Art In America, April 1996
by Raphael Rubinstein
In moving from his earlier sculptures, drawings, large-scale prints
and mixed-medium collages to a printed book (printed in the sense
that it has been produced with standardized word-processing software),
Kenneth Goldsmith has distanced himself from the materiality of
art objects while moving toward clearer legibility of the written
word. Since his sculptural training at the Rhode Island School
of Design, from which he graduated with an BFA in sculpture in
1984, Goldsmith had been increasing the quantity of words in his
work while slipping further away from three-dimensional work.
In drawings like Large Poem #1 (1992), Goldsmith deliberately
made his texts hard to read. Lines of rhyming phrases overlapped
one another, creating a typographic interference that taxed the
viewer/reader's powers of concentration as you tried to separate
"black lung" from "Carl Jung," or "brain
drain" from "chow mein."
In his more recent collages devoted to a trio of '60s rebels-Bob
Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman-the texts turn sideways
and upside down, shift from handwriting to computer print, are
overlaid, blotted out and cut off. The irregularity and sheer
amount of text in these works challenges the viewer's patience.
As is the case with Landers, and so many other text artists, Goldsmith
makes works which he knows that few viewers will read in full.
I would be surprised if anyone had the patience to read every
word in these collages-I certainly didn't, as much as I enjoy
In this series, Goldsmith pastes together quotations from his
subjects, his own diaries and sheets of printed images. Among
the penciled notes in the Abbie Hoffman collage is one that reads:
"My relationship to the counterculture has always been a
strong one, albeit distanced. Being born in 1961, I was too young
to be a hippie; my first political coming of consciousness was
Watergate. I was also too young to be a punk and subsequently
too young to be a Yuppie (whew, again)." Frequently, the
Jewish background shared by Goldsmith and his subjects is evoked.
In one work, the artist has drawn a Star of David over pencil
text, then partially whitewashed the Jewish symbol and scrawled
into the white an allusion to the Jewish strictures against iconography:
"Explicit use of symbols forbidden." One pauses to wonder
how this relates to Goldsmith's emphasis on textuality.
The work I am concentrating on here is a 600-page manuscript titled
No. 111 2.7.93- 10.20.96 (the numbers of the title tell
us that it's the 111th work Goldsmith made and that he worked
on it from Feb. 7, '93 to Oct. 20, '96). The book originated in
Goldsmith's disappointment at the negative response to a 1994
show at Bravin Post Lee Gallery in New York where he exhibited
a single large text piece titled No. 109 2.7.93-12.15.93.
Collectors and supporters who had enthused over his earlier drawings
and smaller text works found the number of words in the eight
96-by-48-inch panels of silkscreened text simply too much to take
in. Goldsmith was bothered by the art world's limited capacity
to handle language.
At the same time that he was pondering the negative response to
his show, Goldsmith wondered what to do with the text he had accumulated
but not put into the piece-he'd edited out the phrases he thought
would be uninteresting to others. He also realized how dissatisfied
he had grown with the laborious, expensive process of rendering
language material. He was deeply interested in words, much less
so in the act of turning them into drawings and silkscreened panels.
Goldsmith's solution was to dispense with that sort of object-making:
he would create his next work in a computer, he would write a
book. Starting with the text that had gone into the panels of
No. 109 2. 7.93-18.15.93 and the unused material, he began
accumulating words and phrases that caught his attention. His
ambition was to turn himself into a passive receiver of the language
circulating around him.
Rather than attempting the impossible task of funneling absolutely
everything that struck him into a book, Goldsmith limited his
selection to words and phrases ending in various off-rhymes of
the Ur" sound. These include "er," Uar," "ir,"
"ah," "a," "air," "ear"
and Uuh." At the start, it seemed as if 130 pages would suffice,
but the project kept growing. Goldsmith began thinking of his
manuscript as a kind of reference book and wanted the finished
volume to have a dictionary like heft. Looking at the reference
books on his shelves, he noticed that they tended to be at least
600 pages long.
Although it can be maddening and not a little hallucinatory to
read, No. 111 2.7.93- 10.20.96 has a rather straightforward
structure which relies on alphabetical order and the number of
syllables in a word or phrase. Each chapter is composed of words
or phrases of a certain syllabic length which are arranged, within
the chapter, in alphabetical order. Thus, the first chapter begins
with "A" and ends with "Zsa," the second begins
"A woah!" and ends "zuder," the third runs
from "A is for" to "Zozima." While the computer
facilitated the process of collecting and filing phrases, there
was no software that could count syllables. Goldsmith was compelled
to manually count them, tapping out the words with his fingers
in increasingly time consuming increments. As the number of syllables
grows, the sources become more recognizable: Goldsmith cannibalizes
newspaper headlines, TV schedules, pop songs, dirty jokes, liner
notes, colloquial phrases, advertisements, Shakespeare, Joyce,
book titles and his own diaries. Other material is drawn from
the Internet and the tape recorder the artist carried around with
him while he was composing the book.
In the following short extracts from the 8-syllable, 11-syllable
and 14-syllable chapters, one gets an idea of the dizzying range
of Goldsmith's sources and the alternately hypnotic, irritating
and shifting rhythms of the work:
my 15 minutes are over, my cold-blooded mother-in-law, my heart says yeah yeah yeah yeah, N.O.C.D.-not our class dear, name rank and serial number, name the three daughters of King Lear, Nancy Reagan meets Ms. Manners, nationalism then slaughter, Negro league baseball wing-walkers, New Millenia from Mazda, new mushroom swiss quarter pounder, new sourdough bacon cheeseburger, newspapers snowdrifted the floor . . .
Eventually, the length of the units reaches hundreds of syllables.
Numerous later chapters are composed of single quotations, rather
than the earlier litanies of phrases. Towards the end, Goldsmith
also begins to jump ahead in his syllable counting, moving into
the thousands, letting his system break up. In the final chapter
he breaks all his own rules, creating stanzas of free verse and
arrays of concrete poetry. This contributes to the book's ability
to keep surprising the reader, especially as the heterogeneous
phrases give way to single subject paragraphs. As the book progresses,
the content and sources of one chapter rarely prepare you for
what comes next. Chapter 150, for instance, consists simply of
a long quote from an article about composer Philip Glass (keeping
to Goldsmith's rhyme scheme, it ends with the words "Christian
Dior"), while in chapter 154 an unnamed "famous artist"
recounts his experiences with Prozac. Further on are irruptions
like chapter 909, which is composed solely of first lines from
limericks-"There once was a girl from Alaska, There once
was a tart named Belinda"-or Chapter 1366, which appears
to be a long letter on the subject of Ezra Pound's weak points
as a human being. There are also vignettes of life in New York
City, apparently drawn from the artist's diaries. One of my favorites
is Chapter 115, which uses two dogs, a poodle and a boxer, to
link a visit to an art dealer dying of AIDS in the Chelsea Hotel
to a SoHo sighting of supermodel Linda Evangelista.
Goldsmith's computer-generated manuscript is panted out in standardized
blocks of type, justified on right and left; printed on one side,
the sheets form a 6-inch-high stack of pages. The range of his
sources could be described as encyclopedic, except that by focusing
on apparently arbitrary properties o his materials-number and
sound of syllables-his manuscript is a far cry from an! existing
reference book. Under its deceptive!, bland title, "No. 111
2.7.93-10.20.96" ir attempting no less than a complete reordering
of the things of the world. The work is also intentionally, a
weirdly constructed Baedeker to late-20th-century American society,
and a compendium of raw material for an autobiography of the artist.
Like Jonathan Borofsky obsessively cataloguing his dreams, Goldsmith
presents himself as at once absurdly specific and hugely representative.
In his exhaustive transfer of data into his work, Goldsmith also
displays affinities with works of Conceptual art such as Allen
Ruppersberg's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1974), in which
the artist hand-wrote Oscar Wilde's novella onto 20 canvas panels,
and Edward Ruscha's early artist's book, Every Building on
the Sunset Strip, for which the artist photographed all the
structures on that Los Angeles thoroughfare. Where. Goldsmith
diverges from such works is in his insistence on transforming
any given order. He is not in pursuit of the unmediated world.
His work is musical before it is exhaustive; rhythmic before it
is objective. In his epic litanies and lists, Goldsmith bangs
to the textual tradition of Conceptual art not only an exploded
frame of reference but a hitherto absent sense of hypnotic beat.