[Editor’s Note: This series of Duration, Sequence & Structure posts is a text/image version of a collaborative talk that was given by Kyle Schlesinger and I at the 2012 College Book Art Association conference in the Bay Area. One section will be posted every day of this week. This is the fourth.]
Andy Warhol, Saturday Disaster, 1964, synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen enamel on canvas
[AC] Reading is an experience that unfolds in time—the letters build up into words, the words into sentences, and the sentences into a text. Both the text, with its letters and words, and the book, with its frames and pages, are ordered, accumulating multiplicities. A recent collaboration between Kyle and myself, a book of Kyle’s poems called What You Will that was published by my NewLights Press, attempts to make this idea of accumulating multiplicity, which is essential to every book, visible and legible to the reader and crucial to their understanding of the poems. I’d like to talk about some of the concepts that fed into What You Will in terms of three different examples, which are, moving from the general to the specific: pop and high-modernist/minimalist artistic strategies, the form of the traditional codex, and the actual poems that make up the book.
Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962, acrylic on canvas
In terms of multiplicity, Andy Warhol’s early screenprinted pieces do one crucial thing in terms of investigating the mass-printed/produced image—they show the entirety of the “edition” on the same surface. These pieces show the multiple nature of the mass-produced image-object all at once. This is an image of the image-object, in its repetition and in its difference, never single, never quite the same in each iteration. One of the many effects that these pieces demonstrate is the dislodging of the signifier from its referent through repetition, similar to the way a word starts to sound like gibberish when we say it over and over again. In the book The Return of the Real, art critic Hal Foster briefly mentions the idea that repetition has done more work than abstraction towards disrupting the language of representation: “For abstraction tends only to sublate representation, to preserve it in cancellation, whereas repetition, the (re)production of simulacra, tends to subvert representation, to undercut its referential logic.” Repetition, in these pieces by Warhol, allows for a “making strange” of the language of the mass-produced image.
Frank Stella, Six Mile Bottom, 1960, metallic paint on canvas
The “stripe paintings” of Frank Stella are so nihilistically perfect in their collapsing of form and content that it’s hard to think of them in terms of representation at all, sublimated or otherwise. As objects, “you see what you see,” and their total lack of reference, and depth, and composition, forces the viewer or reader to consider their status as objects—are these paintings or sculpture? And to consider how they were made—are these stripes, one after another, in compositions not really based on choice, applied without traditional “painterly” finesse, really painting?
And when you look at the series of Stella’s paintings next to one of Warhol’s images, they start to tell us something more about this idea of “accumulating multiplicity,” of difference and repetition, and, as Foster noted in a comparison of minimalism and pop more generally, something about “the series,” or serial production, in American culture at large. Because these pieces are paintings we don’t usually think of them in terms of time or duration, but that is an aspect of them, brought out through this idea of accumulation, of “one thing after another,” of repetition, of difference.
We say that the book is a time-based form because it takes time to move through a book. The book itself, in the sense of its “pure” or uninflected technology (bound but blank pages) presents what is essentially the same event over and over again—a page turns, a page turns, a page turns, and so on. This is a multiplicity, but an ordered, ideal, uninflected one—all repetition. When content begins to crawl over the pristine surface of the pages the multiplicity becomes far more chaotic. Now the ideal measure of the page is inflected, varied. Now, we can read the book, and reading brings us into the realm of duration.
These are some examples of Kyle’s poems. As you can see, they are mostly tall and skinny, and they make a strong vertical mark on the page. Reading them, I thought mostly about structure—how words connect to other words, how the lines of the poems build up, move, repeat, rearrange, and disarrange, within one poem but also from poem to poem. These poems are not piles of language, they are columns, or skyscrapers, carefully built, one brick after another.
This idea of structure really came to the foreground when I saw that the table of contents for the book was essentially another poem—a poem based literally in structure and accumulation.
The next few images will show some successive page spreads and details from What You Will.
The poems themselves are the white text in the black stripe on the left of each page. The width of the stripe is determined by the length of the longest line of the individual poem. To the left of each poem is printed a mirror image of the text, in transparent gray, with the successive poems stacking up and merging as one continues through the book. All of the structuring principles of the text and of the book are immediately made visible on every page.
The covers were made by printing every single plate from the pages in white, on black paper, in exactly their position on the page, showing the entire open book at once.
The jacket contains all of the information that would normally be on the jacket of a book (title, author’s name, press name, etc.) collapsed and layered into single lines and in two reversed arrangements. The book functions in, and demonstrates, both idealized, spatialized time, and indivisible, overlapping duration.