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. Read More