Images After Errors/Errors After Images : Joan Retallack

Redell Olsen

But I remember feeling that I had walked into an entirely different medium...

— Joan Retallack

Joan Retallack’s relationship to Minimalism can be traced through her long standing interest in the work of John Cage whose 4’33’’ influenced a generation of artists. Unlike Retallack these artists did not, for the most part, assimilate Cage’s methods of composition. Retallack on the other hand often uses Cagean chance operations within frameworks that heighten the unfamiliar. I have deliberately chosen to place her work in the context of two artists, Agnes Martin and Hanne Darboven, because they are at one remove from the mainstream of Conceptual and Minimal Art. Retallack presents language as ‘matter’ that is subject to procedures and processes already present in the world; by examining her poetry from the early 90s in the light of visual work that was produced nearly twenty years earlier I will illustrate how Minimalism’s concern with the intersection of materiality and conceptualism has continued outside of the context of the visual arts.

In her recent re-introduction to Minimalist Art, Anne Wagner cites the relationship between the viewer and the work as a central concern to minimalist sculpture in a way which anticipates the importance of the reader as producer in contemporary poetics. In her account of Minimalism, the viewer is “bound into a more ‘reflexive’ exchange with the object, which...has redefined the look. The viewer is now bound, that is, by a special grammar of equivalency and responsiveness in which the subject and object are proposed as mutual, even identical” (14). Interestingly, Wagner clarifies this reciprocity through a grammatical example drawn from the work of minimalist sculptor Robert Morris:

Take, for a typical example, ‘I shave myself.’ The visual parallelism Morris proposes is not quite akin to that of the phrase ‘I see myself,’ or even ‘It sees itself,’ but rather an imagined superimposition of the two phrases. The self of the viewer is now both objectified and made cognate to the sculptural object through the agency of sight. (14)

It is this idea of superimposition that is important in Retallack’s work: “I see myself” directly over or below “It sees itself.” The boundary between I and it, and between myself and itself, dissolves.

Explorations of the boundaries of the subject also figure in the work of Agnes Martin and Hanne Darboven, two important artists whose work, although it can be situated within the minimalist context, is tangential to the male dominated mainstream of minimalist practice (in fact Darboven usually appears in surveys of Conceptual Art). One significant feature of minimalist practice was the use of grids, and grids are consistent features in each of their works. In Martin’s work grids are drawn or painted across a background in endless variations: as squares, dashes, sections, oblongs of frames within frames. Similarly, Darboven’s Permutations is described by Lucy Lippard as providing an “armature for her obsession” with the grid (216).

Hanne Darboven. One Page of Jan 23, 1968. From one of six volumes of the year 1968. Hanne Darboven Untitled Ink, on paper. 1971

Begun in 1966, Permutations is a series of drawings (constructions) and writings that are related to ongoing calculations which use the numbers in each day’s date (see Figs. 1 & 2).  In these examples, Darboven’s grid is a conceptual rather than a visual construct. According to Lippard, Darboven’s: “obsession is not so much numbers as the physically (visually) experienced time span.” And Lippard continues:

As she fills page after page, book after book with her distinctive handwriting, with precisely rhythmic ‘waves,’ or with typed words and numbers, her personal calendar is synchronized with that of her work, as well as with that of the real world. For all the detachment implied by the use of systems, Darboven is closer to her art than almost any artist I can think of. (216)

Retallack similarly insists on foregrounding permutations and distinctions (“we are not members of the class of all/classes which can not entertain” [1995:12]) and like Darboven, she takes apart and reassembles the armature of a grid. But whereas Darboven’s grid is a numerical constraint, Retallack’s work is an assault on the boundaries of the linguistic grid of the everyday:

[th] these [are] the things that made us human

S-curve                         S-hook                    th-

[1        1        2        3        5        8        13...........

lurk      lucktool          ladle               saves

non sexist naming of hurricanes (saves)

any of various pigeon-like birds

any of various pigeon-like lurk

any of various pigeon-ladle     saves

pigeon lucktool sex various nonist     (13)

Afterrimages also synchronizes the personal (“this was morning/deep in her body” [6]) with the work in the world (“Note: it came from Sears” [19]). Like Darboven, Retallack emerges and submerges herself as a presence, or subject ‘in’ the work through the “simple physics & complex politics of everyday life”(30). However the two projects enact different senses of duration. The poems in Afterrimages appear as snapshots of ongoing processes rather than as sustained catalogues of each and every change. The work parallels Darboven’s as a record of a performance of event. Retallack’s text is bisected by a line across the middle of the page which marks the before and after of this event. The material above the line is repeated below after it has been subjected to a chance operation; Retallack threw paperclips across the upper part of the text and whatever was caught in the spaces of the clips was reproduced below. Like Darboven’s Procedures it is a piece of work which foregrounds itself as a process. This writing is itself a performance, a performance calculated beforehand but strategically open to the chance directions that the text might take. We can read the foregrounding of process as a kind of conceptual framework that is at once a priori within the event of making and which is reactivated through reading.

If the objects of Minimalism were read as ‘signs’ then the work allowed for a different type of reading process than the one usually encountered through the use of an expected teleology of syntax.  Far from being autonomous, the view of minimal sculpture as being syntactical allowed critics of Minimalism to expand the reading of the work outward from the object into the world (Hartley 81). George Hartley compares the way in which Steve McCaffery reduces “the sign to a cipher” by pointing out: “like . . . minimal sculpture which no longer refers beyond itself, the cipher is an object to be negotiated rather than evaporated through the act of reading” (81). The cipher calls for a reading based on a negotiation of words as objects. This negotiation takes account of the blank spaces between the fragments of words in a manner that parallels the way in which the viewers of minimalist sculpture take into account the space of the gallery, the field in which the objects are arranged in various relationships to one another. McCaffery’s reduction of words to shards and edges draws attention to the material nature of the signifier—an effect which is also evident in Retallack’s work. According to Hartley it is “through such language-centered (as opposed to referent-centered) writing, [that] reading becomes writing” (83). And it seems to me that this stress on producing a writing-reader depends on regarding the page as being both a visual and a verbal entity.

This foregrounding of process in Afterrimages differs from Errata 5uite, a text which sites itself in the space of the negative, the realm of the error. Errata 5uite is based on a superimposition of two existing grid structures: the musical stave and the errata slip. The poem is constructed around repetitions that are systematically punctuated by different registers of material and context: “read need to (skip to) course of reason language history geography’s loss”(34). Retallack’s use of the grid is not unlike Agnes Martin’s:

Fig. 3
Agnes Martin, Leaf, 1965
Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 183 x 183 cm
Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas.

In An Answer To An Enquiry, Martin describes how it is the deviations from the way in which structure is anticipated that constitute the content of the work:

My formats are square, but the grids never are absolutely square; they are rectangles, a little bit off the square, making a sort of contradiction, a dissonance, though I didn’t set out to do it that way. When I cover the square with rectangles, it lightens the weight of the square, destroys its power (29).

 Just as Martin’s concerns are the points in the painting which err from the grid (because they are straight lines being drawn or painted by hand) so the subject matter or content of Retallack’s Errata 5uite is the space of slippage that might occur between typing and writing, from word to meaning. Both Retallack and Martin envisage a kind of displacement that is open to the positive possibilities of error:

We will all get there someday however and do the work that we are supposed to do. Of all the pitfalls in our paths and the tremendous delays and wanderings off the track I want to say that they are not what they seem to be. I want to say that all that seems like fantastic mistakes are not mistakes and all that seems like error is not error; and it all has to be done. That which seems like a false step is just the next step. (Martin 73)

In Retallack this displacement figures as an endless substitution of meanings (“read read for real”[2]), (“please note 24 & 26 printed upside down read dear for pear or peer reed/real camino replace with stet to let it be...”[20]) that systematically dislocates and reconnects the found source material to and from its context, as well as proposes other affinities and juxtapositions through error. The flow of displacement/substitution /displacement/substitution of the material (“read for for read read forehead for missing biographical note for our read/out read this category meant to cut cut error whole she/Tokyo”) becomes the subject of the work itself. Errata 5uite’s process through continual substitution and erasure seems to enact this narrative of delay. If Martin’s work apparently posits a kind of coherency in the face of irregularity and chaos, it is a coherency which is attentive to the subtle interruptions that err from the classical pattern—a slip of the hand, a distance chanced by eye rather than measured. Retallack’s work posits a framework that spills over with reference, and highlights the grid’s inability to contain at the same time as it manifests a “courage to err” (36).

Visually the poem foregrounds the question of mimesis through the use of source materials and by dividing the page into two sections. The space below the line does not reflect a mirror image of the text above but presents instead a littering of marks and traces that can be read visually as the fragments or edges of words. If as Charles Bernstein argues “the gap between the verbal and visual is an almost insurmountable problem of translation,” the insurmountability of the problem suggests a type of reading not bound to produce verbal equivalencies of the visual world (of which language is a part) (109). Retallack suggests that we “think of this life as a largely untranslatable film and our glut of printed words [as] the fanciful subtitles with which we reel through it” (1990: 493).

During the early 70s formalist critics of Conceptual Art faced the difficulty of translation. Robert C. Morgan cites Robert Hughes’ review of a Douglas Huebler exhibition in Time magazine (December 18, 1972) as an example of the way in which Conceptual Art challenged the accepted strategies for viewing art in a gallery context: “There are no aesthetic criteria for dealing with such works. If some artist shows a clutch of Polaroids of himself playing table tennis, this is called ‘information.’ But who is informed, and about what?” (xiv). Morgan further points out that the formalist critic is caught up in the expectation that because these documents are meant to be “seen” they should therefore be interpreted in the formal sense, just as any other visual art object would be. But the polaroids were intended as photographic documents not as fine art prints and were instead presented as evidence of a structure in which the concept was essentially nonmaterial and nonvisual. For Morgan, the polaroids function as internal components of this structure: “they are like nonvisual signs that point toward a specific referent; they function syntactically as if they were or could be within any language construct”(xv). Morgan’s critique of Formalist criticism has implications for reading Afterrimages, because the text raises the same problems as looking at a clutch of polaroids did in the 1970s. Much like the polaroids, Retallack’s fragments disrupt the context of poetry because they appear to suggest an appeal to the formal aesthetics of reading. But they are intelligible as visual documents and documentation, presented as evidence of other structures beyond the poem which might be essentially nonmaterial and nonvisual, but which have very material consequences in terms of how the reading and writing subject exists in the world. The text represents a documentation of another’s (Retallack’s) reading practice, a kind of performance that functions like Huebler’s polaroids through the relationship between the rejection and the assimilation of its internal components. The partial phrases are like visual signs that point toward a specific referent that can’t be wholly recovered; they function syntactically as individual units and also as a whole paratactic syntactic structure that parallels the serial juxtaposition of Huebler’s images.

In both her choice of source material and her use of process to foreground a conceptual framework in practice Retallack seems to highlight a dynamics of linguistic investigation and inquiry that resists the stasis of conceptualism. She has described the objective as a stasis: “a kind of ‘moment of inertia [a] parameter useful in describing the rotational motion of rigid inorganic bodies” which is in direct contrast to “the urgent knowledge that erupts from the page and into the form [and] sends one into the swerving, turbulent patterns of life principles—the messiness and loveliness of ecological interdependence, synergy, exchange, chance (1999: 334). This formulation of the objective encourages a dynamic reformulation of objectivity as being in flux and in process. Rather than presenting a series of still-lives that represent the external world, Retallack frames a series of actions that become re-activated in the presence of the reader. It is this stress on a dynamics of interchange that she connects back to her roots in Cagean minimalism: “This is what John Cage meant by art that imitates not nature but her processes—processes that render us cheerfully and tragically unconsolable” (1999: 334). What we must, as readers and writers, be cheerfully unconsolable about is the unrecuperable relationship between the world and language. What Retallack posits instead is work “with more permeable boundaries—riddled with gaps, silences, disruptions,” one that offers us “a synergistic interaction of reader and text, both similarly vulnerable to perverse and delightful deflections of chance, open to outcomes dictated not only by author’s design but by the rich chemistry of a language that is, after all, a form of life” (1988: 248). This inevitable loss however is not a cause for regret, rather “In both cases, literature and mathematics, we must feel confident that incompleteness is the effect of richness, not confusion 51;a heroic demonstration of unrequitable intellectual need/desire, perhaps an odd form of love”(1988: 261).

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. “For M/E/A/N/I/N/G.” M/E/A/N/I/N/G : An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism. Ed. Susan Bee and Mira Schor. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. 107-112.

Hartley, George. Textual Politics and the Language Poets, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Lippard, Lucy. Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Martin, Agnes.Writings/Schriften. Ed. Dieter Schwarz. Kunstmuseum Winterhur: Edition Cantz, 1992.

Morgan, Robert C. Conceptual Art: An American Perspective. Jefferson: McFarland & Company,1994.

Retallack, Joan. “A Conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop.” Contemporary Literature 40:3 (1999) : 329-377.

_____. Afterrimages. New England, Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1995.

_____. Errata 5uite. Washington DC: Edge, 1993.

_____. “Non-Euclidean Narrative Combustion (Or, What the subtitles can’t say)” Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry. Ed. James McCorkle. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. 491-509.

_____. “Post-Scriptum—High Modern” Postmodern Genres. Edited Marjorie Perloff. Norman and London : University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Wagner, Anne M. Introduction. Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. 1968. Ed. Gregory Battcock. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Bio: Redell Olsen was born in 1971. She studied English at Cambridge and has since completed an MA in Fine Art. She has worked in video, performance and installation and is currently researching for a Ph.D. at the University of London on crossovers between the visual arts and poetry. She runs the imprint Allsingingalldancing and lives in London. Publications include Book of the Fur (rempress, 2000) and Book of the Insect (allsingingalldancing, 1999).

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