by guest blogger Karen Schiff
Left (& elsewhere in the article): snapshot by the blogger; images of artworks are from the Sargent’s Daughters website.
Right: James Siena, “Non-Slice,” 2005. Enamel on aluminum, 19-1/4˝ × 15-1/8˝ (48.9 × 38.4 cm). Photograph by Ellen Labenski, Copyright James Siena, Image via Mary Boone Gallery, New York / Courtesy Pace Gallery. This work is on view in "Spaced Out: Migration to the Interior,” at Red Bull Studios in New York, through December 14, 2014.
I walked into the opening at Sargent’s Daughters gallery, on the Lower East Side, expecting to see some of the carefully hand-wrought, rule-based abstractions for which James Siena is world renowned. Most iconically, he paints on modest rectangles of aluminum (see above, right), using signpainters’ lettering enamel. (Might this medium already link his work to writing?) But I knew that “Orly Genger and James Siena: New works on paper” would be a drawing show. (It continues through October 26, 2014.) What I didn’t know, & what threw me back on my heels (though I don’t generally wear heels), was that I would not immediately recognize which drawings were Siena’s, & that he'd be “drawing” with a typewriter.
Siena is not the only major-league artist to use a typewriter: Carl André typed “poems” as artworks, & displayed them in gallery exhibitions for decades. How does Siena think about this precedent? Simply: he was “really loathe to step on anybody’s toes.” He didn’t use a typewriter until he thought of something of his own to do with it, in part because of “having so much respect for André’s typings.”
Typings? Now there’s a curious term: it refers solely to the medium, without declaring a genre. Art vs. Writing -- why take sides? Well, sometimes it clarifies things. André called his works poems, but Siena thinks of his own works as drawings, “not as poetry at all...& I don’t think of myself as a poet. But I love poetry.” (He reads Charles Bernstein, Clark Coolidge, Doug Nufer, Mónica de la Torre, & Mark Strand in addition to the many other poets he hangs out with.) I can see why: Siena’s language in his typewriter drawings is only palindromes. He chooses phrases whose letters reverse, midway through, to yield mirrored sequences. (Though I’ll eventually concentrate on the palindromic drawings, for the readership of this poetry blog, Siena also types drawings from either punctuation marks or number sequences.) He focuses on the palindromes’ letter patterns, not on their linguistic meanings. Still, Siena chooses his palindromes carefully, as you’ll see in our interview. There is content here; could it qualify as poetic content? The words do struggle & dance with the rectangular images they create...
James Siena, “Untitled (is it I? it is I),” 2013 (& detail)
Through our conversation, Siena’s shift into word-based art came to seem much less abrupt. He talked about decades of his earlier work with words, including pun-filled political performances, a libretto, lists of verbs in columned accounting books, & even poems. He has provided images -- and sometimes words -- for books by his dear poet friends Kenneth Goldsmith, Marjorie Welish, & Geoffrey Young. A “voracious reader,” he turns deeply dreamy when he talks about languages -- he speaks French, some Italian & Spanish, & reads Catalan. But while all of this context informs the typewriter drawings, Siena sets it aside to meet the challenges of the artmaking itself.
KS: Why did you start making typewriter drawings?
JS: I remember playing with some e-mails...I’ve got a very funny e-mail from my friend, the artist Paul McMahon. He would sign his e-mails with weird punctuation things to make a little concrete portrait of his face, & I thought that was very funny. A bearded, older guy, using punctuation for emoticons...
Left: Paul McMahon's punctuated signature
JS: I sponsored an evening of music with Paul, & I said, “I’ll do an e-mail blast for your concert.” I made a very typographic e-mail using parentheses to symbolize sound. I put “Paul McMahon” & radiating from his name were all these parentheses going out, in waves. Then I forgot about it.
When I was transcribing this last part, I made a significant error: I typed that Siena “wrote a very exciting e-mail” when he had actually said that he “made a very exciting e-mail.” The difference cuts to the heart of this project: Siena speaks about that pivotal e-mail message as a hand-wrought thing, an art object, & not primarily as a text for utilitarian, verbal communication.
Reconstruction of James Siena's
original e-mail blast for
Paul McMahon's concert,
JS: A couple of months later, we [Siena & his wife, artist Katia Santibañez] went to Rome, for a residency at the [American] Academy, & I didn’t take any painting supplies. I took toothpicks. I had a very serious injury in my right wrist, so I was doing sculpture...I couldn’t paint very easily. And something just clicked -- I thought about the Paul McMahon announcement with the parentheses! So I went down to the flea market & got an Olivetti typewriter.
KS: Is an Olivetti a special kind of typewriter -- like an Italian classic?
JS: The Olivetti is THE Italian classic. I have five or six, including Sottsass' Valentine, a landmark of 60's design. And I love the font: the lowercase has a little Italian vibe. The thing about an Olivetti is that it has a half-space ratchet, going vertically, so when you turn the platen you can go half a line instead of a full line, & you can overlap things... I love typewriters. They’re all around here.
KS: How long have you collected typewriters? (I had also seen “Artist’s Artists,” an exhibition of artists’ print collections at the International Print Center, where a fraction of Siena’s typewriter collection is on display; the exhibition ends tomorrow: October 15, 2014.)
JS: Since about...’97?
KS: Wow! How many do you have?
JS: I have a whole wall of ’em.
These photos don't do justice to the collection's enormity.
JS: So, it started with punctuation. There’s such a richness of association that comes out of these things, that I was immediately enthralled. I thought that if I could stick to a kind of rigor, & type them carefully & make them really edge-conscious -- as conscious of where the image ended as in my other work -- then I would consider them really mine.
In some pieces, the empty space of the margin is even on all four sides. In others, the margins are uneven with respect to the length of the palindrome or numerical pattern. Siena is not compelled to make centered images, & he notes that to cut out & frame a typed area, which could make each finished piece be a different size, would make the pieces “more like drawings & less like typings.” (Still, he says he’s “not against that as a possibility.”) The pieces retain strong ties to writing by beginning at the top left of the page, & by using writing papers (with American dimensions...but why do writers say 8½ x 11”, while artists list the vertical measure first?). Siena says that while it was “tempting to play with the large format [of his wide-carriage, all caps Remington typewriter], I really wanted to respect the ordinariness of that smaller format.”
Right: "Untitled (0-9, ten, eight, six, four, three, two, one)," 2014
From the field patterns of punctuation, the drawings moved to sequential patterns with numbers. Though some of these recall number-sequence artworks by Jasper Johns, Siena says “I didn’t think of Johns one bit, not for a second.” The shift into numbers -- and on Italian machines, typing numbers requires using the shift key! -- does have its own logic here: numbers are like punctuation in that they have no specific references. So, using numbers adds only one variable: sequence. What captivates Siena is the challenge of figuring out the typing procedure that will yield the sequences he wants to see, along all four edges of the patterned field.
Soon, Siena figured out that his patterns of ascending & descending numbers were “symmetrical number clusters,” structured like palindromes. Given the similarity, he felt “obligated to try it with palindromes.” It was nearing the end of the Academy residency, & Siena was “sad to leave: I had fallen in love with Rome.” So he found a palindromic ode to the city, in its native Latin: Roma tibi subito motibus ibit amor (“Rome, to you love will come, with sudden passion”). The letters read “east-west, north- south, west-east, & south-north,” as in the ancient Latin Square:
Left: "Untitled-Lower Case-Red (Rome, to you love will come, with sudden passion)," 2013; Right: Latin Square
Here, Siena’s visual intrigue derives mostly from the interactions of the letterforms. In other drawings, variation arises from the pressure of his keystroke, or from the key’s position in the typewriter (which affects where, & how hard, it strikes the ribbon). Siena finds palindromes on the internet, & loves the fact that Oulipo writer Georges Perec wrote an entire short story in a palindrome.
KS: When you’re looking at palindromes online, what kind of note does it strike to make you say, “Ah, that’ll work”?
JS: I want them to sound a bit...puzzling, or not easy to answer, & little bit...naughty, but I don’t mean as in, “A slut was I, ere I saw Tulsa,” which is the variation on “Able was I, ere I saw Elba.” For example, “Devil never even lived” is just a fantastic line! And the “even” pounds it home. So, “naughty” in a provocative way, not in a sexual way.
KS: I did start thinking about God & sex & death.
JS: There is that...& “devil” & “lived” is a fantastic mirror, & “God” & “dog” of course, so “God lived as a devil dog”...
KS: That was hilarious!
"Untitled (God Lived as a Devil Dog)," 2013, and detail
JS: If I could find an anti-religious, erotic palindrome, I would be a happy camper! (Blog readers, there’s a challenge for you!)
KS: The devil was associated with the printshop when printing first started in medieval Europe...
JS: Oh? I didn’t know that!
KS: Yes, because they thought...
JS: Too many people would learn to read?
KS: [laughing] That is dangerous... They thought that scribes had divine energy in their calligraphy, & if the hand was taken out of the process, the printed text must be the work of the devil.
JS: That’s very interesting, because when I was in Rome I did look at a fantastic book on printing. I don’t remember the devil reference so much as I remember ‘a great discomfort swept the land’ when the printing presses came out.
KS: Workers in printshops are called “printer’s devils.”
JS: Oh, that’s true! But this book went even farther. It laid out a two-step process [of writing & then printing]. It said that when people learned to write, or read & write, it damaged the general population’s ability to discourse eloquently off the cuff, & posited this notion that long ago, people could speak in greater complexity. They could visualize paragraphs. They didn’t visualize them as physically written, but they had a different mind towards language. Writing something down is so different from speaking...& we’re in this horrendous crisis of language now, because of all the devices we have glued to our everything...
How might people have related to language before writing, indeed? How do we relate to it now?
(We talked for a while about text messages, voice recognition software for foreign languages, & games with accents & musical genres, as well as art projects that involve language & technology.)
KS: So, is there some aspect of this project which is like you’re saying, “Let’s see how much we can get language to bend to our will”? As in: can it fit in all the directions, while still doing its palindromic thing, so there’s the glee of besting language?
JS: That’s very well put...I guess I’m doing that, but I’m not conscious of doing that. I want to rule language, but I also want language to rule me. I’m not inventing new spellings... But by imposing a limitation on my way of forming the shape, I’m forcing the viewer to look at things in a certain way that they hadn’t before. To use visual pattern recognition of a letter pattern or a numerical pattern, to see a shape they’ve never seen before. And the reason they’ve never seen it before is that it’s made up of a kind of geared system...the drawings are about structure and procedure. A procedure builds a structure, & the structure determines the procedure.
"Untitled (rotator double cross)," 2014, and detail
JS: I’m trying to make something very complex, seen all at once, & it has to be done line by line, using percussive, manual activity: space bar, letter, counting the number of space bar hits. Like the plus symbol and the space bar, in alternates, & if you get a little out of rhythm...
KS: So, it is musical!
The “percussive” keystrokes & “rhythm” had made me think of the musician’s sound waves that inspired the first typewriter drawings -- sound waves are both audible & palpable. (This gives all of these drawings some common ground with poetry, which sounds metrical & feels rhythmic even when its verse is free, or if its words are incomprehensible or Jabberwockian. Even just placing the frame of poetry around ordinary, sampled language intensifies its sensible properties.) When I mentioned music, Siena took out his iPad & showed me a video of him typing in Rome.
[please click < HERE > to watch the video]
KS: I see you slowing down at the end...
JS: ...because I don’t want to go past the edge.
KS: Do you ever misstrike?
KS: And then...throw it out?
JS: Yes. Sometimes I can make it go away with gouache, but if it catches my eye I have to toss it; I have to retype it.
Often when something “catches my eye” it’s a good thing: I find it attractive. Or maybe a person “catches my eye” to tell me something -- in a whisper or a gesture -- that will keep me out of trouble. But here, the “catch” is a fly in the ointment, something that interferes with the ability to experience the visual field altogether. Not all of Siena’s mistyped characters disqualify the drawings: some of them add visual intrigue, & others escape his detection for weeks.
KS: The medium itself has a variation built into it. So to try to be too perfect is going against the medium.
JS: Yes. And I don’t want to be known as the strictest guy in the world...
KS: At first I thought your process here was like that of Sol LeWitt’s books, where each page adds a color, or a direction of line, so the pages contain all the permutations of those elements.
JS: I don’t know if I have the patience to be that “permutative.”
KS: It seems like you’re more responsive, playful.
JS: My process is more like branching, from one idea to the next. LeWitt never switched the rules. He said that even if it’s a bad idea, you carry it all the way out. I’m envisioning this thing, & building it line by line...or discovering it!
KS: Yes, like this one, which intrigued me in the show because the pattern changes in the middle, a few times.
JS: I realized something was oscillating within the structure. And so I decided to accentuate the oscillation, as a worksheet. There are a lot of worksheets -- tests of what I could possibly do before I embark on a drawing.
KS: It felt like like a progressive discovery, tweaking the rules as the paper went along.
A lot of the interview session consisted of looking closely at drawings & figuring out the rules that generated them. Rules are a conundrum, in poetry as well as in artwork: there’s no form without them, & yet they often shape a work most successfully when they are not followed completely. The attraction of the “pushback” comes from both directions: the “freedom” of our culture makes us glorify defying the rules, yet the experience of “being ruled” (as Siena says) can also be a revolutionary defiance of that cultural value. And following an external set of rules -- that is, allowing oneself to "be ruled" by them -- can occasion a breaking out of one's own habits, which form an unconscious set of rules.
I think of St. Francis, who created a “rule” or “order” for women & for laypeople, as well as for cloistered monks...& the ritual “rules” of, say, fasting on diverse religious holidays. but why do rules for artwork so quickly call to mind religion as well as rebellion? Maybe because rule-based art envisions an absolute (=divine?) perfection of form or behavior which is ultimately impossible (& I find such perfection undesirable, besides).
I like art “rules” best when they are less mathematically precise. The history of “rules” suggests some support for this view: many historic wood & metal “rules” or “straightedges” -- now called “rulers” -- didn’t have numbers on them. They were only used for “ruling” or making straight lines (also called “rules”)...but still by hand. (To rule manuscript inscriptions, for example.) And can the “specialness of the scribe,” as Siena called it in our conversation, include the energy that animates these ruled lines?
While an artist might not be channeling divine energy, the way the medievals believed (because who can really know about that?), there may yet be some special role for artists’ rules. The word “ruler” can also mean a king or a queen! Now, Percy Bysshe Shelley claims (in his canonical 19th-century essay, “A Defence of Poetry”), “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” So I will venture that artists -- in their rulings on the page -- are the world’s uncrowned royals.
* * *
P.S. Maybe the type-writers themselves are the royals. (And I mean not just the typists, or the typewriter artists, or even the writer-types: Siena says that his Royal KMM typewriter is “such a beautiful, well-adjusted machine. It’s such a joy to type on. No errors, no skips...”)