Artist in Residenceby Chris Martin
Richard Gorcoff has been creating intricately typed art works on paper for thirty years. He has invented a distinct language of numbers, letters, punctuation, figures and complex designs created entirely out of typewriter symbols.
Born in 1955 in Syracuse, he developed early interests in art, poetry, and physics. He was first hospitalized for mental illness at age sixteen but completed high school in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. He studied briefly at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1974, but returned to Poughkeepsie, New York to be hospitalized with acute psychiatric illness. He has lived in and out of institutions in the Poughkeepsie area for much of his life. For the last five years he has lived at Rivington House in New York City.
Gorcoff had begun obsessive writing as a teenager. In 1976 he was deeply impressed with the complete poems of e.e. cummings. Later that year he woke up in bed with a woman while traveling in Kansas City and “had an intuition” to begin writing lists of famous physicists with numbers inserted into their names. By 1977 he began using an invented new language called “Wert7y” and “English T2wo 82”—combining numbers and letters to create elaborate typed books. Gorcoff described his invention in the 1981 book The Philosophy of Written Language, “I was laying in bed on m7y birthda7y in 1977 at around 4:00AM. I couldn’t sl3e=ep beca8use I f3el6t there was a confl9ict bet2we=en the n8umbers and let=t3ers. SOo. I thou8ght that I should put a number in m7y name. I thought it would silly to die a physicist without a nu8mber in yo8ur nam3e. So I got up and wrote ‘Gorcoff’ in English 82 as ‘G78orc9off’…”
Gorcoff’s language is a classic utopian vision. He attempts to heal the age-old split between art and science. In the romantic spirit of Goethe, Gorcoff seeks to join science with deep feelings of awe, sexual loneliness, and longing. And like the great outsider artist Adolf Wolfli, Gorcoff imbues vast abstract concepts, impossibly large numbers, the grand designs of physics and astronomy with magical spiritual power. And like Wolfli, Gorcoff’s work has helped him to maintain a hard fought equilibrium in living with the terror and loneliness of mental illness. It has been a vast and heroic endeavor—he estimates over fifty thousand pages of work—most of it destroyed, lost, or given away.
In “Wert7y” the crystalline logic of mathematics merges with poetry. Gorcoff describes it as “…the emancipation of the numbers and s-9ign2s into the words…” “S=E=A : Science=English=Art” Gorcoff fuses the numbers into words. Often the number above the letter on the keyboard—the 7 above the y for instance—is obsessively inserted in a word. Repeated letters within a word, are often mirrored and divided with = signs as in Se=en or sl3e=ep. Gorcoff sexualizes formulas and creates combinations of letters with masculine and feminine attributes. He explains, for instance that Oo. = masculine and .0o = feminine. Much of Gorcoff’s texts are a kind of stream of conscious musing with obsessive repetition. Sometimes a few basic sentences are reiterated in varying combinations for twenty pages at a time. Gorcoff combines strange formulas with subjective musings and merges romantic poetry with impossibly large numbers and astronomical calculations. Lists of favorite physicists—Plank, Bohr, Einstein, and Teller—are interspersed with snippets from rock music lyrics. At the same time Gorcoff insists that his new language not merely be read—but be looked at as art of magical design. Throughout many texts there are actual designs, small daces, stars, and images.
Gorcoff feels that “English T2wo 82” has political implications—troubled by the social turmoil of the sixties and the assassinations of Kennedy and King, Gorcoff saw the invention of his new language as a way to heal a wounded society. Bringing the numbers and the letters together was analogous to healing the separation of races – bringing rich and poor, black and white together. A new English could usher in a new society.
Gorcoff is grounded in a humanist Modernist tradition. He refers again and again to great figures in art and science—Darwin, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Newton, Picasso, cummings, Dylan etc. He has nurtured a lifelong interest in Ernest Hemingway; one of his books—The Young Six and The A—is a complete translation of The Old Man and The Sea into “English T2wo 82.” He talks often about e.e. cummings—and sees his own work as an extension of the concrete poetry tradition. Besides literature, plays, and books of philosophy, Gorcoff has created thousands of unique pages with typewriter designs ranging from tiny punctuation faces and large figures to large heads, stars, houses, and flags. Gorcoff is an obsessive and tireless worker—he has well over ten thousand unique typewritten pages stored in his room at Rivington House. He continues today working to explore the possibilities of his new language.
CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.