Breathing Roomby Susan Bee
Nancy Princenthal’s proposition lead me to think of the famous opening of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972): “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” He continues: “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” “And often dialogue is an attempt to verbalize this—an attempt to explain how, either metaphorically or literally, ‘you see things’ in an attempt to discover ‘how he sees things.’” Recently, we were reading this passage in class, when a student made the observation that writing is more precise, more specific, and more targeted than art. However, I have to admit that as someone often caught between words and visual art, I didn’t agree.
Often, I find myself carried away by an artist’s vision, whether this is the result of being overwhelmed by the sheer visual pleasure involved in viewing a series of spiritual abstract paintings, such as Kazimir Malevich’s work, or viewing the wonderful collaboration of Sonia Delauney and Blaise Cendrars, La prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France, in the show Inventing Abstraction: 1910 – 1925. Note, the Museum of Modern Art’s curators are apparently so oblivious to the importance of verbal language that they did not feel it necessary to even translate the poem into English, counting on the viewer’s comprehension of the visual impact of the combination of words and watercolors and shapes and colors to carry the meaning to the viewer.
I have been struck by the power of the visual to transcend boundaries of explanatory language when visiting such sites as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang, China. Here the force of place and an aesthetic immersion in another culture absorbed me into the overwhelming experience of an “other’s” sacred space. No verbal descriptions or photographs could have prepared me for the spectacular impact of the chambers carved out of rock in the desert. No word glosses served to mediate this immersion in an ancient religious and meditative space.
In terms of Claire Bishop’s arguments, I find that performances such as Marina Abramovíc’s The Artist is Present (March 14 – May 31, 2010) carry the weight of the performer’s presence and do not rely on any critic’s explanation for the audience to relate to him or her. That is often the case, as well, with musical performances or dance. In a way, I find that because of the ubiquity of visual images on the web and the amazing inventory of artworks that are available at our digital fingertips, we are less at the mercy of writing about artworks than ever and indeed, as Berger notes, visual works can be just as pigeonholing as verbal captions. However, I do feel that criticality is hard to achieve, because of this endless and relentless onslaught of pictures.
The materiality and sheer cost of many artworks has actually diminished the power of art criticism as practiced by Harold Rosenberg. It is possible to see an entire retrospective of the paintings of Willem de Kooning at MoMA or the colorful and sexy collages of Mickalene Thomas at the Brooklyn Museum without reading a single wall label. Viewers may just revel in the juiciness of the artworks displayed. However, the ever-buzzing headsets that accompany most museum shows prove that an aural fixation and the craving of viewers for the guidance of an expert continues unabated: here language is not used to liberate but to contain.
In contrast, an exhibition such as Materializing “Six Years”: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art at the Brooklyn Museum could not be comprehended except with a close reading of the wall labels. It is an example of a show that was based on a book and a moment in the history of Minimalism and Conceptualism that was completely tied to a textual framing. There Harold Rosenberg’s quote, “A contemporary painting or sculpture is a species of centaur—half art materials, half words,” is spot on.
As someone who is frequently called upon to create pictures in response to poetry, I find that each page of my artists’s books presents my own interpretation of the poems. I am not interested in a strict illustrational approach to the words but rather an oblique associative relation between image and poem.
I see the illustrations as an enhancement of the text—not a superseding of the text, but a way to provide a further key to reading the poems. In effect, this is my way of reading the poems for myself. In collaborations between poets and visual artists, I feel that the artist should match the wavelength of her artistic intuition and vision to the intensity and demands of the poet’s words. In the end, it is the collaborative object—painting or book—that encompasses both images and words and that forms a larger union that can point our way as visual artists and writers to a more fruitful future—with breathing room for all.