It Is Almost That - A painted autobiographical novel by a young artist who died in the Holocaust; the transformation of the front pages of newspapers into alchemical drawings; a computer-generated chance operation that “imagines” houses and their inhabitants
It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image & Text Work by Women Artists & Writers, Lisa Pearson ed., Siglio, 2011.
„It Is Almost That collects twenty-six visionary image+text works by women artists and writers. Supremely imaginative in their use of word and image, these hybrid works are steeped in narrative play and subversion, inviting readers to engage in multiple modes of reading. The first in a series that embodies Siglio’s unique editorial mission, It Is Almost That features substantial excerpts or the works in their entirety—many previously unpublished, difficult to find, or long out-of-print—by renown, little known, forgotten, and emerging artists.
The works include a painted autobiographical novel by a young artist who died in the Holocaust (Charlotte Salomon); the transformation of the front pages of newspapers into alchemical drawings (Suzanne Treister); a computer-generated chance operation that “imagines” houses and their inhabitants (Alison Knowles); the pseudo-scientific examination of mother-daughter conversations (Eleanor Antin); and drawings called “body maps,” inscribed with stories of HIV-positive South African women (Bambanani Women’s Group), among almost two dozen others.
Edited by Lisa Pearson, this collection is not organized like a traditional anthology; rather, it creates a constellation of works that exceed categorical boundaries. While many works may be recognized by their various connections (such as to Fluxus, Conceptual, Feminist, and Outsider art as well as to experimental literature, etc.), the collection aims to engage both literary and art audiences, reorienting the reader so that these works may be seen and read anew.“
„A marvelously bold interdisciplinary anthology, It Is Almost That collects works by women artists and writers who have constructed hybrid environments that merge image and text. The works in this collection are supremely imaginative in both form and content: from the semi-autobiographical novel painted by a young artist who died in the Holocaust (Charlotte Salomon) to Alison Knowles' computer-generated chance operation for "imagining" houses and their inhabitants; from the pseudo-scientific examination of a conversation between a mother and a daughter (Eleanor Antin) to the dark, comic interrogation of violence against women (Sue Williams); from the transformations of newspaper headlines (Suzanne Treister) to the probing of animal consciousness (Cole Swensen & Shari De Graw); from the body maps drawn by South African women with AIDS (Bambanani Women's Group) to the alchemical transformation of the pregnant body into an evolving landscape and philosophical meditation (Susan Hiller). Other contributors to It Is Almost That include Fiona Banner, Louise Bourgeois, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Cozette de Charmoy, Ann Hamilton, Jane Hammond, Dorothy Iannone, Bhanu and Rohini Kapil, Helen Kim, Ketty La Rocca, Bernadette Mayer, Adrian Piper, Charlotte Salomon, Geneviève Seillé, Molly Springfield, Erica Van Horn & Laurie Clark, Carrie Mae Weems, Hannah Weiner and Unica Zürn.“
„The title, taken from artists Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's contribution, pertains to the overall sense of "indeterminacy" and "boundlessness" in the chosen works of 26 female artists, each introduced by personal, inspirational, or abstract quotations. Many works are highly effective, especially in this format, which successfully depicts all media, including photography, painting, and installation. Though it is arguably Louise Bourgeois who epitomizes the "image+text" creed with the affecting and darkly humorous "He Disappeared Into Complete Silence." Narrative is key, celebrating the "beauty in banality," whether in Adrian Piper's engaging personal account as part of her "Political Self-Portrait" series, Suzanne Treister's social commentary in "Alchemy," or the absurdist prose of "India Notebooks" by Bhanu and Rohini Kapil. Race, gender, sexuality, politics, and literature are prominent, best exemplified in Jane Hammond's "Fallen," an ode to soldiers in Iraq. Pearson outlines her own gender philosophies in art, along with the criteria for her self-confessed "surprising selection," omitting "obvious choices," to create an introspective, free-flowing collection that "will incite more questions than answers." Such is the nature of art, and a testament to this fine anthology. Over 250 b&w illustrations.“ – Publishers Weekly
„The title of this surprising collection of image/text works by twenty-five female visual artists and writers is a phrase borrowed from a 1977 artwork by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. As Lisa Pearson writes in her afterword, It Is Almost That describes "the humming state of the not-quite this and not quite that," namely, "what familiar taxonomies cannot order." Hak Kyung Cha's piece—composed of faltering phrases projected on black-and-white slides—points to the provisional nature of language and speech. While Pearson's penchant for this open, indeterminate state might seem at first to evoke categories like ecriture feminine, twentieth-century Language-school poetry, or non-diegetic experimental filmmaking, her selections, works produced over a span of seventy-one years from Charlotte Salomon's 1940 visual novel Life? Or Theater? A Song Play to Bhanu & Rohini Kapil's 2011 India Notebooks, defy easy classification.
Explaining her decision to select only from works composed by women, Pearson asserts: "There is still deep gender inequality when it comes to the coveted real estate of exhibitions . . . and I preferred to make space . . . for work by women." Her statement seems as dangerously uncool as it is accurate, but Pearson's boldest editorial move is bringing together works by artists and writers who are not normally thought of together. Pearson's genre-defying conflation of formalist language-based work with pieces by confrontationists such as Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, and Sue Williams suggests new affinities. Pearson's writers and artists use disparate means to probe experience from the outside. While pieces by artists like Hak Kyung Cha and Alison Knowles use text to examine the nature of meaning, perception, and language, others like Adrian Piper's Political Portraits and Carrie Mae Weem's haunting Sea Island Series, use words as polemic. Still others pursue a poetics of the quotidian, using pictures and words to describe particular places and states of being. For example, the Kapils' stunning chronicle of a trip to New Delhi excerpted from their Nightboat book Schizophrene concludes: "Looking down, I saw the red rooftops of the East End stretch out in a crenellate, and then I went home. I documented the corridor and then I went home. What kind of person goes home?" Some of the pieces—most notably, Louise Bourgeois's rarely-seen 1947 artist book He Disappeared into Complete Silence, in which drawings of unrealized sculptures are set against disjointed mock-journal entries written in imperfect English, and Unica Zurn's 1958 artist book The House of Illness—are deeply disturbing. Others, like Eleanor Antin's 1971 "Domestic Peace," a group of faux social science graphs of "safe" conversational topics with the artist's mother, are laugh-out-loud funny. The dissonance between the work's high-conceptual frame and the chronicle of petty domestic bickering it contains is part of the humor: Richard Kostelanetz meets Joan Rivers.
Most welcome of all is Pearson's inclusion of Bernadette Mayer's 1971 photo/text project Memory and an excerpt from the late Hannah Weiner's 1972 Pictures and Early Words. Ripe for recontextualization, the early work of both poets sprang partly from their involvement with New York conceptual art during those years. In subsequent decades, these writings came to be read (if at all) within the Language School canon, the radical epistemologies devised by these writers eclipsed by their linguistic strategies.
In Memory, Mayer, then twenty-six years old, undertook to record thirty days of her life through a series of more than one-thousand snapshots and a taped narration that, when transcribed, filled nearly two-hundred pages. Spiraling, grandiose, and raw, Memory is a gorgeous attempt to affix mental and physical drift into pattern. Close in intent to the work of Mayer's friend and sometime collaborator Vito Acconci, the grand scope of Memory wasn't fully perceived when Mayer first exhibited it. Commenting on the project one year later in her subsequent work, Studying Hunger, Mayer wrote: "MEMORY was described by A. D. Coleman as 'an enormous accumulation of data.' I had described it as an 'emotional science project.' I was right." In Pictures and Early Words, Weiner famously began to record her clairvoyant-schizophrenic experiences, transcribing the words that began to appear before her eyes in capital letters, slants, and italics. Free of self-interpretation, Weiner's remarkable writings, which she later developed as "clair-style" poems, describe an out-of-body experience in the most prosaic terms: "It's true I'm not hungry. Water suffices. . . . I've had it with the lights. My eyes hurt. NOT MY EYES on chair. What else? No answer."
Designed by Natalie Kraft, It Is Almost That is entirely produced in shades of sumptuous gray—"infinite shadows . . . the in-between like twilight and shadows," as Pearson describes it. A labor of love, the book is also an important step towards the amplification of "minor," uneasily categorized experience.“ - Chris Kraus
„A line from Louise Bourgeois’s diary, which appears on page 43, reads: “Start with examples, it is all you have.” I considered taking her advice and constructing this text entirely from examples, and not just for novelty’s sake. In my notebook, I had isolated every string of words I found specific to me while reading Lisa Pearson’s collection of work by female visual artists and writers, an (initially unintentional) exercise in personalization. Like Adrian Piper wrote in “Passing for White, Passing for Black” (1992), excerpted as part of the first entry: I’m a black woman whose demand for respect has been confused with arrogance because “she simply does not realize that her blackness should make any difference.” And borrowing from Dorothy Iannone’s extract of “Trixie, the Connoisseur” (1975–78), which appears both on the cover and in the book’s pages: I’m a studious woman who always did well in school because “she was bright and because she wanted to be the best.”
Perhaps I’m unexceptional. Maybe it’s really a numbers game. Pearson assembled 25 women, representing 71 years of work at the nexus of image and text: I was bound to find myself within. But I can imagine other readings—even my own. If I had started back to front, with Pearson’s afterword leading to Charlotte Salomon’s febrile tracings created while in exile from the Nazis, I might have focused my trip on the interstices, that “humming state” that Pearson describes in her essay wherein one thing (text, creation, patience) may or may not become another (image, death, intolerance). Had I used the table of contents to open to the artist whose work I knew best, I would have begun on page 84 with Sue Williams: “Are You Pro-Porn or Anti-Porn?” Or the most intriguing name: Bambanani Women’s Group, whose body maps visualize life with HIV in South Africa. My categories are starting to get silly, but you get the picture.“ — Cameron Shaw
„It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image + Text Work by Women Artists & Writers is not an anthology of comics. In fact, most of the work in the collection has no narrative in any traditional sense. But the 26 works collected here all use words and visual art and combine them, in some way, to tell a story. As editor Lisa Pearson writes in her afterword, “…texts do not always appear on pristine white fields; images are not illustrative and language does not explain; stories do not unfold in predictable ways—and yet every page is meant to be read.”
Sure enough, this large, 300-page volume is packed full of such a lively variety of work that owning it is an almost piggish pleasure. There are photos from nature, paintings, collages, and an old-school dot matrix computer printout; page-by-page reproductions of art books, like Fiona Banner’s The Nam, which cobbles together descriptions of six movies about the Vietnam War; fully-textual pieces, such as Ann Hamilton’s vertigo-inducing A Floating Weft, whose letters and words change direction as you read; and even, yes, a comic in panels—Dorothy Iannone’s loony-cute Trixie, The Connoisseur. It Is Almost That reads like a catalog from the biggest and most exciting art show you’ve never been to.
Interestingly, though the book is lushly and expensively produced, the art inside is not full-color. It’s gray. Pearson writes that her color choice is meant to represent ambiguity and, therefore, multiplicity. (Don’t approach this book if you’re afraid of a little highfalutin language.) The sameness may disappoint some readers-slash-viewers, but it has an interesting leveling effect. If color cannot draw attention to this piece or that, we must look equally closely at all of them.
The other thing these pieces have in common: They’re all by women. Pearson explains plainly that this is meant to address “deep gender inequality when it comes to the coveted real estate of exhibitions and publications”. (Siglio is an independent press run by Pearson; she launched it in 2007.) Whether the work tends to be explicitly reflective of the female experience, though, is up for debate. Eleanor Antin’s Domestic Peace, for which she drew graphs of conversations with her mother that indicate their subjects and corresponding levels of agitation, certainly qualifies. The concept is drolly hilarious — like something out of the The New Yorker — but the execution looks, on the page, like a sound-wave readout, as though she’s made a legit scientific study of domestic survival.
All the pieces in the anthology were produced between 1940 and 2011, and Pearson has included lesser-known or previously unpublished works by important 20th-century artists, including Bernadette Mayer and Louise Bourgeois. At least one has historical importance: In 1968, Fluxus artist Alison Knowles used the Fortran programming language to produce the eerie poem “A House of Dust,” which, according to the accompanying description, may be the first computer-generated poem. Its lines go like this, with only the nouns replaced, over and over: “a house of tin / among high mountains / using natural light / inhabited by people who sleep very little.” Like all found poetry it sounds a bit like fortune telling, as though the text requires a divining rather than a mere reading.
Some of these women are considered writers, some visual artists, but it’s probably closer to the truth to say that all of them are both. The anthology’s most valuable contribution is cutting across genres to allow us to see them that way. In some cases Pearson has actually given work originally created for an exhibition space new life as a linear, on-the-page story. In the installation of Jane Hammond’s “Fallen”, thousands of leaves, each bearing the name of an American soldier who was killed in the war in Iraq, are piled up on a platform. In the book, one leaf at a time appears until the reader turns the page and finds what looks like a deep pile of leaves that covers and bleeds off the page. Unfortunately, this is probably the only piece in the anthology that, in its original inception, feels kind of obvious. Fallen leaves? It’s almost corny, and it feels out of place amongst the other, truly avant-garde pieces that make this book a revelation to even the savviest students of contemporary art.“ - Katie Haegele
„Learning to read art, as Lawrence Weiner long ago exhorted, is not a simple process. Where the textual meets the visual, demands outnumber easy pleasures. It Is Almost That is rich in both challenge and satisfaction. This collection of “twenty-six visionary image+text works by women artists and writers,” in the words of its publisher and editor, Lisa Pearson of Siglio Press, is, as she promises, not a traditional anthology. It is not arranged chronologically, nor alphabetically, nor by theme or format. Concluding the book is its earliest entry, a section of Charlotte Salomon’s remarkable autobiographical graphic novel, Life? Or Theater? A Song Play (1940-42). Mordant, psychologically astute and supple in her draftsmanship, Salomon was something of a female Jules Pfeiffer, although her ambitions ran to the epic. (This 1,325-frame magnum opus was made before Salomon was sent to Auschwitz, where she died.) It Is Almost That’s most recent entries include an excerpt from a 2011 photo and prose piece by Bhanu and Rohini Kapil that offers an elliptical reflection on the ravages of ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan. Jane Hammond’s Fallen, a commemoration in paper leaves, each inscribed with a dead soldier’s name, of American servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Iraq, is ongoing. Some of the book’s contributors are well known—Louise Bourgeois, most notably—and some are not. Most of the works were made on paper, but there are also reproductions of paintings on canvas, by Sue Williams, and of a 6,080-square-foot inlaid cork floor, by Ann Hamilton—a carpet of text that runs in several directions, like the pattern of a Persian rug, and draws from as many historical dialects.
For all its heterogeneity, there is a kind of logic at work in this volume, its pull subtle but strong. Not exactly a continuous narrative, it is more than an assembly of disconnected chapters. It opens with three memoir fragments by Adrian Piper from 1978-80 in which run-in text is superimposed over photographs. The decorousness and equanimity of Piper’s reminiscences are belied by the daily humiliations she reports having suffered in childhood and adolescence; her rage is revealed mainly in the tightly packed, unrelenting cataract of prose—in the refusal to yield even a breath of white space on the page. Two other works from the 1970s follow, including a piece by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha that gives this book its title. Even more dispassionate than Piper’s work, Cha’s It Is Almost That (1977) is composed of title cards used for a slide presentation. The terse white-on-black text fragments seem to be isolated bits of language instruction, with an emphasis on words for subject identity and position, and can be read as a rudimentary exercise for autobiographical writing. (It is made angry, and horribly sad, only by the knowledge that its author would be murdered by a stranger in 1982.) Before long, we are in the lean, forceful hands of Louise Bourgeois, whose 1947 He Disappeared Into Complete Silence, a suite of nine etchings each paired with a short text, is a macabre, extremely funny and, again, wonderfully laconic series of barbed meditations on the ways of men, and of women.
With Bourgeois, a passage of wry humor takes hold. The incomparable Dorothy Iannone’s Trixie, The Connoisseur (1975-78) is a picaresque graphic tale of puberty, first love and professional ambition; its illustrations and text are both exuberantly explicit and unapologetically naïve. The grimly entertaining series of collage/text pairings in Cozette de Charmoy’s The True of Life of Sweeney Todd (1973), a dark-horse entry, are largely assembled from Victorian etchings, much like Max Ernst’s Femmes Cent Têtes. While not as gruesome as the drama to which its title refers, de Charmoy’s picture essay is fully as surreal as the connection with Ernst implies.
Violence of rather less metaphorical nature follows, beginning with Sue Williams’s bitterly ironic reflections, in the form of annotated figurative paintings, on the physical and emotional abuse of women. Fiona Banner’s Nam (1997), another nearly unreadable avalanche of prose (presented here as an extract), is a consecutive digest, delivered in blocks of unbroken text, of every moment of action in six classic Vietnam War movies, including Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. Hammond’s Fallen follows; the autumnal leaves, which are remarkably realistic, are shown first singly, then in pairs and finally in a jumbled heap, an efficient way of expressing the seemingly unstoppable proliferation of dead bodies in the United States’s latest military engagements. This entry is succeeded by a spirited tour though the front pages of daily British newspapers, conducted by Suzanne Treister in the form of text-and-image drawings configured like alchemy charts—or, an equally strong resemblance, like pinball machines (Alchemy, 2007).
A segue into deeper historical memory is led off by Carrie Mae Weems’s elegiac 1991-92 photo-text essay on the Sea Islands, a former slave-trading community off the Carolina coast. Molly Springfield’s Translation (2006-08) is a hand-drawn rendering of the opening chapter of a heavily underlined used copy of Proust’s Swann’s Way. In What Remains (2006), Helen Kim’s photo-text essay about a series of lunchtime meetings with her mother, a few scant detail of the older woman’s Korean background and life as an immigrant are fitfully revealed to her daughter (and to us).
The world of mothers, as object and subject, is extended in Susan Hiller’s 1977-79 photo-text document of her pregnancy, which presents her steadily swelling abdomen as a cross between a grainy, distant hill and a blurry UFO. Eleanor Antin’s hilarious Domestic Peace (1971-72) graphs conversations with her mother during a brief visit home; one axis charts agitation, which is plotted across time per given topic (each chosen in the hope, mostly vain, of avoiding conflict). Between Hiller’s work and Antin’s are a group of Body Maps (2001-06) made by the Bambanani Women’s Group, a collective of HIV-positive South African women who use tracings of their bodies as templates on which to inscribe sometimes harrowing daily challenges, and advice for overcoming them.
There is no best way to read this book, and the affinities I’ve suggested between adjacent works are probably not those that other readers would find. But one thing It Is Almost That urges forcefully is alertness not only to how image meets text in artists’ pageworks, but also to how sequence meets sheet—how the rhythm of reading a book can be folded in to the experience of looking at a single page, and vice versa. It stages conversations across racial, ethnic, geographical and historical boundaries that feel natural. The absence of men feels similarly unforced; these are, simply, the kinds of discussions women have among themselves.
Cumulatively, the collected works’ impression is of questions still open for debate, of the last word being left unsaid. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that the book ends with an unfinished work.) The embrace of the conditional helps explain some striking design choices. This publication has no cover, so the spine exposes its eighteen sewn signatures, each numbered, and two pages must be turned, starting with a blank white top sheet, to discover its title and authors. The mechanics of book production are thus laid bare. Exposed as well, maybe more significantly, is the book’s seemingly provisional state. (In this light, the fact that all contents are printed in black and white lends it the feeling of a low-cost dummy, although print and paper quality are perfectly respectable.) In other words, It Is Almost That scrupulously avoids definitive claims, just as its title announces. Another signature or two might be added—surely we are invited to enjoy the term’s double meaning—without unbalancing the proceedings. And maybe, some day, a fancy cover—although probably not.“ - Nancy Princenthal
„In gray there is multiplicity. It’s the last line of this book. Lisa Pearson, who edited It Is Almost That, tells us a million things before we get to this stunning line. And when I read it (and underlined it with my Sharpie), I thought, “That’s the beginning of the book” (which it was for me, because I turned it around and began reading it differently).
What I liked so much about this ending (and the explanation that immediately preceded it) is that I was tactically allowed, as a reader, to have my own experience of this book, and was told here rather than up-front exactly what went into the assembling of this creation—which is a collection of 26 image+text pieces by a slightly larger number of female artists. Some of the pieces here are collaborations, and one is in fact by a group. It’s a lot of territory, and in Lisa Pearson we’ve got an adept and unobtrusive tour guide.
And guide us, she did do.
She told us how she decided which pieces not to include, and how she made exceptions. Her considerations included thoughts about color (the requirement for included pieces is for each of them to work in black-and-white—or grayscale, ideally) and the relative fame or obscurity of the artist—and their individual piece mattered, too. The elegantly jumbled end result is the reward for this quirky decision process. As readers, we’re both massaged and piqued by what we do and don’t sometimes already know, and often we are glad to see a piece in a fresh context (Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, for example). But the collection also delivers a wallop through its surprises.
There’s an odd early piece by Louise Bourgeois. As drawing and text and meditation, it’s a compelling inclusion, but the real payoff for me was experiencing Louise Bourgeois as a girl. I don’t mean the word diminutively. I mean she was young once, and we are so used to the career of Louise Bourgeois being a grand old one. We also learn (maybe everyone knows this) that at the age of 71 her career went “international,” which is inspiring. There’s such an abundance of small turns, informed views, and ledges on this reading trip. Its organization makes the point that a book that gathers female art doesn’t need to be explained away as feminist. It’s something else. Just tell us about female lives and female art careers all in one place, and it’s more like we’re having tea with Pema Chödrön. The inspiration (and the desolation) of the female artist is vibrantly there. Because the frame is image+text, we’re reminded that all of us generally do more. Female artists don’t just stay in their disciplines; we experience, we forage, we play.
Intuitively and practically speaking, This Is Almost That is, in effect, a handbook. It, by presenting female art history, shows us how to be an artist. Each career here, whether its arc is short or long, presents a new kind of way. Because the format is strong and uniform. Title, artist, date, and artist statement. Bios at the back of the book. When the work presented didn’t hold my attention, the tiny quote from the artist at the front sometimes did. And since almost a quarter of the artists included are deceased, they weren’t filling in their bio and statement form. The information was culled from journals and public statements and letters. And I think the reason the book has a consciousness-raising effect is because it’s not intentional. It’s adamantly an aesthetic selection, with relationships between the contributions being prime rather anyone being positioned as this or that. Finally, we are reminded that “images are not illustrative and language does not explain.” It’s gray and it’s vague. For readers and wanderers. So hooray. Let’s go.
Adrian Piper’s Political Self-Portraits come first, which are very well known in the art world, but alongside other writing her narratives sit differently. “I’ve had the Gray Experience” is how Piper exhaustively sums up her own mixed-race, mixed-class childhood in Harlem and exclusive Manhattan prep schools. And her stories (with grayscale pictures from her childhood superimposed over the texts) could have been monologues by Spalding Gray. One of the revelations here is how much artists in the ’70s and ’80s in different genres were laying themselves bare toward a single end, I think, which was to establish a wide sense of interconnection with each other and their audiences and communities rather than simply with their own corner of the art world. Yet the confines of our institutions did limit the reach of any message. We weren’t all on computers yet—not that they would have brought us even closer. Rereading Piper’s portraits now feels extremely rewarding and timely—when our president is of mixed race, yet to get elected he could not really divulge his early memories—certainly not as exquisitely and remorselessly as Adrian Piper did, so her piece is a gift from her time to ours. It’s a cultural inside we need to see—in order to understand our condition as a people.
Ketty La Rocca follows Adrian Piper. Her name has a vaguely familiar ring. She was an Italian performance artist from Florence who died at 37—of a “brain disease.” Her piece in this book is a sequence of photographs of signaling hands: handgrips and -shakes, which are themselves signaling opportunity, revealing gender, location, action. I couldn’t help thinking about how deeply these gestures are linked to the feminist work and bodywork of her time (including dance), but also I found myself thinking about scouting. Which is the earliest bonding clubs that kids are in. How a sequence of gestures like these cemented one’s entrance into the club. With their apparent confidences and closures, I saw secrecy. I saw a woman standing outside watching the world, and then claiming it. These top-lit hands sent me flying to the Internet to see what else the artist had done and if her early death was the reason why I didn’t know her. I learned that she moved from photographs to video, using sound, and particularly the human voice, with special attention to the repetition of the word “you.” But the hand “remains the symbolic performer of all her works, the instrument to express the unsatisfied need [. . .] for a love extending indefinitely through time.”
The book title It Is Almost That is also the title of a piece from 1977 by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. In the book it appears as the first of a series of black maquettes for slide projection. “It is almost that” is written in tiny white Helvetica letters and the slides that follow are thinking about narration (click-click, click-click), alone and in groups, and the piece ends with the word “plural.” Theresa Cha was killed on a Friday night in the lobby of the Puck Building in New York City when she walked in to wait for her husband. The Puck Building. Before it was redone. When it was this large funky monstrosity on Lafayette and Houston where artists had studios and occasional concerts and events happened. Two doorways of the building are still adorned with the golden figures of a weird baby with a top hat and curls who is standing outside looking down on all of our fleeting lives.
Bernadette Mayer’s Memory should be (and is) included here. The poem and photographs here are excerpted from that longer work. Memory is a hymn to a specific moment in ’70s New York—the one Bernadette was living in. The long, open-lined poem of its title is as much a photograph of itself as the photographs are, since the lines do what poet James Schuyler said of his own work: point and snap. The work itself was excerpted at the University of Maine a few years back as a multimedia installation, the color photos themselves appearing and vanishing as Bernadette’s soft, deep voice uttered the outlines of her thoughts about a world made of light and temporality. The piece is infused with sadness for reasons that only its author knows. And I do experience loss as the thread that links so many of these pieces. To one another. That binds their own parts to themselves.
In Pictures and Early Words (1972), Hannah Weiner practically starved waiting for the voices that increasingly controlled her life. They let her know what and when and where she could eat. Images and words for her didn’t so much appear on the page as in the world. The phone would say no. She was thinking of having a turkey club, but she was warned by a voice emanating from the phone against moving toward it. In fact, the only instructions she was given were about what she couldn’t eat. Her life increasingly became a moving feint between negative spaces, doing finally not so much what she wanted but what was possible. The condition she lived in reads somewhat like a feminist allegory. How can she stop listening to the voices that will not allow her to live? But can she live alone without them? What would she be then in silence? Finally Hannah ate at a café on East Third Street and Avenue A, a diner where I once had breakfast and decided, based on my state of mind and all that was going on around me, that I would eat there every single day for the rest of my life, and now I don’t know how long it’s been gone. When did it vanish? Hannah Weiner had been involved in AIM (the American Indian Movement) at an earlier moment in her life, before the episodes that her writing here enacts. No images accompany these written pieces, though what we do have is a photostat of the original typescript pages, which were unconventional in their layout and full of uppercase commands. What I am trying to say is that Hannah, through both her politics and her history in the avant-garde, was open to vision in its most radical sense, even as it took over her mind. She was open to the implications of the politics of that space, even though she was very hungry.
I once saw an Eleanor Antin piece in the WACK show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles that notated on graph paper the frequency of her baby’s crying while artist and baby were visiting, I believe, the same parents who are being visited in Domestic Peace (1971–72), the piece in this book. Here there is handwriting on the graph paper, suggesting appropriate topics for a young mother (and artist) who is in town to kill two birds with one stone, fulfilling both art and family obligations in a single trip to New York. Family is the bird plotted along these vertical and horizontal lines of the graph paper (which is actually blue, Lisa Pearson explains, and she suggests we can imagine color particularly easily in this project). Thanks to the formalism of Antin’s piece, the color comes through easily and thanks to her humor.
Alison Knowles may have written the first computerized poem. Represented in their entirety are these incantations of her opus A House of Dust, variously proposing:
A HOUSE OF DUST
IN AN OVERPOPULATED AREA
USING ALL AVAILABLE LIGHTING
INHABITED BY VEGETARIANS
A HOUSE OF PAPER
IN A DESERTED FACTORY
USING ALL AVAILABLE LIGHTING
INHABITED BY ALL RACES OF MEN REPRESENTED
WEARING PREDOMINANTLY RED CLOTHING
She produced several hundred of these on computer sheets as the result of four different lists fed to a computer. In another rendition the stanzas were separated and photographed, each with “gifts”—drawings, computer cards, tools, erasers, and seashells. Stanza and gift were photographed together and exhibited, and later the poems and their subjects were turned into postcards, so a horse might be walking across a computer-generated landscape, forever one day. When I think of Allison Knowles, I always picture her grinning. Her kind of conceptual art seemed to only make her happy, though I’m sure she had a human life like yours or mine. In her artist’s statement, she reminds us:
It is important to remember that we are free to make art and poetry out of anything: a loaf of bread, some beans, a hasty jotting on the train.
Unica Zürn was among the Paris Surrealists of the 1950s, and she became associated romantically with the artist Hans Bellmer—over whom she wound up throwing herself out the window of his studio over—then dying, in 1970. Her piece The House of Illnesses is based on one of the many trips she made to the hospital for physical and mental health issues. In it she gives both written accounts and ornate illustrations of the days of the week in the hospital, accompanied by tiny legends that read like this:
1. Sunday, Monday
2. I spent a sunny morning in the thumbnail. It was a quiet but festive sojourn
4. . . . and these are the chambers of the hands
And she shows them! Her writing reminds me of Robert Walser: dainty, crooked, facetiously brilliant. One entry called “Various Observations” shares a fanciful contempt for the body and even femaleness, which is a running theme of this book, but which is treated most piquantly and acerbically here. I love Unica. She’s such an angry, articulate woman. Since Lisa Pearson says that this book is the first in a series of “similar” books, I think a collection of work by, say, women horrified by motherhood, or even work by lesbians, none of whom turn up here, would be another worthy direction. Unica writes:
The situation is much the same with the bosom room here. Milk gushes out from the crack under the locked door, and the white, sickly smell wafts through the keyhole and turns my stomach.
The final entry of the book is Charlotte Salomon’s Life? Or Theater? A Song Play, which is a “monumental” visual novel of hundreds of gouaches produced during 1940–42 that tells the story of three generations of a Jewish family during the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. Her work reminds me of Nicole Eisenman’s in its fluidity, its brashly unerring confidence and skill. It tells the story of a young woman befuddled by a world full of men. She is knocking heads continually with male authority, and the work bursts with the problems of being a budding female artist and the necessity of learning how to not staunch the overflowing riches of her own echoey brain. Charlotte’s drawings hold up the sky here. Her position at the end of the book is an emotional placement, but a telling one too, in that both writing and visual art are present in this work yet only the art truly gets to speak. There’s text but the voice of it feels more like gestures than any kind of speech. Silence proves to be the strongest thoroughfare through this wonderful guidebook for girls. Men should buy it to give to someone but keep it for themselves.
So many women live so much of their lives in this other language. Is this fact known? The hands are indeed the major organ. Hands are the truest organ of exchange. The morning in my life I knew I had grown up was when I woke up from a dream and sat in bed looking at mine. What will I do. My hands tell me all that I know. Charlotte Salomon died in 1943 in Auschwitz because she was a Jew, and also because she got married to a man who was Jewish as well, and because of that act they were caught. They fled Vichy France, then came back and were quickly deported. Charlotte died three days after she arrived in the camp. There’s something I feel that’s so beyond my ken when I look at these drawings by such a lushly talented woman in her 20s, who was making work so redolent of the same concerns as my contemporary friends. I find myself looking again at these drawings to confirm that they are not reproduced in color. I remember their browns, their reds, and their grays. More than art is represented here. It seems I know her life.
It is almost that.“ - Eileen Myles