Posts tagged "conceptual art"

pangrams and Dan Grahams.

I love everything that ends in the suffix -gram. Google n-grams, anagrams, bananagrams…*

That’s why I was tickled to discover pangrams.


Remember this guy? I’m hoping he’ll bring you back to your blissful days of yore, when computer time meant clicking the “Oh no!” guy on KidPix, building Geocities** websites replete with marquee banners and rainbow buttons, and playing Oregon Trail during rainy recesses. 

Threadless even made a t-shirt based on the phrase. Now that’s what I call Culture.

Pangrams (or holoalphabetic sentences) use every letter of the alphabet at least once. In word processing and design, pangrams serve to display typefaces. “Quick brown fox” was introduced in the late 19th century as an exercise for students learning to write, but was later adopted for typewriters and computer.

Let’s take it one step further. A pangrammic autogram (also known as the self-enumerating autogram) describes exactly the number of letter it contains. By adding more words onto the sentence, your description of what characters makes up the sentence changes. Brace yourselves, folks, for the mind-blowing elegance of this autogram.

Only the fool would take trouble to verify that his sentence was composed of ten a’s, three b’s, four c’s, four d’s, forty-six e’s, sixteen f’s, four g’s, thirteen h’s, fifteen i’s, two k’s, nine l’s, four m’s, twenty-five n’s, twenty-four o’s, five p’s, sixteen r’s, forty-one s’s, thirty-seven t’s, ten u’s, eight v’s, eight w’s, four x’s, eleven y’s, twenty-seven commas, twenty-three apostrophes, seven hyphens and, last but not least, a single ! 

If you read closely, though, the sentence lacks the letters j, q, and z. In 1984, Sallows programmed a “Pangram Machine” that generated a true self-enumerating pangram:

This Pangram contains four as, one b, two cs, one d, thirty es, six fs, five gs, seven hs, eleven is, one j, one k, two ls, two ms, eighteen ns, fifteen os, two ps, one q, five rs, twenty-seven ss, eighteen ts, two us, seven vs, eight ws, two xs, three ys, & one z.

It turns out that self-referential wordplay is not just a pastime of linguists and computer programmers. In the 1960s, some 20 years prior to Sallows’ Pangram Machine, another favorite –gram of mine had the same idea. In March 1966, Dan Graham first published Schema, now regarded as a seminal example of conceptual art. This artwork, however, more resembles a poem, with its simple lines of text running down an otherwise blank page. Even the content seems dry upon first glance: it is a list of mundane facts, this-and-this number of words, such-and-such typeface. What the list is describing, in fact, is everything on that very page.

Graham creates this self-generating structure, and structure is the operative word. Whatever Graham inputs into the structure he chose—a list describing itself—will dictate what the work looks like. He published Schema in various magazines and catalogue, and each time it is different: the text changes every time based on its new context.


Graham’s Schema and Sallows’ autograms are both textual outputs that describe the input. It’s a bit of a cycle; you can’t really separate the input from the output or the output from the input. What I love about both is that, by telling us exactly what is on the page in front of us, our attention is no longer concerned by any outside meaning. We’re not imagining brown foxes leaping over lethargic canines; we are directed to the building blocks right in front of us, from the individual letters to the amount of blank space on a page. It’s yet another cycle: Without those building blocks (the boring, the seemingly unimportant), we would be unable to construct sentences, create line breaks, format poems. After all, the structure is the conduit for meaning.


*I don’t know what an Instagram is, but folks tell me it’s because I still use a stupid phone.

**Just kidding, my heart still belongs to Angelfire. #brandloyaltly.

dolla dolla bill y’all, or, Hans-Peter Feldmann: some thoughts and a lot of questions.

Hans-Peter Feldmann, installation view of The Hugo Boss Prize 2011: Hans-Peter Feldmann, 2011 (source)

Since 1996, the Guggenheim Museum has been giving out the Hugo Boss Award every other year to an artist working anywhere in the world in any media. Along with the prestige of the award, the recipient is granted a show and a bit of pocket change—$100,000.* Rather than deposit the check into his savings, 2010 winner Hans-Peter Feldmann turned the prize winnings into his exhibition. In a Scrooge McDuck move, he** covered every wall surface of a Guggenheim gallery with 100,00 one-dollar bills.


Although Feldmann’s work may seem a wee bit sensational (which it is), it in many ways relates to his generally understated line of work. The German artist is known for his methodical collecting, ordering, and representing, with a keen focus on the parts of a whole. In One Pound Strawberries, Feldmann did what the title suggests: he bought a pound of strawberries and subsequently photographed each fruit. Arranging the photos in the proverbial grid of Minimalist and conceptual art, Feldmann asks us to consider such mundane objects as unique.

Hans-Peter Feldmann, One Pound Strawberries, 2004 (source)

Similarly, for the Hugo Boss Prize, the artist took a symbol of the everyday (albeit much more loaded than a strawberry) and presented it methodically. He broke up the 100k into the smallest dollar unit possible. A computer-generated algorithm determined how to arrange the banknotes in precise rows and columns so that no wall remain uncovered and no bill remain unhung. (Then, in true conceptual art fashion, he sat back and had a gazillion art handlers pin up the gazillion dollars.)

And like his earlier work, the Hugo Boss installation plays into his “history of resisting the art world’s commercial structures,” or so the Guggenheim claims. Dollar bills are, after all, just cotton-and-linen sheets with no inherent worth until society imbues them with monetary value. By plastering them on the wall and having a guard tell you not to rip them down, the banknotes are useless.

But can Feldmann truly avoid commodification? I’m starting to think that his project is possibly the greatest investment of all. Reportedly, at the exhibition’s conclusion, he*** will remove the banknotes and keep them for himself. He has both gained 100k AND padded his CV, not without a shitload of art world exposure.

* Here’s a bit of trivia for you: along with the the whopping sum of cash, Hugo Boss winners also receive a tetrahedral trophy.

**art handlers

***art handlers

Fake Epilogue, July 23, 2011:

As I recently experienced this work during a professional development workshop in museum education, it is only fitting that I put on my Museum Educator Hat* to approach this work now. That is, I will ask a lot of questions so we can speculate together on how it could have been different.

 How do you think this work exists—as physical objects (individual dollar bills) or concept (instructions on what and where to hang)? Would it have been more of an investment to sell the work? Would a collector receive the original 100k in one dollar bills? I’d be pretty tickled if he pulled a Lewitt and just handed the owner a $100,000 check with the memo line reading “cash into dollar bills and use as wallpaper.”

*It’s purple and sparkly and covered with rainbows and question marks

The Hugo Boss Prize 2011: Hans-Peter Feldmann is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York until November 2, 2011.

comparative imagery: from point.

Lee Ufan, From Point, 1976 (source)

Graph paper (source)

Fish bones (source)

Jean Arp, Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, 1916-7 (Source)

Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York until September 28.

Saturday: derivational verbs.

"He opens the second shutter, letting it concertina in the casement, and quietly raises the sash window.”

-Ian McEwan, Saturday, p. 2 (bold word is my emphasis)

Just having started Ian McEwan’s Saturday, I am enthralled by the author’s ability to bend, stretch, and transform language in the most unlikely ways.

In the sentence above, the author’s use of concertina is an example of linguistic derivation, the process of forming a new word based on an existing word. For example, the adjective happy can turn into both the noun happiness and the adjectiveunhappy by adding the affixes -ness and un-. Derivation is possible without any form change whatsoever, as in McEwan’s case: concertina, a noun describing a musical instrument in the accordion family, becomes a verb evoking the expand and collapse, inhale and exhale of the instrument. 

McEwan’s derivation of concertina reminds me of Richard Serra’s Verb List Compilations: Actions to Relate to Oneself. On a sketchbook page spread, the (post-) minimalist artist scrawled a list of over one hundred procedures. To crease, to dapple, to flood, to weave… A lot of the words on Serra’s list can be changed into nouns and adjectives via derivation. To crease becomes a creaseto modulate becomesmodulation, to inlayed becomes inlayed.

Serra selected the verb forms for a reason: the words are no longer descriptors but actions. The artist once explained the process of writing these words “as a way of applying various activities to unspecified materials.”* We can imagine the actions even if we can’t imagine the specific material; the process takes precedence over the physical object. McEwan’s concertina works in a similar way. It’s about the action, the protagonist’s physical relationship between shoving the shutter open and the subsequent oscillation. 

Richard Serra, Verb List Compilations: Actions to Relate to Oneself, 1967-1968

*quoted in Liz Kotz, Words to Be Looked At: Language in 1960s Art, p. 209.

comparative imagery: condensation cube.

An extended comparative imagery, based around this lovely work of contemporary art:

Hans Haacke, Condensation Cube, 1963. It’s a really wonderful piece in the Hirshhorn’s collection, so if you’re in DC, go check it out.

Water bottles on my desk at work.

Greenhouse (source)

Bead curtain (source)

Pedestal for art (source)

signature moves: Luis Camnitzer, authorship, and commodification.

This is part one of a three-part series based on the Luis Camnitzer retrospective at El Museo del Barrio.

I don’t think an ordinary review of Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer’s show at El Museo del Barrio, on view until May 29, can do this man’s work justice. Camnitzer works in media as diverse as installation, printmaking, and photography, often using language to explore issues of commodification and power. The works are brilliant, both thematically and aesthetically—he asks important questions about art, and does so with clever and compelling visual images. For now, I’m only going to focus on one motif in Camnitzer’s work: the signature. Camnitzer got me thinkin’ a lot o’ thoughts about why signatures are important, how we use them, and what they can do. 

Luis Camnizter, Selbstbedienung (Self-service/Autoservicio), 1996. Printed paper, rubber stamp, and ink pad, Installation view at the Daros Museum Zürich (source)

In the installation Selbstbedienung (Self-service/Autoservicio), stacks of plain white paper sit on six white pedestals. An ink pad and a rubber stamp with Camintzer’s scrawling signature are attached via chain to a final pedestal. (The stamp* reminds me the one with my mom’s signature that I discovered the high school summer I spent temping at her office. I hatched a brilliant scheme involving the preparation of various memos excusing my absence based on a slew of illnesses and doctors appointments; the plan was that I would used these to skip class during the following academic year. Of course, I was too much of a wimp to ever use them.)

Back to Camnitzer: The goal of this installation is to transform the visitor into an agent in producing the artwork. We are invited to take the papers, each presenting a simple aphorism in the middle of the page, and stamp Camnitzer’s signature on to it. 

If you knew me even just a little bit, you probably know that I love all things interactive. I am, after all, the one who saw a cardboard box full of shredded documents at my friends house and asked “Ooh, can I play in it?” So of course, I stamped my own Camnitzers.

Documentary evidence of me playing in shredded documents

Art historians often use an artist’s signature as an indicator of a work’s completion. By putting your name on a canvas, you’re saying that it’s done and there ain’t nothing left to do it. As the ink bearing Camnitzer’s name hit the paper, I—a mere museum visitor! gasp!—became the essential part of completing the creative process. Still, my man Luis is ultimately is the one who gets the recognition; it’s still his name on the paper. 

So by having us sign his work, Camnitzer is questioning authorship. He developed his own artistic practice in the 1960s and 1970s, a lot of artists relied on fabricators to create their pieces. Even though they may not have made the finished product, it’s their idea behind the artwork.

I messed around with this idea of authorship by placing my name next to Camnitzer, as if we were signing divorce documents. (Or maybe a pre-nup. Yeah, I like the sound of that more.) Perhaps because our names are now side-by-side, Camnitzer and I are now on equal footing. Thinking I’m oh-so-clever, I chose to use both signatures on a sheet that states Una firma es acción, dos firmas son transacción, or “One signature is action, two signatures are transaction.”** 

According to the aphorism, the two signatures indicate a transaction, or an exchange of goods. This leads us to another major idea in this installation (and pervades much of the rest of his work): the commodification of the art object. Or rather, in Selbstbedienung, he is more interested in decommofication. I now have a Camnitzer sitting on my wall, but it’s not going to sell at Sotheby’s for a gazillion dollars anytime soon. Camnitzer asks us, where does the monetary value lie in the piece—in the stamped pages we take home with us, in the installation with the stacks of Xerox paper and stamp pad, or in some other (perhaps intangible) location?

Until next time, signed,


*Even more perplexing/thrilling than those signature stamps are those machinated signature pens that sign Very Important Businessperson’s names over and over again. It’s like a Quick-Quotes Quill!

**I will be discussing the signature as action in the third post of the series, and it will be linguistically fascinating. Promise.

comparative imagery: chance patterns, an addendum.

Elizabeth had some lovely (and ingenious, as usual) comments to yesterday’s comparative imagery. She saw paper cranes embedded in the mottled pattern of the Hantaï painting. I can totally see it; the haphazardly splayed beige design resembles the wings of a lovingly crumpled origami bird.

Paper crane (source)

My favorite part of this comparison is much more serendipitous. As it turns out, just as an origamist* folds paper into wonderful little tchotchkes, Hantaï folded his canvases, too:

In 1960, Hantaï developed his technique of “pliage” (folding): the canvas is folded and scrunched, then doused with colour, and unfolded, leaving apparent blank sections of the canvas interrupted by vibrant splashes of colour. He stated: “The pliage developed out of nothing. It was necessary to simply put myself in the place of someone who had seen nothing… in the place of the canvas. You could fill the folded canvas without knowing where the edge was. You don’t know where things stop. You could even go further, and paint with your eyes closed.” (“Le pliage ne procédait de rien. Il fallait simplement se mettre dans l’état de ceux qui n’ont encore rien vu; se mettre dans la toile. On pouvait remplir la toile pliée sans savoir où était le bord. On ne sait plus alors où cela s’arrête. On pouvait même aller plus loin et peindre les yeux fermés.”) (source)

Simon Hantaï, Untitled (Suite Blanc), 1973. Currently on view in MoMA’s first-floor contemporary galleries. (source)

Hantaï folded his canvases to remove the “mythical artist’s hand” out of the painting; this was a reaction to Jackson Pollock-esque action painting. Elizabeth mentioned that she doesn’t think of tie-dye as a chance pattern, citing how carefully she would rubberband her own t-shirts before dipping them in dye. I had a similar thought, and it relates back to my Dewey Dell and chance operations post: we can’t fully remove ourselves from the act of creation. Even if Hantaï folds his canvas and allows the paint to do its job, he still had to decide how to fold it, which colors to use, and so on.

*Made it up.

comparative imagery: chance patterns.


Simon Hantai, Blanc, 1973 (source)

Tie-dye (source)

mobiles, syntax, and logical absurdity.

It seems like infographics are all the rage nowadays. Flavorpill occasionally features an Awesome Infographic in their (incessant) email blasts. I was recently tickled by New York Magazine’s Despots Emeriti. FastCo.Design has a whole blog dedicated to the Infographic of the Day. What is an infographic, you might ask?* It’s just a flashy neologism for a visual representation of information, a category of images that people have been making for a long time but has recently garnered cool points thanks to funky typefaces and the Interwebs. 

Infographics riddle PS1’s tiny exhibition The Logic of Association. The show explores the ways that we can use visual structures, from flowcharts to maps, to organize information. But whereas FastCo and New York Mag’s infographics aim to convey data effectively, these works in fact “resist straight forward interpretation” by blurring what is real and what isn’t. Infographics plus a chance to question reality? I was pretty much in heaven.**

Installation view, Hanna Sandin (mobiles, front) and Stephen Willats (back) at PS1

Hanna Sandin’s mobiles turned out to be the sleeper hit in this show. At first glance, the graphic quality and bold colors of Matt Mullican and Stephen Willats’ two-dimensional pieces aesthetically overshadow Sandin’s suspended monochromatic pieces. The beauty of Sandin’s piece lies in its structure. A mobile is an ideal (and ingenious) way to represent information in three dimensions; its tiers and offshoots resemble a tree diagram, used to represent networks as complicated as decisions or families.

Decision tree, courtesy of Wikipedia

Hapsburg family tree (source)

We use a special type of tree diagram, called a parse tree, for representing the syntactic structure of a sentence according to a little thing called X-bar theory. Linguistics great Noam Chomsky argued that all human languages share the same underlying grammar, and we can therefore diagram any sentence in any language by the same conventions. I am doubtful of this theory. For one thing, Chomsky used English as his only example to demonstrate language’s structural properties; for another, he would tack on rules willy-nilly to accommodate anything that didn’t seem to fit his original framework.

Despite my skepticism of any sort of underlying universal grammatical structure that unites all languages, I do, of course, believe that each language has syntactic rules that can be diagrammed using a visual structure like the tree diagram. Sandin seems to agree; she alludes to diagramming sentences in these mobiles, which group common household objects together. She collects found objects, assigns a word to each, and then input the words into a database. The database produces countless permutations of nonsensical, but grammatically sound, phrases that become the title of each mobile. Thus the objects of the entire mobile fulfill the conditions of a grammatical sentence. 

Hanna Sandin, Fake rocks scrub bouncing chill dikes, 2010, Steel, nylon coated steel wire, artificial foliage, grill cleaning blocks, screen, silicone implant, mouthguards

In my sketch below, I attempted to identify the objects—ranging from  to which the various words in the title Fake rocks scrub bouncing chill dikes refer. 

Let’s delve a little further into Noam Chomsky and syntactic theory. One of the most infamous sentences of the field of linguistics is “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” penned by Mr. Chomsky himself in 1957. This sentence is famous because it illustrates the difference between syntax (grammatical structure) and semantics (meaning). “Colorless green…” lacks meaning in that it defies rational sense: nothing can be both “green” and “colorless;” ideas cannot possess or lack color because they are intangible; in the same vein, they are inanimate and therefore cannot “sleep;” and how would one even begin to slumber “furiously”? I have spent many a linguistics class hearing classmates argue that they can, in fact, extract some meaning from this sentence. Perhaps the tone, the fact that it sounds poetic, creates meaning. Regardless of whether you find meaning in this statement, I get what Chomsky is saying. While the sentence does not seem to communicate any objective message, it is syntactically sound. Consider “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless,” consisting of the same words, now all mixed up and therefore lacking proper syntactic structure. 

Sandin’s mobiles are like Chomsky’s sentence: a meaningless string of unrelated words that have been organized to fit certain rules of logic. What I love most about these examples is that they reveal that reality is rife with these kinds of absurdities, logical structures that lead to illogical conclusions.

*Or you might not be asking, because you’re into data visualizations and design like me, so you know this all. Please pardon my brief explanation.

**That is not to say that I viewed the exhibition without a critical eye. Here are some direct quotes from the wall text: “…using systems of classification and information design as allegories rather than explanations,” “diagramming the distracted state of the cultural unconscious,” to list a few. What do those even mean? It’s the objects themselves that are supposed to make us question what is real and what isn’t, not the ostensibly didactic wall texts.

Faulkner February II: Dewey Dell and chance operations

We picked on down the row, the woods getting closer and closer and the secret shade, picking on into the secret shade with my and Lafe’s sack. Because I said will I or wont I when the sack was half full because I said if the sack is full when we get to the woods it wont be for me. I said if it don’t mean for me to do it the sack will not be full and I will turn up the next row but if the sack if full, I cannot help it. It will be that I had to do it al the time and I cannot help it. And we picked on toward the secret shade and our eyes would drown together touching on his hands and my hands and I didn’t say anything. I said “What are you doing?” and he said “I am picking into your sack.” And so it was full when we came to the end of the row and I could not help it.

-Dewey Dell in William Faulker, As I Lay Dying, page 27.

In the scene above, seventeen year old Dewey Dell describes the time when she is cotton-picking with the neighboring farmer Lafe and the two end up gettin’ busy. DD’s storyline centers on how she deals (or often, doesn’t deal) with the resultant pregnancy. She is so preoccupied that she cannot properly mourn her mother’s death.*

In her manic stream-of-consciousness memory, DD reveals the childish game that determined whether she would have sex with Lafe. If her sack was full of cotton (womb metaphor alert!) by the time she and Mr. Farmer Man made it to the secret shade at the end of the row, she “could not help it.” Dewey Dell leaves a HUGE LIFE-ALTERING DECISION up to fate.

Dewey Dell’s reliance on chance reminds me of artists that use chance operations to create their work. Chance operations became a big thing with the anything-goes Dada movement of early twentieth century Europe. By allowing random forces to dictate the process of creation, artists were able to free themselves of having to make any decisions. It’s all about transferring the control from the artist to an “unreasoned order.”** For example, Jean Arp would tear pieces of paper, drop them on to a a larger sheet, and affix them where they would land. 

Jean Arp, Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, 1916-7.(Source)


Chance operations crossed into many fields, including visual art, writing, and music. Lewis Carroll, Marcel Duchamp, and Tristan Tzara are just a few other early proponents of chance. 

Nor are chance operations limited to Dada; these ideas have continued to influence thinkers through out the century and into the current cultural landscape. John Cage incorporated chance into his musical compositions in the 1950s. He is perhaps most famous for the 1952 experimental piece 4’33”, in a performer is instructed not to play a single note for the length of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The audience, instead, is to focus on the ambient noises around them—noises that become a part of the experience of listening itself. There is a lot more going on in Cage’s piece and it would take a lifetime to enumerate everything; it is one of the most studied pieces in contemporaryish music and has had huge implications on various other fields, including but not limited to visual arts.

Despite his extensive exploration of chance, John Cage would later eschew these very principles: “I began to move away from the whole idea of control, even control by chance operations.”*** I really like this statement. He recognizes that even a reliance on randomness is a form on control. There is no way to ever full free a work of art from an individual’s control, because the maker always has to make sort of decision. For Jean Arp, the decision is to tear pieces of papers into squares, or to determine what height to drop the papers from, or what colors to use. John Cage had to set arbitrary parameters of four minutes and thirty three seconds (based loosely on the standard lengths of canned/popular music). Artists are always making choices, setting boundaries for what their work is, even if they allow a part of the process to be out of their hands. Believing one’s art is based on entirely on chance and the lack of control is as naive as Dewey Dell deciding to have sex based on the fullness of her cotton sack. 


*A game I like to play is to try to determine who is my favorite character in As I Lay Dying. I still can’t decide. Sometimes it’s Vardaman, for his innocent perspective on a bewildering situation; often it’s the omniscient Darl, because he is different and intellectual (so no duh that I’d love him) to the point of insanity; at other times it’s Cash or Jewel or even Mrs. Addie Bundren herself. Rereading the book as a twenty-three year old, I found DD’s storyline incredibly compelling. An adolescent girl dealing with the aftermath of statutory rape alone, being tricked out of an abortion, navigating the situation as her family is falling apart…it was heartbreaking. 

**Jean Arp said that. Source

***In Liz Kotz, Words to Be Looked At. (Cambridge, MIT Press: 2007), 46. 

Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.