“Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.”

Institute of Contemporary Arts

Named after the legendary magazine published through most of the 1960s by the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, “Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.” was a game attempt to trace, in the confines of the ICA’s four petite spaces (and one passageway), five decades of the interplay between poetry and what is still unfortunately often called “visual art.” What emerged was a loose and necessarily spotty history of fifty years of text in art, minus Conceptualism: Instead, the show took concrete poetry as its starting point.

The exhibition was articulated in four distinct parts. The first room was devoted to Finlay, the outstanding figure in British concrete poetry, here presented in his role as editor/publisher as well as poet/artist. Publications from the Wild Hawthorn Press, which he cofounded in 1964, were on view, with works by a number of Finlay’s colleagues including the Swiss and Brazilian originators of the movement, as well as two of his wall poems, which offered evidence of the liveliness produced through Finlay’s unremitting emphasis on conflict—so unlike the tropism toward tautology typical of the genre. The second section broadened the scope to include other types of language-based art in the ’60s and ’70s—but in which the word or even just letters or punctuation likewise become an image or a source of imagery rather than functioning mainly discursively. The works in the third room, by contrast, combined imagery and language conceived of separately (drawings Philip Guston made in collaboration with poet Clark Coolidge in 1972 as part of the artist’s “Poem-Pictures” series, or Alasdair Gray’s prints incorporating his own texts, from 1970), or are simply responses to poetry (selections from David Hockney’s Illustrations for Thirteen Poems from C. P. Cavafy, 1967). The decision to include illustration, with Hockney, made me long to see instead Patrick Caulfield’s superior graphic responses to poetry. The fourth room was an update with works by young and midcareer artists of the present, who, according to the curator, the ICA’s director of exhibitions Mark Sladen, “are now turning toward poetry and expressive language in a way that has not been seen for many years.” Among the examples of this here, Matthew Brannon’s prints and Sue Tompkins’s fragile, tentative typings were convincing enough, but I would have liked to have seen them complemented by, say, David-Baptiste Chirot’s rubbings of urban surfaces or some pages from Sean Bonney’s extraordinary book Baudelaire in English (2008), with its crisscrossing, mutually interfering lines, or a sampling of the combination of writing and drawing in Eleni Sikelianos’s Body Clock (2008). Indeed, the vast universe of contemporary “visual poetry” (again, the adjective is unfortunate) seems to circulate almost entirely below the art world’s radar. One lesson of a show inspired by Finlay should have been that art is bigger than and sometimes tangential to the art world.

As a tactic, eclipsing the lately somewhat overemphasized phenomenon of Conceptual art (evident in this show only through the corona of its outrider Vito Acconci, in the form of pages culled from Four Book, 1968) made sense insofar as it allowed vast tracts of comparatively overlooked artistic practice to come to the fore, but it obscured Conceptualism’s main lesson, which is that an art that stakes all its chips on visuality is liable to be, at best, a minor one, since art is not in essence visual but, as Leonardo asserted five hundred years ago, “una cosa mentale.”

A more tightly focused exhibition, on the other hand, might have been extracted from this one merely by bringing together just the work made by using the typewriter as a tool by Acconci, Carl Andre, Henri Chopin, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Christopher Knowles, and Tompkins: an art of touch and wit, stubbornly physical, exploring the dialectic of repetition and difference. For me the great discovery was Houédard, a British Benedictine priest whose works here are entirely nonliterary, being essentially abstractions made of dense, sometimes shimmering fields of typed marks (not necessarily letters) of different colors. Who would have thought that typing was the ideal way to make Op art?

Barry Schwabsky