BY Helen Chang in Reviews | 29 OCT 13
Featured in
Issue 12


Galerie nächst St. Stephan

BY Helen Chang in Reviews | 29 OCT 13

Word + Work, 2013, exhibition view

If the average writer on art (including this one) can never get it quite right, could it be that an artist writing herself, as Patrick Heron has suggested, can never get it quite wrong? When artists’ writing is presented as art, or at least being equal to their art works, we are left to ponder the relationship of the writing to the art. We must sift for hints dropped from the artists’ use of language and syntax, and how they produce and edit their writing to become that vague species that is somewhere between literary and artistic genres: theory and art.

This show assembles the works and writings of 14 artists, including manifestos from Joseph Beuys, poems by Agnes Martin, and surreal trivia coated in flashes of seriousness from Meret Oppenheim and Liam Gillick. There is criticism from Donald Judd and a journalistic essay from Andreas Fogarasi, as well as what could be read as nourishing doses of courage and self-help advice from Louise Bourgeois. These texts are juxtaposed with the artists’ works, though not necessarily in the same room nor correlating specifically to a work. Even so, the art works in this constellation are deprived of their usual passive silence. Texts by various authors begin to echo familiar refrains, setting off chords of depth and tone that the works alone couldn’t. These were words that, once inside my head, couldn’t find their way out before they began the work of explaining.

Louise Bourgeois’ work, including Anatomy Portfolio (1989), which consists of 11 etchings of hair, maggots and feet, as well as a garter belt mounted on paper, proved inseparable and even inconceivable apart from her writings and statements, which confirm the relationship between her work and her biography. By contrast, Martin’s writing is as clear as her work is abstract. In Beauty is the Mystery of Life (1989), she wrote: ‘It is not the role of an artist to worry about life – to feel responsible for creating a better world. This is a very serious distraction. All of your conditioning has been directed toward intellectual living. This is useless in art work. All human knowledge is useless in art work.’ And yet one can also imagine that this is exactly how her spare, geometric intuition would translate into text.

Not all texts stood as autonomously as Bourgeois’ and Martin’s – seemingly made after the fact and offering profound insights into their authors’ creative processes. Other writings read more like tests, exercises or otherwise part of the artist’s process, such as Andrea Fraser’s, who, like any script writer, must have drafts that get funnier toward completion, her deadpan humour and odd compulsions added in layer by layer. Judd’s criticism contains as much exploration as revelation. His writing is often provisional – not unlike thinking aloud – and contains considerations, maybe for the first time, of his own position in relation to other artists.

Perhaps describing what it’s like to make art may be something similar to describing what it’s like to look at: both are probably best approached obliquely. This assumption could explain why the show left out texts that directly address the works. However, the unspoken question of why artists write remains. Richard Tuttle, whose evasive, disjunctive poem Knot (2011) is included here, explains the compulsion as such. In a BOMB magazine interview from 1992, he says modestly: ‘I do some writing myself … in my case, it’s just this internal stew that’s rolling around and around, and occasionally a phrase will come out – and that’s what I’ll write down.’ By way of contrast to his poet wife and sometime collaborator, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, he continues, ‘you see, it’s a world apart from language, I mean, the way a real writer would use words.’ How an artist might use them is no less mysterious.

Helen Chang is a writer based in Vienna.