Jackson Mac Low Lines‑Letters‑Wordsby Rabia Ashfaque
The Drawing Center | January 20 – March 19, 2017
While the beginning of the First World War is perhaps the most politically significant event associated with the year 1914, an intriguing and rather unconventional book of poems called Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein began making a lot of noise around the same time. An unorthodox investigation into the way in which language constructs a view of the world, Stein’s experimental work received mixed reviews; while the implications of her exploration regarding the limitations of language did not register with some, others lauded Stein for the inquisitive de- (or rather re-) construction of the (hitherto) conventional vernacular. Jackson Mac Low’s (1922 – 2004) visual works in Lines-Letter-Words at the Drawing Center offer traces of Stein’s inquiries that informed his own work throughout his career. Works on display are categorized by various phases of evolution in his practice, and explore the visual dynamics of language and its inherent multi-functionality.
Like many of his peers, Mac Low was using mixed media to work out his creative processes; while he is primarily recognized as a poet, it is often overlooked that his first language experiments were conducted through drawings. Starting in his early teens, Mac Low continued to produce drawings in tandem with his poetry throughout the span of his career to produce more contemplative ways of seeing. The pieces on display in his first solo museum exhibition of visual works reveal the poet’s absorption with the meditative practice of drawing.
Early doodle-like works from the late 1940s evolved in the early ’50s to take the shape of fragmented writings such as H (1953)—a lone alphabet, trembling with emotion like the “single hurt color” from “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass” in Stein’s Tender Buttons, a poem which, according to Mac Low, was “pointing” at a new way of seeing something that is ordinary and finding in it something “not ordinary.”1 It would be accurate to say that Mac Low’s work was building up to a similar kind of “pointing” by investigating the nature of language and reconfiguring it to discover new meaning.
Interested in science from a young age, Mac Low kept up with the latest scientific developments, events, and technologies throughout his life. Given the subject’s analytical core, it is unsurprising to find its influence across many elements of his work—from the naming (Light Poems, Drawing-Asymmetries, Skew Lines) to the methods (his “chance operations” were created with computer-generated texts), to the range of media (spanning from drawings to recordings such as his 1961 Tree* Movie). Science became Mac Low’s greatest ally in his experiments, used both to study language as well as to “invent techniques of artistic production,”2
After encountering D. T. Sukuzi’s teachings on Buddhism in the 1950s, he was occupied with a desire to write “egoless poetry” to discover, in the very nature of language, a way to express an idea wholly of itself. Performances of his drawings and poems, including the Gathas (starting 1961), Drawing-Asymmetries (starting 1960), Skew Lines (1979 – 80), and Vocabularies and Name Poems (starting mid-’70s) were a vital component of Mac Low’s experiments in egoless expression, exploring new possibilities of visual, sonic and gestural representations of language. His Light Poems (starting June 10, 1962) were Mac Low’s personal blend of science and Zen Buddhism, relating various types of light with the people to whom its particular qualities could be attributed. As part of research for the project, he made the Light Poems Chart (1962) by filing different types of light under a partially determined set of guidelines involving the use of letters from his and his first wife’s name and all the denominations from playing cards.
Mac Low’s illustrative practice came full circle with the thirteen Vermont Drawings (1995), the last of the works in the exhibition that are focused solely on exploring drawing. Free from the textual and performative aspects of his earlier works, the wispy line-drawings “echo the unsettled system of marks in Jackson’s early works,” wrote Brett Littman in his essay “Jackson Mac Low: Lines-Letters-Words,” in the exhibition catalogue by the same name, which also includes essays by Anne Tardos and Sylvia Mae Gorelick. It all comes down to these three words, really. Lines, letters, and words—signifiers of language—shaped Mac Low’s entire legacy. “Whatever the degree of guidance given by the authors, all or the larger part of the work of giving or finding meaning devolves upon the perceivers,”3 Mac Low once wrote. Driven by this democratic notion of shared ownership, he used lines, letters, and words to draw connections between diverse fields of study, consequentially blowing each wide open for new possibilities of communication. Knowingly or not, Mac Low was working on a new visual language. And given today’s increasingly interdisciplinary landscape, I’d say his experiments were downright groundbreaking.
- Jackson Mac Low, “READING A SELECTION FROM TENDER BUTTONS”, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Vol.1, No.6, December 1978.
- Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, “Science, Technology, and Poetry: Some Thoughts on Jackson Mac Low”, CRAYON #1, September 1997.
- Jackson Mac Low, “Language-Centered”, OPEN LETTER 5.1, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Vol.4, No.1, Winter 1982.
Rabia Ashfaque is a widely published writer, born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. She received her MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts in 2014.