Two strands of thought in my life and one large kick in the rear brought me onto the visual poetic / correspondence art path which has been mine for the last 25 years. The first strand was my doctoral dissertation on William Empson, whose book The Structure of Complex Words, enabled me to understand that meanings inhere in language in transactional ways - words are always in process, both as they are being written and as they are being read. This observation has been at the root of my entire knowledge of and interest in art and language as exchanges, both in the practical sense of being given away and in the more complex epistemological way of artwork being completed in dialogue and present in receipt. The second strand was simply being a public university english professor at the time of open admission. The very ill-preparedness of my students was a glorious opportunity for experimentation, particularly in ways of teaching composition. So, ironically, my journeys to my college classroom passed through soho in new york city and passed the dumpsters which contained the out-takes of the garment factories in that area. My classroom experiments paralleled, unbeknownst to me, the playful, ephemeral, conceptual work of my fluxus peers. My elective became the largest in the college, and I believed that I was opening an important collegial door to student-faculty shared mission. Somehow I became the most radical or most noticeable member of the faculty doing new things, indeed questioning the entire academic enterprise, and protesting against the Vietnam war. I was denied tenure and, consequently, forced to invent another pathway to my work.
So it goes.
After that I somehow discovered that one could be an artist without either passing a test or being granted permission. I naively thought that I was about to become free to express myself and to explore my interests in line and language within a community of like-minded people. I participated in starting an artist-run gallery in Brooklyn, et cetera et cetera. Galleries, whether art-run or not, still didn't provide an open, democratic community. I tripped over correspondence art at some moment here, having already done some natural sound performances and studied at least the theory of holography, and that then became my life's work. Since sometime in the mid-seventies, almost all of my art work has been sent out along the correspondence art pathways. I took correspondence art as a serious, all- encompassing way of exploring language and art with other artists equally inclined toward the pluralism and self-control of exchanging art as insight and collaboration. I loved the fact that envelopes were collaged en route and were visual playgrounds for ways of writing and seeing language and image, that envelopes enclosed a possibly different message or artwork than the outside "decoration" suggested, that the envelope was altered by being opened and thus forever changed, that the contents were both private and public at the same time, Similarly with postage stamps, which became a main medium of exploration for me culminating in what now is known as The Book of Invisible Stamps, a decade long study of form and content in grids. For me, visual poetry is the presence of line and language within the same space so that the eye and mind inter-react in the 'reading' of the work. I am interested in how the mind makes meanings from fragments of language, all the way down to individual letters floating about, while at the same time seeing the poetic page as an artwork with traditional aesthetic signals which lead the viewer's eye in non-linear ways. My work is almost all occasional, inspired from correspondence art sent to me and before me as I work, by snippets of thoughts or disjunction, by occasions such as thoughts and feelings and ideas shared with another artist or friend. I get a piece of the whole and weave the entirety from that. I have a momentary lyrical sense, no grand scheme. My work is gathered under the rubric of The Life and Love Songs of the Paumonock Traveler, as if it were my daily reports as a leaf of grass blown in Walt Whitman's scene of the struggle of identity and democracy. He had sung his song just 100 years before me in Brooklyn Heights where I began my visual poetry work. I am singing back to him from a singular point of view.
After curating a correspondence art exhibit in Israel entitled The Scroll Unrolls in 1985, I began to focus primarily on collaborations, as a way of understanding and appreciating how it is that an artist knows or feels that a piece of work is exactly right, how the hand is lifted from the page with the trace of the black-lined gesture left behind with such evocation! For perhaps a decade I have been sending pages and books back and forth with other visual poets, the ones who also, from my point of view, were interested in both line and language, through the mail as we completed pages or texts together, using line and collage and language and tears and other materials. These collaborations have been an extraordinary time in my life. I have done most of my late work, up until the SHROUDS and FLOOR SPACES in Minnesota, with these correspondence artists and visual poets: marilyn rosenberg, betty danon, sheril cunning, carol stetser, ruth laxson, roger erickson, chuck welch, despo magoni, kathy ernst, mem lloyd, and harriet ban. I have learned from each of these people, have been given the gift of creating within the same art spaces with them in dialogue and dance. I have indeed seen the visual poems reveal themselves to and between consciousness until a seamlessness beyond which either could create alone came to realization. These collaborations have reinvigorated my belief in art as a social action, as a way of seeing and saying together, and thus on the very edge of healing. For, let there be no mistake, this artlife has been both generally unrecognized and unrewarded, it has existed at the edge of private diary and gift, it has been about the exploration of the heart and the soul and how the hands of an artist can give voice to the world around her/him.
Most interestingly, as I have this remarkable chance to look back over my creative life as it comes to an unfortunately too-conscious end, I am struck by how these very small works of art by visual poets, which easily fit into envelopes, can be expanded to fill a universe, or if not that, then an ice house! I have had the opportunity to write my works large in the last few years, on the one hand Shrouds, which are envelopes of another name, and on the other, Floor Spaces, which are holes through the earth into the space of language, and it has clarified for me that I was always painting huge partings but in postcard form, making huge verbal sculptures but in modest presstype.
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These notes were written for a forthcoming anthology of visual poetry
edited by Bob Grumman and Craig Hill.
Copyright © 1999 by David Cole
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