The art world has mixed feelings about words. On one hand, with the words of the critic, we're lost; we count on the wall texts in a museum to help explain the works to us. On the other hand, when confronted with them on the walls as artworks, they present certain challenges. It's been said that the average time spent in front of a painting before moving on to the next in a gallery or museum is fifteen seconds. However, when words appear gallery walls, there's a different sort of time engagement that occurs, one of duration and presumed narrative, more akin to cinema or literature than to visual art. It takes time to read words, and then it takes more time to construct a semblance of meaning from those words. As a result, more often than not, word works are quickly passed by.
When you think about the history of text in the art world, the most successful works are the ones with very few words, ones that treat the word as image, rather than linguistic signifier. Picasso cleverly used the word as image in his cubist paintings; Magritte famously captioned his pipe in five words; and Warhol treated language as a brand. But with the advent of conceptual art in the 60s, artists dropped the image altogether, often using words to describe an image, thus removing the image entirely,. In 1968, for example, Lawrence Weiner simply stenciled this sentence on a wall:
GLOSS WHITE LACQUER SPRAYED FOR 2 MINUTES AT FORTY POUND PRESSURE DIRECTLY UPON THE FLOOR
Joseph Kosuth put dictionary definitions on walls; he later went on to create information rooms, filled with long library tables stacked with books, newspapers and journals. By the early 70s, words—lots of them—could regularly be found in galleries. But to many viewers, it seemed that the gallery might not be the best place to read. Why do something in a public space that could conceivably be done in the comforts of one's home?
And then there is the occupational hazard of being a text-based artist: in a world that demands uniqueness, all text-based works look alike. Naturally, when restricted to twenty-six forms, a cursory glance at any text-based work will look like every other text-based work. And yet, to this day, the form maintains a constant presence in galleries and museums.
Kay Rosen is a master of the medium. She's figured out how to meld the visual and the verbal into an ideal gallery experience. Using only words in block letters, her work is easy to read, yet beautiful to look at, delivering a mental punch that resonates long after her language is consumed. Specific enough to deliver a message, yet at the same time open enough to invite multiple interpretations. Rosen's practice is masterfully tuned into the desire of the art viewer.
Yet sometimes more needs to be said. Sometimes free floating singular words aren't enough; the glue of syntax becomes necessary; explanations need to be given; words need to be constructed into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into essays, essays into the book you're holding in your hands, which is a sort of Rosetta Stone for Rosen's oblique gallery strategies. Included here are Rosen's lectures, statements and interviews, spanning her career, gathered together for the first time. After reading these essays, any ambiguities you might have about her practice vanish, providing a glimpse into the ultra-rational mind of the artist.
The most telling piece in this collection is the most recent one—an interview conceived by Mathew Higgs for Rosen's exhibition of wall texts at Yvon Lambert Gallery in New York. The project is called 20 QUESTIONS, and takes the form of an interview between Higgs and Rosen, in which all twenty questions have been provided by individuals who have had either a personal or professional relationship with the artist. It's Rosen's way of paying back the community that has long supported her and that she, in turn, has long supported.
On the occasion of the Lambert show, her fifteenth solo exhibition in New York, Roberta Smith of the New York Times wrote of Kay Rosen:
Zeroing in on language and forcing it through the sieve of form and perception, Ms. Rosen makes us see it, and the world, differently, often in sad, wise ways. Cultivating her own garden, she is one of the best artists of our time.
It's a perfect summation of the way Rosen's influence has extended and supported these artists over the years. Indeed, Kay has made artists "see the world differently, often in sad, wise ways" and, as such, has come to assume the role of sage and confidant to several generations of artists, many of whom are present in the Higgs interview. They've watched Kay "cultivate her own garden" and it has, in turn, inspired them to cultivate their own.
Talk for Textual Operations, curated by Antonio Sergio Bessa at The White Box, New York City, October, 2001
For this lecture, I decided to talk about the way the text in some of the work not only represents real life, but also imitates it. I chose the title LIFELIKE because the relationship of the two parts of LIFELIKE—LIFE and LIKE, is a lot like the relationship between the text in my work and what it represents. LIFE and LIKE are identical except for the third letter in each word: F in LIFE and K in LIKE. So one is almost a copy of the other except for one letter. Also, the position of LIKE in second place—behind LIFE, contributes to its status as an un-original. And in fact LIKE means not the thing itself, but a facsimile of the thing itself. The sequence of the two words, their definitions, and the action of two letters,—one replacing the other—establish the relationship of an original and a copy. And this is the aspect of my work that I’ll discuss—where language attempts to simulate life not through what it says, but through what it does. I’ve selected some works in which words attempt to masquerade as linguistic androids that are lifelike, and that attempt to enact or become the thing they represent, or some aspect of the thing. There occasionally seems to be a predisposition in the original language that makes this possible, even though it’s completely random and coincidental and has nothing to do with formal rules. It seems that there’s a sort of genetic DNA in some words that enables them to be arranged so that their structure reveals something about their meaning. They’re able to exceed their function as a signifier by becoming little drag words that cross dress as the signified.
LEAK from 1995 contains two words that have an internal imperative to be paired and realized in a way that describes their r`elationship, and demonstrates who they are and what they do, in addition to naming. Looking at the words ROOF and FLOOR, you may not notice anything unusual at first. But on closer inspection you can see that the sequence of letters from the beginning of ROOF and from the end of FLOOR are practically the same. With the exception of the L, each word has one R, two Os, and an F, in the same order. This in itself doesn’t make a point. But when the words are positioned like their object counterparts, with ROOF upside down over FLOOR, their common letters line up exactly, except for the L, which is missing in ROOF, and creates what looks like a hole. It's coincidental that the missing letter is L, which could stand for LEAK. The way the structure and meaning of these two words reinforce each other in their missionary position, and actually become a shelter with a leaky roof, goes far beyond linguistic orthodoxy. The letters don’t simply lie flaccidly on a horizontal plane, but act by hoisting themselves into the position of a verbal prefab according to a generic plan. This example is an instance in which structure and meaning intersect and concur without any apparent formal connection.
Looking at the silver and black painting EVEN from 1991, whose text reads UNEVENU, you see that although its arsenal of letters is small, the weight of each letter has potentially great consequences in this minimal context. The horizontal verbal fragment is the equivalent of a scale on which seven letters balance: two sets of Us, Ns, and Es on either side of the central symmetrical letter V. Each letter is like a little weight whose addition or subtraction tips the scale and upsets the balance. The process begins with the placement of an E on each side of the V, spelling EVE—an appropriate genesis. But if an N is added to EVE to make the word say EVEN, the physical balance is upset, although it makes sense linguistically. To correct this imbalance, an N is added in front of EVEN making the word read NEVEN, which is now visually balanced, but does not make sense linguistically. So a U is added to the front of N in an attempt to have it make sense, enabling the word to be read as UNEVEN. But again, it doesn’t look balanced. Finally, a U is attached to the end in order to even up the word, making it become UNEVENU, a non-word. In the end, the linguistic argument capitulates to the visual one, although the traces of the dispute remain. It's impossible to reconcile the two. At each step one is privileged at the expense of the other. No matter how many adjustments are made, perfect balance is a utopian goal. If you look at this work as a sort of verbal test site for the notion of balance, it proves that it’s very difficult to achieve and that there’s always a trade-off in the process. Seven letters carry out a metaphysical experiment which not only demonstrates a point, but also reiterates their ability to act as bodies with moral, physical and graphic weight.
In PALIMPSEST, a list from 1991, while the letters don’t function in quite the same way, a single letter is a formidable actor, who turns things around. Perhaps the most mysterious and ambiguous letter in the alphabet is X. It‘s also one of the hardest working. Even though it isn’t used frequently, its meanings are varied and it wears many hats. They include a letter, a symbol for a kiss, the location of a buried treasure, a pre-literate signature, a beer logo–Dos Equis–and the Roman numeral ten. The flexibility of its identity makes it an appropriate sign to use to depict a range of issues: for example, the fragility and slippage inherent in systems of power. The list contains the names of ten popes and kings who are all the tenth successor to their religious and secular namesakes. Their lineage has been validated by nine predecessors of the same name. But the noble and holy endowment they have received at the hand of history is thrown into doubt by the function of the X in the final name, MALCOLM X, which changes unquestionable ancestry to unknown ancestry. X is able to upset the sequence and accomplish this little revolution because it’s an unstable letter that receives meaning from its context. Its alignment with the first ten names depict it as a trusty marker of continuity. This, plus the chanting, hypnotic repetition of the list structure, lulls the reader into buying into the predictability and stability of a system which has endured for generations. But the sudden and dramatic realignment of the X with the name of the African-American leader shifts it from a number to a letter, with entirely different implications, destabilizing the list and by extension, destabilizing history.
The deployment of a single horizontal line of green letters on a field becomes a landscape in this wall painting called THE FOREST FOR THE TREES (1990; installed at L.A. MOCA in 1998-99). The work is inspired by the saying, "You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Coincidentally, all of the letters that make up the phrase THE FOREST FOR THE TREES can be used to spell only the words THE FOREST. Since there are twenty letters in the entire phrase and only nine letters in THE FOREST, eleven are left over, making THE FOREST look like this: tthhee ffoorrreeesstt. The result is the uncanny verbal equivalent of the saying. In this configuration you can’t read the words THE FOREST because of the words FOR THE TREES. THE FOREST is obfuscated by the surplus letters that make up the phrase FOR THE TREES. So you can’t see the forest for for the trees. I think there’s a certain inevitability about a found phrase that is capable of implementing its own visual metaphor with such finesse and economy. It’s as if the potential for an alternative version preexisted in the original twenty letters. Although the letters aren’t changed, they’re rearranged so that the number of words is cut by 60%—from five to two—effectively simplifying the message by pruning itself into a succinct verbal object—a forest of trees. As in the previous works, these nimble performances by language are transgressive and come at the expense of rules. But the text’s concern with the disciplined visual support of its message insists that it privilege form over bad linguistic behavior. Any rectitude in the work comes from its grammatical and linguistic incorrectness. To decipher this piece, you have to forget everything you know to be true regarding rules and rely on linguistic memory, cognitive skills, and color cues.
The tree painting from 1988 called TREE-LINED STREET used side margins to overhang the text, like trees, concealing parts of words while coaxing TREE out of STREET , and revealing two trees instead of one.
DIVISIBILITY (1987), was inspired by the confluence of meaning and structure in that word, by the way that every consonant alternates with an I. It’s as if the Is are the instruments of division and carry out, through their physical form, the meaning of the word. Is look after all like vertical barriers or supports, like I-beams, which when considered abstractly, look like a partition between the other letters. The Is not only separate the consonants from each other, but are also the marker at the end of each spoken syllable—DI-VI-SI-BI-LI-TI. (I used a little poetic license and substituted an I for a Y at the end because they carry the same vowel sound.) Thanks to the remarkable coincidence of letter forms and meaning, the word looks like a grid of consonants intermittently separated by repetitive upright bars. Arranging it in a grid in which the Is alternately separate and are separated helps to neutralize reading, which is normally conducted linearly from left to right. This construction frames the word more like an object that is directionless and that can be scanned vertically, horizontally, or even diagonally, emphasizing its social and physical architecture.
A stacked construction of three words and the systematic vertical alignment of like letters, one under the other, are the organizing principles behind the object, SHELF, a recent painting on paper. The design of the unit: its height, width, number of shelves; the arrangement of its contents; and the usage of its contents are all a function of thirteen letters and the way they appear in these words. They’re assembled in this piece because of their mutual limitations: two of the words share three letters (S, H, F); all three words share two letters (E, L); and all of the common letters occur in the same sequence, which is one of the remarkable things about it. The number of occurrences or incidents of each letter are important as well. Written language is formed by quantities of letters whose sequence and incidence distinguish them from each other as they form words. The same twenty-six letters that are used over and over again in words would all look the same if it weren’t for the frequency and the position of letters. Furthermore, when these three words are grammatically ordered (a hyphenated adjective preceding a noun—SELF-HELP SHELF—the verbal message is visually confirmed: shelved, and missing, books. Linguistic meaning accrues from the presence of letters and what they spell, but visual meaning comes from the absence of letters. It’s the missing letters, or spaces, created by the alignment that changes what would be three stacks of words—in other words a short list—into its visual equivalent: a shelf with missing books.
SIGHT AND SOUND OF MUSIC is a recent commission by Mass Moca for its current project, Game Show. It was a challenging project because the piece had to satisfy two requirements: it had to fill a very large, grand space—the wall was 40’x 130’—and it had to work like a game. My work is often game-like anyway, because there’s a process by which viewers have to arrive at an answer, a solution, or a punch line. They’re led by clues in the text, and perhaps by the title, to another place where the text hopefully holds some additional meaning. But because of the premise of the show, I felt I had to go an extra step to make this work more self-consciously like a game. The extra step turned out to be the withholding of explicit text from the viewer. The text, which is usually the image in my work, could only be accessed indirectly, by referencing the alphabetical columns at either end of the wall. The letters in turn corresponded to points on the graph that were connected by a dark green line. By correlating points on the graph to the letters, the viewer could figure out the text. It was no more difficult than reading any graph. I anticipated that viewers, after figuring out only a small segment, would easily guess what the whole thing said, because it is the lyrics from a well-known song, CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN from SOUND OF MUSIC. The clue to figuring out the lower blue line was that it didn’t go higher than G. It could be deciphered by using the same alphabet. It charted the melody. It accompanied the lyrics, or green line, and it generally flowed along fairly steadily in the key of D, never rising above F or below D. On the other hand, the text graph is wildly erratic because it charts the letters in the lyrics. It soars as high as Y (because of “every”) and plunges as low as A (in “mountain”), creating crests and valleys as it optimistically spells out letter by letter: CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN, FORD EVERY STREAM, FOLLOW EVERY RAINBOW... I’m impressed by the fact that a single alphabet and a given range of letters is versatile and ambidextrous enough to adequately serve two completely different systems—music and text.
My hope for SIGHT AND SOUND OF MUSIC was that the viewer didn’t stop with deciphering the lyrics and melody. The thing that endeared me to this work was what it did after that. It became a picture—a mirror image—of the landscape around North Adams: the Berkshire Mountains (green line), and the Hoosic River (blue line). The synchronization of the blue and green graph lines with what was going on outside the windows put it over the top for me. The huge scale of the space enabled the articulation of grandiosity and vastness, which even though flat and graphic, attempted to be like life in the only way it knew how, through letters and in this case, notes.
My interest in the way the entire vocabulary of written music and text share common graphic sources—letters—also inspired STAR-SPANGLED at the Whitney Museum last year. Each syllable in the lyrics—BA-A-A-NER-YE-ET-WA-AVE was spelled out on its own banner and positioned at a height on the facade that roughly corresponded to its musical position on the scale. In the key of G, their notes would be G, A, B sharp, A, G, F, F, E. Two of the syllables, ET and WA, from YET WAVE, were the same note: F, so they were silkscreened onto the same banner. But beyond the fact that STAR-SPANGLED worked out so well as a site specific work both architecturally and iconically, the thing I liked most about was that the division of the lyrics into syllables, and their arrangement on the facade according to the corresponding notes, created a wavy up and down movement that simulated a waving banner. It billowed as it reinforced the words BANNER YET WAVE.
PARTNERS, (1991), contains some agile verbal participants whose singular and doubled capabilities are notable. They range from persons to nouns and verbs, depending on how they're read. The text is organized as a diptych, with each canvas containing the same three words: TOM, CAN, CHA/TOM, CAN, CHA if read vertically, canvas by canvas; or TOM, TOM/ CAN, CAN/ CHA, CHA, if they’re read in three horizontal lines across both of the canvases. In the first canvas, the proper noun TOM and the verb CAN function perfectly well alone, but CHA is meaningless without its partner CHA to complete it. It looks lonely. If the work is read from side to side across and down, TOM, TOM/CAN, CAN/CHA, CHA, the partnered words change the scenario to one of excess music and dance. The flexibility of interpretation is due partly to the dual functions of the words TOM and CAN as a proper name and a verb, and as a type of drum and dance when doubled: TOM-TOM and CAN-CAN. The result is that there are several possible events going on: (1) either two characters named TOM, or twin TOMS, are doing the CAN-CAN and CHA-CHA with each other, skillfully moving as one, (2) possibly the two TOMS are able to (can) do the CHA-CHA, (3) there is no character named TOM, only a general sense of drum beats and movement that is reinforced by the double canvases. Two separate physical supports accomplish what one support cannot, which is to emulate two bodies or dancers, a double drum beat by two hands, a high kick by two legs, or a sexy move by two feet.
This is a graphite drawing on paper, from 2000, titled BETWEEN YOU, ME, & THE LAMPPOST. In the title, which is the source for the work and implicitly functions as part of it, the preposition BETWEEN establishes a spatial and serial relationship involving itself and three prepositional objects: you, me, lamppost. It sets up the limits for the distribution of privileged information—you, me, lamppost. But the secret itself remains confidential. We don’t know from the title what exactly is between you, me, and lamppost. But the drawing comes along and spills the beans. It scoops the original phrase and divulges the secret by literally following its own non-verbal clues. It acts like the squealer or the spoiler by revealing what is between you, me, lamppost—the secret, in other words, is nothing more than two commas and an ampersand! The saying BETWEEN YOU, ME, & THE LAMPPOST sets up inflated expectations by making a big production out of discretion. It reminds me of a Seinfeld episode in which Mr. Peterman furtively says to Elaine in his office, “Between you, me, the lamppost, and the desk...” as if to ensure the silence of all parties present. But is the drama here really deflated by the disappointing revelation that the secret is nothing more than two punctuation marks and a fancy abbreviation for AND? Or is the work cautioning not to dismiss the importance of these marks? At any rate, because the marks look like a secret code, they still carry some pretense of intrigue and fulfill what the title and phrase promise: a mysterious and cryptic message.
Another work that uses a mark to create a picture out of text is STILL LIFE from 1993. If you consider this painting whose cherry-red text on a lemon yellow ground reads FRUiT DiSH, you see that something as small as a dot over an “i” can disturb reading and self-consciously draw attention to the anomaly of a lower case letter amid a sequence of capital letters. Actually, on closer inspection of the painting you’ll notice that the Is are full size, making the dots surplus signs instead of parts of the letter. Relieved of its function as a letter part, the dot, in the context of fruit dish, is freed up to become a small red fruit, partially turning a linguistic fruit dish into a pictorial one. Positioned on top of DiSH or piled up on top of FRUiT, and having generic fruit qualities, like roundness, redness, and shininess, the dots or circles attempt to emulate their real life counterparts.
A phantom limb is a physiological phenomenon that describes the sensation that one continues to “feel” where an amputated limb once was, as if it were a strong physical memory of a lost limb. It struck me how closely the word reflects its poignant meaning. The first and last letters, P and B, have no sound when PHANTOM LIMB is pronounced, as if the word were spelled “f-a-n-t-o-m l-i-m.” Although the initial and final letters, P and B, are audially absent, they are graphically present when the word is written. This contradiction between presence and absence corresponds with the physical and mnemonic ambiguity of the condition.
THE BEGINNING OF A BYZANTINE PLOT (1997) attempts to emulate, through the abbreviated format of letters, a convoluted and Byzantine story. Its point of departure is the first four letters of the word BYZANTINE—B, Y, Z, A. The material for the rest of the story, then, is the rest of the alphabet. The relationship of these four letters to each other and to the alphabet isn’t normal or orderly. B, Y, Z, and A generate a system and structure that is completely out of whack. For example, the so-called story begins at the beginning and end simultaneously—with A and B, and Y and Z. A and B don’t come first and second, though, preceding Y and Z, but enclose them, coming first and fourth. Y and Z’s position in the middle rather than at the end also dispels normal expectations. B precedes A instead of the other way around. They defy simplicity, logic, and order.
The narrative completes itself according to the system established by B-Y-Z-A: in other words, the next four letters from the beginning and end—C, D, W, X, if arranged normally, would be in this story: D, W, X, C...etc. For me one of the most interesting things about this is the coincidental self-referentiality of the structure of the word to its meaning. In the structure of BYZANTINE, or at least in the structure of the first four letters of BYZANTINE, quite accidentally lie the seeds of its meaning, enabling them to grow a parallel object, a story out of letters with a very complex plot that economically mirrors its source.
In THE RIVER (1988), alphabetical sequences are tributaries which feed the River Styx. PQR runs into ST, and UVW runs into XY from the other direction. Or perhaps PQR and UVW are the banks of the river STYX.
Continuing on the subject of water, BACK OF THE BOAT (graphite drawing on paper, 1996) is pretty simple and straightforward in the way it structures, with mere parentheses, additional meaning and an image out of a word. What begins as a word that conjures up a simple image of a small water craft ends up being a slightly more complex one that is divided between FORE and AFT. And it’s completely coincidental and remarkable that AFT, a boat-term for the stern, happens to also be the linguistic rear of the word. If you think of the four letters as representing measures of space in the boat, the AFT section, containing THREE letters, is about seventy-five percent larger than the front, enabling it to hold more passengers. This probably holds some implications about distribution and ballast as it refers to a seagoing vessel, and as a microcosm of or metaphor for a larger vessel or holder of people—the disproportionate numbers and their positions at the front and the back might have larger resonance, as in elite and masses. The structure and function of parentheses as a pair of enclosures that segregate a portion of text into a less important, incidental, and secondary category, and that specifically segregate RAFT into two relational parts, suggests rank and class. The title picks up where the work itself leaves off. BACK OF THE BOAT suggests, through the structure and rhythm of the phrase and the alliteration of the Bs, another icon of transportation beginning with B. When I make the leap from BACK OF THE BOAT to BACK OF THE BUS, I realize that if BUS were segregated by parentheses in the same way, the rear section would be occupied by the word US.
In the pink and black wall painting ELVIS, ELVIS (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1994), language pays homage to the legendary rock star in the only way it knows how to—as a verbal Elvis impersonator. Although the phrase emits a conventional linguistic message containing a subject and verb, ELVIS LIVES, it also uses its body parts to resurrect ELVIS in another form—as LIVES. Working as a textual surrogate for the original ELVIS, the molecules reconstitute themselves, via his name, into an anagram suggesting immortality. It’s as if the verbal remains of his mortal form, the letters E-L-V-I-S, were redistributed to form a longer-lasting body, L-I-V-E-S. The transformation of the word ELVIS into the word LIVES is an event, like a magic or religious act. The acting out of the linguistic message by five actor letters ensures that Elvis lives on, perhaps in the body of a would-be Elvis, restored to a position of posthumous longevity by language.
Almost finally, I’d like to briefly discuss three works in which the medium performs a lifelike task. In the work up to now, the text is anthropomorphized, to the extent that language can be, visually and physically meeting the terms of its meaning through structure, letter forms, and marks. But materials can also unlock and activate surplus meaning. BLEED (1996) uses a fresh, wet red marker on porous paper to stencil out the word WOUND, strongly suggesting a link with human functions as it soaks through to the back, from where it’s read, making the back the front of the work. The subcutaneous mapping of the event attests to the seriousness of the hemorrhage. The ink and its application are the message of the work, rather than the word WOUND. The word certainly reinforces the event, but even if the word were SHOE, meaning would be affected by the act of the bleeding ink. The material enables the visual reenactment of an alarming lifelike event, using low-tech special effects to simulate life. In SUNLIGHT (1999) the word FADE is produced on paper by sunlight passing through a stencil. Usually a negative image like this is created by remaining passive while the surrounding area is activated by some sort of pigment. Although FADE appears to be a negative image due to the depletion of pigment, this is actually the area that is active and transformed by the sun’s rays, as the rest of the page remains stable. The paper acts like an inert body, exposing itself to the light, and FADE is like a tan line in reverse. It lightens, rather than darkens, from exposure. FADE doesn’t just message its meaning linguistically, as an intransitive verb. It goes through a natural and lifelike process. Whether it’s spelled FADE or SCHMADE doesn’t matter. The message is delivered by the real life act.
THE SHORTEST DISTANCE... (wall drawing, 2000), short for “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” uses blue chalk on a snapline, which is the bottom line, to express part of the saying: a straight line between 2 points. But it doesn’t really prove that it’s the shortest distance between two points. The word SHORTEST with the superlative -est suffix implies a comparative situation, and a comparative situation requires two or more. The phrase “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line” linguistically invites a comparison between a straight and curved line, and then demonstrates it with its own body in a continuous blue scripted longhand. It is a curved, graphic object, indifferent to its linguistic source. It could care less about what it says; it completely ignores the rules of spacing and word breaks. It’s only concerned with how it performs as a curved line. Curled up and gracefully coiled as it is, it occupies the same amount of space as the straight line. But if it were unfurled, so that it were straight, it would be much, much longer. Hand drawn in the same blue chalk, text competes not as a statement, but as a graphic line, in a physical, visual way.
Finally, I want to end with REMEMBER (graphite drawing, 1992 and painting on paper, 1993). As a word, REMEMBER is a corpus of letters, a body of members of rectangular, curved, and diagonal units that can stand for any group or structure. Visually, semantically, and audially, R-E-M-E-M-E-R made a certain kind of sense and conveyed a specific meaning. This almost appears to be a word as orderly, balanced, and versatile as a palindrome. But without the B, it neither looks, sounds, or means the same. It’s message is not conveyed through a correct, complete, and coherent word, but through a mistake, a misstep. It’s ability, though, is to give enough information to remind the viewer of what it was, while at the same time signaling the loss of 9/11 through the missing B. Hopefully it shows, in its own little way, how text can be a proxy for real life.
Kay Rosen’s subject matter is language. Using the bright, smooth colors of commercial sign paint, she hand-letters bits, pieces, and collections of words onto canvas. Relying on the viewer’s familiarity with the written word, her work explores and subverts the normal relationships between the physical presence of the word and the possibilities of what it might mean. Rosen grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, came up to Chicago to go to Northwestern University, and settled in Gary, Indiana. She has shown her work at Feature, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; Galerie Friedrich, Bern; Galerie Helga Maria Klosterfelde, Hamburg; Galerie Michael Cosar, Dusseldorf; Galerie Massimo de Carlo, Milan; Art Concept, Paris; Wooster Gardens, New York; and she currently has a show at Ten In One Gallery in Chicago. A mid-career survey of her work from 1972 to the present is on view in KAY ROSEN: LIFELI[K]E curated by Terry R. Myers and Connie Butler. It will be at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, November 15, 1998 through February 14, 1999, and Otis Gallery, Otis College of Art and Design, December 5, 1998 through February 14, 1999.
KATHRYN HIXSON: Does your interest in language date back to your studies in linguistics in graduate school?
KAY ROSEN: Actually it goes further back, to my exposure to foreign languages in the bilingual town where I grew up–Corpus Christi–where I heard Spanish quite a lot. We were taught Spanish from elementary school on. There was something romantic and exotic about this other language. In a way I was excluded from it because it was like a secret code that I couldn’t understand. But it also expanded my world. I could imagine that instead of being stuck in Corpus Christi, Texas, I could be in Spain or Buenos Aires or Mexico. It was probably just a little romantic girl thing. Originally, I intended to study languages, not linguistics. Gradually I became more interested in the structure of language and the comparative structures of different languages.
KH: How did you get from the science of linguistics to making art?
KR: After graduate school I taught Spanish, with linguistics thrown in, at the University of Indiana in Gary. Although I love teaching, I became disinterested in being simply a conduit who passed information from textbooks to students. And there were “events” in linguistics that I found really interesting, but that weren’t really relevant to what I was teaching. Also, many of the things about language that interested me had to be expressed visually in order to be appreciated and understood—graphic and grammatical components that affect reading and the way we receive information—like spaces, punctuation, upper- or lower- case letters, margins, color composition.
KH: Did you notice these visual characteristics of language while you were teaching?
KR: Yes, but I didn’t have the time or the proper tools or even the knowledge to investigate them. I knew very little about typography, for example. I was dissatisfied with teaching, and I knew that what I was interested in wasn’t part of formal linguistics and that I couldn’t pursue it through academia. On the other hand, I had always informally made art and now had the feeling that I had missed the boat and taken the wrong path.I began to regret that I hadn’t pursued art, so it seemed natural to look to that as an alternative.
KH: Did you quit teaching in order to go back to school?
KR: No. However, I did take a few courses simultaneously at the Art Institute. But mostly I worked on my own. When I started painting, among the first images I used were words and letters. Written languages seemed like a natural image for me. Not too long after that I quit teaching. But I still feel like I’m teaching, in a way, still doing research and presenting it, and maybe working on an endless Ph.D., only in another form.
KH: Were you aware of what was going on in the art world on the national scene?
KR: I became aware, but it took some time. I had taken a few art history courses in college, the few studio courses at the Art Institute which I mentioned, and I began reading Artforum, but I was pretty clueless. I never had any art mentors; and not having gone to art school, I didn’t know anything about networks, paths, options, or trends.
KH: Did you participate in the Chicago art scene in the 1970s? Did you get in to Chicago to visit galleries and meet with other artists?
KR: I had a brief stint with A.R.C., a freshly opened women’s cooperative gallery then, which was important for me because before that I hadn’t even been aware of the possibilities or the mechanics of exhibiting. Since I was pretty much stranded out in Gary, it provided a connection. Other than A.R.C. and the other alternative spaces N.A.M.E. and Artemisia, not much else was going on in Chicago, except for Phyllis Kind and the Imagists. I really wasn’t part of an artist community until Hudson opened Feature in Chicago in 1983.
KH: Where did you show your work in that interim between 1973 and 1983?
KR: Well, Chicago was a dead end. It is difficult to get things to happen here for artists and there’s very little support, although there is always hope that it will change. But in my opinion, it never does, which is why artists leave. From 1978 to 1983 I showed at Bertha Urdang Gallery in New York. She showed very rigorous conceptual work.
KH: How did your work develop from your first experiments with language?
KR: I made paintings and drawings using language until about 1973–74. And then I took a language hiatus, and until 1982 I worked in other media such as sculpture and photography, a period which has been referred to as one of self-imposed art schooling.
KH: Were you dealing with similar issues in the multimedia work as in the text pieces?
KR: Yes, I think in a way, especially in the notational and photographic performances. I would use found spaces, usually ones that conveyed movement—such as stairways or doorways— and I choreographed movement through and around them, applying a system that corresponded to the function of the site; and then I would photograph the “performers” at each step or station. The result would be a large photo grid and a legend. At one point, there were so many photos that I replaced them with notations instead—pen and ink notations on paper. I think it was the graphic notations that led me back to text. The notion of beginning with a found object and discovering a pattern or system in it that exceeded and revealed something new about its usual function, and then formalizing that through a medium such as photographic documentation or pen and ink is what makes them somewhat similar to my work with text.
KH: You pare down complicated systems to their basic components, then agitate that system in order to expose it and to push it into new possibilities. Were you in touch with the developments in Minimalism and work that dealt with the body?
KR: They were my biggest influence in the 70s, but not the sculptors or the painters (except for Hannah Darboven) as much as the musician Steve Reich or the dancers Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, who all dealt with systems of movement. I also admired some of the artists who did site-specific work, such as Nancy Holt, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Daniel Buren.
KH: Were you interested in the feminist movements of the 70s?
KR: It was impossible not to pay attention to them, not to be interested in them or not to recognize their importance. But at the same time, I was just becoming aware of my situation as an artist. I don’t think I had gone so far as to consider my position as a woman artist. It was unempowering enough just to work as an artist in Chicago, much less as a woman.
KH: Did you have any interest in the feminist analysis of the systems of power?
KR: Not so much at the time. It has interested me more since.
KH: How did you get to the formula you use now: stretched canvas, paint, and text? How did you come to use industrial sign paint?
KR: I’m not sure. I began working on paper, but I guess I was looking for something more substantial and more formal, something that codified text in a more formal and art historical way. Plus, the use of paint, especially the heavy opaque sign paint, required a more supportive structure. The combination of stretched canvas and sign paint spans the two worlds of art and art history, and commercial and social signage.
KH: Is your use of sign paint a reference to a Pop sensibility? It is “found paint,” which you do not mix.
KR: The sign paint, which is incidentally made in Gary, is wonderful for lettering. The colors are brilliant, and the surface doesn’t show brush strokes. It’s more of a technical consideration. As for not mixing it, you’re right—that would make it “found paint”, but in addition, if I haven’t mixed the colors, its standardization makes it less problematic to touch up later if necessary.
KH: Why do you paint on canvas?
KR: Partly for the reasons I just explained. And I prefer it to something like board—a completely smooth surface—because I like the texture and the softness and the warmth of the canvas. But I also like to use more public support structures like signs and walls, when it’s appropriate and when there’s an opportunity.
KH: Do you enjoy the physical act of painting?
KR: Yes, I do. Whether I’m masking off and painting straight letters like Is or spending an hour to paint an O, I like the act of physically bringing them to life. And I am excruciatingly anal about their exactitude and their authority; I like to think they gain from that perfection and “professionalism”. Yet there is some evidence of the hand. For me there is also some equivalence between the labor involved and my commitment to the text. Somehow, my concentrated investment in them in time is proof of my belief in the works.
KH: You also make prints and multiples that are mechanically reproduced.
KR: For my longer text pieces, like the lists, for example, a mechanical process works better. The size and number of letters, plus the fact that they are editions, obviously require that they be printed.
KH: How do you keep coming up with your ideas?
KR: My friend Cary Leibowitz told me this joke about a tortoise who is going down the highway, and a snail is merging from the exit ramp, and they crash. The police come, and they ask, “Alright, what happened here?” And the snail replies, “I don’t know. It all happened so fast.”
KH: There is a series—the blocked out words from 1990—that ended with a piece called ODD EVEN. You told me that you had started it thinking about censorship.
KR: Did I? I never start out with a conscious plan for a body of work. The ideas come from a very subconscious and intuitive level, I think, because I’m never fully aware until after that body of work is finished, sometimes long afterward, of what the work is about. In retrospect, I do think that group of work was largely about censorship, but it was also about absence, and indirectly about the way letters function in a work and the way we construct meaning from a given set of letters, which is usually cognitive. When letters are missing, reading becomes very self-conscious. But that was also a time when censorship regarding the National Endowment for the Arts was very aggressive. There were also issues of censorship going on in England, where these works were shown—at the Victoria Miro Gallery.
KH: The Ph.D. model may be an interesting one to pursue. Say someone is doing their dissertation on Dante’s Inferno. Just by looking and looking and looking at it, they might find all sorts of new relationships and details.
KR: That’s true—intense scrutiny and focus does yield up new insights. Plus, there are themes and strategies that I find myself revisiting. But the project is so graphic and visual that, continuing on the Ph.D. theme, there is no way that I could have carried it out in an academic system.
KH: I wasn’t trying to say your project is academic, but it does build on past knowledge and a systematic kind of research. Whenever I see a new body of work of yours, it is always surprising. Then, after more exposure and consideration, it seems obvious. As a viewer, I get caught up in exploring the complexities of each of your systems.
KR: Maybe I’m getting repetitive.
KH: I think it’s the opposite. Do you read theory? KR: No.
KH: Where would you place yourself in relation to the artists of the 80s and the 90s?
KR: I’m not sure. In the 80s, I think that many of the artists who showed at Feature had certain things in common—a thread that ran through all of our work that was a product of Hudson’s aesthetic and vision: a sense of humor, a dose of conceptual content, a sort of homemade quality to the work, and an attitude—even though our work was stylistically very different. In the larger 80s picture, I feel much less of an affinity to artists like Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger than to artists such as Lawrence Weiner or Ed Ruscha, both of whom use text in a less political and less media-centered way (and approach most of their text projects through paint or pigment), and who appreciate the enormous visual and graphic potential of text, type, and letter forms. They’re not just “80s artists” though. I’ve always loved the work of Bill Woodrow, who does the most brilliant things with found objects, as well as Richard Tuttle, who also evokes so much from little bits of found material. I don’t think I have enough perspective yet to describe my relationship to “90s artists”.
KH: How do you like living in Gary, Indiana? What is your relationship to the Chicago art scene and living?
KR: I like it OK as long as I’m not too far from an airport. I like where I live, in my little house with my basement studio amid the dunes and the woods near Lake Michigan. And I like the casual, kind of seedy, heterogeneous community of Miller Beach (a town that became part of Gary in 1918). As an artist I’m completely anonymous in Gary, which is good. I don’t have a real close relationship to the Chicago art scene because of the distance between it and Gary, which makes things increasingly difficult; but my relationship to Chicago is probably stronger than to any other art community because of friendships and my history with it, and because of my relationship with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I teach.
KH: What is the mission or purpose of your art?
KR: I wish I could answer that. I’m drawing a blank.
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ALL WORKS COPYRIGHT KAY ROSEN AND MAY BE USED ONLY WITH PERMISSION OF THE ARTIST