New York

Kenneth Goldsmith

John Post Lee Gallery

At once exquisite and formidable, Kenneth Goldsmith’s text-on-paper compositions are a seductive hybrid of poetry, literature, music, and visual art. While Goldsmith clearly draws inspiration in equal parts from James Joyce, John Cage, and Joseph Kosuth, his work is more than simply the sum of these influences.

Goldsmith’s penchant for epistemological systems and wrought images emerges in two portfolios of pencil drawings. The basic unit of one, Songbook: XII Soundbites (all works 1992), is the ideogram—in this case a matrix of overlapping English letters that function as a poetic unit, much like a Chinese character. Each one of twelve manuscriptlike pages bears twelve such linguistic units which progress in a systematic, visual-rhyming sequence that recalls both the obsessiveness and the idiosyncrasy of Cage’s music. The other, Songbook: XI Poems, presents blocks of words that-follow the system used by a popular type of poet’s sourcebook known as the “rhyming dictionary.” In this system a rhyming sound is explored first in an alphabetical sequence of one syllable words, then two syllables, then three, and so on, until proper names or entire phrases are formed. Each of these 11 pages features a rhyming sequence in boldface print, set against another, barely visible, sequence. Text that appears in boldface on one page fades to provide the background of the text on the next page, creating an overlapping of poetic verse as the words snake into dizzying horizontal, vertical, and block patterns.

Goldsmith focuses his attention on the patterns created by superimposing text on text in circular compositions aptly titled “Tissage Typographique,” (Typographic weaving). In Tissage Typographique (OH NO), the artist repeats the pun “YOKO OH NO” to set up an optical game: the viewer is alternately challenged to read the words, and seduced by the abstract pattern they create. Here, Goldsmith asserts the abstract nature of text by means of both form and content. The result is a tightly woven tautology, a passing nod to first-generation conceptual artists like Kosuth.

This show’s tour de force was No. 105 5.23.92–6.21.92, a giant triptych featuring six silkscreened columns of text, ordered by the “rhyming dictionary” system. The work begins with monosyllabic rhymes: “B, b, be . . . ,” and progresses to multisyllabic names and phrases: “Susan Faludi, talk dirty to me. . . . ” This outrageous flow of text ranges from history (“Benito Mussolini”), to popular culture (“Madonna Ciccone”), and the art world (“theory weary”), unravelling at the end with a quote from Finnegan’s Wake, “A way a lone a last a loved a long the,” that suggests a cyclical reading. Here Goldsmith’s relationship to Kosuth comes into focus: while the latter used a closed system (the dictionary definition) to polemically foreground art’s self-referentiality, the former uses an open system (the infinite possibilities of the “rhyming dictionary”) to reaffirm the connection of both art and language to the world. Goldsmith explodes the imperiousness of Kosuth’s printed dictionary definitions with a Joycean stream-of-consciousness set to an unstoppable hip-hop beat.

Goldsmith’s work reverses the art-for-art’s-sake endgame practiced by language artists in the ’60s, and makes the language-of-power appropriators of the ’70s and ’80s seem a little constipated. Putting a unique spin on the rap technique of sampling—guilt-free appropriation used toward an expressive end—Goldsmith levels high and low without belaboring the point, providing a tantalizing snapshot of the zeitgeist.

Jenifer P. Borum