May '03 [Home]


The Rise and Fall of Artists' SoHo:  Literature

by Richard Kostelanetz

(from his essay collection scheduled for release by Routledge next month)

. . .

The basic thing about modernism in literature is that it recognized, and insisted upon recognizing, the materiality of language as a source of whatever happens in literature, rather than emphasizing its power to communicate ideas, or anything like that.—Harry Mathews (in a 1999 interview)

Although writing alone was not among the categories qualifying an artist for legal residence in SoHo proper, a good deal of literature was produced there, much of it obscurely published and barely known, even decades later. The distinctive characteristic of SoHo literature was its close relation, both stylistically and socially, to new ideas in the other arts. More precisely, SoHo writing was concerned, like other SoHo arts, with issues of minimalism and abstraction, of extreme fragmentation; with alternative scale and coherence, of patterning and difficulty; questions of non-art and anti-art, perceptual stretching, and the exploration of media other than one's initial mastery (which, for writers, would be words for printed pages). Another SoHo ideal has been unique signature—that a work should look or sound like yours and no one else's—at a time when most aspiring graduates of university writing programs were encouraged to resemble one or another accepted master. It follows that SoHo writing was not about expressionism or about classicism, not about "poetic feeling" or realistic portrayals.

Both the art and literature of SoHo were concerned with discovering the radical possibilities of one's art, rather than the exploration of familiar conventions. To put it differently, SoHo writing approached Art and still remained Literature. Much of it was necessarily self-published, often in editions of a few hundred copies, in contrast to the number of several thousand, which commercial publishers tell you is the minimum they must sell to "break even." Indeed, some of it was never published at all. Carl Andre, better known for his sculpture, only exhibited typed sheets of paper 8-1/2" by 11", usually at the Paula Cooper Gallery, while refusing (perhaps shrewdly, not to diminish their value as "art") requests by others to print them.

The verbal texts that we associate with the polyartistic movement Fluxus are early examples of SoHo Writing. Many of them were published by George Maciunas, often to include in boxes along with strictly visual materials. Just as John Cage was a major influence on Fluxus, so it could be said that he was the father of SoHo literature (as well as the titular deity of some strains of downtown music). On the north side of Houston Street has long lived one of the great American experimental writers, Madeline Gins, producing extraordinary books both in her own name and in collaboration with her husband, the artist Arakawa—among them, her own Word Rain (1969) and Helen Keller or Arakawa (1994); and their The Mechanism of Meaning (1988) and Architecture:  Sites of Reversible Destiny (1994).

Many SoHo authors worked in arts other than writing:  Claes Oldenburg doing sculpture and performance; Carl Andre, Alison Knowles, Agnes Denes, and Rosemarie Castoro exhibiting sculpture in addition to publishing writing; the visual artist Jennifer Bartlett publishing Cleopatra I-IV (1971), and a full-length novel History of the Universe (1985) that reflects the influence of Gertrude Stein, who likewise learned to advance writing through her experience of visual art. Frances Alenikoff and Kenneth King doing dance and choreography; Jackson Mac Low, poetry and music; and myself doing video, book design, electro-acoustic music composition, and holography. Had E. E. Cummings lived into the 1970's, when he would have been in his eighties, he would have epitomized a SoHo writer. As he exhibited his paintings and drawings and his wife was a recognized photographer, Cummings could have also easily qualified for the officail city certificate required to reside within SoHo.

As an example of SoHo-style writing, consider these sequences from Frances Alenikoff's long poem "Chronicles" (1981):

or, simply:

Agnes Denes's "Hamlet Fragmented" (1971) is a pioneering attempt to use a computer to reorganize the language of Shakespeare's classic, thus opening:

O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half,
Good night, but go out to my uncle's bed
Assume a virtue if you have it not,

Later including proposals for replacing certain words, resulting in lines such as these:

    Players ready?
            , mother,    here's    metal    attractive.

Only to conclude with blocks of numerical codes supposedly used to generate the remarkable text.

Much other SoHo writing appeared within visual works, sometimes in works wholly of words, more often as accompanying texts. As noted before, photographs often had short texts handwritten on the face of the image to make them appear personal, as distinct from typeset captions appearing underneath. Robert Morris, best known for his sculpture and also a distinguished essayist on sculptural issues, incorporated longer prose texts into a series of metal tableaux, 29" by 38-1/2" by 7" deep. To the image of compartments he put into the lower left-hand corner a text that reads in its entirety, including the title:  Tomb for a Dismembered Body.

The Torso is said to repose beneath this lacy white trellis. And that rockery or grotto over there? I was told it marks the resting place of the pelvis. Bu I am not sure; nothing is marked. Beyond those trees are two small pools, just visible there to the left. Yes, for the feet. Who laid out these gravel paths? I was not told that. Yes! This is the maze you heard about. Don't ask me why it was covered with mirrors. Or why that mist from the top keeps them wet, I would prefer if you did not enter. I can't be responsible. No, the head is not visible at the center. It is deep in the ground beneath one of the walls. So I have been told. That grouping on the hill of bronze flag poles and flags? Yes, for the hands. I don't know what the colors of the flags mean. A swamp? You were told of one? I would agree, it is somewhat dispersed layout. But, apt, you say. I'm sure he would be pleased to hear it.

All of these examples appeared in a barely noticed 1982 anthology of mine, The Literature of SoHo.

Like Cummings before them, SoHo's writers evolved plural professional situations, where they could do one art at one time and another at a different time, much as Cummings tended to paint during the day while writing in the evening. Coming to know how easily a creative person can move from one art to another, I was scarcely alone in objecting to the use of artistic categories to characterize people, rather than work. Even if they make writing or sculpture, people aren't necessarily "writers" or "sculptors," especially if they make both. As far back as 1975, I objected to the epithet "artists' books," new at the time, which was initially meant to distinguish them from writers' books, because the authors of "artist's books" had gone to art school or exhibited something somewhere once upon a time. The genre should have been called "book art."

Having personally created videotapes as well as film and writing, I think I know at firsthand the technical as well as creative differences between video and film, say, as well as between both and writing. However, I came to resent such person-centered definitions as "writer" and "filmmaker," not only because they short-changed the extent of my creative activity, but because they restricted it. That is to say, I am not a "filmmaker" when I make films and a "writer" when I write. I am, like Cummings before me, a creative person involved in a variety of artistic situations. I do not change heads in going from one art to another; I scarcely change clothes. Trust the tale, not the teller—consider the work, not the biographical label. Also, professional categories function to make disciplinary transgressions into a kind of pseudo-event—a so-called "poet's film" is no different in essence from anyone else's film, while a so-called "artist's book" is, all current rationalizations to the contrary notwithstanding, still a book.

Another kind of SoHo writing was the visual artist's thoughtful essays about art issues. These appeared occasionally in the slick art magazines, but more often in small-circulation journals published within SoHo, largely for SoHo (as distinct from the slick magazines). Examples included Art-Rite, Artworkers News, and The Fox, among others. Some of the best of these SoHo essays were reprinted in the genuinely pioneering anthologies compiled by Gregory Battcock until his premature death—among others, Idea Art (1973), New Artists Video (1978), and The Art of Performance (1984, posthumously coedited); others appeared in more specialized books like Ira Schneider and Beryl Korot's Video Art: An Anthology (1973). Perhaps the best single anthology of such writing appeared not in this country, but in Germany—On Art/Über Kunst (1974, bilingual)—never to be reprinted here, inexplicably. Another anthology connecting some SoHo literature to the larger world of American avant-garde writing is Alan Sondheim's Individuals (1977). For a brief spell, the press at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, of all places, was issuing books by SoHo artists, including Claes Oldenberg's Raw Notes (1974), Yvonne Rainer's Work 1963-1973 (1974), Simone Forti's Handbook in Motion (1974), Steve Reich's Writing About Music (1974), and Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton's 12 Dialogues 1961-1963 (1983). For an even briefer period, some of these NSCAD volumes were distributed closer to home by the New York University Press.

Among the masterpieces of book-art books, consider several by Sol LeWitt made when he was residing on Hester Street, on a Chinatown edge of SoHo. Arcs, Circles, & Grids (1972) is a rigorous sequence of 196 drawings on square pages that suggest a narrative solely through the changing shapes of lines. For Autobiography (1981), he took guilelessly simple small photographs of all the objects in his studio, correctly suggesting that, for purposes of an autobiographical book, the sum of them reflected his life just as much as any prose narrative. In the 1970's and 1980's, he frequently persuaded institutions exhibiting his work to print a book of his in lieu of a catalog. Some were saddle-stitched chapbooks; others were thicker and perfect bound. The sum of them represents to my mind a unique artistic/literary achievement. Published in minimal editions, these books are scarce, even from Antiquariats—to recall the German epithet for dealers in high-class used books. For a while, LeWitt sent new ones to me, still deserving my gratitude. (I've resisted offers from dealers to buy them, so important do they remain to me.)

From the time I relocated to SoHo, with thrice as much interior space as I had before, I produced many examples in this book-art genre:  a newsprint chapbook composed entirely of numerals, Numbers: Poems & Stories (1974); the same text in two radically different formats, One Night Stood (1977); palm-sized ladderbooks composed of geometric drawings that metamorphosed over a sequence, Modulations (1975) and Extrapolate (1975); an abstract narrative composed only of systematically recomposed single photograph of myself, Reincarnations (1981); and sequences of geometric drawings, acknowledging the influence of the LeWitt books:  Constructs (1975), Constructs Two (1978), Fifty Constructivist Stories (1991), Intermix (1991), and Constructs 3-6 (four volumes, 1991), among other titles. I began to have one-person shows of my book-art books in 1979, the oeuvre reflecting the quick effects of my move to SoHo. In 1985, I received a senior grant for this work from the visual arts program of the National Endowment for the Arts. Had I stayed in the East Village (or, worse, stayed uptown), believe me, this work wouldn't have been done at all.

Looking back, I estimate that SoHo writing has so far had less impact on native literature than, say, SoHo painting had on American art, not only because it was more radical than the norm, but because books appearing from non-commercial publishers are rarely recognized in the critical media and the writing classes, to our misfortune. The great bookstore for indigenous SoHo writing was Printed Matter, mentioned before. There could be found much of the work described here. However, by the time Printed Matter moved to West Chelsea during the 2000-2001 season, few residing in SoHo were producing SoHo writing any more.

© 2003 Richard Kostelanetz

(Individual entries on Richard Kostelanetz appear in Contemporary Poets, Contemporary Novelists, Postmodern Fiction, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, A Reader's Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers, the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Webster's Dictionary of American Authors, and, among other selective directories. Living in New York, where he was born, he still needs $1.50 (soon $2) to take a subway.)