In Numbers

Last month poet, critic and teacher David Herd led one of our gallery 'touring talks' through our current exhibition, 'In Number'.

David Herd

8 Mar 2012

Last month poet, critic and teacher David Herd led one of our gallery 'touring talks' through our current exhibition In Numbers.He's expanded on his favourite publications for us below and written about the key moments in the history of artist publications.

David Herd on In Numbers

1. Semina - Robert Duncan makes a Grand Collage

The American poet Robert Duncan had a phrase to describe his compositional practice. The phrase was: grand collage. Duncan arrived at this image of composition at Black Mountain College. At Black Mountain Duncan worked with Charles Olson and his poetics evolved in relation to Olson’s idea of the open field. Duncan’s primary context, however, was not Black Mountain but the West Coast, and, in particular, San Francisco. In 1954 Duncan and his partner, the artist Jess, met the assemblage artists Wallace Berman. Berman’s magazine Semina was first published in 1955.

The difference between Olson’s ‘open field’ and Duncan’s ‘grand collage’ is significant to Semina and all it gave rise to. Olson emerged from the Second World War committed to the idea that, after the atrocities of that war, performed (as he saw it) in the name of abstraction, the fundamental task of the artist was to recover a sense of the particular. Art had to arrive at a language through which things (and therefore people) might be acknowledged in their singularity. The point of the open field poem was to allow things as such to stand in relation to one another without their differences being too quickly resolved into meaning. One effect of this was that the poem became a visual object. Olson’s poems are not concrete, but they do understand the page as a space: a space in which syllables, words, things, and speakers stand in productive tension.

Duncan’s ‘grand collage’ is also a way of holding disparate things together, except that his emphasis was not on singularities (the defining differences between things) but on the continuities which bodies of literature and thought disclose. Both writers worked by assemblage. The difference lay in the manner in which the assembled elements related to one another. In Olson, one is always running up against a juxtaposition; between an account of a dream, say, and a document from an archive. In Duncan one works through an affinity or along a thread. As he writes he bends the language in the direction of its collective wisdom, while at all times trying to hold all meanings in play. Duncan says this, in ‘Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar’:

It is toward the old poets
we go, to their faltering,
their unaltering, wrongness that has style,
their variable truth,
the old faces, words shed like tears from
a plenitude of powers time stores.

Issues 1-9 of Semina were a grand collage, ‘“a museum without walls”’ as Stephen Fredman notes. What they created, as Fredman says (in his ground-breaking book Contextual Pratice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art) is a context, a set of materials through which people assembled meanings. Taken out of context, lifted from the grand collage, such materials were misunderstood. The first issue of Semina was seized by the police and Berman charged with indecency for one the erotic images presented in this exhibition.

2. Boots - Wallace Berman writes a Letter

Wallace Berman sent Semina to a circle of friends and acquaintances as a series of single pages in the form of letters. The letter mattered as form in the years after the war. It does not overstate the point to say that the US postal service was the medium by which the American avant-garde cohered. To take an example: in 1950 Frank O’Hara, who was living in Ann Arbor Michigan, sent John Ashbery his beautiful early poem ‘Memorial Day 1950’. O’Hara being O’Hara – confident that another beautiful poem was coming along – he either didn’t make a copy or the copy he made was lost. ‘Memorial Day 1950’ only survived to appear (posthumously) in O’Hara’s Collected Poems because Ashbery kept the letter in which his friend’s poem was embedded.

O’Hara was not the first unknown American poet to embed poems in letters. Emily Dickinson, who shied from publication, incorporated her poems in letters to family and friends. While it is true, therefore, that Dickinson barely published during her life time, it is not true that she had no audience. She constructed her audience through the medium of correspondence, addressing her poems to those with whom she was already intimate.

Intimacy is key. To take another example: Olson’s epic series The Maximus Poems, started as a series of letter from Olson (in the persona of Maximus) to the Massachusetts fishing town of Gloucester. The address matters. Olson’s poems stack up to a grand project, concerned with the multiple forces that constitute the historical evolution of a place. He can carry this subject matter off because he writes poems as letters. To read them is to overhear a conversation between a poet and those with whom – his fellow citizens – he seeks an intimacy. To affirm the reality of this desire, some of Olson’s poems took the form of actual letters that he actually sent to the local newspaper, The Gloucester Times. There they were printed in the correspondence columns, only later to appear in Olson’s epic series.

The critic Paul Goodman said this about avant-garde practice in the 1950s:

the persons are estranged from themselves, from one another and the artist; he takes the initiative precisely by putting his arms around them and drawing them together …  Such personal writing … can only occur in a small community of acquaintances, where everybody knows everybody and understands what is at stake; in our estranged society, it is objected, just such intimate community is lacking. The point is that the advance-guard action helps create such community… The community comes to exist by having its culture: the artist makes this culture.

This is what Wallace Berman did. It is what Eleanor Antin did also, when she sent her images of Boots as a series of postcards to friends. To get the boots was to get the joke; to get the joke was to be an intimate. What we are invited to notice here is that Harold Rosenberg, leading art critic of this moment, theorist of the avant-garde, was one of the recipients.

3. Nutsy’s - Tom Sachs drafts a work in progress

The serial production is a work in progress; what the poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls a ‘draft’. The draft, the act of drafting, is a defining procedure in American art. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s serial account of whaling and obsession, Melville writes: "God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draft--nay, but the draft of a draft. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience." For Olson, who was a pioneering Melville scholar,  the idea of the draft became a critical element of art after the war. Confronted by the totalities of various political systems, and in reaction to various Modernist works of art which sought completion, Olson proposed ‘provisionality’ as a principle of postwar aesthetics. As he writes at the end of ‘Maximus to Himself’:

It is undone business
I speak of, this morning,
with the sea
stretching out
from my feet

The series – whether in the form of the long poem, the serial composition in music, the journal as art product or the artist’s letter – is a recurring feature in postwar art. It takes the work of art to be an ongoing activity, a repeated series of incomplete attempts.

Tom Sachs’s publication Nutsy’s takes the provisionality of the draft into the heart of the machine. The magazine itself is the record of the construction of his installation ‘Allied Cultural Prosthetics’. Like much of Sachs’s work, Allied Cultural Prosthetics presents itself as an industrial process the result of which is a finished product. Sachs’ works present themselves as commodities; complete things ready for use. ‘Nutsy’s McDonalds’, his recreation of a corporate outlet, is a case in point, where the real point is that the final product is variously incomplete. In part Sach’s products are rendered incomplete because in his constructive practice he is a collagist, his finished pieces being the product of assembled fragments. They are rendered incomplete also by the fact that one element of Sachs’ body of work is the ‘blueprint’, the design for an invention yet to be made. For Sachs the blueprint figures as the sketch of what would eventually be, in his hands, a final version characterized by incompleteness: the draft of draft, as Melville puts it.

What Nutsy’s amounts to is undone business, a phrase which we have to hear both ways. In the straightforward sense what Olson points to is incompletion itself. What he points to also, however, through the gesture of incompletion, is the idea of business itself being undone. To emphasize process, as Sachs and Olson and DuPlessis do, is to resist the image of completeness that the corporate world presents us with; is to remind us that commodities are made and being made. Continually to draft, as serial art does, is to emphasize labour. It is to proceed according to a different rhythm.

4. Kiroku - Daido Moriyama immediately reflects

At the heart of serial production there is a question of temporality. Daido Moriyama says that he created Kiroku magazine so that he could ‘immediately reflect any idea whenever I have one and am eager to bring it to life, without troubling anyone else’. This immediacy that Moriyama talks of is partly a question of agency. Like the poem in the letter, or the art on the postcard, Moriyama wants to issue his photographs intimately, without, as he says, ‘troubling anyone else’. The kind of person he doesn’t want to trouble is the agent, or the editor or the publisher. His work is immediate in the sense that it is handmade. It doesn’t go through anybody else’s gate. But temporality is also an issue.

Some of the serial works shown here – Artforum is an example – have been published at regular intervals over a period of years. Others lived briefly: 0-9 is an example. Others – Semina for instance – had a long life span, but appeared infrequently and at irregular intervals. Like Kiroku, Semina was published when it was ready, when Berman was eager to bring it to life. Such temporal irregularity is a question of rhythm.

In The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception the second edition of which was published in 1947, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer have this to say about rhythm:

‘Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part. Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system.’

Whether or not we want the term ‘iron system’, it is worth noticing Adorno and Horkheimer’s insistence on rhythm. What they see in films, radio and magazines is a rhythm characterized by repetition, and what they see in that repetition is an accommodation on the part of the culture industry to the reality of the working day. The function of the culture industry, in other words, is continually to adjust people to the repetitive quality of economic existence. What the culture industry can’t bear, therefore, above all, is the counter- or a-rhythmic production.

Frank O’Hara has something to say about this, in his poem ‘Radio’: ‘Why do you play such dreary music/ on Saturday afternoons, when tired/ mortally tired I long for a little/ reminder of immortal energy?/ All/ week long while I trudge fatiguingly/ from desk to desk in the museum/ you spill your miracles of Grieg/ and Honegger on shut-ins.’ O’Hara’s poem is a complaint against the programmers. He has worked all week at the Museum of Modern Art, and now, at the weekend, he wants a different kind of rhythm. Instead of the dreariness he wants the radio to ‘spill miracles’, or at least the counter-rhythms of Grieg and Honegger.

Artist’s serial productions are a counter-rhythm. Typically their appearance is not routine but is according to the intervals of desire and possibility. To receive a copy of Kiroku  or Semina is to experience an event. To read such magazines, likewise, is to register disruption, the assembled materials refusing to settle to a single pattern. We might take  Moriyama’s image of the car crash to be exemplary. There has been a spill and the consequence is damage. Recognizable elements. Wrong order.

5. 0-9 - Borrowing stuff with Vito Acconi and Bernadette Mayer

In 0-9 Vito Acconi and Bernadette Mayer borrowed texts. Alongside the work of, for instance, Ted Berrigan, Clark Coolidge, Robert Smithson and Jerome Rothenberg, they published poems by Walter Ralegh and prose by Gustave Flaubert. As a gesture this recalled the editorial practice of an earlier New York School publication, Locus Solus, the collaborations issue of which featured, alongside work by O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch, collaborations between Shakespeare and Fletcher, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Breton and Eluard. The principle at work is association.

How one associates is crucial; it is the issue these publications collectively perform. Acconi and Mayer cross periods in order to establish a context for the work they present, and in so doing generate new alignments. The assemblages that constituted (and featured) Semina, effected relations that called constantly for readjustment. They are subtle, dynamic, continuous performances. What they seek to animate are the nerve endings of contemporary culture. The juxtapositions by which they proceed thus become a lesson in intimacy, an instruction in the association of unlike elements.

In ‘Projective Verse’ Olson put it this way:

now a poem has, by speech, solidity, everything in  it can be treated as solids, objects, things; and, though insisting upon the absolute difference of the reality of verse from that other dispersed and distributed thing, yet each of these elements of a poem can be allowed to have the play of their separate energies and can be allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep as those other objects do, their proper confusions.

The solidities of an Olson poem were to be found in the way he arranged his materials. In his poem ‘The Kingfishers’, for instance, material borrowed from the Encyclopedia Britannica stand against material borrowed from the history of the colonization of Mexico. Such materials come to the reader unmediated by the poem. What the reader is dealing with is sets of solidities.

Olson’s term ‘solidity’ is a good one. Such solidities are the fabric of the publications on show here. Zerrokusu is visibly produced by a Xerox machine. It makes manifest, rather than obscures, that material quality, a manifestation that in turn bears on the bodies the Xeroxed pages present. We are dealing with a form of representation in which the solidity of things is put before us. David Spoerri’s Material is another example, except here it is the typewriter that achieves the solidity, setting the poetry down as if it were a thing. It is worth hearing also, though, what Olson says about the relations between such solidities; that they have ‘the play of their separate energies and can be allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep as those other objects do, their proper confusions’. To set things down in their proper confusions is, one might think, the ambition of all collagistic practice. In visual terms, it is to establish a counter-rhythm.

6. Vile – This exhibition contains images that some people might find offensive

This exhibition contains images that some people might find offensive; for example a man hanging with his penis erect. Like the image from Semina that was seized by police, the image of Jimmy De Sana’s staged suicide might prompt the charge of indecency. It  wouldn’t work as a legal defence to suggest such an image presents the body in its proper confusions: death and desire in simultaneous play. The assumption would be that such an image was intended to shock. Consider instead, though, the word ‘provocation’.

On the face of it, the word provocation works like the word shock. To provoke, is to stimulate (a reaction or emotion, typically a strong or unwelcome one) in someone; is  deliberately to annoy or anger. To probe the etymology is, however, to find a different resonance, the word provoke coming from the Latin ‘pro-‘, forth, and ‘vocare’, to call. As distinct from that which shocks, then, that which provokes is a calling forth. It is in this way, I think, that we should consider the physicality that presents itself here.

The ‘call’ sounds deep in the art and aesthetics of this period. When they were writing about the radio in their essay on the culture industry, Adorno and Horkheimer set it in opposition to the phone. The difference was – although O’Hara’s poem suggested otherwise – that in the case of the radio you couldn’t answer back. As they put it:

The step from telephone to radio has clearly distinguished roles. The former liberally permitted the participant to play the role of subject. The latter democratically makes everyone equally into listeners, in order to expose them in authoritarian fashion to the same programs put out by different stations…

It is to the call, according to this way of thinking, that one has to look for a counter to the broadcast, the call being precisely an intimate communication. It was for this reason that O’Hara, whose poetry first circulated in letters, came to think of the poem as a telephone call. As he said, in his mock-manifesto ‘Personism’: ‘I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born’.

It is in this light, in light of the intimate call, that we should understand the physicality of the artist’s serial work: of Tripping Corpse, of Vile, of Just Another Asshole, of Salivation Army and APB.  The function of the erotic image in Semina was not to shock: within the circle of its readership its function was to explore the language of pleasure, to re-call the body in its possibilities and forms. This was urgent work, as poets and artists saw it, recent history having clearly established that the body needed to be presented anew. The image of Jimmy De Sana hanging, on the front of Vile, was, of course, very likely to shock, but what really it meant to do was provoke: to call forth a recognition of a fragile form. Or to approach this fragility another way: when you look at many of the publications in this exhibition, really what you want to do is hold them.

7. FileFile eventually shut down due to lack of funds

Really what you want to do is hold them. Looking at these exhibits is all very well, but these are objects you want to have in your hands. You want to turn the pages, feel how they are stuck together, run your fingers over the indentations of the print. You want to determine the paper quality, establish the heft. You want have a full, or fuller aesthetic experience. Really you want to hold them and the reason you want to hold them is that it matters how they have been made. File, eventually, shut down due to lack of funds.

The Toronto-based art collective General Idea started work in 1967. They began publishing File in 1972. Two years later they founded Art Metropole in 1974, a not-for-profit space dedicated to contemporary art in multiple formats: artists’ books, multiples, video, audio and electronic media. The General Idea archive is now held at the National Gallery of Canada.

In 1963 the American poet George Oppen began a series of books that eventually became known as his Daybooks. Oppen's Daybooks constituted his assembled notes, which he would keep on whatever scrap of paper came to hand. Frequently, then, a note - which might be a fragment of a poem, a philosophical remark, a comment on another poet or an elaboration of an image – would be scribbled at the side of shopping list, or on the back of an envelope. These were dirty notes, down among the language and when the papers had accumulated to a certain heft, Oppen would bind them together likewise with whatever came to hand. Some of the Daybooks are strung together with pipecleaners, others are hammered together with nails and lengths of wood. They were not built for public consumption, but are now accessible at the University of San Diego archive. There you can hold them. What they amount to, in their singularity, is something we might term the Poet's Artist's Book.

Oppen had something to say about how we hold things. At the beginning of his poem ‘The Gesture’ he posed this question: 'How does one hold an apple/ Who likes apples'. It is a question about value. How does one hold that which one values? To dramatize which question, Oppen asks a second question: How does the salesman/ Hold a bauble he intends/ To sell?' For Oppen the issue is clear: holding is a question of valuing. How, he is wondering, do we hold that which we like.

An artist's book, of the kind General Idea were committed to, like an artist's serial publication, is an object which proposes to be held. It proposes to be held because of the labour that has gone into it. These are not-for-profit ventures whose production articulates a set of counter-values. One wants to hold Semina, then, or Kiroku, or Material, or Zerrokusu, to register their assembly. We are not in Waterstones now; you don't get 3 for 2. What you get here instead are singularities, where the singularity lies in the labour. Good journals close down, eventually, because they are too costly. The editor, or editors, or circle of contributors have expended themselves.

8. Diagonal Zero - Edgardo Vigo does the math

The Argentinian artist Edgardo Vigo died, aged 70, in 1997. In his obituary for Vigo, Clemente Padin wrote: ‘Vigo was an engraver, experimental poet, conceptualist, constructor of "objects-without-use" and "oddmachines," … He also cultivated forms that until now have been considered sub-artistic or simply not thought of as "art" in the vernacular sense of the term, such as mail art and experimental poetry.’ In 1961 Vigo produced Diagonal Zero. In 1970 he published a further magazine Hexagono. Both publications featured what Vigo termed the new poetry, which is to say visual-poetry, which is to say both magazines staged an encounter between two kinds of symbol system. In Vigo, as by implication in most – perhaps all – of the work on show here, there is a third kind of symbol system at play. In 1967, while living in France, Vigo published his Poemas Matemáticos Barrocos (Mathematical Baroque Poems) and the following year his Poemas Matemáticos Incomestibles (Mathematical Inedible Poems). The third kind of symbol system is number.

The question of the relation between word and image and number, between art and number, is intriguing. Which is to say: it isn’t just that the art works on show here run into series, but that, as the show says, they work In Numbers; that they raise the question of the relation between number and art. There are ways of thinking that resist that relation. The national curriculum resists it. So do certain advanced ideas of the academy. In Martin Heidegger’s mid-century argument against technology, he makes an implied distinction between poetry and number. What that distinction amounts to is an opposition in thought between a qualitative and a quantitative approach to the world. Art, in its intimacies, seems – according to such an account – to be a qualitative medium. Always, however, there is a question of number.

Historically, number first enters art as rhythm, where the rhythm is a measure of time or space, and where it is the principle of both meter and form. In the Twentieth Century, number re-enters art as procedure. In the experiments of John Cage, or the formal games of the OULIPO writers, mathematical procedures inform the shape of a composition. There is a deeper pact, however, to be secured between art and number. The contemporary philosopher, Alain Badiou, takes the view that Heidegger’s error was to over-estimate the value of poetry and to under-estimate the value of number. Badiou’s view is that poetry does not, as Heidegger suggests, have a privileged access to the truth of things. As Badiou argues, at length, ‘being is essentially multiple’, so much so – so essentially so – that as he asserts, ‘the thinking of being … is accomplished in mathematics’.

Badiou is right to notice this. What he doesn’t notice, however, is that the relation between word, image and number is one of the themes of advanced artistic work. A prime example is George Oppen’s serial poem, Of Being Numerous. I can’t read that poem here. I can cite a fragment from Oppen’s Daybooks: ‘“a nightmare of bric-a-brac”, Oppen remarks. To which he adds the comment: ‘“1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 - - - - - - - 2 4 6 8 10 12 14 16’’. Artists’ multiples, like Oppen’s series, are a serious engagement with the fact of number.

9. Philip Aarons presents

For a history of the kind In Numbers gives us, there has to be a collector. There has to be a person who makes it his or her interest to hold the disparate energies together. Such an act of collecting cuts deep into the themes of the show.

To start with, what we have here is a permanent record of what in various respects were ephemeral productions. In most cases – Culture Hero and Diagonal Zero are examples – the work in question held the artist’s interest only for a brief period. Even in the context of the artists’ careers, these were ways of working to be passed through.

The act of collecting, or at least the displaying of a collection, cuts into the question of audience also: serials that passed secretly through a limited number of hands become, here, the object of public contemplation. Stephen Fredman, in his discussion of Semina, refers to Emerson’s essay ‘Circles’. Berman’s art, he suggests, was an art of context, a means of establishing a new circle. With a retrospective exhibition of this sort, in a prestige gallery, the circle is significantly widened.

The most pressing intersection, however, arising from the exhibition of a collection such as this, has to do with the question of belonging. The opening of Mariane Moore’s poem ‘When I Buy Pictures’ sets the issue up nicely. ‘When I buy pictures,’ as Moore observes,

or what is closer to the truth, when I look at
that of which I may regard myself as the
imaginary possessor, I fix upon that which would
give me pleasure in my average moments:

Moore’s poem is a clear articulation of what it means to be a poet in a gallery. What she contemplates is what it means to own art. What makes this question important for her is the material difference between the poem and the painting. Where a painting is a one off, a thing not easily reproduced, a poem, as verbal artifact, can be reiterated almost at will. Moore’s poem is divided on the implications of this difference. On the one hand, writing as an impecunious poet, there is a note of regret in her observation that she can only imagine possessing a picture. On the other hand, as a person who works with found materials (which is to say words) and who works with them in such way as to emphasize that finding (which is to say collage), she enjoys the fact that her kind of work isn’t circumscribed by ownership.

This show, In Numbers, is a making public of art works that understood themselves as assemblages of pre-existing materials. The publications on show either circulated for free or changed hands for very little money. They have the production values of advanced aesthetic practice without the cost such practice has come to imply. In many cases they were gifts, surprises sent through the mail. Philip Aarons, Shelley Ann Aarons, Andrew Roth and Matt Williams are to be thanked for making them available again.

Dr. David Herd is a poet, critic and teacher. His essays and reviews have been widely published in journals, magazines and newspapers, and include forthcoming collections of poetry All Just (Carcanet, 2012) and Outwith (Bookthug, 2012). He is Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Kent, where he directs the Centre for Modern Poetry.

In Numbers:Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955 continues until 25 March 2012.

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