Magazine article Artforum International

"Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language": Museum of Modern Art, New York

Magazine article Artforum International

"Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language": Museum of Modern Art, New York

Article excerpt

WRITING DURING A VERY DIFFERENT MOMENT IN ART, scholar and critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, seeking to construct a genealogy for contemporary conceptual practices, famously asserted that the artist Robert Morris irrevocably altered the reflexive constitution of artmaking after modernism by introducing linguistic theory into his engagements with sculpture. In so doing, Buchloh suggested, the sculptor necessarily extended the parameters of art about itself outward to include the very architectural surfaces and frames that provided any artwork with its physical syntax and, for later generations, the institutional infrastructures that gave art its circulatory grammars. To make a work of art (or even just to examine it critically), in other words, subsequently demanded some consideration of the context that gave rise to its very visibility. And it was the variegated strata of language--its deep organizational structures, its capacity for generating complex meaning along both diachronic and synchronic axes--that gave such considerations their richest tactical means and specificity.

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Today, of course, such a proposition seems at a far remove; debates around linguistics, signification, and, by extension, poststructuralism largely conjure passages from artistic discourses of decades ago. And yet perhaps precisely such apparent distance made Museum of Modern Art curator Laura Hoptman's "Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language" at once uniquely pleasurable and provocative, as Hoptman placed more recent artistic endeavors in intriguing historical perspective by using text as her exhibition's fulcrum. Drawing from the museum's unsurpassable collection, she first established the twentieth-century avant-garde's inherent bond with textual encounters, laying out treasure after treasure: There was Kurt Schwitters's Ursonate, 1932, whose phonetic repetitions propose language as sheer vocality, and type as both image and score, separating expression from intended meaning (or word from instrumentalization more generally). Similarly steeped in collagistic techniques was El Lissitzky's design for Vladimir Mayakovksy's book of poems Dlia golosa (For the Voice, 1923), for which the artist said he wished to wed page and typography just as the poet had wed concept and sound. Extending this collaborative thread was Guillaume Apollinaire and Giorgio de Chirico's Calligrammes, 1930, where, for instance, threads of letters skim the page's surface to suggest trails of rain in an empty sky. Next to be found were such signal postwar pieces as Marcel Broodthaers's Un Coup de des jamias n'abolira le basard (A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance), 1969, for which the poet turned artist blacked out the passages in Mallarme's book of the same title, effectively rendering words physical substance--subverting their communicative value at the same time as proposing their inevitable circulation as things, commodified as easily as any other object. And if that project necessarily also rendered text spatial by underscoring the corporeal basis of reading, the inclusion of the third issue of Vito Acconci and Bernadette Mayer's 0 TO 9 (1968) recalled the former's evolution from poet to architect and designer as he would nevertheless assert--in a vein related to that of Morris--that his work was text-based all the while. Simply put, just by smartly calling on the museum's historical reservoir, Hoptman created a remarkable synoptic of avant-garde practice as it would feed Conceptualism decades later.

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And yet most compelling was how the stage was then set for other work prompting meditations about art's subsequent position in regard to culture. …

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