New York

“Language”

Dwan Gallery

Rumor has it that the “Language” exhibition, held annually these past four years at the Dwan Gallery, will be discontinued. Since these exhibitions have been so difficult, crowded and divorced from familiar pictorial issues—belle facture, say, or sensuous impasto—and because of their historical sprawl, they have been overlooked, ignored even, by the critical reviews. Yet their relationship to the recent development of an art seemingly based on linguistic principles has been profound and abiding. I mentioned historical sprawl. From time to time Marinetti’s I Paroliberi Futuristi appeared as well as an awful lot of seemingly ancillary Duchamp, although as we all know, nothing is ancillary in Duchamp. Still the “historical” items displayed over four years avoided the clichés with which one has grown familiar in numerous exhibitions on an approximate theme of “words and art.” On the simplest level such exhibitions stressed the artist’s utilization of words in terms of calligraphy. Paul Klee comes to mind instantly. Or such exhibitions emphasized the design possibilities of letters and words, a 2-D design predicated on alphabet structure. This attitude was generally widespread in the graphics of purist persuasion from the Bauhaus down through the ’50s, from Bayer, Matter, Moholy-Nagy through their American votaries of the Post War Paul Rand I and Al Lustig. But this essentially Cubistic frame of reference was the one most conscientiously avoided in the Dwan selections.

Perhaps the key piece over four years—it was shown three times—was Robert Morris’s elaborately cross-referenced and alphabetized index Card File of 1962. On examining its entries one sees that the artist in part was attempting to propose something which resembles a logical, linear-in-time anecdote telling of the creation of this very piece during the month of July, 1962. The first entry is “Accident 7/12/62, 1:03 P.M. Three minutes late from lunch due to trip. (See Trip 1).” Under the listing for the first trip one reads “7/12/62. 1:30–2:03 P.M. To Daniels Stationery . . . to look at file boxes. (See possibilities.)” At “Possibilities,” one is then informed that the artist had the option of purchasing four different kinds of index card file systems. And so on through forty-four subject headings and hundreds of references and cross-references. One gathers that the point of the file index was to record as exactly as language permits all the absolute information pertinent to the creation or fabrication of a work no matter whether such information is important, or relevant, or even art. Under “Dissatisfactions,” for example, the artist expressed his disappointment “that everything relevant will not be recorded.”

What is intriguing is. the lucidity of the process and the systems analysis as realized in an object at once so hyperbolic and quizzical. In 1962 such an aspiration might have been viewed as an American variation of the type of factuality found in Robbe-Grillet’s novels. Or, more likely, it would have been seen as a reprise of the eccentric scientism of Dada of the order found in Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages. It might have been seen as an arch version of the commonplace and banal focus of Pop art, then at its apogee. Alert readers might have recognized the affiliation of this work with the conviction of Claude Lévi-Strauss that linguistics had moved into the position of an absolute and verifiable science when compared with the comparatively Impressionistic features of humanistic studies, most particularly anthropology. In this light, Morris’s Card Index might be regarded, then, as an analytic study of the art object reduced to its characteristic phonemes or syntax.

None of these possibilities, however, clearly answers the subsequent development of Morris, who, like Robert Smithson shortly thereafter, translated neutralist and anti-constructivist data into a strictly formalist and constructivist art—Minimalism—and then to develop out of this an art of pure activity which would take its premises from the shifting, active relationships of living language.

What the four “Language” exhibitions suggest is that our vaunted Cartesian limpidity leads to experiences which are by no means clear. This lesson was codified by Mel Bochner who, on a hand dripped blackboard, chalked “LANGUAGE IS NOT TRANSPARENT.”

Robert Pincus-Witten