How welcome to the admiring but often more than slightly baffled has been the Slought Foundation's issue of a handsome volume aiming to guide with various criticism, appreciations, interviews, and archival matter, the reception of Marjorie Welish's work in paint and in language. What's more, this volume's high-quality if small reproductions of Welish's paintings are complemented by a substantial gallery at the Slought Foundation's website (http://slought.org). And more again, Coffee House Press's publication in 2000 of The Annotated "Here" and Selected Poems has been followed by a new collection Word Group, gathering several chapbooks. On screen and table the showing declares that the work of Marjorie Welish is gathering attention both in North America and in Europe, and that the contractual terms of that attention are being drawn up. These terms are of more than usual interest where this artist is concerned, for her work is much preoccupied with what she has called "a conceptual painting by visual means," abjuring the pursuit of unmediated visual impact. Indeed, if there is a convergence between her verbal and visual practice, it may resolve in the explicit diagram. "Drawing to be read"--or what will do as well in her case, "painting to be read"--is the protocol, and has its reciprocity in verbal schemata to be read graphically while still in the hearing of a lyric tradition.
The apparatus for receiving Welish's work has already been informed with great intelligence. In her 2001 review (in Jacket 15) of The Annotated "Here" and Selected Poems, Chris Tysh writes: "Welish problematizes the dialectical relationships between text and supplement, by sending up the notions of source and origin as emblematic of patriarchal authority, but also by relinquishing the outmoded telos of originality." Ironically, this has become a routine account of innovative writing by women: "problematizing" bids fair to become a familiar topos and hence no problem at all. Tysh's encapsulation would apply just as well to the work of Susan Howe for instance, while a reader passing through writings by Howe and Welish would encounter quite different textures. Nonetheless Tysh's generality is precise and must be the starting point for discussing the unprecedented range and quality of poetry by women during the past three decades in North America, a cultural efflorescence whose now manifest extent reduces to size the period's old-school-avant-garde formations. (1) Still, the general applicability of Tysh's critique calls for distinctions: why, within the larger endeavour, does Welish's poetry look so very odd, and what rewards can the thoroughly problematized reader expect?
Of the Diagram is a great help. This 300-page volume in the Slought Foundation's Contemporary Artists series, edited by Aaron Levy and Jean-Michel Rabate, establishes a ground and context for the reception of an artistic practice pitched to summon ground and context into the center of its action. Of first importance are the interviews with Welish, who is a breathtaking interviewee, dodging, feinting, counter-punching, erudite, funny, and serious--and these are transcripts of live interviews, not authorial statements masquerading as off-the-cuff brilliance. The essays by Norma Cole, Frances Richards, Kenneth Baker, Ron Janssen, and Keith Tuma are particularly valuable, with Tuma's close attention to the opening poem in Word Group an exemplary act of critical exposition.
Considered as an entity, Of the Diagram seems haunted by a particular word which becomes either the nub or the horizon of its discussions of Welish's painting and poetry: Constructivism. Welish's response to Bob Perelman's question about the centrality in her recent paintings of the color yellow, entails a disquisition on the historical reception of Soviet Constructivist art in New York (36), while Joseph Masheck asserts that "a painting by Marjorie Welish presents itself forthrightly as an image, a distinct and complete visual construct, but never as a picture" (67). …