Michael Morris, Ray Johnson, Hansjorg Mayer, Joseph Kosuth, Sol Lewitt, Robert Smithson, Franz Mon, Seiichi Niikuni, Klaus Burkhardt, Bob Cobbing, Dom Sylvester Houedard, Emmett Williams, E. A. Vigo, Gerhard Ruehm, Katue Kitasono, Ed Varney, more

Fine Arts Gallery at University of B. C.

Concrete Poetry, a four-part exhibition organized by Alvin Balkind, was seen at the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of B.C. from March 28 through April 19. It was probably the most fertile show mounted in Vancouver for several years in terms of the range and distinction of ideas presented and the possibilities demonstrated both for the making and the consideration of art.

The four parts included: a fairly broad survey of the work of many of the best-known concrete poets from around the world; a large selection of slides of works not available for the exhibition or previously exhibited elsewhere as well as of various historical antecedents for modern concrete poetry, such as Anglo-Hibernian manuscript pages, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Sumerian clay tablets, and a wide selection of Dadaist, Futurist and Russian Constructivist typography; a folding screen by Vancouver artist Michael Morris (who helped organize and install the exhibition) made up of photostatic and blueprint copies of a series of “letter drawings” done in 1968; and a selection of New York Art Scene artist Ray Johnson’s collages.

The presence of an extremely intellectualized method of art-making was evident. The concrete poets are, as a group, involved in the conscious definition of their activity; a considerable number of them are or have been writing theoretical papers or tracts, and “Manifestos of Concrete Poetry” have been appearing since the early 1950s. There is an awareness of the critical or theoretical position of the artist, his public position in regard to the interpretation and historical significance of his work. As well, a general conviction seems to exist among these artists that the poems themselves defy specific interpretation or commentary, and that what is to be talked about can include the artist’s intentions, the relation of his activity to the major literary and esthetic traditions, his relation to the system or lack of system he employs in his work, his role as a distinct “presence” in his work—in other words, there is a good deal of discussion “around” the objects themselves. Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Scottish poet, discusses these kinds of questions in the catalog essay on his work written by Stephen Scobie, a Vancouver poet and graduate student at the University, who played a large role in the organization of the show.

Finlay is a “sensitive” artist in the most literal sense of the word; but he is consciously so, and his sensitivity never blurs or softens the highly-developed awareness he has of the public, cultural function of his art. He describes concrete poetry in general as “classicistic” and “positive” in opposition to the “romantic” and negative tendencies toward “anguish,” absurdity and a culturally sterile individualism prevalent in much of conventional poetry and prose writing. Individualism (in the sense Finlay is talking about), and the concentration upon the tensions and “existential” difficulties which have become such a part of the role of the “alienated” artist are attacked explicitly by Finlay and implicitly by most of the other artists in the show. The fact of alienation, and of various kinds of tensions, is not denied, but the place such a situation has in the “content” and method of the work of art itself is questioned.

Many of the pieces are intellectual and impersonal, but in a very fine way: they are never dryly theoretical and intellectually cold, nor aloof in terms of their relationship with the spectator. Hansjorg Mayer’s Alphabetenquadratbuch is a complete and complex exercise of the intellect, but it operates in terms of the revelation of a thought-process as strongly as possible to the spectator; the “content” of that process is the artist himself, working with a particular set of conventions and in his own time. The fact that the finished product tells us a great deal about the medium in which he is working, and the method of manipulation he employs upon the medium, and very little “about” the artist himself is a result of the artist’s realization of the most intelligent and valuable means of making contact with his audience. (A set of Joseph Kosuth’s Art As Idea As Idea (Abstract) photostats was included in the exhibition, and it is obvious that the kind of attitude toward the process of art-making is shared by Mayer, as well as several others in this show, with American “conceptual” artists like Kosuth, Sol LeWitt or Robert Smithson.)

There are a good many other works in the show as stringent and rewarding as Mayer’s. Franz Mon’s Rotor, Seiichi Niikuni’s photographic print Wheel, Klaus Burkhardt’s nine Coldtypestructures, Bob Cobbing’s Marvo Movie Natter, and Dom Sylvester Houedard’s The Sun-Cheese Wheel-Ode, A Double Rolling Gloster Memorial For Ken Cox stand out particularly, as does Mayer’s other contribution, a 30-foot fold-out “booklet” called Typoaktionen, in which very tiny letters are scattered, apparently at random, on each area of page-surface, to produce dense clustering effects. Like Alphabetenquadratbuch, the letters are divested as much as possible of their connection with language and used as standard graphic units operating in a primarily distributional or positional context. The fact that they are indeed letters and not some other kind of graphic shape-unit persists, however, and the work can be looked at in terms of the possibility of reading as well. A very similar effort is made by Emmett Williams in his 13 Variations. Here, the phrase “When this you see remember me” is stamped at random on a page, each word in a different color, first once for each word, then twice on the next sheet, and so on in a progression of doubles (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.) until the final sheet is a near-black mass. 13 Variations is produced in a tremendously gorgeous edition by Something Else Press, which, incidentally, supplied. a considerable number of items to the exhibition.

The particular strength and depth of works like these is, in a large measure, a direct result of the artist’s “impersonal” approach, as far as that approach is the manifestation of a total attitude to the poem as a particular “art-fact.” Various people have objected to concrete poetry as “thin” or banal in terms of “content,” as too conspicuously simple and obvious. Finlay argues this point by suggesting that such distinctions about content are irrelevant, and that what is important is the method of handling that content, and the artist’s attitude toward the role he can play in the involvement of other people in the situation of his work. Ian Wallace, in a catalog essay, concurs, stating that the very banality, or apparent banality, of the content of concrete poems is the result of a conscious realization that methods of treating problems of “self-expression” and “meaning” have been worn thin in a great deal of conventional literature, and that a concentration on the artist’s process is a source of revitalization. Certainly, the work of the contributors to this exhibition is “vital” in just this sense: there is no “anguish,” no display of the self-conscious poet confronting both his resistant material and, more to the point, a hostile and alienating world. What concrete poetry exhibits is an optimism, or a positive attitude, based not on any naiveté about the artist’s position as an artist and a citizen, but instead upon a realization that the strength of their art lies in the depth of their involvement with ideas. The strength of that involvement, and the consequent toughness of the ideas and works of art developed is probably the most apparent facet of the exhibition as a whole. Some works are naturally poorer than others; but the art as a whole displays a clarity of purpose and an understanding of the vital issues inflecting all the arts with which it can be concerned.

In some contrast to the generally non-sensuous (black-and-white, low level of physicality, analytical, “intellectual”) nature of the works mentioned above, are a large number of pieces involving color, words or readable letter-combinations, object-status, literary references or pictures. Finlay’s pieces probably go furthest in this direction. Copies of three of his poem-objects were constructed for the exhibition: Earthship, Ring of Waves (the original of which is made in sandblasted plate glass), and a fence-poem, Little Fields Long Horizons. A large number of these objects are included as slides. Involving images of fishing, fishermen and boats, compasses, weather vanes and sundials, they often are in fact compasses, weather vanes and sundials; they exist in the natural landscape of Finlay’s farm in Scotland. Also outstanding among this somewhat arbitrary grouping are E. A. Vigo’s folded poem with colored type and holes, Gerhard Ruehm’s The Calling, a dense black-on-black piece, Katue Kitasono’s photographic Strollers, Ed Varney’s Olfactory Poem (a row of spice jars with their lids removed), John Furnival’s pieces, Sigfried Cremer’s large letter sheets, Carlo Belloli’s diamond-shaped poems in blue and green, Diter Rot’s small postcard poems, and many others.

Michael Morris’s contribution was typical of his work: extremely refined and elegant. The drawings were of the structural-illusionistic kind, related to Morris’s more recent prints and drawings involving 1930s Hollywood iconography. Although they incorporated letters in various different ways, they didn’t share in the general idea-complex of concrete poetry.

In relation to the admirable esthetic and intellectual stance taken by the concrete poets, Ray Johnson seemed guilty of a weak and widespread dishonesty. He flew in for the installation and opening, and decided, for reasons of publicity, not to hang any of his works in the special space allotted them. Johnson wished this move to be looked upon as an “esthetic decision”; however, even if it were, it would have been an incredibly inane and naive one. In any case, it had the pleasant effect of removing the only real irrelevancy from the exhibition.

Jeffrey Wall