An exhibition of drawings by Jackson Mac Low surveys his restless reinvention of the line.
At the poetry readings I attended around New York City in the eighties and nineties, a familiar figure often occupied the front row: an elfin gentleman with dramatic eyebrows and a great wave of hair to match. At my very first events, he drew notice because he sat with pen in hand, writing throughout the reading, as if he were taking dictation. I recall wondering if he was a journalist or another poet cribbing lines from his fellows. I soon learned that he was the legendary composer, performer, and poet Jackson Mac Low (1922–2004) and that in all likelihood he was culling words and phrases to deploy in the many recombination schemes he used to create his texts. With roots in the Fluxus movement and an early association with John Cage in the fifties, Mac Low emerged as one the most rigorously adventurous American poets in the decades that followed. Not the least part of his unconventional profile was his energetic work across genres and art forms: writing poems and prose in diverse modes, composing and performing music, collaborating with theater and dance companies, and creating a body of visual art that might be said to incorporate something of each of these multifarious pursuits.
A sampling of that work—mostly done with pen or crayon on paper—is currently on view at the Drawing Center in a show titled “Lines–Letters–Words.” The title is literally accurate in that it describes the pieces on display, which, indeed, depict lines, letters, and words. But the sequence of the terms makes the title especially apt, as it gets at the heart of Mac Low’s enterprise as a poet and artist: understanding the construction of communication; that is, how mere lines are bent to configure something called letters and these letters are assembled to create that improbable result, a word. The sequence is equally relevant when read backward; for Mac Low, disaggregating meaning from sound, sound from words and letters, and ultimately from the random marks on a page achieved the same end: revealing the relation between meaning and its constitute parts.
The very bold strokes of the earliest pieces in the show—1947 through 1953—bear strong resemblance to the gestural work of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Soon after, though, the inked strokes emerged, like figures in the carpet, as the beginnings of letters, and even elementary words can be discerned. In three untitled drawings from 1953, we can readily make out an h, an if, and Hi. From the sinuous chaos of lines, there is actual communication: a resonant preposition announcing possibility and a warm greeting. These pieces are hung in close proximity and offer wry comedy, not unlike the gag comic that depicts evolution from ape to modern Homo sapiens. (In fact, another two pieces from this period present Ape and Pie, as if setting alpha and omega of human progress.) All of these words are sizable, scrawled, set askew to the viewer, so the intensity of their depiction takes precedence over ready legibility. They are intended to be more felt than read.
This tactile, pronounced-aloud quality of the visualized word is carried forward in the drawings of the sixties, featuring handwritten poems or sentences or utterances (take your pick). Theatricality attends this script in its variability from thin to thick, print to cursive, small to large. These qualities, as well as the strategic arrangement of the letters and words, bring to mind the audible modulations of a musician or an actor. The drawing What is a nail crams the thickly rendered text “What is a nail. A nail is a unison” onto a standard letter-size piece of paper. The seeming question (there’s no question mark, so perhaps it’s a statement) and its apparent response are heard as if they’ve been shouted into a tiny box, each syllable’s sound colliding with its successor. The effect sets the poem’s delicately crafted enigma in contention with the bluntness of its clamorous voicing. Mac Low—whose texts were often meant to be performed and, truly, were best comprehended in that manner—has staged the words on these “pages” as carefully as a director blocks a complex scene.
A piece titled Boxing presents dozens of lines of cramped writing jammed in every which way and overwritten by a large phrase in loopy script that might be read as “nobody goes into the ring to knock out the other guy,” but could also be “to knock out the other guy the ring nobody goes into.” It’s hard to say; the sheer amount of text and the complexity of the resulting spatial interactions offer more readings than any single viewing could accommodate. Some of the text is sideways and upside-down, and I would have required a ladder or license to, as it’s said, flip the script and fully assess the juxtapositions. Again, the paper size here isn’t much more than a notebook leaf, a fact that encourages our sense that what we see is the product of some feverish spell of transcription. The prose itself is likely drawn—as Mac Low often did—from extant, carefully randomized sources. There’s much in this piece on the subject of the sweet science, its abolition, its relation to combat, its presence on television, the phenomenon of the knockout—and then sundry incongruous lines (“Pouring Chanel Number five over a dead mackeral” or “A youngster who did not like to adhere to routine”). It’s like reading the transcripts of several simultaneous conversations. That I had to squint here, cock my head there to even take in some of the text made me think that maybe Mac Low was again connecting the visual and aural experiences by requiring behavior similar to what I’d do if I were trying to listen to one voice amid a welter of overtalk—leaning in or cupping my ear.
Mac Low’s abiding interest in Buddhism and chance led him to a lifelong interest in process-driven composition as a way of eliminating the ego from the creative process. A series of drawings called “Gathas” employ such “nonintentional procedures,” as the poet Sylvia Mae Gorelick describes them in the show’s catalogue. The word gatha means “verse” or “hymn,” and these pieces done on graph paper—each letter in its own box—present “transliterated mantras.” Thus the resonant thrum of one titled AUMMM Gatha is recognizable even as the rigidity of the diagrammatic image both defamiliarizes and amplifies our understanding of this meditative vocable. Another piece that derives from Buddhist thought, Om in a Landscape, deploys the mantra in hundreds of minutely inscribed iterations, as if the syllables were insects swarming inside a consciousness. Again, the repetition may conjure the contemplative essence of the chant, but the chaotic array of om upon om suggests an insistence more unnerving than serene.
Drawings from the seventies and the most recent works return to Mac Low’s earlier fascination as they leave off from whole words and sentences to investigate the foundational element of any written language—the line. While some of these works might initially appear to be reiterations of the Expressionist mode, they lack the gestural dynamism of that style. Instead, Mac Low brings scrupulous focus to bear on the line’s shape, possibility, and presence. Not unlike the work of Sol LeWitt, these images evidence concentrated, rather than impulsive, energy. In a series titled “Skew Lines,” Mac Low groups straight lines of various colors in pointedly oppositional arrangements. The lines—singly and in clusters—vibrate with the power of force fields, and I couldn’t help noting a resemblance to the flow arrows representing attack and counterattack on a military map. The thought isn’t entirely unconnected to the undeniable purposefulness of written communication: lines on a page, when formed into letters and then, say, into an essay, poem, or political slogan, do muster a kind of martial power. Words both invade the mind and offer its only defense.
In another group of drawings (several are titled as birthday poems for Mac Low’s collaborator and partner Anne Tardos), the inchoate, wayward, permutational quality of the line is, as befitting the occasion, celebrated. The black pen scribble in Happy Birthday, Annie is as wild as it is determined to obliterate the whiteness of the paper. The ghostly product of an equally untamed red pen can be seen threading through the dark tangle. Are these lines in a prelinguistic state searching for a form? Or perhaps lines freed from its bondage in sentences? Mac Low was always pressing such inquiries, looking for origins and consequences. All of these drawings testify to an ever-restless mind and pen, a pen that didn’t merely employ language but performed its physicality. I was never able to spy out what Mac Low was putting to the page during those readings—it may have been overheard talk, a line from the poet on stage, a phrase from someone’s T-shirt, or a dash becoming a line about to become a letter. What I couldn’t have seen—what Mac Low saw—was its sound hovering just above the paper.
Albert Mobilio’s book of short fiction, Games and Stunts, will be published this spring by Black Square Editions.
“Lines–Letters–Words” is on view at the Drawing Center, New York, through March 19.