A Time to Write

John Haber
in New York City

Drawing Time, Reading Time and William Engelen

"Need I tell you that your wonderful letter is no more than an exquisite drawing as far as I'm concerned, and I can't make out a single word." Marcel Proust could read the human heart so well that he probably had no need of his friend's words. The rest of us would have to settle for seeing them as a work of art, in "Drawing Time, Reading Time." We might also hear them as music in space and time, with William Engelen.

Omit needless words

Proust's correspondence does not appear at the Drawing Center, but exquisite drawing does, and I could hardly make out a word. Approach ink on paper by Mirtha Dermisache, for what looks like a page from a newspaper, an open book, or a letter—and the words transform into something akin to musical notation. Look for the sense of Nina Papaconstantinou's obsessive transcriptions, and her overwriting on carbon paper reveals not shades of gray, but a sea of blue. Mirtha Dermisache's Livre 3 (Drawing Center, 1970)It can run down the page like watercolor or fade off to the right like an encroaching silence. Papaconstantinou has chosen literary figures known for their frankness and their art, like Virginia Woolf's Letter to a Young Poet or Nikolai Gogol's Diary of a Madman. She also anticipates their vanishing, with Edgar Allan Poe's The Purloined Letter.

They are among nine artists who work between the verbal and the visual, in "Drawing Time, Reading Time." The Proustian title does not refer to the past recaptured. Rather, it distinguishes two notions of time often associated with art and writing. One expects a story to unfold in time—whether fictive time or the time it takes to read from beginning to end. And one may expect a drawing to unfold in space, with all of it available at a given moment. These artists, the show argues, do not challenge the distinction, but they do show how art and writing taken separately or together can draw on both.

One can see time in an entire wall of plain old lined paper, by Sean Landers. The more than four hundred and fifty yellow sheets look like a rough draft or another diary of a madman, but they supposedly constitute a novel. The text, handwritten in full caps, has its share of misspellings, but then Landers calls it [sic]. It also reads more as an effusion of anxiety than a plot, even once one figures out how one sheet follows another. It unfolds in both time and space on quite a scale, but without an obvious beginning or end. Enter where one dares.

Words take time for Pavel Büchler, but only by becoming image. His Conversational Drawings of hands appear to represent sign language. Time unfolds implicitly in Papaconstantinou's layering or Guy de Cointet's abstractions. Their jagged lines look much like the scattered Minimalism of Richard Tuttle, but the curves beside them may be mirror writing, in cursive. Time enters for Deb Sokolow in the form of a documentary record of Lee Harvey Oswald, in slim capital letters. Yet its spatial displacements include a collaged psychologist's report, medical imaging, and marginal annotations.

Speaking of the past recaptured, text art has been around before, to the point that even photographs can be an object lesson in "sight reading." It can take an almost exclusively visual and material form, as illuminated manuscript, Chinese painting as poetry, or an artist's book. It can also take a form closer to language alone—like conceptual art for John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner, political art for Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, exercises in logic for the 1960s' British collective Art and Language, or a coarse joke for Richard Prince and Christopher Wool. For them, words are like shouting, and the art is thoroughly in your face. For the artists in "Drawing Time," words and images are more reticent, to the point that they may not communicate at all. At the same time, they cannot let go of the burden of communicating.

The curator, Claire Gilman, thinks of these uncertainties as questions, for artists with a distinct take on art and text. She sees the artists as having "integrated text as visual form," while leaving open "whether or not writing is a kind of drawing." Questions like these also come with a fair degree of anxiety. As one of Sokolow's marginal notes asks, Is this a joke? Allen Ruppersberg's drawings of books include The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, with its demands for clarity, but also Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire and something called Psychopaths. He also partly effaces the letters, but then Strunk and White did say to omit needless words.

How not to be read

As Gilman observes, the relationship between art and text came into focus just when philosophy and literary criticism were learning from language. A 1967 anthology, edited by Richard Rorty, called the shift The Linguistic Turn. That turn had a way of undermining the specificity of words or images, including their notions of time. The New Critics had already introduced "close reading" starting in the 1920s—reading not for the plot, but for structure. "Action painting" had already obliged one to see the art object as part of a process in time. And then came Deconstruction, to treat structure and process alike as subject to endless additions, erasures, and deferral.

These theories unsettled not just time and space, but also the primacy of the artist or writer. The New Critics already spoke of the "intentional fallacy," and Deconstruction brought the creative act closer still to anonymity. Sure enough, Sokolow's annotations may or may not belong to her. de Cointet calls one drawing I Can't Wait . . ., but who exactly is I? The same theories rooted the loss of connection between text and author in the arbitrary relation of meanings and signs. Words became mere building blocks, subject to endless recombination.

If that sounds like real building blocks for Minimalism, "Drawing Time" begins (chronologically at least) with Carl Andre. For a while, he used typing as drawing or even sculpture. Pillars of words and wild strings of letters served for him as found objects, much like what another show called "Ecstatic Alphabets," with the typewriter as much an industrial fixture as his steel plates or fluorescent lights for Dan Flavin. And the show has perhaps its closest parallel in "Line as Language," at the Princeton University Art Museum in 1974. Rosalind E. Krauss included Tuttle along with Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Dorothea Rockburne, and Richard Serra. Any of them or indeed Jackson Mac Low would get along fine here.

They might even shake things up. They did not use text in that show, but in those days materials could stand up to ideas. It is not so easy today. Here books truly are works of art, material but opaque. Molly Springfield depicts open books with photorealist precision, right down to the shadows they cast. For her, The World Is Full of Objects, but as illusions.

The show is not about shaking things up, so much as recovering old questions. Not all its artists are equally good at questioning, and even text this dense can rapidly become a one-liner. Still, the Drawing Center does a favor in placing the thought experiments of older artists like Andre, de Cointet, and Ruppersberg alongside younger ones. It also introduces me to Dermisache, from Argentina, with work going back all the way to 1970. Just when you thought you were sick and tired of theory, it takes on visual form. In turn, its form can appear indecipherable, just as the theories and Proust would predict.

Not by coincidence, the back room has writing samples by Emily Dickinson and Robert Walser, a Swiss novelist of the early twentieth century. One expects nothing but precision from Dickinson, but she had sloppy print, in pencil on scraps of paper, stamped envelopes, and even a telegram. (Scholars have identified at least fifty-two of Dickinson's "envelope poems.") Walser wrote in an old German style, in letters so dense and tiny that one scholar took them for a secret code. Are they lessons in how to read or how not to be read? One could ask the same about "Drawing Time."

Below the fold

Never learned to read music? You can always view the score as a work of art, and you can always see a drawing as the score for imagined melodies. Of course, you might still feel that you are missing out on something, and the imagined melodies would be in nonstandard notation, but you can't have everything. And yet both views apply to William Engelen, and they are features, not bugs. At the opening, one could catch the debut of Falten, a series in eight parts for percussion. Even there, though, one might puzzle at how the sounds come to be.

It would not be the listener's falt—excuse me, fault. Engelen, based in Berlin, first draws lines on paper, which he then creases, knots, or folds. Some of the lines remain hidden behind the folds (falten in German). The rest serve as a starting point for a hand-drawn musical staff, leaving the paper's planes and their height to determine the notes. That includes their pitch, volume, and rhythm, but also what he describes as their character and tension. Engelen sees the scores as both music and drawing, and he leaves unstated how much of the intersection of line and fold arose by design or by chance.

They are works on paper, but also works of paper. They are drawing in the plane, but also drawing in space, and the curator, Nova Benway, sees them as making plain the "spatiality of music." The transformation takes place in the Center's basement "lab," where each finished work has its own music stand, like found art or sculpture. One can picture the scores as spreading their wings, with the tripod as spindly feet. William Engelen's Falten (Drawing Center, 2013)With no ordinary notation to clutter the staff lines, little disrupts the whiteness of a bird in flight. A drawing's spareness is part of its character, much as with Asian calligraphy, and outside of performance one can relish the silence.

Yet the works also unfold in time, starting well before performance—akin to the traditional role of drawing as an artist's thoughts or the late modernist idea of "process painting." Engelen considers the initial gesture on paper as a time line, with each centimeter standing for a second. Here the score is in plain sight, but its basis is temporal and hidden below the fold. Is the Drawing Center expanding its mission to such things as scores and manuscripts? So it does upstairs, with those scraps from a novelist and a poet that might well belong in the Morgan Library. Then again, a composer's fury at the Morgan would look a good deal denser, more hurried, and more imposing, without a hint of art or silence in sight.

Visual artists have played before with musical scores, as in collage for Pablo Picasso, in performance after John Cage for William Pope.L, or ripped apart by Christian Marclay. And sound artists have often fostered silence and slow time. Marclay's The Clock, his twenty-four hour compilation of film clips, builds on his earlier shattering of musical time, but it upped the ante for a cult DJ, musician, and sound artist. Engelen has his own slow art, as he, too, triggers one sensory path through another. And he gets his most impressive results from adding or subtracting nothing. One really does get to know the score.

Marclay is more concerned with making a splash. In his latest, drips and splatters out of Jackson Pollock land with a WHOOMPH!, a SLLURP!, and a SPLORCH!. The sounds also land thanks to a printer, starting with the words ripped from comic books. The special effects replay Roy Lichtenstein a little late in the game, and the replay of gestural abstraction would not look half as good without them. The shapes and colors really do explode, though, in a very contemporary cataclysm of analog and digital media, and the sounds remain unheard. As with Engelen, one can see drawing as a score for the imagination or for silence.

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"Drawing Time, Reading Time" and William Engelen ran at the Drawing Center through January 12, 2014, Christian Marclay at Paula Cooper through January 18.


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