By Kastner, Jeffrey
Artforum International , Vol. 43, No. 1
"Christopher Knowles," wrote John Ashbery in 1978, "at the age of nineteen, without exactly meaning to, has become a major figure of the New York avant-garde." For viewers encountering the artist's work for the first time in this engaging survey--the forty-five-year-old's first solo since 1988, which features a selection of his figurative oil-marker drawings, modest object arrangements, and typed text and image works--Ashbery's description is a helpful prologue. It drops clues to the story of an outside who, for thirty years, has cut a distinctive path through that most "inside" of social environments, the contemporary-art world. That Knowles has done so "without exactly meaning to" is part of the reason that his work is so intriguing.
Curator Matthew Higgs's exhibition notes explain how a prenatal condition left the artist with a form of "neurological damage" that contributed to his "complex relationship with written and spoken language." Yet despite his condition, Knowles has hardly lived the life of an isolate. In the early '70s, theater director Robert Wilson heard the boy's poetic sound recordings through a mutual friend and drafted the fourteen-year-old into an impromptu onstage appearance in The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973), the beginning of an ongoing collaboration between the two men involving writing as well as performance. And Knowles's signature "Typings"--works on paper that involve idiosyncratic uses of language and simple designs produced on an electric typewriter--were published widely in the mid-'80s.
Yet despite such indicators of status in the art world, what emerged from the recent exhibition was a compelling picture of a man very much in his own world. Sunshine Superman (1987), a fifteen-minute film about Knowles made by Richard Rutkowski, depicts the artist engaged in activities that suggest the roots of the seriality, repetition, and obsessive particularity of his practice. …