Words to Be Looked At
Language in 1960s Art
344 pp., 7 x 9 in, 100 b&w illus.
- Published: February 26, 2010
- Publisher: The MIT Press
- Published: September 21, 2007
- Publisher: The MIT Press
A critical study of the use of language and the proliferation of text in 1960s art and experimental music, with close examinations of works by Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, John Cage, Douglas Huebler, Andy Warhol, Lawrence Weiner, La Monte Young, and others.
Language has been a primary element in visual art since the 1960s—in the form of printed texts, painted signs, words on the wall, recorded speech, and more. In Words to Be Looked At, Liz Kotz traces this practice to its beginnings, examining works of visual art, poetry, and experimental music created in and around New York City from 1958 to 1968. In many of these works, language has been reduced to an object nearly emptied of meaning. Robert Smithson described a 1967 exhibition at the Dwan Gallery as consisting of “Language to be Looked at and/or Things to be Read.” Kotz considers the paradox of artists living in a time of social upheaval who use words but chose not to make statements with them. Kotz traces the proliferation of text in 1960s art to the use of words in musical notation and short performance scores. She makes two works the “bookends” of her study: the “text score” for John Cage's legendary 1952 work 4'33”—written instructions directing a performer to remain silent during three arbitrarily determined time brackets—and Andy Warhol's notorious a: a novel—twenty-four hours of endless talk, taped and transcribed—published by Grove Press in 1968. Examining works by artists and poets including Vito Acconci, Carl Andre, George Brecht, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Jackson Mac Low, and Lawrence Weiner, Kotz argues that the turn to language in 1960s art was a reaction to the development of new recording and transmission media: words took on a new materiality and urgency in the face of magnetic sound, videotape, and other emerging electronic technologies. Words to Be Looked At is generously illustrated, with images of many important and influential but little-known works.
Book-ended by Cage's 4'33'' and Warhol's a: a novel, by 'silence' and 'glossolalia', Liz Kotz's text tracks a hitherto uncharted trajectory in what she terms 'the turn to language' in vanguard art practices of the 1960s and 70s. Kotz's nuanced probing of linguistic operations serving instrumental or instructional ends and/or deployed as material entities illuminates an impressively wide range of works in various fields from experimental music and poetry, to the visual arts. Acutely attentive to that era's displacement of conventional categories, she constructs a network of cross disciplinary readings that freshly parses the interrelationships of Fluxus, Conceptual, performance and post-minimal art works with concurrent disciplines.
Lynne Cooke, Dia Art Foundation
An excellently researched archaeology of the emergence of Conceptualism in New York in the '60s and a reminder of the extraordinary fecundity of the dialogues that were occurring in avant-garde circles at that time.
The Art Book
In 1959, Brion Gysin famously claimed that poetry was fifty years behind painting. Gysin's prophecy still holds true: half a century later, contemporary poetry is just beginning to explore ideas forged by language-based artists in the 1960s. As such, this book is a roadmap, bursting at the seams with inspiration and ideas for current literary practices. By embracing an intermedia approachone where music, photography, visual art, poetry and performance all live in the same room, Liz Kotz elegantly creates a compelling portrait of our digitized networked present. The implications are radical: by gazing backwards, this book predicts the future.
Kenneth Goldsmith, University of Pennsylvania
Kotz, a professor of cultural studies and comparative literature, has a keen eye and ear for language in art. And she has also gamely tackled close readings of some of the twentieth century's most impenetrable, enigmatic artworks and poems, drawing out a succession of fascinating details and compelling contextualizations.
Art on Paper
Of the many strengths of Words to be Looked At, Kotz's synthetic vision stands out. She has a gift for bringing together previously isolated works in ways that illuminate both elements of her comparison. The discussion of John Ashbery and Jackson MacLow offers us a superb example of this within the domain of poetry, while the chapter on George Brecht's performance piece and Joseph Kosuth's photographic installation provides a model for the synthesis of different arts.
P. Adams Sitney, Director, Program in Visual Arts, Princeton University