Mind Games: James Siena’s typewriter drawings


The typewriter is a materialization of a whole dimension of Western existence in the twentieth century, and a phenomenological analysis of the typewriter would be a good way of gaining self-knowledge.

Vilem Flusser, Gestures, Univ. of Minn. Press, 2014

I can’t imagine John Singer Sargent typing. Maybe he did. His lush, fluid lines and his adroitness, however, make a good foil for James Siena, whose adroitness is a story of another kind. Siena’s typewriter drawings, part of a two-person show at Sargent’s Daughters, have a kind of mastery that belies the simplicity of their appearance. I see Siena pinging out numbers with his index finger as he types, building a rhythm that is both aural and visual as he runs up and down the typewriter’s keyboard. 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1 2 3 4 5 4 3 2 1…  As you “read” the numbers you can hear the sound of their making.   

The drawing, “Untitled (God Lived as a Devil Dog)” (2013), is a red rectangle of letters carefully placed slightly off-center towards the upper lefthand corner of the paper. When this same sentence, “god lived as a devil dog,” is written over and over again within the confines of the upright rectangle, chance relationships ensue between words, when glancing up or down, or with the mirroring of god and dog, where the end of the sentence meets its new beginning. The pattern of the red typewritten letters, repeatedly and unevenly spaced in a way we are no longer used to seeing, generates a series of misreadings through unexpected associations. Siena gives a dimension to the palindrome it wouldn’t otherwise hold. This palindrome sentence doesn’t really signify anything in and of itself, but rather, points to the pattern of letters and words that mean different things when read in different directions. Siena multiplies this awareness by the way he lays the words out on the page, allowing us to look in and through words using different languages.

James Siena, “Untitled (0-9, ten, eight, six, four, three, two, one),” 2014. Ink on paper, 11 × 8.5”. Courtesy Sargent’s Daughters Gallery.

“Untitled (Devil Never Even Lived)” (2013) has been laid out consequently—both horizontally and vertically—so you can read the palindrome haiku or western style as the movement strikes you. A pattern develops between the stacked words giving rise to additional meanings that Siena’s predecessor in the world of typewriter drawings, Carl Andre, might have wished to leave out; his minimalist and concrete sensibilities argue for an understanding of “it is what it is.” But when Siena’s isitiitisiisitiitisissi runs on in this vein pretty much all the way across an eleven by eight and a half inch piece of paper, we know he wants “Untitled (is it I? it is I)” (2013) to let all possible personalities in, and then sum. Reading across the lines, Siena’s isitiitisiisitiitisi morph into a singsong children’s rhyme. M i s s i s s i p p i  isn’t written there but I hear it nonetheless, evoked by the cadence of the sequences and awareness of sounds set off in the mind’s inner ear that are integral to each typewritten letter’s making. The array starts from a different point in each successive line, corresponding to the demands of making it legible vertically, but we know at a glance that the sequence does remain perfectly consistent by the zigzaging patterns that run down the vertical axis and transform the initial reading of the letters from meaningful words into a purely visual experience. The torque and transformation that causes the apprehender to move from one part of the mind to another is a phenomenal experience that shocks as it delights. sisi appears there too, recalling the tragic Austria empress, as well as Tsetse flies, which do not appear to bite. Siena has us roving the world without venturing too far outside the neighborhood, as he enfolds the many secrets of words, numbers, and signs.

There are drawings where Siena cascades through a sequence of numbers: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 1 2 and back again. Is the complexity of the simple sequence being held in perfect order in the artist’s mind as the repetitions, necessitating a different starting point on every line, build it out into other dimensions? Whether initially conceived as a plan or as a procedure that generates one by virtue of its rules, it is impossible to pinpoint the moment where the change over from the singular to the overall perspective occurs, when you move from the familiarity of words into a visual language.

James Siena, “Untitled (rotator double cross),” 2014. Ink on paper, 11 × 8.5”. Courtesy Sargent’s Daughters Gallery.

Siena shifts his focus slightly in “Untitled (0-9, ten, eight, six, four, three, two, one)” (2014), whose open spaces create a pattern visible from across the room; 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9               1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8              1 2 3 4 5 6             1 2 3 4         1 2 3      1 2    1. It’s mind-bending to try and wrap your head around the state of mind necessary to ping these numbers out on a piece of rag paper and not make a mistake in nearly 60 lines. Here, where the sequencing builds up page long rhythmic patterns, the relationship between numbers and music seems unavoidable. Volumes have been written on the relationship between Bach and the Fibonacci numbers, but Siena brings us to an awareness of the kinship by playing it out before our eyes in the spacing of his numeric sequences. Alternating counting with the space bar and the number keys, he moves across and down the page.

Quite unexpected in the context of the other drawings is “Untitled (rotator double cross) (2014), whose cross forms are created when the artist interweaves the word “rotator” to reveal the unusual double symmetry of the anagram itself. Identical forward, backward, and mirrored, forms of wavy blue crosses result when he interlocks the words. Dancing vertically across the page, they introduce fluency to a medium that the starkly orthogonally oriented machine itself would never dream possible.

James Siena, “Untitled (Never Odd or Even),” 2013. Ink on paper, 11 × 8.5”. Courtesy Sargent’s Daughters Gallery.

The show has more than one gem, and the palindrome of Rome’s passion, set center stage on its handsomely proportioned page, is one of them. “(Rome, to you love will come, with sudden passion)” (2013) is configured like a magic square of numbers.  In  r o m a t i b i b i s u b i t o m o t i b u s i b i t a m o r  the “r” of  “roma” leads off in the upper left and finishes with the “r” of “amor” in the bottom right. It works both ways from all four corners, the series of letters forming a perfect red (passionate) square to reveal the captivating and mysterious quality of language, not to mention love, for all to see.

The most complex piece in the show, “Untitled (Never Odd or Even)” (2013), doesn’t use numbers, but instead refers to them with the words typed out “never odd or even.” Configured as a set of frames inside of frames with a slender open center, it underscores Siena’s mastery in the most modest of terms. 


Joan Waltemath

JOAN WALTEMATH grew up on the Great Plains and now lives and works in New York City. Her abstract paintings focus on constructing spatial voids using harmonic progressions and non-traditional, reflective pigments in oils. Drawing has long been at the root of her artistic practice, serving as a means of abstract thinking. Her works on mylar and paper use diverse wet and dry materials. Shown in New York, Chicago, Portland, London, Basel, and Cologne, her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art, among others. She is the recipient of numerous grants including Creative Capital, and the Pollock-Krasner award. She has written extensively on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She taught at the IS Chanin School of Architecture of the Cooper Union from 1997 to 2010 and at Princeton University. She is currently the Director of MICA's LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting.