New York

“Language to Be Looked At and/or Things to Be Read”

Dwan Gallery

“Language to Be Looked At and/or Things to Be Read” at the Dwan Gallery stumbles the gamut from Du-champ mss. and Futurist typography through a vintage Magritte oil to a stenciled Indiana log (HUG EAT DIE). The pleasant little gimmick is a quick and reasonably thorough survey of the use of letter forms in painting and objects since about 1914 to the present day. It has been pretty clear that letters are things to look at in their own write at least since the time of the Book of Kells, and Western painting has made considerable use of this fact through the early Renaissance. From 1450 to the inception of Art Nouveau, the letter and related symbols pretty much disappeared from painting, except for the realm of certain kinds of portraits and subject pictures whose iconography made special demands. In the Far East, the situation was of course very different, despite the fact that movable type was in general use.

Around the beginning of the 20th century in the West, a general impulse to either redefine or revive the fossilized or lost canons of painting, and to a lesser extent, sculpture, made important and effective moves to these ends by confusing and diluting both the physical and imagistic nature of visual art as previously understood. To confuse the picture with the book was a natural and devastating aspect of all such activities. The use of letter forms and such in Cubist painting and by the Futurist group satisfied the quest for formal innovation in the former and the propagandistic ambitions of the latter.

Here the situation remains, ungarnished save for the essentially surreal demonstration, as by the Magritte in the present show, that an object, a picture of the object, the name of the object, and how that name might be written, are each separate and distinct things whose association is entirely arbitrary in fact, but which are more or less interchangeable in practice, according to convention. The logic of this situation is crystalline, and hence the undimming fascination that it exerts. Works which consist only of letter(s), invent letters, write letters, speak words, are intelligible but meaningless, or meaningful but unintelligible, have always been known, if only becoming commonplace recently.

A didactic exhibition about this is certainly welcome, and makes one of those curious art historical points that entertain everyone. It is a bit reprehensible to suggest that the way-out kids (including oldsters) who make (and are) the new art scene, have really come up with anything new or advanced over international avant-garde practice of 1930. The present Dwan show may not actually be trying to do this, but the lack of light-heartedness or whimsy in the group of chosen works suggests that one is seeing Something Big. Well, far from it. The end-of-the-season show is tough for anybody. No artist really wants it because traffic is already dropping off, and he may feel like an also-ran. A big-gun group show is out of the question because it ties up and exposes things seen to better advantage at a different time of year, and everybody does Gallery Group. The only answer is really a thematic show with some gallery group people and some important outsiders (usually private loans). The Dwan show takes this tack, and rightly, too, but it has not quite been able to surmount the difficulty of finding a really worthy theme and then doing it up right. In all fairness, the attempt is notable for the relative completeness of the historical representation over more than five decades, and the contemporary works on view are not so thin that they are batted down by their elders. Ad Reinhardt’s Portend of the Artist as a Yhung Mandala is wackily inspired, as is Oldenburg’s pathetic Celine in papier-mache and Johns’s Toothbrush (molars instead of bristles) in Sculpmetal. Sol LeWitt’s layout for the L.A. Dwan Gallery announcement is the sole example of practical typography and design exhibited: more such would have been to the point of the show. To be hard on the theme and its exposition does not detract from the quality of the individual pieces per se, which range from excellent (Magritte) to piss-poor (Dan Flavin).

Dennis Adrian