Jackson Mac Low, Lines—Letters—Words, at The Drawing Center, curated by Brett Littman, 20 January-19 March 2017

The works displayed at the Drawing Center of poet, composer, performer, and artist Jackson Mac Low (1922-2004) represent a small sample of the diverse and voluble creativity of this germinal figure of the American avant-garde. Some of the works displayed here—particularly the colorful and densely packed “”name poems”—exercise independent interest through their analogy to calligraphic practices in work by painters such as Mark Tobey, Franz Kline, Cy Twombly, and Sol LeWitt and to the prominence of visible language in conceptual and post-conceptual artworks. Generally, however, knowledge of Mac Low’s broader practices and thought is helpful context for deeper appreciation of these mostly modestly scaled graphic works.

Mac Low was a rigorous artistic explorer of thresholds, passages, nodes of translation, and semiotic borderlines. His work invited the advent of the new that, almost by necessity, occurs when one programs and accepts the outcome of projecting one system of meaning onto another, preferably in ways that depart significantly from intuitive compositional choices rooted in habit and egotistical interest. For instance, in his famous dance suite of the 1960s, The Pronouns, he asked his performers to collectively interpret/translate his challengingly unconventional verbal patterns into the idiom of improvised movement and gesture; and in a large body of other works, he sought to extend typographical patterns of letters on paper into embodied production and reception of sound. Anyone who has grappled with Mac Low’s complex, often baffling, but also strangely moving and beautiful work will be aware of the leakages, breaks, leaps, and unexpected miracles of translation that irregularly occur in his corpus by virtue of these projective procedures.

The primary borderlines that these graphic works explore are:

  • boundaries between the visibility of meaningful linguistic signs (sentences, words, letters) meant to be read and the sonorous presence of the linguistic sign as performatively sounded and heard;
  • boundaries between the letter as codified sign and as sheer shape and line;
  • boundaries between mark (whether line or letter) and support (paper, grid, canvas); and
  • boundaries between writing as a figure/ground relation and writing as sheer graphic density without figuration.

The earliest works in the exhibition are Mac Low’s experiments with graphic compositions using continuous lines or dense networks of ink marks, in some cases calligraphic and in other instances resembling the works on paper and black paintings that accompanied Jackson Pollock’s full color “all-over” abstract expressionist paintings, as in this Pollock black-and-white work:


Interestingly, just as with Pollock’s drawings and canvases, these works reveal a specific manifestation of Mac Low’s dialogue with the medium and material support of his graphic works: the problem of the paper’s edges, which we see Mac Low tacitly respecting as a “generative constraint.” For example, this is clearly evident in an untitled and undated ink composition (Untitled, n.d.; Pl. 8), in which there is a coherent, rectangular band of white around the edges that internally frames the floral blooms of ink nodes and branches that are the manifest “content” of the work. pl-8

But other works that otherwise depart significantly from this expressionistic mode nevertheless similarly show Mac Low negotiating the border of the paper to create an internal frame, as in 74th Hare Krishna Gatha (1967; Pl. 33), pl-33and Expectations Gatha (1978; Pl. 41),pl-41-2

and For Anne With Love on Her Birthday (1987; Pl. 53).pl-53In viewing these various works together, one sees—literally, in graphic form—a tension in Mac Low’s work between highly formal, diagrammatic, grid-like forms and informal, expressionistic forms, which in turn have extensions and analogues in his poetic corpus as well. The “asymmetries” and “diastic” poems, which use seed words or phrases as matrices to be expanded by other words sharing their letters find their correlates in the graphing paper typographical compositions of the “gathas” (see Pl. 41 above), as well as in the important, recently rediscovered chart connected with Mac Low’s composition of his “Light Poems” (Light Poems Chart, 1962; Pl. 18). pl-18In contrast, Mac Low’s intuitively composed poems (admittedly, informed by years of training in non-intentional composition) and his computer-assisted decomposition of Kurt Schwitters texts in 42 Merzgedichte: In Memoriam Kurt Schwitters have closer affinity to the dense arabesques of the “name poems” such as For Anne with love for her birthday (Pl. 53; see above)

Yet to insist on a neat split in Mac Low’s work would ignore his continual confounding of boundaries as well, as a look at the “drawing asymmetries” displayed here reveal. These range from compositions of handwritten but relatively formal, legible words (Drawing-Asymmetry #42, 1961; Pl. 21) pl-21to more cursive, graphic arabesques (Drawing-Asymmetry #52, 1961; Pl. 26), pl-26

to fully illegible, thick ink swirls (Drawing-Asymmetry #33, 1961; Pl. 24),pl-24—all grouped under the single “generic” designation. Similarly, though some of the “name poems” condense repeated acts of writing into opaque abstractions, others have evident affinities with the sparse formality of the “skew line” drawings (Pl. 50, Poem and Name: Happy Birthday, Anne, 1991, and Pl. 46, Skew Lines, 1979), pl-50pl-43-2despite the fact that the latter use purely graphic and coloristic elements rather than language.

The Drawing Center’s exhibition, then, offers, with its survey of Mac Low’s graphic production, a thought-provoking lens through which to view (and read!) his much larger corpus of poetic and performance works. It is appropriate, then, to conclude by highlighting the efforts of Anne Tardos, who provided the materials for the drawing exhibition, to also make more of Mac Low’s fascinating and voluminous work available in print to readers. Beginning with Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works (2009) and continuing with 154 Forties (2012) and The Complete Light Poems (2015), she has performed a heroic labor of editing a large body of hard-to-access or unavailable works by Mac Low. These books complement the volume of Mac Low’s performance works that Steven Clay published in 2005, Doings: Performance Works, 1955-2002, which documents Mac Low’s important contributions to the performance-based artistic avant-garde of the late 1950s and 1960s and his continuing engagement with performance throughout his life.

It takes time, patience, and a kind of semantic trust-falling to find one’s way around in Mac Low’s special artistic world, and this drawing exhibition offers an intimate zone in which to have a first encounter. The recently published books open up a much ampler space in which to wander and orient among Mac Low’s maze-like weave of letters, lines, and words. They are highly recommended for anyone who believes, like Mac Low clearly always did, that bringing something different and strange into the world remains a valuable thing to do, and then do again and again, anew.

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