Philadelphia

View of “Christopher Knowles,” 2015. From left: A Red Clock for Bob Dole, 2009; Untitled, 2012; A Blue Clock for Bill Clinton, 2009.

View of “Christopher Knowles,” 2015. From left: A Red Clock for Bob Dole, 2009; Untitled, 2012; A Blue Clock for Bill Clinton, 2009.

Christopher Knowles

Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania

View of “Christopher Knowles,” 2015. From left: A Red Clock for Bob Dole, 2009; Untitled, 2012; A Blue Clock for Bill Clinton, 2009.

With works dictated by clear binary divisions and rules followed to the letter, “Christopher Knowles: In a Word” demonstrated the steady, straightforward logic of an assured practitioner. Although Knowles is an exemplary artist’s artist—having developed something of a cult following within the art world—ICA’s expansive midcareer show was his first of this scale. The survey, which predominantly featured text-based drawings and paintings (with the notable exceptions of a few representational paintings and a handful of sculptures), fleshed out a lexicon constructed around a singular preoccupation with time. Opening with the typewriter poems of Knowles’s 1970s adolescence (when the autistic youth was “discovered” by Robert Wilson, who invited Knowles to perform with his Byrd Hoffman theatrical group and contribute a significant chunk of the script for Wilson’s 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach), this open book of an exhibition culminated with a restaging of Knowles and Noah Khoshbin’s 2012 performance piece The Sundance Kid Is Beautiful this past November.

In The Watch Movie, Richard Rutkowski’s 1989 filmic reenaction of Knowles’s untitled poem installed at the entrance to the ICA’s main first-floor gallery, the artist’s voice can be heard reciting a description of a street-corner fence attempting to (re)sell his wares. “Hey, buddy, would you like to buy a watch?” On screen, an actor pantomimes to Knowles’s narration, again and again to a disparate cast of would-be buyers. No one wants to buy a watch; not once during the entire day of hawking described during the six-minute-long film does a passerby bite. While this kind of repetition is a well established strategy of contemporaneous video art (think of William Wegman’s exercises in cheeky deadpan, for example), Knowles’s repetitive structure conveys an indexical processing of the passing of time, a meditation on the correlation between the watch as an object that physically marks duration and the word watch that spans the length of the sound track—a series of moments from the protagonist’s day, ticked off one by one in Knowles’s steady monotone.

Knowles’s use of time-marking appliances (alarm clocks, wall clocks, and digital watches, as well as calendar motifs, reappear throughout his oeuvre) is frequently documentary in its effect—the clock repurposed as a barometer of culturally and personally resonant occurrences. Here, A Red Clock for Bob Dole and A Blue Clock for Bill Clinton, both 2009, feature text detailing the 1996 campaigns of the presidential candidates for whom they are respectively named, scrawled between the four hands of the compass-like clock faces. (The works’ minimal primary palettes and white grounds also demonstrate the influence of political signage within Knowles’s practice.) These were installed to flank Untitled, 2012, which bears the words BARACK OBAMA ON TOP OF MITT ROMNEY, arranged exactly the way the phrase suggests.

The timepiece motifs of these works echo that of Untitled, 1986 (not on view), arguably the most iconic of Knowles’s typings, his virtuosic compositions that recall, and often formally surpass, Carl Andre’s celebrated typewritten graphic poems, but whose content is considerably less oblique. Knowles’s drawing renders the contours of the artist’s Casio stopwatch as a grid of meticulously typed red and black lowercase c’s, save for its face, which shows the date “12–27 FRI” above the hour “4:30,” presumably the moment at which the work was started or finished.

Knowles is equally methodical in the construction of his more illustrative paintings, which depart from time as their explicit subject. Of these, the artist’s Parzifal works are exemplary, and were a highlight of the show. Knowles maps the works’ compositions in his head first before filling in quadrants completely, one color at a time, with single layers of acrylic, oil markers, and felt pens. Parzival #12, 1989, depicts a pair of sleepers with limbs entwined, lying before a row of white-lab-coated institutional figures who observe them (and the viewer) from the composition’s background. The feet of one of these individuals—a nurse?—dip into the teal horizontal plane on which the sleepers lie, bridging the predominately blue foreground and the industrial cement-gray floor on which the other recessed figures stand. The resulting image is both disconcerting and tender, as though the lovers are oblivious to the close observation of their embrace, or have decided to disregard the intrusion.

“Does he ever speak normally?” another visitor asked me with apparent sincerity as we listened to Knowles’s recitations, leaving me at a momentary loss for words. The dubious taste of discussing expressive normality within the confines of someone’s retrospective notwithstanding, questions of authorship haunt this work and color our reading of it. Yet the exhibition provided an eloquent rejoinder, simultaneously establishing graphic order within an irregular and often chaotic language and time-stamping a compelling individual daily experience.

Cat Kron