PRINT December 2012

Tim Griffin

Emmett Williams, Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz, 1963–64, offset scroll, 7' 2 1/4“ x 2 1/4”.

WRITING DURING A VERY DIFFERENT MOMENT IN ART, scholar and critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, seeking to construct a genealogy for contemporary conceptual practices, famously asserted that the artist Robert Morris irrevocably altered the reflexive constitution of artmaking after modernism by introducing linguistic theory into his engagements with sculpture. In so doing, Buchloh suggested, the sculptor necessarily extended the parameters of art about itself outward to include the very architectural surfaces and frames that provided any artwork with its physical syntax and, for later generations, the institutional infrastructures that gave art its circulatory grammars. To make a work of art (or even just to examine it critically), in other words, subsequently demanded some consideration of the context that gave rise to its very visibility. And it was the variegated strata of language—its deep organizational structures, its capacity for generating complex meaning along both diachronic and synchronic axes—that gave such considerations their richest tactical means and specificity.

Today, of course, such a proposition seems at a far remove; debates around linguistics, signification, and, by extension, poststructuralism largely conjure passages from artistic discourses of decades ago. And yet perhaps precisely such apparent distance made Museum of Modern Art curator Laura Hoptman’s “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language” at once uniquely pleasurable and provocative, as Hoptman placed more recent artistic endeavors in intriguing historical perspective by using text as her exhibition’s fulcrum. Drawing from the museum’s unsurpassable collection, she first established the twentieth-century avant-garde’s inherent bond with textual encounters, laying out treasure after treasure: There was Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, 1932, whose phonetic repetitions propose language as sheer vocality, and type as both image and score, separating expression from intended meaning (or word from instrumentalization more generally). Similarly steeped in collagistic techniques was El Lissitzky’s design for Vladimir Mayakovksy’s book of poems Dlia golosa (For the Voice, 1923), for which the artist said he wished to wed page and typography just as the poet had wed concept and sound. Extending this collaborative thread was Guillaume Apollinaire and Giorgio de Chirico’s Calligrammes, 1930, where, for instance, threads of letters skim the page’s surface to suggest trails of rain in an empty sky. Next to be found were such signal postwar pieces as Marcel Broodthaers’s Un Coup de dés jamias n’abolira le hasard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), 1969, for which the poet turned artist blacked out the passages in Mallarmé’s book of the same title, effectively rendering words physical substance—subverting their communicative value at the same time as proposing their inevitable circulation as things, commodified as easily as any other object. And if that project necessarily also rendered text spatial by underscoring the corporeal basis of reading, the inclusion of the third issue of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer’s 0 TO 9 (1968) recalled the former’s evolution from poet to architect and designer as he would nevertheless assert—in a vein related to that of Morris—that his work was text-based all the while. Simply put, just by smartly calling on the museum’s historical reservoir, Hoptman created a remarkable synoptic of avant-garde practice as it would feed Conceptualism decades later.

And yet most compelling was how the stage was then set for other work prompting meditations about art’s subsequent position in regard to culture. Amid the counterpoints between page and space in the exhibition were numerous instances of pronounced play, as one encountered in Henri Chopin’s La Crevette amoureuse (The Amorous Shrimp), 1967–73, in which text might range from concrete to functional within the framework of a single page, and where the implicit politics of opacity in language—jamming the cultural signal, as it were—is pervasive and immediately apparent, much as it was for contemporaneous American Language poets. (The always already encoded character of language was also touched on in Guy de Cointet’s Deep in the Vast Heart of Africa, 1978, a pattern of lines whose proper deciphering would allow any viewer to read the title’s phrase.) As intriguing in this regard was Emmett Williams’s Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz, 1963–64, a rolling printout suggesting language as code serving as the building blocks of administered information in technocratic society. And a particularly fine curatorial turn was Hoptman’s inclusion of John Giorno’s Dial-a-Poem, 1969–, originally featured in MoMA’s 1970 “Information” exhibition. Here, audiences could call in to hear poems by John Ashbery, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and others—summoning Frank O’Hara’s assertion that every poem might as well be something just said to someone on the telephone, on the one hand, and suggesting the intrinsic mediation and remoteness of any linguistic communication, on the other.

Paul Elliman, Found Fount (detail), 1989–, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Hanging in the balance, then, was the significance of so many contemporary pieces whose engagements with language are—if ostensibly removed from poststructuralist concerns—nevertheless totally invested in the organization and occupation of space. Still to be found here was an implicit politics, as when Sharon Hayes’s posters featuring writing from May 1st, 2012, interweave the intensely personal with the radically public, accentuated ever so gently through their installation close to the floor, making audiences crouch down to read them. Matters of subjective positioning were also in play, in Adam Pendleton’s Black Dada (LK/LC/AA), 2008–2009, or in work by Trisha Donnelly, whose mystical hermeticism seemed a great match for that of Henri Michaux. But what might be the implications of grander gestures by, say, Ei Arakawa and Nikolas Gambaroff, whose spray-painted banners feature letters writ large in the galleries? Or of the vitrines of objects gathered by Paul Elliman—everyday tools and materials that seem the illustrated stuff of worldly script? Or the performances of Paulina Olowska’s Alphabet, 2005, as part of “Words in the World,” a program organized by Sabine Breitwieser in conjunction with the exhibition? If artworks from earlier times here suggested an ordering of space effectively being unlocked by language, such more recent pieces then suggested how language is always imbricated in social context and inevitably gives rise to kinds of signification—and, further, the possibility to write in space anew. Figures in space, as it were, are yet to give way (or pave ways) to other configurations. But precisely this sense of an unfinished sentence made “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language” so exceptional.

Tim Griffin is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.