of “pure” sound with unrivaled technical virtuosity and operatic ambition, these two poets expressed not themselves but the inner self of sound. By the end of the evening, this moving demonstration had taken its toll on a panoply of linguistic conventions as well as on the poets’ own bodies, going far beyond Marinetti’s “destruction of syntax” toward the destruction of the larynx, no less.

WHAT OF THE VISUAL COMPONENT of zaum—its emphasis on the word’s physical, graphic presence on the page? Here, too, we find Kruchenykh once again in the show’s spotlight, as something like a Marinettian ringleader of a band of artists. This may surprise some visitors, since he is not nearly as well known today as the Futurist artist-poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (who, significantly, did not produce zaum poetry), or the über-Futurist painter Kazimir Malevich. It is worth remembering that Kruchenykh started out as a visual artist, studying at the Odessa Drawing School before turning to poetry (“Foreseeing the imminent destruction of painting,” he later wrote, “I snapped my brushes in two . . . and threw away my palette to the greater glory and destruction of Futurism”). That early experience resurfaces again and again in his poetic theory and practice and in his engagement with the book as a visual medium.

Consider Kruchenykh’s early collaboration with Khlebnikov and Goncharova, A Game in Hell: Poem (1912), which is a pivotal book in the exhibition. Printed lithographically in an edition of three hundred, it comprises a long poem about a card game among devils, witches, and the condemned. The setting is hell. The mood is both somber and humorous—Jakobson later described it as a parody of Aleksandr Pushkin’s versification. Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov wrote the poem together, each revising and adding to the verses supplied by the other. This compositional principle—both accretional and synthetic—brings an episodic rhythm to the narration, though convoluted constructions, rare archaisms, and contemporary slang do their best to obscure it. Its orderly four-line stanzas are all written by hand (partly in Old Church Slavonic script, the rest in cursive Cyrillic), in accordance with the poets’ protest against the “gray prisoner’s uniform” of mechanical type, wherein letters are “lined up in a row, humiliated, with cropped hair, and all equally colorless.” Goncharova prepared more than a dozen illustrations for the book, developing a forceful neo-primitivist iconography of the hybrid and the monstrous: devils with horns, tails, and cloven feet; witches with brooms; and human heads boiling in a cauldron licked by flames and the lascivious tongue of a snake. Playing cards are clawed or fanned on almost every page. Borrowing from the formal vocabularies of popular prints (lubki), icons, and folk art, Goncharova draws her figures and scenes with vigor and expressivity, offering a visual interpretation of the poem that is at once terrifying and parodic. Though never physically overlapping, text and image combine to form a unity that exhausts each recto. There is no remainder, no place to breathe in hell.

To this we might juxtapose the scrappy restraint of Transrational Boog, a three-way collaboration among Kruchenykh, Rozanova, and the young Jakobson (here using the pseudonym Aliagrov) that reminds us once again of the historical intertwining of Russian Futurist practice and formalist theory at the moment of their contemporaneous emergence in the second decade of the twentieth century. The book was published in an edition of 140; its materials were prepared as early as 1914, according to Jakobson, but were dated 1916 because Kruchenykh fancied the volume a literal “book of the future.” A heart cut from glossy red paper is buttoned, as it were, to each hand-worked front cover. Inside, Kruchenykh’s verse is at its most minimal—a few words rubber-stamped with apparent abandon. REST, one verse starkly declares, a single word on the page. In something of a Duchampian move, these isolated fragments gain their identity as verse solely by the framing architecture of the book in which they appear. Mechanically typeset at the back are two zaum poems by Aliagrov, which seem almost academic in comparison. Nine leaves feature Rozanova’s rough linoleum cuts depicting the court figures from a deck of playing cards, their sequencing apparently random, like that of a newly reshuffled pack.

Occupying almost the entirety of the sheet in each case, Rozanova’s playing cards are no longer narrative props (as in A Game in Hell); instead they thematize the condition of the printed page as a flat decorative surface, like the face card itself. In one spectacularly restrained opening, the purple verso of one of her linoleum cuts becomes an element in a nonobjective collage by Kruchenykh, handmade for each copy. Ground is thus also figure. Three lines of rubber-stamped zaum laconically read TO LIVE / KRUCH ENYKH: / HE. Like the purple verso and the fragment of pastel-green pasted paper it abuts, this cryptic text has a certain figural force. In contrast to A Game in Hell, where the communicative function of the book medium is put under duress but never in doubt, Transrational Boog self-reflexively investigates zaum’s radicalization of the medium itself: What is the minimum condition for a book of poetry? Eschewing the conventional unity of the book, Transrational Boog gathers a generous assortment of different paper stocks, textures, colors, and sizes to suggest that a book is simply a bunch of leaves, fastened together in the margin.

Maria Gough is an associate professor of art history at Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA