Robin Moroney on Kenneth Goldsmith|
Arts Seminar Profile, School of Journalism, Columbia University, 2000
You can only dislike what you can’t ignore, and for this reason it’s often helpful to find out who dislikes an artist’s work in order to find out how famous it has become. One story involving Kenneth Goldsmith has a Stanford Professor and an English department secretary in an elevator, discussing Goldsmith’s reading of his book No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 at the Stanford Bookstore.
The department secretary asked the professor what he thought of the poetry reading.
The professor replied, "What poetry reading?".
That Professor was a traditionalist, but there are those within the avant-garde who have equal doubts. Another Professor, an avant-garde poet who teaches at Bard College, said of Goldsmith, "There are two kinds of reservations you can have about a work. There’s the sort you have after a hard and careful reading of a work, and the sort you have that makes you not want to read the work in the first place. I have the second sort for Goldsmith’s work, so I don’t know how much help I can be."
Kenneth Goldsmith is no longer a Young Artist, and, even if his work is difficult, he’s too old to be an enfant terrible. He is about to turn forty and just had a baby with his wife, video artist Cheryl Donegan. His hair used to be shoulder-length; now it is razor-short. The clothes he wears were once worn for style but have now perhaps become favorite items that can’t be thrown away, a favorite black ska-style hat and a favorite faded denim jacket. He started out as a sculptor in the late 80s. He worked for Allan McCollum, and soon made a name for himself with a series of large, crafted, conceptual sculptures. Art and Auction magazine picked him out in 1993 as one of "Ten Artists for the Nineties." Over the nineties, however, his obsession with language has turned him his focus to writing.
No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 is his most successful book so far. The 2.7.39-10.20.96 refer to the dates he spent collecting all the phrases that he heard, wrote, or read that ended in an "er" sound. He then arranged the phrases as a rhyming dictionary would, with one-syllable phrases in alphabetical order in the first chapter, and two-syllable phrases in the second. It begins "A, a, aar, aas, aer, agh, ah, air" and ends with the 7,228 syllables of a D.H. Lawrence short story.
The book has become a popular with students, and Goldsmith receives fan mail from High School students who’ve read the book online. At the universities the book has also found success. "I’ve had several students become absolutely obsessed with the book," said Craig Dworkin, Associate Professor of English at Princeton University, "one of whom wrote love letters to Kenny and another is writing a dramatization of the book for performance. Those skeptical of the avant-garde in general, and of language poetry or oulipo or procedural work in particular, again and again show enthusiasm for the work."
Goldsmith has produced a CD with vocalist Joan La Barbara, designed a dress for Vogue magazine, written music criticism, dealt cocaine, worked as a carpenter, edited a poetry web site, and DJ’d on the radio. He is something of a Renaissance figure, which is fine. But the Renaissance was four centuries ago, and the New York cultural, despite producing figures like John Cage and Jackson Mac Low, still doesn’t know what to make of a song, poem and art man.
Kenneth Goldsmith was born in 1961 and grew up with his parents, Ted and Judy, in the Long Island suburb of Port Washington.
Ted Goldsmith had been forced by his father to take over the family business, Bromley Coats, and, having "slept-walked through the sixties," according to Goldsmith, Ted fell into the New Age movements of the 1970s to cope with the tedium.
With his wife Judy, Ted attended a variety of seminars and meetings, including the Erhard Seminars Training, or est (Latin for 'it is’). He would have sat in a room for 60 hours while est staffers would make him scream, cry, and beg until he "Got it." The est bathroom breaks were famously few and far between. Those who couldn’t last and wet themselves would be humiliated.
After the humiliation and degradation, all social barriers between Ted and himself would have been destroyed, and in the ruins of society’s rituals the inner light of Ted’s self would remain. At least this was the opinion of Werner Erhard, the movement’s founder, who fled the US in 1991 after a series of lawsuits charging him with brainwashing and tax evasion. Goldsmith also remembers a time when his father arrived back from a Silva Mind Control seminar in Texas and told his children that the family would never have to stop for a traffic light again. He could now turn red lights green and took his children for a ride to prove it. When the first traffic light changed, Kenny and his sister cheered. They cheered again when it happened the second time. But the third light remained red, and Ted Goldsmith had to stop. "It looked like we’d be stopping for red lights for the foreseeable future," wrote Goldsmith in No. 111. Ted and Judy made sure that Kenny went to a holistic doctor, ate vegetarian food, and performed transcendental meditation twice a day. Kenny had his bar mitzvah at the age of 16 next to the Wailing Wall, although this in no way demonstrates a deeply religious Judaism. Ted was what Goldsmith calls a secular, Bagels-and-Lox Jew, and he thought that it would be amusing, having talked to a rabbi on the way to a family vacation in Israel, if Kenny had his bar mitzvah while they were there. Goldsmith disliked growing up in Port Washington. In one of his works, part of an exhibition entitled 'Too Jewish,’ Goldsmith shows himself surrounded by pennies, a reference to the Port Washington High School children who used to pelt him with coins in the hallways.
For survival, he skipped most classes and turned to sex, drugs and architecture. "I liked the lines and the thinking behind it," said Goldsmith of his architecture class. "And really, I’ve never given it up. A work like 111 was highly architectural, highly dependent on structure." He had to give up architecture when his teacher, a former Marine, caught Goldsmith smoking pot. Goldsmith says he spent his last year in High School permanently high and in art class.
After High School, he spent five years at three colleges, graduating with a B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1984.
Three of Goldsmith’s latest works appear to be blank frames at first, but on closer inspection are filled with tiny punctuation marks. One has all the punctuation from the punctuation chapter in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style; another the punctuation from Gertrude Stein’s essay on punctuation; and the third, all the punctuation from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses: a few hyphens and a period.
Despite Goldsmith’s involvement with the art world, he mentions very few artists as influences. He most frequently mentions John Cage as an influence and, apart from that, talks mainly of conceptual artists, especially the Fluxus artists of the 60s, and like those artists the idea behind the work is as important as the work itself.
"I’m very interested in trying to make these ephemeral things concrete and lasting," he says. But as for the work itself, its form and its composition he usually has little to say, and depends on two phrases to describe nearly all his work. That the work was beautiful. That the work sold.
Goldsmith dates the start of his maturity as an artist to 1987, a time when it seemed that it was the artists turn to become rich and famous. "There was this notion of an artist being a celebrity," said John Lee, who now represents Goldsmith.
"I was making luscious, sensuous objects that sold for a lot of money. And everything sold, it was remarkable," said Goldsmith. "It was very seductive selling things."
There is a Saki story about an artist who gets stuck making landscape paintings of cows. As long as there are cows in the painting the paintings sold, but as soon as he tried anything else, the paintings failed. For Goldsmith it was books.
For three years he made large wooden books. He made books with his life expectancy (1962-2028) on them called "Expectancy." He made two books that looked like Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. One was made of lead and weighed 300 lbs., the other was seven feet tall and couldn’t even be taken out of Goldsmith’s loft. Neither could be stolen. Both sold.
He shone a bright light out of a book with the word "Truth" carved out of its front and called it "The Blinding Truth." He did a series of books based on Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence.
"But what began to happen was that I began to make the same object over and over again. The books were always the same size. I was really
interested in the writing on them. But people would say, 'Look, why do
you keep making the same object over and over?’ And I was like, ‘Well
it’s the language that changes with each book.’ I realized I couldn’t do
that any more."
The artistic crisis coincided with two financial ones. Donegan and Goldsmith had bought a loft on Avenue C and sunk all the money from their marriage into it. The man who sold the apartment made off with the money, and the bank repossessed the apartment. And as the art market went into recession, Goldsmith lost a highly lucrative job as artist Allan McCollum’s workshop manager.
He still enjoys selling his work, however.
In his studio he is dragging a large, leather portfolio from a top shelf, while talking on the phone to his gallery dealer.
"I am getting that picture down for you right now," he says on the phone.
"And the title is…"
Behind him his wife has been painting stills from a video (Her head is
covered with colorful tape. Two plastic bottles peak out. As she waggles
her head detergent ‹ is it detergent? ‹ spills out of the bottle.).
Goldsmith finds the drawing. It comes from the time of 73 Poems, 1993-4,
which he made into a recording with Joan La Barbara. It is a pencil
drawing of O’s and exclamation points. The O’s are arranged in a circle
and the exclamation points fall away from the circle upside down, so that
they look like tears.
"And the title is…"
He flips the painting over; the back is blank.
"Er, the title is…" says Goldsmith. "Cheryl, think of a title."
Donegan looks at the drawing.
"It’s beautiful. I don’t know. Disco Ball?"
Goldsmith stands silent and polite.
"Too queeny?" says Donegan.
Goldsmith gives three tiny, desperate nods and then they both turn to the reporter.
"What do you think?"
"I think Disc O would be rather good."
"Right, Disc space owe," says Goldsmith and then returns to the phone.
"The title is Disco. That’s disc space owe." He writes "Disc O" on the
back and signs underneath.
Goldsmith’s most dramatic break with the art world, and the start of his pursuit of writing, came in 1995, when he displayed No. 109.
"It was a very negative experience for me," said John Lee, who exhibited the work. "Not because of the work itself but because of Kenny’s reaction to the response. It was as if he was repudiating the confidence and enthusiasm we had in him. It was like a tantrum. I suppose I’m really getting back at him now. The gallery system is great when it’s working for you, but like any system, when it fails you, you feel very bitter."
Goldsmith remembers it this way, "I said Fuck You. If you can’t handle my language then you can Fuck yourself. I just thought I’d be out of the art world forever."
At the time Goldsmith considered No. 109 to be his most ambitious work yet. He still considered himself a sculptor or, as he put it in the preface to another work, "a text-based artist." Since he’d lost his apartment and his job he’d been making seven-foot white slabs, half-white, half-filled with text. The works looked spartan but the language could be obscene, funny, and nasty. Having been amazed at the crazy associations that happened in a rhyming dictionary, Goldsmith started to do the same with his work. After a few initial attempts with words ending in "oo" and "oh" he made No. 105, a triptych of slabs and then decided that the amount of language might warrant a small book. In the preface he wrote, "This is a first attempt to transform No. 105, once a visual artwork into a poetry book format."
No. 109 was even larger. It took up nine panels -- a triptych of triptychs -- and leaned against the entire length of the gallery’s walls. According to Goldsmith, people walked into the gallery, took half a look at all the words and walked out.
"It was too much," said Goldsmith. "The art world had been so supportive until then. But they couldn’t handle the language."
The gallery sold one slab to a collector. Goldsmith fell into a depression. Three years later Goldsmith returned to the gallery and installed Soliloquy. By that time No. 111 had been published and Goldsmith had a new confidence with language. He had recorded all the words he said in a week on a hidden microphone and pasted the results on the gallery walls. It was, he says, his Fuck You to the art world. The New York Times called it "a revealing, funny, irritating, and exhausting work of something."
Goldsmith has entered into poetry through the art gallery, which has made things somewhat awkward.
"What makes him so interesting," says Marjorie Perloff, who recently retired from teaching at Stanford University "is that he doesn’t come from creative writing workshops in Universities. He’s approaching language as an artist."
Perloff is one of the most respected advocates of avant-garde poetry and, like many of the avant-garde, feels that the avant-garde in poetry has been passed by.
It only takes Perloff ten minutes to start complaining about the scant attention that innovative poetry has received. "I mean let’s take architecture. Someone doesn’t have to be in the avant-garde to go to Bilbao and appreciate the Guggenheim. There’s very little doubt that Frank Gehry is a major figure. But in poetry it’s not really clear who are the major twentieth century figures. There’s Berryman, Lowell, Frost and across the Atlantic there’s Heaney. But Heaney is just another W.B. Yeats. I admire Yeats very much. I’ve written a lot about him. But we’ve already had him. We don’t need him again. And then there’s someone like Pinsky who uses this strange journalistic discourse in his poems. I mean they’re very nice and easy. But I don’t know what they are, they’re certainly not poems."
Perloff has been making these sort of complaints for decades. In 1981 she wrote in an essay on John Cage (which could equally apply to Goldsmith twenty years later): "It may seem easy to talk into a tape recorder and then transcribe one’s words, avoiding all margins and leaving blank spaces between word groups. Yet we don’t in fact do it. For what is really ‘easy,’ in the context of the present, is to write little epiphany poems in free verse, detailing a meaningful experience. I am walking, let us say, in the snow, and I notice strange footprints: I am reminded of the day when…"
What Goldsmith represents for Perloff, in contrast to poets like Robert Pinsky, is Goldsmith’s attempt to use language for purposes other than creating an image and an emotional response. For the poets who wrote in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry journal in the early 80s, poets like Heaney represented a capitalistic promise of meaning in return for words and Goldsmith, who has made friends with L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets like Bruce Andrews, has similar feelings. "This country has no capacity for abstraction," he says. "I think that everybody thinks of language in this nation as an exchange. Like when you buy something, you get the product and you don’t even notice the person behind the counter who sold it to you. And with language you don’t even notice the words, you just look at the meaning."
Goldsmith likes to talk about a White Hot Center that consumes our culture’s middle. Artists get drawn to the White Hot Center and then disappear into it, helping the White Hot Center pump out language. Words appear on airplanes, billboards, buses, building tops, car bumpers, clothes, hats, the radio, the television, the newspaper and in conversation. Goldsmith once wrote, "If every word spoken in New York City daily were somehow to materialize as a snowflake, each day there would be a blizzard."
Works like No. 111 and 6799 (a book which contains Goldsmith’s entire record collection) make words, which would otherwise have disappeared, become solid.
At the same time he finds absurdity; even his most austere projects have a sense of humor. Fidget, for instance, was Goldsmith’s attempt to record every movement his body made for a day. Within hours he was going insane. He masturbated, picked his nose, tried to go to sleep, and then drank a bottle of Jack Daniels and slurred so horribly for the last hour that Goldsmith gave up transcribing what he had said and just printed the first chapter backwards. While the idea of the book is austere, Goldsmith’s extreme response and his dutiful recording of it can be quite funny to read. "He lacks a lot of the dullness which plagues artists working with text," said John Lee. "There’s a light-hearted quality to his work."
Goldsmith feels that once Soliloquy is published he’ll be satisfied to have made five books that are entirely unique and which might encourage others to experiment as well. He thinks that he might have done all he can do with books.