Visual Voices

Art In America, April 1996
by Raphael Rubinstein

In moving from his earlier sculptures, drawings, large-scale prints and mixed-medium collages to a printed book (printed in the sense that it has been produced with standardized word-processing software), Kenneth Goldsmith has distanced himself from the materiality of art objects while moving toward clearer legibility of the written word. Since his sculptural training at the Rhode Island School of Design, from which he graduated with an BFA in sculpture in 1984, Goldsmith had been increasing the quantity of words in his work while slipping further away from three-dimensional work. In drawings like Large Poem #1 (1992), Goldsmith deliberately made his texts hard to read. Lines of rhyming phrases overlapped one another, creating a typographic interference that taxed the viewer/reader's powers of concentration as you tried to separate "black lung" from "Carl Jung," or "brain drain" from "chow mein."

In his more recent collages devoted to a trio of '60s rebels-Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman-the texts turn sideways and upside down, shift from handwriting to computer print, are overlaid, blotted out and cut off. The irregularity and sheer amount of text in these works challenges the viewer's patience. As is the case with Landers, and so many other text artists, Goldsmith makes works which he knows that few viewers will read in full. I would be surprised if anyone had the patience to read every word in these collages-I certainly didn't, as much as I enjoy Goldsmith's texts.

In this series, Goldsmith pastes together quotations from his subjects, his own diaries and sheets of printed images. Among the penciled notes in the Abbie Hoffman collage is one that reads: "My relationship to the counterculture has always been a strong one, albeit distanced. Being born in 1961, I was too young to be a hippie; my first political coming of consciousness was Watergate. I was also too young to be a punk and subsequently too young to be a Yuppie (whew, again)." Frequently, the Jewish background shared by Goldsmith and his subjects is evoked. In one work, the artist has drawn a Star of David over pencil text, then partially whitewashed the Jewish symbol and scrawled into the white an allusion to the Jewish strictures against iconography: "Explicit use of symbols forbidden." One pauses to wonder how this relates to Goldsmith's emphasis on textuality.

The work I am concentrating on here is a 600-page manuscript titled No. 111 2.7.93- 10.20.96 (the numbers of the title tell us that it's the 111th work Goldsmith made and that he worked on it from Feb. 7, '93 to Oct. 20, '96). The book originated in Goldsmith's disappointment at the negative response to a 1994 show at Bravin Post Lee Gallery in New York where he exhibited a single large text piece titled No. 109 2.7.93-12.15.93. Collectors and supporters who had enthused over his earlier drawings and smaller text works found the number of words in the eight 96-by-48-inch panels of silkscreened text simply too much to take in. Goldsmith was bothered by the art world's limited capacity to handle language.

At the same time that he was pondering the negative response to his show, Goldsmith wondered what to do with the text he had accumulated but not put into the piece-he'd edited out the phrases he thought would be uninteresting to others. He also realized how dissatisfied he had grown with the laborious, expensive process of rendering language material. He was deeply interested in words, much less so in the act of turning them into drawings and silkscreened panels. Goldsmith's solution was to dispense with that sort of object-making: he would create his next work in a computer, he would write a book. Starting with the text that had gone into the panels of No. 109 2. 7.93-18.15.93 and the unused material, he began accumulating words and phrases that caught his attention. His ambition was to turn himself into a passive receiver of the language circulating around him.

Rather than attempting the impossible task of funneling absolutely everything that struck him into a book, Goldsmith limited his selection to words and phrases ending in various off-rhymes of the Ur" sound. These include "er," Uar," "ir," "ah," "a," "air," "ear" and Uuh." At the start, it seemed as if 130 pages would suffice, but the project kept growing. Goldsmith began thinking of his manuscript as a kind of reference book and wanted the finished volume to have a dictionary like heft. Looking at the reference books on his shelves, he noticed that they tended to be at least 600 pages long.

Although it can be maddening and not a little hallucinatory to read, No. 111 2.7.93- 10.20.96 has a rather straightforward structure which relies on alphabetical order and the number of syllables in a word or phrase. Each chapter is composed of words or phrases of a certain syllabic length which are arranged, within the chapter, in alphabetical order. Thus, the first chapter begins with "A" and ends with "Zsa," the second begins "A woah!" and ends "zuder," the third runs from "A is for" to "Zozima." While the computer facilitated the process of collecting and filing phrases, there was no software that could count syllables. Goldsmith was compelled to manually count them, tapping out the words with his fingers in increasingly time consuming increments. As the number of syllables grows, the sources become more recognizable: Goldsmith cannibalizes newspaper headlines, TV schedules, pop songs, dirty jokes, liner notes, colloquial phrases, advertisements, Shakespeare, Joyce, book titles and his own diaries. Other material is drawn from the Internet and the tape recorder the artist carried around with him while he was composing the book.

In the following short extracts from the 8-syllable, 11-syllable and 14-syllable chapters, one gets an idea of the dizzying range of Goldsmith's sources and the alternately hypnotic, irritating and shifting rhythms of the work:

my 15 minutes are over, my cold-blooded mother-in-law, my heart says yeah yeah yeah yeah, N.O.C.D.-not our class dear, name rank and serial number, name the three daughters of King Lear, Nancy Reagan meets Ms. Manners, nationalism then slaughter, Negro league baseball wing-walkers, New Millenia from Mazda, new mushroom swiss quarter pounder, new sourdough bacon cheeseburger, newspapers snowdrifted the floor . . .

for instance I switched over from briefs to boxers, for somebody who's supposed to be big on bras, generalizations are of little use here, Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers, get a tattoo and hide it from your gym teacher, Gilligan's Island as a modern day Chaucer, Gloria Steinem not Julia Kristeva, God is real unless declared as an integer, gotta protect little girls from those ideas . . .

reading begins when the eye receives the words as pictures, render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, Roy Cohn fist fucking Jean Genet in the judges chamber, Save-a-hoe had better strap on his cape the shot calla, seven years after the explosion of the Challenger, she opened up the pearly gates and bared the pelvic floor, she rolls her own tampons and kickstarts her own vibrator, she says if I'm good she'll give me the other one next year, show as much as you can then leave the boys panting for more .

Eventually, the length of the units reaches hundreds of syllables. Numerous later chapters are composed of single quotations, rather than the earlier litanies of phrases. Towards the end, Goldsmith also begins to jump ahead in his syllable counting, moving into the thousands, letting his system break up. In the final chapter he breaks all his own rules, creating stanzas of free verse and arrays of concrete poetry. This contributes to the book's ability to keep surprising the reader, especially as the heterogeneous phrases give way to single subject paragraphs. As the book progresses, the content and sources of one chapter rarely prepare you for what comes next. Chapter 150, for instance, consists simply of a long quote from an article about composer Philip Glass (keeping to Goldsmith's rhyme scheme, it ends with the words "Christian Dior"), while in chapter 154 an unnamed "famous artist" recounts his experiences with Prozac. Further on are irruptions like chapter 909, which is composed solely of first lines from limericks-"There once was a girl from Alaska, There once was a tart named Belinda"-or Chapter 1366, which appears to be a long letter on the subject of Ezra Pound's weak points as a human being. There are also vignettes of life in New York City, apparently drawn from the artist's diaries. One of my favorites is Chapter 115, which uses two dogs, a poodle and a boxer, to link a visit to an art dealer dying of AIDS in the Chelsea Hotel to a SoHo sighting of supermodel Linda Evangelista.

Goldsmith's computer-generated manuscript is panted out in standardized blocks of type, justified on right and left; printed on one side, the sheets form a 6-inch-high stack of pages. The range of his sources could be described as encyclopedic, except that by focusing on apparently arbitrary properties o his materials-number and sound of syllables-his manuscript is a far cry from an! existing reference book. Under its deceptive!, bland title, "No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96" ir attempting no less than a complete reordering of the things of the world. The work is also intentionally, a weirdly constructed Baedeker to late-20th-century American society, and a compendium of raw material for an autobiography of the artist.

Like Jonathan Borofsky obsessively cataloguing his dreams, Goldsmith presents himself as at once absurdly specific and hugely representative. In his exhaustive transfer of data into his work, Goldsmith also displays affinities with works of Conceptual art such as Allen Ruppersberg's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1974), in which the artist hand-wrote Oscar Wilde's novella onto 20 canvas panels, and Edward Ruscha's early artist's book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, for which the artist photographed all the structures on that Los Angeles thoroughfare. Where. Goldsmith diverges from such works is in his insistence on transforming any given order. He is not in pursuit of the unmediated world. His work is musical before it is exhaustive; rhythmic before it is objective. In his epic litanies and lists, Goldsmith bangs to the textual tradition of Conceptual art not only an exploded frame of reference but a hitherto absent sense of hypnotic beat.

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