San Francisco

Gerd Stern

San Francisco Museum of Art

There has not been such a chattering of motors, clanking of gears, winking of lights, and buzzing of cir­cuits at the San Francisco Museum since Charles Mattox’s constructions were all but demolished by gleeful children. But the resemblance ends with the noise. Mattox’s work remained well within a tradition of constructivist art, distilling a positive, cheerful es­thetic from a technology that no one really feels very positive about. Stern has his roots in Dada: the senselessly blinking light is a manifestation of the Absurd. Mattox derives his elegance and his assurance from an abstracted idea of the beauty of technology: the sharp edge of Stern’s wit is derived from the absurdity of technology as applied. The flashing, hypnotic traffic signal with its insane imperatives (Stop! Go! Shoot Yourself!) provokes in him a madman’s laughter, but it also provokes a poet’s concern over the curious things that happen to words when they become the ammunition of the Ray Guns of the State and of the great commercial institutions. The size of a word on a printed page, for example, is one thing, but a single word on a billboard in letters eight feet tall, with, perhaps, each letter blinking in a different color for emphasis is something else. Stern, with his theme of the Verbal American Landscape thinks that such manifes­tations have created a link between poetry and the visual arts. If this is a link that had to some extent been explored by Dada, Stern has the ad­vantage of several decades of condi­tioning by Madison Avenue and super­highway prosody, and he exploits it well.

Philip Leider