3.17.17 — From Language to Landscape

It took Jackson Mac Low a long time to find his voice. It took him even longer to lose it, in a tangle of line and color.

With each step, he was becoming an artist. With the first, in 1953, he had made some of the earliest text art, well before Lawrence Weiner. By his death in 2004, he had found his way to a boisterous abstraction, in crayon, acrylic, and oil stick on paper. When others were questioning publicly whether painting was dead, he made it a matter of private celebration.

It was for him a literal celebration, and it still involved words. With his late “name poems,” he made art as a shout-out to others—most often to his wife, with love, on her birthday. You may or may not be able to make out her name. Does that make Mac Low a poet, an artist, or both at once? The Drawing Center makes the case for his art, through March 19, but it does not insist too hard. It calls the show, open-mindedly enough, “Lines – Letters – Words.”

If you know him at all, and I did not, it is more likely as a poet and performer. He counts among the “language poets,” a group for whom the elements of language mattered as much as their meaning. He admired chance procedures in music by John Cage as well, and he meant many of his drawings as scores. That includes letters from Sanskrit chants and prayers, arranged every which way on graph paper as his Gathas, starting in 1961. It also includes the Skew Lines from 1979, in light pen traces that he imagined as “dropped” onto paper. Their length corresponds to the duration of sounds, and never mind that he rarely got around to performing them.

With each stage, Mac Low was working against his time, like a proper avant-garde artist. Born in 1922, he made text art just when Abstract Expressionism and then Minimalism insisted on the purity of visual expression. Then he made his text visually alive and unreadable, just when art had become drier and more ironic. Still, he was by no means standing apart from his time. It comes as a shock to discover pen drawings from 1951 as fluid, dense, and abstract as those by Jackson Pollock that very year. It comes as a shock, too, to see his “static film” of a tree from 1961, three years before Andy Warhol shot the Empire State Building.

Static or not, his only constant was change. As it happens, he shares the Center with Amy Sillman, who called her last exhibition “Stuff Change“—here with a video of drawings inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (The main gallery holds a hybrid of art and architecture by Mateo López.) The display begins in 1953 with something akin to primitive traces, although also to black brushwork by Franz Kline—followed by the equally primitive language of Hi and Ape, just one coarse red word to a sheet. More jumbled text from the 1960s approaches aphorisms, and one last series, from 1995, takes language to the edge of landscape, with the faint pencil of Birds, Trees, Mountains, Moss, and Leaves. As an artist Mac Low may have earned only a footnote, but as a performer he had entered fully into space.

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