The Mirror Displaced: Artists Writing on Art
Not all artists consider themselves writers too, let alone critics. The poet Alice Notley, in reviewing a new collection of poems by Edwin Denby in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project newsletter of 1976, prefaced her review (not quite a disclaimer nor a benediction) by stating, “Poets can’t write criticism because what they understand about a poet they adore is what they themselves do or would, it is visceral—death to analyze? critics can’t write criticism because they never are knowing.” Notley succinctly expresses the passion of a reader/writer as not disinterested, opposite the un-knowing objectivity of the critic. It’s this lack of disinterest that makes her an accurate reader of Denby. As a passionate reader/writer she has skin in the game, which allows for an intimate play of critical precision.
Most visual artists I know are quite well read, and many poets and writers I’m familiar with see more museum and gallery shows than some of my painter friends. The abidance of such clichéd distinctions as the inarticulate painter and the writer solely caught up in language has never jived with what I’ve experienced in reality, which is usually a vast commingling of knowledge beyond such romantically-limited job descriptions. As a child I constantly made drawings but also read promiscuously. My primary aha! moment in reading, after voraciously consuming a polyglot mix of non-fiction (mostly picture) books of world history and the natural sciences, happened with Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris—my first experience with the novel form. I was about 9 or 10 when I picked it up, mostly, I’m sure, because of its promise as a horror story, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself “hearing” the voice of the writer while I read. I may have tried to relate this epiphany to my mother (whose book it was I had borrowed) at the time, I don’t recall that as clearly, but what I’ll never forget is the incantatory power of that meta-cognitive voice: it’s presence, its “sound,” the aural dimensions of the words. I didn’t really fall in love with the novel form at the time, (I was otherwise oddly pragmatic in my childhood reading—I loved exploring the dictionary, for example), but what it implied: the figurative power of words to manifest as literal phenomena. I was what is called today a “visual learner.” I reveled in the power of images as I found myself translating my youthful experiences into daily drawings. Pushing around stuff on a page was also how I experienced reading. I was an intentionally slow reader, almost sculpting my way through passages, re-reading in order to grasp them as real. I could speed scan when I had to, I just mainly preferred not to. Perhaps the deliberate, physical character of my reading habit set me up for writing about the phenomenal object of art, both my own and others.
The book that broke things open for me with regards to the interconnectedness of the artist’s roles as both “maker” and “speaker” was The Writings of Robert Smithson, first published in 1979, when I was still an undergraduate art major. By that time, I had been made aware of the writings by such critics as the “three mountains” of post-war American criticism, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Leo Steinberg as well as younger writers, cultural theorists, critics, and art historians such as Susan Sontag, Lucy Lippard, Gregory Battcock, and Linda Nochlin, to name just a few. Many more literary and critical influences, both older and newer, would rush in later. Smithson, however, stood out early among this crowd as both artist and writer. And surprisingly (refreshingly) he wrote on his own work in the same voice that he wrote on the work of his peers. I came to understand Minimalism and Post Minimalism much more clearly through his writings than the contemporaneous writings of Robert Morris or Donald Judd.
It took me a while to become attuned to Smithson’s voice, as it was witty beyond my jejune radar for irony and seemingly, intentionally abstruse. But something about its peculiar thrownness kept me re-reading. I came to understand his intent to undermine literary pretense and expectations in critical writing through a metaphorical physicalization of language. One of my favorite drawings of his is Heap of Language (1966), a very funny yet pointed critique of the place where language becomes just another pile of dirt. Whether that dirt is fertile compost for the imagination or just a barren accumulation of rhetoric is a question the artist keeps playfully open. Geology for Smithson was, like the Anglican catechism for T.S. Elliot, an adopted proprietary lever with which to pry open “improper” meaning, or at least poetic/artistic meaning yet-to-be-determined. Their shared radicalism? That the immutability of the primary phenomenological “site” or the ecclesiastical “body” could both be just as easily displaced by language (as Hugo’s subject, his cathedral would be metaphorically replaced by his novel). This is the figurative subtext of Smithson’s Non-Sites and Elliot’s The Wasteland alike. Yet the important takeaway from Smithson was that a temperate “climate of sight” needed to be maintained via a taut dialectical play between word and thing, image and support. Neither the figurative nor the literal should take precedence over their suspension in a clarifying solution of the artist’s physicalized perception. Wow. What freedom from the “cultural confinement” that Smithson would also write so brilliantly about. And my personal understanding of this immense license to meander across freed topologies of otherwise gate-kept disciplines now seems clearly pre-determined by the glacial grind of my reading. Maybe visual learners have the potential to be very creative writers precisely because of their innate tendency to sculpt new figurative meaning from their rearrangement of the literal expectations of language. That was Gertrude Stein’s main English lesson after all: her Cubism.
My own work has often derived from complexes of conceptual thinking that I come to prove by their ultimate dismantlement. Just as likely is the fact that I have “no idea” what I’m doing while “making” and then I realize the work’s potential complexities later. I’ve come to accept that both ways of working are valid: the way of logical fallacy and the way of improbable reason. Both approaches might seem deeply skeptical, but what they really represent are ways to get out of my own face: the mirror displaced. Seeing any new object into being demands a certain critical largesse, as the best children are generously raised, not particularly owned. A similar interested distance, one that artists come to know intimately in “raising” their own work, can position them as extremely close interpreters of the works of others. In the words of Alice Notley: “it is visceral.”
For this month’s Critics Page, I’ve invited a group of my fellow artist/writers from the eclectic band of the Rail’s Artseen cadre to present accounts of how they got to that place where their inner critic resolved to make peace with their outer artist, and how their apperception of the phenomenal object of art helped to convene the two there.