Allan Graham in Conversation with John Yau
John Yau (Rail): Allan, where exactly do you and Gloria live?
Graham: [laughs] In the mountains east of Santa Fe. We have lived here about ten years. We are seven miles from the highway, and you have to drive down a dirt road to get to our house.
Rail: Yes, a long way from both coasts. When did you first start using words in your work?
Graham: In the ‘80s, using torn-up book pages on the surface of canvas. I did a number of different series, but at one point I tore up Creeley’s For Love—I asked Bob if I could, it was an extra copy – and I did these pieces that leaned against the wall. I always saw them leaning against the wall, and I did a number of them. I did things with Bible pages, Old Testament, New Testament; I did a phone book, yellow pages, dictionaries; and then slowly, out of these three-dimensional constructions, the words began jumping out at me, so I started making titles for the pieces that came from the words. When I did the piece, “Judas Hangs Himself,” it says “Judas Hangs Himself” right up at the top. The way the thing hung on the wall was absolutely perfect. I became more and more aware of that kind of correlation between providing a key and still remaining separate and abstract. I started reading a lot of Zen poetry. I was particularly fascinated with wordplay. You can’t translate Chinese or Japanese literally. With an ideogram you can branch out—it’s not linear, it has multiple meanings, so you don’t read in a linear manner. It’s almost a diagram of a sentence, except there are multiple choices. I was interested, reading about translations of these poems, where the translators would say “Well, we couldn’t do this and we couldn’t do that, so we had to take this.” Cid Corman had what he called versions, which I really liked. They were charged, and he took liberties. So then, when I read some of the literal translations, and found nothing there, I started writing my own versions from things I was reading that I thought were really dull. I realized that puns and wordplay were the type of thing that a lot of us would paste onto what we read. So I started writing notes to myself and I’ve been doing that for about twenty years.
Rail: But also, the way you use words has changed from the ‘80’s, when you used very tiny script handwriting that became pictorial and abstract. Like when you use “birds” and “lake,” and there’s a shape made of the word “lake” written over and over again; and the “birds” as words are scattered around this shape. You see it pictorially and as language. You have to go back and forth between the words and this image. It’s like you’re trying to make ideograms yourself, but on a much larger scale.
Graham: Well, when we finished this studio, this house, and were moving back in, it had been almost three years since I had done anything. Before that, I had done the collage pieces as well as monochrome shaped-pieces at the same time. So there were works with words and works that were purely visual, and they would be in the studio at the same time—I’d be working on both, and somehow it made sense to me. But when I started back in here and I walked into this brand-new studio in the mountains, I thought, “You know, what I want to deal with is the Toadhouse thing,” which was a joke I shared with a poet friend. Toadhouse was the name I gave an underground kiva because Spadefoot toads used to jump in it, and that’s where I started writing these notes to myself. The room was twelve feet across and ten feet underground. And I liked that state of mind; there was some kind of a connection with simple words that seemed to take on greater meaning than I could ever imagine. But if I’d say them to you, they’d end up having a singular meaning or sound like a corny joke. I wanted to stay in that state of mind and didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I took red rosin paper we’d been using in the construction of the house, and, because we had an outhouse out here, I started writing “dung” over and over, and made a combination of Chinese landscapes, soft mountains, and a sitting figure. I just went from there to where a word cluster looked slightly like a UFO, and I thought, “I can’t do this, not living in New Mexico.” (laughs) “This is sure death.” That lasted about three or four minutes and then I thought, “Oh well, whatever you do, you do it. Nobody has to see it.” So I started doing drawings that had a cluster of one word that looked like a UFO moving through a field of other words. That’s the first real breakthrough to where I started working with words and my own words in that sense, and they were small, and they were very time-consuming.
Rail: They seem completely obsessive.
Graham: And there are layers. I layer it, because I’m visual, so I always come back to ultimately making something that I like sitting and looking at, that I respond to visually. But the content or subject matter really is the stimulus, and without that I don’t start. Often, while working with the words, the words change the way I see it, and then the whole thing changes again. They feed off themselves, but I need a starting point, and it comes from the writing.
Rail: While those works are ideogrammatic, the recent works on paper and paintings are very different. We have to take the letters, figure out what the orientation is, and then feel our way through them. Literally reading one letter at a tine. You get us to read in a different way than just simply reading.
Graham: This particularly true in the new pieces. Let me just back up a little. I was resisting doing anything you could read from a distance. It’s so overused. There’s a whole history of it, which is wonderful, but I didn’t see how I could get around that. So I was just using titles in relation to the small words where you had to walk up, see the small word, step back, there was an overall impression or image or surface, and then the title would lock it into a different relationship. But a couple years ago, I had no reason to go back to that. I’ve always had this attitude that art is like throwing a sheet over a ghost, and it didn’t matter to me what the shape was. The ghost was what I was after, which was something elusive that interested me. So I finally decided that I was just going to write this stuff out and see how I’d respond to it. I had stacks of paper, and started. Then slowly I liked what was happening, but I was a little self-conscious about it, and then I wrote it in different ways that broke down and slowed your reading process. It seems to me that some of the pieces really worked because of that slowness, and others needed to be fast, and then they would reverse themselves. It becomes a very complex situation between you and that canvas and those words or that idea and to me it was fascinating. Where other things like “Head up ass,” I mean that’s a dumb thing, but there’s something about finding your way through that and also the way it applies to the human condition, which is really out of whack if it’s ever been in whack.
Rail: But the one that says “Head up ass,” also says “Free lunch.” It’s two phrases stuck together, and the top four letters are A-A-R-U. You read them and say to yourself, “Wait a second, how do I find my way into this piece, how do I read the letters.”
Graham: Yes, there’s a kind of childish phonetic sounding-out. I wasn’t really trying to belittle anyone into that, but it’s funny because I can come to a piece that I haven’t looked at in a long time, and I can’t read it. I don’t remember what it is. So I have to go through the same process. I have to sound it out, and then go, “Oh yeah, that’s what it is.”
Rail: It’s interesting that you make us sound it out phonetically, because when you come to the end, there’s a little spark of recognition that you’re supposed to have when you read a haiku. Then also because you write “Mankind,” suddenly—it’s been there all along—the word “kind” is in “mankind,” and you say, “Oh yeah.” You have to go back to this word again and see it, read it, and understand it in another way.
Graham: Yeah it surprised me that it was there. Actually the emphasis is on “man” and “kind.” It’s a two-part thing that’s there, and by drawing this question mark—which is a beautiful-looking thing anyway—at the end… It was so simple. There are freebies all around. Language doesn’t really mean anything. Of course, it means something because it’s the only thing that means something, it’s the way we get meaning; but as soon as that shifts, then the world shifts.
Rail: Except that, as over-used as the words and phrases are, somehow you make us see them fresh. Like it says, “life and death,” and then you say, “form space,” but the “a” is smaller and slightly lighter, so you read “Life and death form space.” And then suddenly there are all these different echoes in your head of what that is. I think that’s experienced is a compressed reading. I think what goes on in your work is this incredible compression that we have to unpack, and, as we unpack it, we have to deal with our own sense of what these words mean to us or how they have some aspect of our habit of thinking, and then maybe take it apart a little. And there is the big ampersand, “and.”
Graham: “And” is the constant. Everything qualifies for that. I took a class from Gene Frumkin who came in and took over from Creeley. He had us read the collected writings of Charles Olson.
Rail: What year was this?
Graham: This was about ’65. And we had to read Human Universe, and Creeley wrote the introduction. It’s this great introduction. I had no background, I just had to take a writing course in order to graduate. I remember thinking at the time about the power of changing words with just the positioning, which had never occurred to me. I just thought reading was reading. You start here and you end there, there’s a period, and then you go on to the next one, and you start all over. When I started reading Zen poetry, somebody asked, “Are you a Buddhist?” and I said, “The best way to be a Buddhist is to not be a Buddhist.” That’s what works. But I was fascinated with Zen and the way things always came out, and if you grasp them, then you lose them. So, can you float next to it? That’s what had carried me through, so that when I got involved with words, which I didn’t expect to happen, that was the angle I took.
Rail: Olson’s essay, Projective Verse comes from a letter that Creeley sent to Olson—form is an extension of content. He’s responding to the paintings of Jackson Pollock and others that he saw in Paris in the early fifties. So there’s this exchange because Bob writes about this in a letter to Olson, who I don’t think of as a person who particularly cared about abstract art, not the way that Creeley did. And they’re trying to get rid of all the obvious transitions in poetry. Their understanding comes out of Pound’s understanding of the ideogram, but they’re trying to move it beyond that. So there’s this interplay of language, image and art that you find your own way to, through reading Human Universe. And I think that’s interesting because it demonstrates in a nutshell that that art doesn’t have a linear history.
Graham: No, it’s made up so it can be taught. [laughs] I used to sit in art history classes and I thought, “God, if these people really thought this when they were in the studio, how did they get anything done?” [laughs] “This would be awful.” Reading the translator’s description of early Chinese Zen poetry and the choices that they had of what word to put in there fascinated me. Because how could you choose? Where the original in Chinese, it had all branches of thought in the same spot. Of course, I was self-conscious about writing these notes, but they were for me, so it didn’t matter. I said to my son, “This is nothing but a bunch of bumper sticker material. It’s like a bad Spearmint or Wrigley’s gum ad.” And then I thought about it, bumper stickers, and I went out and got an old bumper at an auto wrecker. They have to be from the ‘40s ‘50s ‘60s, because bumpers don’t exist anymore. Then I started collecting and re-chroming bumpers, and I put them on the wall on the same level that they’d be on a car, and it didn’t occur to me that people have to bow to read. And the first show that I did with those, I walked into it and all these people were going around like this, and it was hilarious. One of the bumper stickers said “For a sparrow, life takes flight.” And it was on the front bumper of a ’59 Cadillac, which is the heaviest bumper. I mean I don’t know what kind of mileage the car got, because that bumper weighed more than my car.
Rail: The first piece that I saw of yours was a site-specific installation of Buddhist death poems, where you had to get down on your knees to read the poems, which were arranged in a circle; there were poems and cushions. The whole idea is just reading each one, going around by getting up and moving to the next one, kneeling down and reading.
Graham: I remember you doing that because that was the first time I’d had shown it—this is something that you probably didn’t know. See I had the whole of SITE Santa Fe to use for my show. I hadn’t thought of that piece for years, I didn’t have any place to put it up, and all of those death poems were my renderings, so I decided to put it at SITE. I didn’t know if it would work because it was directly connected with a tracker on the roof, without any batteries or anything in between. So I tried to calculate with a technician as to the sensitivity of the lights, so that these lights, the circle of lights, would fluctuate in relation to what was happening outside. And then they’d go out at night and as the sun came up in the morning this tracker would turn, face the sun, and all the sudden this circle would illuminate. Of course you’re dealing with life and death so there it is symbolically, but on top of it you had brought the outside in. That day you came in with Stuart Arends, I was trying to hook this thing up with one of the guys that worked there and he yelled, “Allan come in here, we got it working!” And you and I walked into the room at the same time and all the sudden this thing lit up and I remember you kneeling down, and starting to read the poems, you were the first one.
Rail: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Graham: You were the first one, I hadn’t even done it. You were the first, because I was more worried about the show which was going to open in five days and about whether this thing was going to work or not. Then they did the opening at night and I went in and there were people with flashlights—why, I have no idea. I mean who brings a flashlight to an opening?
Rail: There was, I believe, a photo on each of the four walls, a small photo of what was exactly outside if you were to look through the wall.
Graham: Yeah, basically. They would say it wasn’t that accurate because they would look through the wall and in some cases you would see the room next to you.
Graham: But it was in the catalogue where no one would ever see the entire building. I stood with my back against the wall of SITE Santa Fe, facing the four directions—north, south, east, west—I took a photograph looking away from the building in each direction. So what is implied was the building itself but you never see it. In the same way that you and I are talking and other than my hand and my leg coming into view, I’m not seeing myself.
Graham: There is this kind of perception that I’m this thing moving around the room but I’m actually out there, looking at you. I put the four photographs at the beginning and the end of the book, which made the book site specific, but they weren’t photographs of SITE.
Rail: Exactly, right. You also had echocardiograms in the show.
Graham: When I was tearing up book pages and using them as book texture and text, Oli Sihvonen gave me his echocardiograms and said maybe I could use them - he had severe heart problems. He was a student of Albers, at Black Mountain, and had been there before Creeley and Olson. Initially, I didn’t know what to do with them, but later I pulled them out and they start to change in the light, so to preserve their information I scanned them into the computer and then did the classic grid. Later I put them on seven by six foot canvases, a cardiologist could still read them. But they ended up looking like landscapes, and they had clouds and they were kind of beautiful - I worked them true to the original and then I combined that with all of Oli’s vivid outburst color paintings. By then Oli was dead. SITE ran a wall between the cardiograms and Oli’s painting and took out a section at either end, so that it was like two chambers of the heart
Rail: Yes, there has always been this rigorous thoughtfulness to your work.
Graham: And I called the installation Heart Sutra, which is the Buddhist text of “form is emptiness - emptiness is form”. And so you go between these two rooms, and you could stand in certain places and see both sides.
Rail: One thing that installation said to me was that there a community of artists out here, and that it was a complex situation that had a long history stretching back to near the beginning of the 20th Century.
Graham: Well this is interesting because Agnes Martin—who used to come to our house and take baths in Albuquerque—would say, “Oh yeah I knew Oli - he was a kind of chubby little devil.” She said, “He could sure walk uphill fast though.” They were there together; they were there in Taos at the same time - and those photographs with Ad Reinhardt in Taos. There were a lot of people passing through in those days.
Rail: Yeah. You don’t really realize, I mean you kind of get some sense of it, I was reading about the fact that when Diebenkorn came to New Mexico to study on the G.I. Bill just because he needed the money and they gave him supplies but the artist that most supported him was Raymond Jonson who was that early abstract transcendentalist. And you say, Agnes Martin used to come to our house to take baths. Clearly, in Albuquerque and the surrounding area, there is a community, but it isn’t understood or seen in the totality that it exists in. And you live off a long dirt road. Did you say earlier that it took you and Gloria three years to build this place?
Graham: Yeah, three years, for three years we didn’t have a studio, no place to work, it was like there had to be light at the end of the tunnel somewhere. And when we finally finished this and got back in and I had done the first UFOs and Gloria was working again, that was about the time that Louis Grachos expressed interest in doing the show at SITE Santa Fe.
Rail: Right, when was the show?
Graham: January 2000. And I had a choice, because Louis said “ we can give you a better date, a better slot,” but he says, “I want you to do a show with Andrew Goldsworthy.” I said no. I said I want to control how people experience the show. I don’t want them going to Goldsworthy and then coming over and looking at this. I said I just don’t want to do it - I want the whole space. He said “ we don’t give anybody the whole space because people don’t come back.” I said, you know, I want the whole space! [Laughs] And he said alright, and he gave me the whole space in January, and it turned out that I structured it so people wouldn’t go from the UFOs to the Death Poems, they were next to one another, but had to pass back around, go through the bumpers, the Dung Drawings, and the Hopscotch on the floor before they could get to the UFOs
Rail: That show seemed like it could’ve been made by seven different people. But at the same time it felt like it was just one person who was seven people. Maybe that because you’re up here like full time now.
Graham: Yeah. For three years we were just out of contact with everything. All of the overt word pieces have happened in the last couple of years.
Rail: Well, you use words but don’t have a style. The way you use words has changed. You have to be open to words for something to happen.
Graham: Yeah, in fact there are times when it drives me nuts because it happens too often. Someone responded to something I said by saying “Oh that’s a given” and I wrote down “the present is a given” and it’s amazing how far I can go with that, and it’s like where the hell did that come from? So that’s the way that they come in and I keep jotting them down. I don’t edit anymore. I just write it down; I write it somewhere because I never know in multiple moods…
Rail: What it’s going to mean? Like these three paintings. You have to go letter by letter.
Graham: Yes, I want to slow things down. Oh I know the other thing I wanted to tell you —I got criticized when I did the show at SITE Santa Fe for using the name Toadhouse. In his review, this guy wrote “How can you take anyone seriously who calls himself Toadhouse?” And I thought, “He’s got it, he just doesn’t understand it.” [laughs] That was his whole thing. So- it’s Whitehead, the British philosopher - there’s a quote that I heard sometime from him; it’s “Do you know why angels can fly? They take themselves lightly?” Isn’t that right? Isn’t that perfect? And that’s the thing I try to keep out in front of me all the time.