Two Poems from DIA: Beacon

Max Neuhaus, “Time Piece Beacon,” (2005). Text accompanied by drawing representing sound crescendoing left to right, red to blue, ending in a thick black line, representing silence at the close of the sound loop which plays hourly at DIA: Beacon.

sound
emerging from
nowhere

increasing
in volume
and color

imperceptibly

reaching its
peak

suddenly
disappearing

leaving in its
wake

an aural
afterimage

within
a sense of
stillness

***

Sol Lewitt, “Wall Drawing #235: The location of three points,” (1974). Text accompanied by drawing in graphite and crayon.

THE FIRST POINT IS LOCATED WHERE TWO LINES WOULD
CROSS IF THE FIRST LINE WERE DRAWN FROM A POINT
WHICH IS HALFWAY BETWEEN A POINT WHICH IS HALFWAY
BETWEEN THE CENTER OF THE WALL AND THE MIDPOINT OF
THE LEFT SIDE AND A POINT WHICH IS HALFWAY BETWEEN
THE MIDPOINT OF THE LEFT SIDE AND THE LOWER LEFT
CORNER TO A POINT WHICH IS HALFWAY BETWEEN THE
CENTER OF THE WALL AND THE UPPER RIGHT CORNER.
THE SECOND LINE IF IT WERE DRAWN FROM A POINT
HALFWAY BETWEEN A POINT WHICH IS HALFWAY
BETWEEN THE CENTER OF THE WALL AND THE MIDPOINT OF
BOTTOM SIDE AND A POINT WHICH IS HALFWAY BETWEEN
THE MIDPOINT OF THE BOTTOM SIDE AND THE LOWER RIGHT
CORNER TO A POINT HALFWAY BETWEEN THE HALFWAY
BETWEEN THE CENTER OF THE WALL AND THE MIDPOINT
OF THE TOP SIDE AND THE UPPER LEFT CORNER.

***

What is at stake in designating these texts as poems? And why should it feel polemical, even dubious, to frame each of the above fragments as a “Text accompanied by…”? As if the text were primary, rather than a subordinate piece to the sound/image/architecture that is the work. Language can’t be the focus of these works, it seems. And this marks the difference between Lewitt’s and Neuhaus’s works and other forms of “conceptual art,” say, in the vein of Joseph Kosuth. To put it crudely, “The Location of Three Points” doesn’t perform the hat tricks of Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs.” It’s not about language, or about the representational vs. the real, or the phenomenal, and so on. It’s not Ideas, Words, & Things caught in vicious, allegorical cycles. It’s not that. LeWitt’s “wall drawings” and Neuhaus’s “time pieces” neither express nor address anxieties about representation, language, or the representational capacities of language versus the image versus the ‘thing itself’ versus the idea. While Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” problematizes its various mediums of representation, Lewitt’s and Neuhaus’s works demonstrate a more marked ambivalence towards their choices in medium (which is not to say that their choices are in any way arbitrary).

This is perhaps most apparent in Neuhaus’s “Time Piece Beacon,” which the visitor first experiences as an ephemeral, aural work, likely while paying admission to the gallery or browsing other works in the DIA collection. Depending, then, on the direction she takes through the building, the visitor sooner or later stumbles on the drawing and text for “Time Piece Beacon” (curator Lynne Cooke calls it a “drawing-text diptych,” and Neuhaus called it a “statement in another medium”). Given these three components to consider–the sound, the text, the image–plus the title, which decidedly situates the work in its environs, the visitor begins to frame the piece, if she had not already done so, as “site-specific” and, possibly, as that uncertain genre of art called “installation art” (Neuhaus called his works “sound installations”).

In making the connection between the work and its location, the visitor begins to consider the piece as architectural or sculptural, or as “environmental.” The point is, however, that “Time Piece Beacon” is all these things. It is rooted in the site, though its fundamental dimension would appear to be time; it exists in sound, though perhaps more importantly, in silence; it comes from, and returns to, an image (“leaving in its/ wake/ an aural/ afterimage”); and it brings each of these registers into contact at a kind of “quilting point,” through poetry.

To state that the drawing and sound components of the work accompany the text seems a kind of heresy if one takes that to mean the text is preeminent. More likely, though, it’s a useful correction away from our tendency to ascribe sound as the primary medium, and the drawing-text diptych as a kind of conceptual draft, inessential after all. While intuitive, this interpretation of the piece flattens its dimensions and distills its complexities. As Neuhaus has explained, “the sound is not the work. The sound is the material I make a work out of… [It is] the material I use to transform the space into a place” (emphasis mine). In other words, while each material does not have equal weight, neither is it possible for the sound alone to exist as the work.

One difference then, between Neuhaus’s “Time Piece Beacon” and (to return to our counter-example) Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs,” is that in the former, each “statement” of the piece acts as a component of the whole rather than as a translation of the whole. In this way, the “re-statements” of “Time Piece,” unlike each re-statement of the “chair” in “One and Three Chairs,” do not dramatize the inadequacy of translation of one medium into another. In Kosuth’s piece, each part naively attempts to stand in for the whole, each attempts to be adequate to the next, and each, of course, fails to do so. This failure is what gives the piece its sense of movement–that vertiginous cycling sensation the viewer experiences, like falling into the Dantesean vortex of interpretive allegory alluded to above. In Neuhaus’s work, each statement, as a component part, is indispensable to the whole and none attempts to become adequate to another. Each statement stands apart, contributing a different cast, or a different angle to the piece, but without any attempt to equal another part, each part is locked into the stillness of a composition.

In Lewitt’s case, the “drawings” of the “Wall Drawings” would appear to take precedence over the “texts”–those bulky, rectangular blocks of lettering which insert themselves awkwardly here and there with a tongue-in-cheek verbosity. One might take these ridiculous instructions (“THE FIRST POINT IS LOCATED WHERE TWO LINES WOULD/ CROSS IF THE FIRST LINE WERE DRAWN FROM A POINT/ WHICH IS HALFWAY BETWEEN A POINT WHICH IS HALFWAY/ BETWEEN THE CENTER OF THE WALL AND THE MIDPOINT OF/ THE LEFT SIDE AND A POINT WHICH IS HALFWAY BETWEEN/ THE MIDPOINT OF THE LEFT SIDE AND THE LOWER LEFT/ CORNER TO A POINT WHICH IS HALFWAY BETWEEN THE/ CENTER OF THE WALL AND THE UPPER RIGHT CORNER.”) as a parody of verbal language, or as an exercise in the comparative simplicity, directness, and superiority of visual language over verbal language. This convoluted sentence, after all, represents no more than a few straight lines in graphite on a white wall.

On the other hand, something about the text in the Wall Drawings cannot be reduced to parody, especially as the complexity of the language in the text block leads to a reconsideration and re-viewing of the drawing. Sure, the lines are straight and the three points readily apparent, but then the linguistic instantiations of the drawings begins to highlight the strange complexity of these images. And as the text leads back to the image, the image returns the viewer to the text with the renewed sense that–much like the dense lines of the drawing which can hardly be traced one-at-a-time by the eye without losing all sense of the gestalt–these text blocks can’t be followed line-by-line but must be read all at once. The prose block becomes a language-shape on the wall, or what we might consider “concrete poetry” in the tradition of Haroldo de Campos, Eugene Gomringer, and Ian Hamilton Finlay (or even Ad Reinhardt, Carl Andre, and Vito Acconci).

In a very different way from Neuhaus’s “Time Piece Beacon,” LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #235” employs graphic, textual, and site-specific elements as component pieces of the work. While “Time Piece Beacon” is inextricably located in the DIA: Beacon site, Lewitt intended his “wall drawings” to be transposable, if not transportable, works. Each instantiation of a wall drawing is specific to the flexible location and dimensions of the wall on which it is realized (each drawing requires a wall of exact proportions, not size). In a sense, the drawing is both completely site-specific and yet, fundamentally itinerant.

In their capacity to be at once exactly and inexactly reproduced, LeWitt’s wall drawings remind one of nothing so much as a text. In no way should this observation suggest that the wall drawings are texts or are about textuality. In a way, one could argue that LeWitt’s wall drawings straddle the difference between Neuhaus and Kosuth when it comes to questions of medium and re-mediation. Like Neuhaus, Lewitt’s work doesn’t attempt to dramatize philosophical conceits regarding the relationship between ideas, words, and things in the way Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs” clearly does. Furthermore, between the text on the wall and the drawing on the wall, the relationship is one of component parts rather than substitutive parts–again, closer to Neuhaus than Kosuth. The critical distinction to make, then, between text in Neuhaus’s and Lewitt’s works is that in the latter, writing appears in multiple roles and registers, and even translates itself. Like Kosuth’s work, Lewitt’s does engage in acts of substitutive translation. While installed on a wall at DIA: Beacon, the text of “Wall Drawing #235: The location of three points” does not compete with the image. Neither image nor text attempts to adequate the other. If they function in any sense as translations, it’s of the “facing page” variety. On the other hand, the relationship between the installed work and LeWitt’s accompanying instructions-certificate and diagrammatic drawing is a relation characterized by surrogacy. As the recent lawsuit over the loss of the instructions-certificate for “Wall Drawing #448” by the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago has called to the art world’s attention (with Onion-worthy headlines such as “How Do You Lose a Work of Conceptual Art?”), the text here is, in fact, the most critical component of the work. In the case of LeWitt’s wall drawings, the installations themselves may come and go (the drawings last only as long as an exhibit runs and are subsequently destroyed) but the instructions-certificate, well, that cannot pulped, shredded, recycled, misfiled or waylaid–at least not without coughing up $1.4 million to whomever you had the work on loan from.

Undeniably, LeWitt’s “Wall Drawing #448” has become a drama of the text. I don’t, however, want to give the impression that the wall drawings dramatize text, textuality, language, or mediation. In LeWitt’s work, both the written instructions and the visual diagram serve as translations of the works into another medium and into a language of information. In this way, image can translate image, text text, image text, and text image. No one medium or part of the work assumes a de facto precedence over another. If the story of the lost LeWitt certificate tells us anything at all, it’s more about the market-sustained fetish of the signature, and the importance of the phantasmal trace of the artist to the artwork’s price tag, than about certain formal features of the work or about the ideas informing it.

In an April 1970 interview in Arts Magazine, LeWitt explained with regard to his wall drawings, “I wanted to do a work of art that was as two-dimensional as possible.” By treating the wall drawings as purely conceptual works, the critic reduces LeWitt’s two-dimensionality into a point–a point which soon melts into the realm of Ideas, or the flows of capital. Insisting on the complexity of the relations amongst their parts, Neuhaus’s and LeWitt’s works cue their audiences to an experience of thickness and subtle variation. Nothing here is a trick and no pedagogical moment follows. Instead of feeling schooled, these works foster curiosity, a kind of pleasant anticipation—as if, now that you’ve experienced this first unexpected shift, suddenly any set of relations in the world could slip ever-so-slightly and unpredictably.

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