New York

Carl Andre

Can visual art and poetry be one and the same? Displaying 600 pages of writing in vitrines against the gallery walls as though they were drawings certainly frustrates some of the usual desiderata for reading poetry. Carl Andre’s exhibition “Words” consisted of some 600 sheets typed by the artist between 1958 and 1972. The poet’s hand is usually nothing to his poem, and no typeface used to reproduce it is likely to affect the poem’s existence. Though the display of Andre’s poems—as holographic sheets—makes them difficult to read, it does put us in the frame of mind to see them. That they were produced on a manual typewriter doesn’t hurt either; a medium’s obsolescence cues us to see it esthetically. The physical weight of the type bar’s imprint, the density of the ink, and of course the distinction between black and red ribbons—such factors begin to take on quasi-sculptural or pictorial weight when the poems are presented in this manner.

But all these qualities would not count for much if the typed texts were not apt to receive or “absorb” them. At its most interesting, Andre’s poetry eschews standard phrasing and syntax to subject language to a “systematic derangement,” whether by turning words into abstract visual patterns through the repetition of component letters, using the alphabetical order of initial letters as an ordering structure, or using the length of words in the same way, as in preface to my work itself, 1963, which proceeds from two-letter words like “in” and “is” through three-letter words, four-letters words, and on to “elastic, stacked, identical, interchangeable.”

But the effect of Andre’s repetitions and systems is not abstract or merely methodical. Since the entire effort of his poetry involves the disengagement of words from syntax, their isolation and analysis as “palpable tactile qualities” in their own right, the presentation’s emphasis on the poems’ physical realization merely elicits a quality already inherent in them as texts. The poems irresistibly conjure character, narrative, and setting (many sequences are categorized as “novels” or “operas”), though these remain uncannily distant and unknowable. Their repetitions are more mythic or fatalistic than formal or musical. Particularly as it emerges from this ambient presentation, Andre’s poetry evokes a stark, elemental landscape in which figures and objects (that is, words) stand out in the intense relief of an immobile noon or dissolve in its unforgiving glare. While it may be tempting to see his poetry in relation to a new generation of artists who work with language but are not “conceptual”—artists as different as Kenneth Goldsmith and Sean Landers—its approximation to the condition of visual art is actually contingent on a project that is irreducibly poetic, though (like the contemporaneous work of John Cage or Jackson MacLow) transgressive of the conventions of poetry.

Barry Schwabsky