Review

Liz Kotz

Words to be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art
The MIT Press, 2007
Jacquelynn Baas

Liz Kotz, Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art, The MIT Press, 2007

Sometime before his death in 1908, the philosopher, curator, and historian of Asian art Ernest Fenollosa wrote an essay entitled “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” The manuscript was given by Fenollosa’s widow to Ezra Pound, who finished, edited, and in 1920 published it.1 In his introduction, Pound described “The Chinese Written Character” as “a study of the fundamentals of all aesthetics.” Fenollosa pointed out that “the great number of these ideographic roots carry in them a verbal idea of action.”2 He goes on to observe:

A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points, of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snapshots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things, and so the Chinese conception tends to represent them.3

As for sentences:

Acts are successive, even continuous;… And though we may string ever so many clauses into a single compound sentence, motion leaks everywhere, like electricity from an exposed wire. All processes in nature are interrelated; and thus there could be no complete sentence save one which it would take all time to pronounce.4

In 1936, Pound published The Chinese Written Character with City Lights Books as the first of a projected “Ideogramic Series.” (The series seems not to have been continued.) The perfect contender for Fenollosa’s “complete sentence” just might be the closing section of Liz Kotz’s remarkably wide-ranging Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (The MIT Press, 2007) on Andy Warhol’s a: a novel. The novel consists of twenty-four hours of nonstop conversation and background noise taped, transcribed, and published verbatim by grove Press in 1968. Its corresponding bookend in Kotz’s chapter one (“Proliferating Scores and the Autonomy of Writing”) is John Cage’s undated text score for the 1952 composition 4’33”, an excerpt from which reads: “The title of this work is the total length in minutes and seconds of its performance.” Kotz observes that 4’33” marks the moment when “the Cagean score fully breaks from an older representational model to assume a new ‘operational’ function, in which the notation no longer describes what we hear but what we do.”5 By 1960, in the work of, among others, Cage students George Brecht and La Monte Young, the event score had become, to use Fenollosa’s words, a verbal idea of action.

Kotz opens her account by observing the increasing ubiquity of language, both written and spoken, in the art of the past forty-plus years. She seeks “to recover the strangeness of this practice by going back to its beginnings,” which she locates in art made in and around New York during the 1960s. The book is organized into three sections, each focusing on a different disciplinary aspect of the relationship between language and art. The first two chapters deal with works related to music, the next two with poetry, and the last two with visual art. In moving through these different modes of artistic expression Kotz addresses the shifting function of words in musical notation (Cage), event scores and performance instructions (Fluxus, including La Monte Young and a wonderful section on Brecht), experimental poetry (the collage-based poetry of John Ashbery and Jackson Mac Low, along with the poetic experiments of Carl Andre and Vito Acconci), and finally language as a medium for visual art in a range of media (Victor Burgin, Dan Graham, Douglas Huebler, on Kawara, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner, among others).

Kotz acknowledges that the book is not a survey—that would have required a more thorough treatment of, among other things, the importance of Duchamp’s published notes regarding alphabets and dictionaries, and his visual deployment of word-strings. Kotz limits her discussion of Duchamp’s work to the “performative and linguistic potential” of the readymade. But her start-date in the sixties does allow her to focus on a paradox: Why, in a decade when the U.S. was undergoing violent social upheavals, did so many artists “deliberately choose not to make statements? Why should they choose to examine the materiality and activity of language in such reduced, inexpressive, and to many eyes, seemingly depoliticized forms?”6

An answer might be found in the work of communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, whose first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), was composed of short essays teasing out implications nestled within the image-plus-text format of post-war print advertising, and whose “the medium is the message” from Understanding Media (1964) quickly became a kind of mantra. That Kotz does not so much as mention McLuhan is all the more surprising given her assertion that “the much-celebrated Cagean philosophy is partly the result of changes in material support and medium,” namely, a “perverse turn to language that occur[red] in reaction to the electronic inscription of sound.”7 (She points out that the specified duration of 4’33”, supposedly arrived at through random methods, was suspiciously similar to the standard length of pop songs.)

Instead, Kotz responds to what she sees as the era’s increasingly objectified use of language by quoting Carl Andre, whose early poetic works Kotz brilliantly analyzes in chapter four (“Poetry from Object to Action”). In a 1970 interview, Andre asserted that “matter as matter rather than matter as symbol is a conscious political position.”8 Andre’s goal, Kotz says, was to provide an “experience of the actuality of things,” and thus presumably intensify the reader/viewer’s relationship with reality. This was Cage’s goal as well, along with any number of other Modernists influenced by Asian philosophy (Ezra Pound, for example). Kotz acknowledges Asian influence within Cage’s work, but does not pursue the implications for her topic, either with Cage or elsewhere. Her discourse of choice is postmodern theory—not necessarily a bad choice, given the sophistication of some of the artists Kotz discusses, but it sometimes proves more obfuscating than clarifying.

A prime example is the semiotic term “index,” which Kotz utilizes both in chapter six (“Text and Image”) and in her conclusion. Rosalind Krauss, in her 1976 essay, “Notes on the Index: Part I,” defined indexes as signs that “establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents.”9 Kotz points out that the word was first used in this way by the logician and founder of American Pragmatism, Charles S. Peirce. For Peirce, an index was a sign that bears a direct relationship with its “dynamical object.” (Peirce also used the word “seme,” from the same Latin root as “semen.”) Among his examples were clocks, thermometers, and medical symptoms. The index or seme is the second of three types of signs in one of Peirce’s typical triads, where indexes take their place between “icons,” which resemble their object, and “symbols,” whose relationship to the object is one of convention. As examples of symbols, Peirce cited words, phrases, and sentences.

A printed word, phrase, or sentence, though, could conceivably be an index; so, according to Kotz, might words that directly record some other phenomenon. Along with language’s usefulness in powering up indexical photography, as in the work of Hans Haacke, it is primarily this use of language as “quasi-systematic inscription or documentation, however perverse or apparently nonfunctional,”10 that Kotz discusses in indexical terms. Among the many artworks she cites are Robert Morris’s 1962 Card File, on Kawara’s date paintings, and the tables and lists that accompany Vito Acconci’s performance documents of the early 1970s.

In her “Conclusion,” Kotz applies the term to Warhol’s a: a novel in connection with what she considers to be its indexical procedures of inscription: “the use of the recording mechanism, without apparent criteria of selection of importance, to sample from a potentially uninterrupted flow of existing material…and the use of existing technologies of transcription and transmission without correction for distortions and imperfections.”11 Kotz suggests that “by subjecting language itself to this aesthetics of the index, Warhol relocates reading as an experience of this murmur and babble, the lapses of attention…and noise and interruption that are the condition of meaning, but also its constant undoing.” But surely somebody translated the taped sounds into typed symbols. And in spoken language it’s the listener’s attention that lapses; the reader’s attention is pulled along by the lines of words on the page—or at least mine was—by the racy spread from a: a novel reproduced as figure 7.3. (True to its title, the book is generously illustrated.) In the end, despite the pleasing mental gymnastics required to follow Kotz’s argument, I remain unconvinced of the usefulness of this semiotic concept to explain what was going on in the art of the sixties.

The question mark at the end of the heading to her concluding chapter—“An Aesthetics of the Index?”—may indicate the author has doubts of her own. It doesn’t really matter, given the richness of information and interpretation contained in so much of Words to Be Looked At. I learned a great deal from the chapters on poetry, where Kotz demonstrates impressive erudition. But I am perhaps most grateful for her nuanced analysis in chapter two, “Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the Event Score.” Kotz relates these scores, which can be as brief as one word (e.g., George Brecht’s 1961 word event “Exit”) to minimalism. She made me acutely aware that despite their austerity, these word scores are as stylistically distinct from one artist to another as handwriting.

The most protean score may have been musician La Monte Young’s Composition 1960 #10, “Draw a straight line and follow it.” Kotz points out that the line encapsulated Young’s long-term involvement with sustained tones. He repeatedly performed this piece over the course of 1961, a series commemorated in his little book LY 1961, which consists of page after dated page where the score is simply repeated. The idea is delightfully obvious: just as each page meets a reader changed by the experience of the previous page, so no performance could have been enacted in the same way. The following year, at the first official Fluxus festival in Wiesbaden, Nam June Paik performed “Draw a straight line and follow it” as Zen for Head. Paik used his hair as a brush to paint a line down a scroll of paper unrolled on the floor—event score as literati brush painting. which brings me back to Fenollosa:

All truth has to be expressed in sentences because all truth is the transference of power. The type of sentence in nature is a flash of lightning. It passes between two terms, a cloud and the earth. …Light, heat, gravity, chemical affinity, human will, have this in common, that they redistribute force.12

It is one answer to the question with which Kotz opens her book: Why did sixties artists deliberately choose to not make statements? Because they wanted to make acts.

Jacquelynn Baas is Director Emeritus of the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and an independent scholar. Her most recent book-length publications are: Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, co-edited with Mary Jane Jacob (UC Press, 2004) and Smile of the Buddha: Eastern Philosophy and Western Art from Monet to Today (University of California Press, 2005).

Footnotes

  1. Ezra Pound, Instigations of Ezra Pound, Together with an Essay on the Chinese Written Character by Ernest Fenollosa (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920).
  2. This and the following quotations from Ernest Fenollosa, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, edited by Ezra Pound (San Francisco: City Lights, 1936), 9. Original italics.
  3. Ibid., 10.
  4. Ibid., 11.
  5. Liz Kotz, Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 2007), 17.
  6. Ibid., 1-2.
  7. Ibid., 14.
  8. Ibid., 2.
  9. Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1985), 198.
  10. Kotz, 222.
  11. Ibid., 265.
  12. Fenollosa, 1936, 13.
Further Reading