The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

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JUNE 2012 Issue


On View
Dodge Gallery
April 5 – May 13, 2012
New York

It may not be widely known that the late Nobelist poet, Wislawa Szymborska, also reviewed books. Not just any books, but books she disdained. These were cataloged in the slim, double entendre titled Nonrequired Reading, a collection of hilarious short form essays. Szymborska’s technique, replicated here with apologies for unoriginality, was to riff on the subject, finally mentioning the work itself in passing conclusion.

Taylor Davis, Dodge Gallery, installation view, 2012. Photo: Carly Gaebe.

Taylor Davis’s show at Dodge Gallery features two- and three-dimensional works, most incorporating text. This approach has great promise and has been utilized by numerous artists to explore the creative possibilities and iconic characteristics of words, using written language as informational content and formal graphics: Picasso’s seminal “Still-Life with Chair-Caning” (1912), featuring the truncated word “Journal”; numerous collages by Schwitters; Stuart Davis’s “Visa” (1951), “Champion”; and many others come to mind. More recently, Jenny Holzer has produced a career’s worth of work using fortune-cookie- (update: Twitter-) length epigrams.

Szymborska-quoting Holzer is undoubtedly the most prolific contemporary practitioner of word as art, and her LED spiral, “Untitled (Selections from Truisms, Inflammatory Essays, The Living Series, The Survival Series, Under a Rock, Laments, and Child Text),” which wrapped the Guggenheim in 1989, might be the quintessential example, were it not for the power of her incised stoneworks, with their monumental and funerary associations. Maybe Holzer has writ large Marshall McLuhan’s famous theme of “Technological Determinism”; a Holzer lexicon begs publication. Well before Holzer, however, moderns were already on the typographic bandwagon: Demuth’s “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” (1928), was prototypical; Johns’s “Numbers in Color” (1958 – 9), Lichtenstein’s “Blam” (1962), Warhol’s “Brillo Soap Pads Box” (1964), and Indiana’s “LOVE” (1964) followed. In 1974, graphic artists Chermayeff & Geismar planted a three-ton, 3-D, red number 9 on the sidewalk on 57th Street.

Artists have also incorporated words with activist intent. Dadaist/Surrealist “anti-artists” Breton, Aragon, and Soupalt premiered “automatic writing” in their magazine Littérature (1919). Barbara Kruger and Glenn Ligon have embedded messages in their political art—Kruger in her “Your Body is a Battleground” (1989), and Ligon in his devastatingly effective, Johns influenced coaldust stencil series, with passages reproduced from James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” (1953).

Word-endowed art inevitably intersected poetry in the 20th century as well. The multicultural tradition of visual poetry is summarized by poet Edward Hirsch in his essay “Winged Type,” which alludes to historical pattern poems and cites the most famous example, Apollinaire’s calligrammatic “Il Pleut” (“It’s raining”) from 1918. Another is Futurist and typographic revolutionary Marinetti’s sound poem “Zang Tumb Tumb” (1914). Later, concrete poetry was deconstructively absurd. Most recently, poet/author Ursula K. Le Guin visually depicted Alaska’s receding “Mendenhall Glacier” in Finding My Elegy (2012).

The rise of semiotics brought attention to another notable version of visual language, or more precisely, visual non-language: asemic (non-meaningful) writing, in which glyphs resembling graphemes suggest they might have meaning when they don’t. Both Cy Twombly and José Parlá have incorporated non-meaningful writing-like marks in their artworks, one-upping the relatively “real” literary Surrealists, including Hugo Ball, whose nonsensical if “readable” “Karawane” (1916) was proto-asemic. The imaginative pre-literate childhood claim to real writing is only one more fascinating facet of this phenomenon, as is asemia, the more serious neurological condition of being unable to understand symbols, and the related dyslexia.

Asemic text is not the same as the untranslated Minoan Linear A, which surely did have meaning to its contemporaries, nor is it the same as non-Latin characters and ideograms, which to uneducated eyes are purely graphical and “foreign.” Thus Arabic and Ge’ez (Ethiopic) scripts, and Chinese, Mayan, and other writing systems might be seen as unrevealed abstractions (although language translation apps like Word Lens will change this)—even mysterious, when in fact they might express the intellectual equivalent of Facebook updates (the hieroglyphs on the obelisk in Central Park obsequiously pipe, “The Youth / Beautiful for Love”).

John’s Gospel says that the Word “was” in the beginning. Since then it’s become a key, technologically deterministic factor in critical and creative communications. Although words may fail to adequately convey the nuances of visual art, music, and dance, each relies on its own argot and notation. For visual artists, text represents the functional equivalent of physical media—such as paint, stone, and graphite—thus expanding artists’ palettes immeasurably. It’s no surprise that finding impressive examples of text in art is a lot like shooting fish in a barrel. The potential permutations seem to be endless, limited only by imagination.

Some people have imagination and a way with words. Some don’t or are abstruse. We thus return to Taylor Davis, whose watercolor quotation of novelist Herman Wouk about “honorable men” and quaint Scottish table grace that “Some hae meat” in brightly colored fonts are found on paper and wrapped around a “Wacky Wood” cylinder, respectively. The show’s documentation includes a laudatory poem cycle by Brooklyn Rail poetry editor Anselm Berrigan in which the reader will find a more generous and informed review.

15 Rivington St. // New York, NY


David St.-Lascaux

DAVID ST.-LASCAUX is a poet and author of L'Oubliette, or Plan A, and e*sequiturs, multimedia e-books featuring a wide variety of experimental and other music. Website:


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2012

All Issues