George Myers'
Alphabets Sublime:
Contemporary Artists on Collage & Visual Literature

When Myers in his introduction says, "In collage is the culmination of the world. In visual literature is the culmination of the word" and "Crucial to these artists is the recycling of available materials," he turns to this ancient technique for the construction of works of art as a basis for understanding verbal/visual art. The principle underlying the collage method of composition perhaps inheres in all works of the mind; linearity, I would argue, and no doubt Myers and many of his interviewees would agree in one or another sense, arises as much from the technology of print and book conventions as do the latter from the former. More accurately, both reflect and reciprocally modify the favored categories which shape our understanding of the world, and these categories are structurally bound into historically conditioned conventions of syntax, rhetoric, and logical operations. Indeed, and as Myers does not mention, collage composition techniques have existed for millenia; "picture-making and building images in three dimensions by associating unlikely materials can be found in primitive as well as ancient or sophisticated cultures." [1]

In Myers' more restricted sense of the term, collage as a specifically modern-art technique became a weapon in the hands of the European avant-garde. Curiously, however, that was not Braque's own idea, which remained thoroughly classical: "The pasted papers [papiers collés] in my drawings also gave me a certitude. . . The pasted papers, the imitation woods--and other elements of a similar kind--which I used in some of my drawings, also succeed through the simplicity of the facts. . . created by the mind, and are one of the justifications for a new form in space. Nobility grows out of contained emotion. . . . I like the rule that corrects the emotion." [2] Some members of the European avant-garde, however, took up collage as a physical method for metaphysically attacking art's mimetic function.[3]

An interesting point Myers unfortunately misses in his introduction is that collage as he uses the term implicated language from the beginning: "In 1911 Braque set a typeset phrase into his picture, The Portuguese, and became the first modern painter to use collage." [4] However, and very few commentators on the development of early high modernism seem to have noticed this, the repressed dimension inherent in Picasso's and Braque's use of collage was a fear of abandoning themselves to a completely non-figurative mode, which early Cubism was moving towards. "Braque himself said that he used the stencil letters 'to get as close as I could to reality'. The stencilled letter-forms were significant because they were flat; they were not in any sense in space. Therefore by using them in the plane of the painting it became possible to differentiate between those objects represented in the picture as exisitng in space and those which were not the letter-forms, which were simply themselves." [5]

True, collage as these artists (as well as the Dadaists) used it demonstrated once and for all that western European art's mimetic function had lost the universal currency it had enjoyed especially since Masaccio and Alberti. Perhaps the single most important preoccupation of early modernism is just this, redefining the uses to which representation may be put in art and literature. Although significant predecessor cases exist, such as Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, [6] the previously privileged role of representation is successfully and broadly challenged only in the works of the creators of abstraction (Malevich's Suprematisim, Lissitzky's Prouns, Kandinsky's "compositions," Stein's Tender Buttons) and of the allied movements of Cubism and Dadaism. In a classic formulation, Auerbach says, "The two styles, in their opposition, represent basic types: on the one hand fully externalized description, uniform illustration, uninterrupted connection, free expression, all events in the foreground, displaying unmistakable meanings, few elements of historical development and of psychological perspective; on the other hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, 'background' quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation, universal-historical claims, development of the concept of the historically becoming, and preoccupation with the problematic." [7] With the important proviso that each case be individually examined (note Malevich's remark that Suprematisim was "pure poetry freed from ideology,"[8] indicating a maintenance of mystification), clearly the works mentioned above belong to the latter category and have been accepted as those (among others) which have altered how we think about the world through the means which art uses. This being the case, what can a contemporary artist do with collage which is different, fresh, invigorating? A more difficult challenge.

Overlayering, circularity, the spiral repetitions of the pataphysicians, palimpsests all such processes counter the tendency of linearity in writing to generate the suprasegmental categories of "higher" semes. That this countermove, however, can occur within the physically unfolding line of type during the reading experience (reading of course involves rereading, turning back upon itself) is all too frequently overlooked by practitioners of verbal/visual literature, who seem to regard physically broken syntax or cut-up texts as the only valid method to combat the logical fascism of unstressed sentence structure. Indeed, one might characterize the torque of the Romantic sublime in some such way: a confrontation with the unknown through the traditional means at the writers' disposal. Collage, then, needs to be understood in a broader theoretical context, in addition to that often cited: the oftentimes conflictual, almost always unsettling collapsing of realms of aesthetic experience usually kept discrete. In and of itself, collage today is one more tool in the artist's hands and can no longer lay claim to lending a privileged status to its products.

This touches upon Myers' second point noted above: recycled materials clearly can consist both of physical objects in the case of artists like Schwitters and his disciples, and of language/ideas as in the case of the postmodern urge to render all traditions consumable through placing them on the same stylistic footing, a brute material one. Note Benjamin's desire to produce a work made up entirely of citations, an idea realized by cut-up artists (Burroughs, Gysin, Pelieu) recycling chunks of language, as well as by verbal/visual artists deploying the "readymades" of the printed word. Through recycling, artists are practicing Braque's invention of the method of opening out art directly to its greater physical (and cultural) matrix. As with collage, the results of this method (however manifested, in terms of language or perceptual imagery) are ultimately more interesting than one more restatement of the philosophical/aesthetic discoveries of an earlier period in modernism.

Perhaps a more useful approach to Alphabets Sublime is by way of a stylistic analysis. Thus, as a collection of interviews this book presents us with a curious interpretation of this much abused genre. Perhaps the typical contemporary literary genre, the interview or collection of interviews serves to reinforce easy interpretations of the functions of art and of literary language. People, Interview, and Us fetishize the static image of the public figure or celebrity from the worlds of sports, politics, and entertainment (all variations on the same theme in the debased terms of popular culture); as old-fashioned content-oriented thinking subsides into obsolescence, the surface features of style become much more important and are carefully presented and elaborately dissected by media-conditioned consciousness. American Poetry Review and the most diverse anthologies are almost compelled to publish photographs of contributors. Reifying language is complemented with reifying photographic imagery. Much to Myers' credit, no such photographs appear in Alphabets Sublime.

However, one immediately is struck by an almost grating contrast between the illusory transparency of the spoken idiom and the downright uncanniness of many of the works these artists have produced. What artists say about their work helps readers to understand that work better, but not always in the ways the artists may wish. For example, John M. Bennett agrees with Tzara's description of assemblage as "a piece of reality which enters into relationship with other reality that the spirit has created"; Bennett says, "I understand this statement as affirming the organic nature of the universe . . . In that sense I agree with it very much" (p. 131). Yet his own work exhibits much more of the contrasting "spirit" of the inorganic, the ruptured, the broken, which his affirmation of an opposing category helps to clarify.

Speaking directly to this sensed difficulty, Myers' concern with establishing the significance of verbal/visual art through allowing the artists to speak for themselves parallels the doomed project of the two clerks with their library mentioned above. That is, the underlying assumption is that if enough important positions are represented, the reader will be able to form an accurate notion of the nature of this genre. Indeed, Flaubert had intended a second volume, which was to be made up of "a collage of quotations" put together by the clerks.[9] In this sense, then Alphabets Sublime, discounting the introduction, at least in part realizes Flaubert's (and Benjamin's) desire to work through citation, avoiding the pitfalls of one of the removes of representation. Yet, the symbolic mirroring which verbal/visual art rejects ipso facto undoes any conceptual wholeness or transparency which would accrue through just such an assembling. Finally, we are left then not with a "clearer picture" of such art but with a convenient collection of examples of something which remains undefined. Reproductions of sample pages from the works of the interviewees are included.

Among the artists covered in Alphabets Sublime are not only such established figures as Bern Porter, Alison Knowles, and Carolee Schneemann but also lesser known practitioners Vagrich Bakhchanyan, Kirk Robertson, and others. Karl Kempton explains the spiritual backgrounds to his Typoglifs, and Paul Zelevansky's Case for the Burial of Ancestors may be more approachable after considering his views on the relationship of verbal and visual imageries. Reproductions of sample pages from the artists' books or of relevant visual material accompany the interviews. Myers' appendices cover primary and secondary sources as well as a listing of publishers and dealers. Alphabets Sublime is a useful introduction to contemporary verbal/visual literature.

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1 Eddie Wolfram, History of Collage: An Anthology of Collage, Assemblage and Event Structures, New York: Macmillan, 1975, p. 7. Wolfram convincingly traces historical uses of collage in societies as diverse as ancient Japan, Persia, Turkey, medieval Germany, medieval Russia, and Enlightenment England. (pp. 7-14).

2 Georges Braque, "Thoughts and Reflections on Art," originally published in Nord-Sud (Paris), ed. Pierre Reverdy, December, 1917. Reprinted in Thories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Herschel B. Chipp, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975, pp. 260-62.

3 For a dissenting view on collage's importance, note the following analysis, by Josef Albers, of the contributions of Bauhaus Constructivism to the formation of the new aesthetic, resulting in "a more rational, economic and structural use of material itself. It lead to the recognition of, beside its outer appearances (matière), its inner capacities and practical potentialities; and so to a more impersonal presentation. Or, in pictorial terms, from collage to montage." in George Rickey, Constructivism: Origins and Evolution, New York: George Braziller, 1967, p. 46.

4 Wolfram, p. 16.

5 Ibid.

6 "If the Library makes Bouvard and Pécuchet possible, in no way does it provide it with a privileged origin which might guarantee the mimetic or representational veracity of fiction, or the capacity of the world to fictionalize itself in an unequivocal fashion. . . . the novel, then, stages the impossibility of its authorship and of its inscription." Eugenio Donato, "The Museum's Furnace: Notes toward a Contextual Reading of Bouvard and Pécuchet," in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979, p. 216.

7 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Garden City: Doubleday, 1957, p. 19.

8 Rickey, p. 23.

9 "Flaubert had projected a second volume for Bouvard and Pécuchet which was to be made up of a collage of quotations and was to constitute the "Book" composed by Bouvard and Pécuchet." Donato, p. 238.

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Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry