No. 105: Kenneth Goldsmith's Text Art

Lingo 1, Spring / Summer 1993
by Geoffrey Young

Kenneth Goldsmith understands language as threefold: sound, sight and sense (Pound's melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia). In his text art, he becomes a curler and counter of syllables, an arranger and recorder of the word hoard. Via various formal constraints, Goldsmith taxonomizes the language environment. Propelled by a kind of polyglot desire, his texts pop with acronyms, buzz phrases, people's names, Latin, French, advertising jingles, high-minded poetry, banal newspeak. With a sculptor's feel for the materiality of words (Goldsmith graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a B.A. in sculpture, 1984), he slots his selections into triphammer staccato densities almost as if they were carved in stone.

"No. 105" is Goldsmith's longest work to date. Made up of six columns of writing, each seven feet tall, the columns are silkscreened onto rag paper, two to a panel, then framed. These leaning towers of columnar language, justified and legible from across the room, invite scanning, but they invite a paradox into the work, as well. If the writing is the central content of the work, as Goldsmith insists it is, it gets sacrificed in a gallery context where few have the time or literary inclination to stop and read a text as long as this one. Quick visual scanning is the norm in galleries, where the fact that it is a text piece, albeit attractively presented in a Minimalist inspired geometrical fashion, is somehow more important than the cumulative content of the writing itself. As a result of this dilemma, and as a way of giving his work a life outside the expensive assumptions of the art world and the unique object, Goldsmith, as an experiment, has transformed "No. 105" into chapbook format (51/: x 8l/2'') in an edition of 50 copies, thus freeing the text to circulate and be read in private, as a literary document.

And it is a pleasure to announce that "No. 105" is a reading experience of a new and refreshing kind. Adopting formal constraints (Goldsmith could almost be a member of Oulipo, so natural is it for him to place organizational limits to his text production), the artist has used aural, alphabetical and numerical systems to "construct" his text, harnessing its disparate elements into blocks that grow in phrasal length from very short (single syllable) to polysyllabic strings of semantic content, each element in the mix obliged by his initial constraint to end rhyme with the sound of the "e." Got it? No, Gotti.

The alphabetical device is this: each entry, separated by a comma, is placed in alphabetical order so that "beauty" comes before "bitchy" and "complicity" is placed before "daddy did me." At the end of any alphabetical run the careful reader will notice a semi-colon. After this semi-colon, a new grab-bag of entries, each with the same number of syllables, will unfold, alphabetically again, and run their course. With each new progression through the alphabet, the artist adds a syllable to the length of any phrase. In this addictive process, Goldsmith plays the role of taxonomist, distributing his mostly "found" phrases in their appropriate place in the count.

And strangely enough, what his ordering systems generate, rather than a too-confining set of strictures, is a nearly chance-inspired freedom. Unpredictable juxtapositions send their probes into the reader's mind for fresh associations. Like a Picasso still life, Goldsmith's poems are made out of common verbal objects, but placed together on the same "table top," they trigger intricate pleasures. With so much found language cobbled together in suddenly "orderly" ways, it seems as if the verbal/sign-saturated landscape in which our culture lives is being played back at us in decontextualized bytes by an anonymous homogenizing machine. But in fact these selections very much bear the stamp of their maker's hand. They are Goldsmith's. His gatherings have a way of preserving memory without imposing a particular story for that memory, and in this he bears a filial relation to Ron Silliman. Words accumulate, and in their precision sprawl we can see our world, ourselves in its midst.

Connected to aspects of Fluxus, to Concrete poetry, and to experimental writing in the computer age, Goldsmith's text art intersects with today's culture on many fronts. At the center of his "editing" terminal, the place from which his New York ear makes its choices, imagine a socially alert, pop-drenched, rap-conscious scopophilic downtown art paladin, filtering a generation's legibility through its sensorium.

Back to Kenneth Goldsmith's Author Page | Back to EPC