What is Black and White and Read All Over?
What is black and white and read all over?, a question appropriated from a riddle, turns on the semantic confusion between visual and verbal apparatus yet now may suggest that the function of “read” (as in learning or reading) may inform or figure “red” (that is, a color) and not necessarily because an identity finds its coherence through a fixed property for which only one structure obtains: for within mediums there are puns that take effect and are construed in their double identity once the writer, artist, composer, architect, choreographer establishes a local contextual meaning within which an encoded escape is possible. Identity as such in jokes and play may force the issue of hybrid terms and non-synonymous doubling. Identity may be hyphenated. Identity may constellate through a problematic rather than through a particular medium, a problematic for which differing sets of aptitudes and skills concretize research process and even product. Here, then, is a way of understanding how an artist doing both may readily pass from one discipline to another.
The pursuit of poetry and of painting is not necessarily in conflict but may well be functionally synergistic, as substantially productive of creative ideas as is reading to writing. Or as teaching or translating is to writing. In my better moments, the simultaneity of functions will distribute across teaching, writing criticism, and writing a poem or painting a painting, and I consider reading a functionally creative enterprise—as many of us here do. But beyond the reciprocal benefits that accrue with such mobilizing of functions, poetry and painting may not get in each other’s way insofar as certain ideas, being non-specific to either medium, may be realized in both. Imagine the possibility of, say, the problematic of incommensurate orders as a compositional issue that may range across poetry and painting, or may be pursued in poetry even as the painting be devoted to something else entirely.
Let me demonstrate by reading a couple of shorter poems provoked through my teaching an immersion course in Wallace Stevens’s poetry and poetics (to be found in my book The Annotated “Here” and Selected Poems). For our purposes, note that ringing changes on a theme—the theme of place—in the first instance, distributes in an all-over structure constituted of discrepant doubling; then, in the second instance, distributes a heterogeneity of sentence types to push into the foreground the semantic heterogeneity of a theme. The logic here will be the logics of language for which a post-structuralist querying of the semantics of syntax be an abiding concern.
The ordering in this second poem is a pragmatic order that puts on display not a single cohesive meaning that drives the symbol in Stevens’s poem but a rough relativism: “place” occurs by way of differentiating the term and letting the varieties of sense “fall where they may.” This, at any rate, what I had set out to do, having noted that the world Stevens would have us acknowledge in “Anecdote of the Jar”—although not in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”—is a unified vision. A kind of ordering of the world through phenomenological subjectivity in Stevens’s work may have been the provocation but my own work takes as its subject epistemologies that construct a world, over which neither poetry nor painting have exclusive rights.
Switching to painting for the moment, let me demonstrate how similar thought might work in another medium and on its own terms. A painting from the mid 1990s will serve this purpose by showing the heterogeneity of orders packed with as much reference to the literature of art history and theory as does the second of the two poems I just read to its own literature.
In 1997, I was asked to be a “line-item” in an institutional grant application to the Trust for Mutual Understanding, which sponsors cultural reciprocity between comparable institutions in America and countries of Eastern yet also Central Europe. Prior to that grant I had given myself a visual template for an epistemological problematic that then became a deliberate project while I lived in Lodz, Poland for six weeks. Reading now from the grant application, I focused on the problematic of incommensurate orders in the following way:
Incommensurate logics brought into equilibrium are of great interest to me, in part to further the concerns of modern abstraction by opening the givens of modernism to post-structuralist investigations. Last year I took the opportunity to show a triplet of paintings from what developed after this grant.
To allow for the problematic of Difference-within-Similarity to be much more pronounced—indeed, made radical—from canvas to canvas, this series enables local contextual situations to establish the linguistic rules, rules then exercised for their potential: rules established meanwhile to show how a non-verbal set may act as an interpretant—in Peirce’s term—for an individual member of the set. The series THE WITHOUT constitutes an open work for an open investigation. Related canvases shown at the Baumgartner Gallery in New York brought about my current gallery affiliation.
How does passing from poetry to painting and back again foreground new questions? Or, put in other words, how is black and white read…, then reread? My earlier point centers on the question: how do forms of thought inform poetry, inform painting? Having said at the outset that the choice of medium does not necessarily drive the conception is another way of saying that certain concerns are not specific to a single medium.
Questions raised include: what is a visual idea? How may a painting be said to think? Issues of medium mandate that paintings (and visual art in general) not be subject to illustrating poetry. Much painting one sees is literary in this weak sense—which is why Freud rejected much visual surrealism as off-the-mark and Breton seized happily on Arshile Gorky’s abstract paintings as having understood the principle of metamorphosis better than had many surrealists. (Much art one sees published in literary journals, by the way, is less visually sophisticated on this matter than ought to be given the claims for the poetics. This topic—on which I have lectured elsewhere—deserves a full discussion beyond the assertion I have just made. I shall however further say by way of explanation for this disjunction between visual and verbal literacy in forms that would conjoin them is that this discrepant literacy is so in large measure because those of us who are sighted mistakenly assume that visual literacy is a natural function—that anyone who can see can read for understanding.)
How may a painting be said to think? Whether or not Hubert Damisch articulates it, the strategic model has indeed long informed the narratives contesting for cultural hegemony. The strategic model is in play whenever the problematic takes the form of “What is the legacy of Jackson Pollock?” for the question presupposes that creating art is not historical happenstance but purposive theory that manifests itself through spatial paradigms, at least, this assumption of spatiality as consonant with a mental conception still may be seen presupposed in the writings of Allan Kaprow’s contemplating the problematic left us by Pollock, as much as by Barnett Newman’s trying to take stock of the same modern narrative. Today, architecture much more than painting sustains a strategic model, through the on-going theoretical dialogue with ideas of tectonics warped through language or as a nexus of social forces and defines its significance as such.
These days, too, poetics writes poetry and informs it with strategic high stakes. So passing from one practice to another may indeed make one aware of the incommensurate nature of the discourse wherein theories of art and literature do not translate one to the other. Then, too, the state of the art is more readily discerned once construed as a thought form, but as a mode of thought in a cultural world largely indifferent to poetry and indulgent of painting yet without valuing either.
Even as exclusive privilege to form is less and less at issue, questions of medium do emerge. Passing from one discipline to another does foreground assumptions, practical as well as theoretical, and shows these to be decisions open to question. Shuttling between home and studio does at some point raise the question of choice of medium. Why paint? This question often put to me means: Why paint at all, what is the justification for this obsolete technology? Although discussing this question as with the question what does it mean for painting to think? leads us to much beyond the time constraints of this panel, an answer to this not specifically tied to my own practice is: Why paint? Why write? Meaning: given that so many implements of writing have also become obsolete—the most recent of which being the typewriter—do thought forms lose their cogence once their period becomes marked as happening in the past? The technology of the typewriter having merged with that of computing, however, suggests that writing itself, while transmuted, is still integral to creative practice. Moreover, materials and techniques associated with painting may encode a sort of critique of painting: indeed my diagrammatic painting is becoming—if anything—more so, in order to sharpen the metalanguage.
What is it for painting to think? might address technology in this way: what technics are required of this thought form to accomplish thus-and-so rhetoric? Phrased in this way, the key term is not technology so much as reasoning with the medium to plot a certain thought. Under the aegis of this process of stating and restating the problematic several strong solutions will emerge as worthily effective. This latter is expressive of the principle of indeterminacy in action, where indeterminacy means “degrees of freedom within a system.” Modernist studies is long familiar with this question: the question is that of interpretation where once explanation had had the upper hand. (Postmodernist studies, meanwhile, recognizes the problematic of incommensurate epistemologies as its own.)
Discourse theory and questions of institutional framing of practices may emerge, then, as one passes from working in one discipline to another.
BIO: Marjorie Welish teaches as an Associated Professor in the graduate Fine arts program at the Pratt Institute, with guest semesters at Brown in the fields of art criticism and literature. Her most recent collection of poems, The Annotated Here, came out in 2002 from Coffee House Press. Welish’s writing as an art critic is most admirably represented by Signifying Art: Essays on Art after 1960 (Cambridge University Press, 1999); and her paintings have been exhibited in NYC over the last decade, most recently by the Baumgartner Gallery. Perhaps the most eloquent homage to the multiple claims of her fiercely attentive eye and ear was the recent day-long conference at University of Pennsylvania in April 2002, addressing Welish’s multi-genre writing/painting production via live and long-distance responses from a multitude of critics and writers, from coast to coast. These critical appreciations have been collected and will soon be available in print from Slought Press. Kathleen Fraser