CORRESPONDENCE ART SOLOS AND CHORUSES
essay by Karl Young
K.S. Ernst: Solo
K.S. Ernst's earliest visual poetry, from the late 1960s, began with spatial exploration of text, primarily playing on white space in relation to constellations and clusters of letters. One of the directions in which this led included the breakdown of letters into component parts, usually relating to the sensuality of stroke segments. In her "G- Strings" and "G is for Georgia" series, the letter "g" gets broken down into segments of curves and angles which work with or against the logic of stroke components. Many of these are outlined by discrete boxes, with plenty of space between them, but relating to other boxes on the immediate or adjoining pages.
Her introduction to mail and correspondence art came slowly and unselfconsciously. She received interesting work in the mail, and found that the pieces she received provided her with contacts and ideas. As she became more aware of the movement's global scope she noticed that she had already thought of many projects running parallel to the work of other people in the network. In addition to the contacts she made, she found the sense of freedom in the movement exhilarating. Like many visual poets, she used the network primarily to share her own work and to see that of others without the imposed filter of an editor or curator.
Like many poets who came of age in the 1960s, running a press was essential to Ernst, and followed her orientation toward getting poetry out in the world where it can be seen. Under her Press Me Close imprint, in the early 1980s she issued a magazine called Place Stamp Here, a zine published as sets of postcards. Many packets went to mail artists. This set up a variation on the "add to and pass on" tendency in the genre. Many who received the packets sent them to other mail artists with new work on the open side. Ernst's next magazine came in the form of visual poetry T-shirts. As with many zines, the authors got "contributors' copies" and by wearing them they animated them.
However flat the surfaces of pages sent through the mail may be, mail art was essentially volumetric in the extensions of its network throughout the world. By the early 1980s, Ernst worked with a more immediately tangible type of volumetric poetry. In book art and book objects, she used wood as a base for ceramic letters, the letters ranging in size from 1/2 to 6 inches tall. One of the most important aspects of the wood base and ceramic letter works is the way Ernst plays letters that lie flat on the wood surface against those attached on their sides or mounted on an angle. Some of these create almost Escheresque effects by setting up a base in something like the planular form most people expect from print, then disrupting their expectations. In other instances, the placement of letters on different planes, each paralleled within its set, creates pleasing echoes, perhaps reminiscent of rhyme. The grains and warm tones of the wood and the smooth, white surfaces of the letters harmonize nicely. Ernst also uses letters of this type alone, creating optical depth and rhythm by the way they stack up or interlink. In addition to wood and ceramic letters, Ernst makes use of such materials as cloth and mirrors. Though many people have worked with similar processes in recent years, Ernst was considerably ahead of the curve.
Somewhat less dramatically, but just as compellingly, Ernst draws on large vocabularies of materials in collages, some of which should be considered bas reliefs. Here the articulation of dimensions often becomes a play of textures, some subtle, some gripping. The collages may operate through the play of different paper finishes, or they may move to cloth and other fabrics. Ripped or otherwise roughened treatment can enhance textures as well as serve as metaphors. The spectrum of collages moves into works with auxiliary units hanging from them or leading into them, sometimes resembling the intertwining of letters in the wood and ceramic pieces.
At present, Ernst works extensively with computer software to create images. Even here, the play of textures takes interesting and at times surprising turns. There may be few surfaces more intractably flat than computer screens, and, true to form, Ernst has an uncanny ability to play highly tactile image elements against deliberate usage of the cold, smooth flatness inherent in the VDT medium. In some instances, the paradoxes of flatness versus texture create effects similar to those achieved by the planes in the sculptural work. Much current computer implimented visual poetry looks like ads for such programs as PhotoShop. Ernst's does not - she is too sensitive to the dimensions of her art, whatever the medium, to become complacent in it.
Curiously, perhaps almost prophetically, some of Ernst's earlier procedures foreshadow her work with computers. Some of the sculptural pieces only existed long enough to photograph. "Towering Negativism," for instance, created by stacking up the letters "N" and "o" in ceramic characters, was disassembled after the photographs were developed. Some of the photographs themselves become the poems, and characteristics of photography contribute to them, rather than simply acting as a device for registering an image. Recently, Ernst has employed watercolors and acrylic paint in her work. These visual poems may be completed works on paper or canvas, sometimes may serve as the base for images reworked on the computer, and may appear as a further step after the electronic imaging process. In some ways this process may represent an exploration of fluidity. This exploration extends further when she uses watercolor as a base for computer work - the smooth surface of the computer screen lends itself beautifully to this kind of treatment.
Ernst came to visual poetry from lexical. In the early poems, texts often involved puzzles, alternate reading possibilities, repetition of brief phrases or sentences, and texts that suggest that they were fragments of something larger. The use of titles as part of the texts carries considerable significance, and in more recent works these titles often become the complete "text." The title of one of the sculptural works is "Goodbye." This word appears at the base of the piece on a single plane. The text outside the title consists of the word "lover." Given the angles and positions of the letters, this word could be read in several ways. The letter positions could suggest the excitement and interconnection of love, and they could just as easily suggest confusion and collapse. The word "goodbye" in its straight-forward solidity brings either condition to an abrupt and decisive close. The title becomes much like a door that has shut. This is further enhanced by the way the "l" in "lover" falls completely forward, leaving the word "over" to stand emphatically alone. The conventional text of "Out and About" is simply the word "about" spread over fabric. The "O," however, is a much larger template for a rotary telephone dial plate, suggesting the presence of a finger over the highly tactile fabric. Of this work, Ernst writes "This piece evokes a vacation. The background is a skirt that my mother brought from Mexico in 1950. My sisters and I wore it on various occasions: dress-up, Halloween, and to school. I thought the skirt had played far too significant a part in the happy times of our lives to be discarded after my mother died, so I made a place for it in 'Out and About.' The O-dial comes from a resort phone that was being replaced." Recent work at times takes lexical text and erodes the letters in one way or another.
Since 1978, Ernst has kept notes on proposed projects in a workbook called "Belles Lettres," a work that Marilyn R. Rosenberg feels could be seen as conceptual art. In an ever evolving set of paradoxes, the intense tactility and immediacy of the poems realized so far finds a counterpart in the ethereal character of concept, her neat diagrams and precise notation extending characteristics of Fluxus scores and proposals. Perhaps there is a pleasant paradox in Ernst's notes, "Belles Lettres," as they are published. In these, she returns to a more conventional notion of what a text should be.
At present, Ernst is working on a set of proposals for projects that include poems assembled as quilts, some of which will interact with television monitors. As with her magazines and mail art, the quilts and video include the work of other participants. Insisting that poetry needn't depend on words, the lines of quilt squares form rhythms that approximate metrics in lexical poetry, and the video medium provides oral replacements for alphabetic text, just as the expressions and gestures of the people who appear on the screen curb excessive abstraction in the quilt squares. Quilts suggest homey qualities, just as video depends on electronic technology. In the interaction of the two, we can see Ernst's continued abilities to play disparate textures off each other. At the same time, there's little that people in or outside the arts can identify with more than quilts and televisions žoften enough in conjunction with each other. This becomes another means of outreach to a potentially wider audience.
The tone of Ernst's work ranges from comic to contemplative, but does not become aggressive, inconsiderate, or hostile. It's difficult to find a poet in the current milieu less inclined to verbal or visual rhetoric, cant, dead-ends, irrelevant decorations, hieratic poses, and other types of obfuscation and distraction. This naturally extends into one of her most winning features: a light and open quality that refuses to revert to triviality. I have had some fun calling this "the ability to have a good time without becoming obnoxious." Although this operates admirably through innumerable small-scale decisions in her working methods, it also contributes to one of her broadest concerns: to make poetry something that refuses to stay closed. Such a statement at the present time can sound like a rhetorical or theoretical trope. But Ernst means precisely what she say: poems on T-shirts that people wear wherever they go and poems in wooden books bound in such a way that they cannot be shut.
Click here to go to K.S. Ernst Survey
Marilyn R. Rosenberg: Solo
Marilyn R. Rosenberg began her book art more or less in a vacuum, with virtually no precedents or models. She saw parallels to what she was doing in an article in Art Write magazine by Judith Hoffberg, an artist, historian, curator, and editor who has done as much as anyone in North America to introduce mail artists and those in related fields to each other. Rosenberg contacted Hoffberg after reading the article, and arranged to meet her in Los Angeles when she visited friends there later in the year. Hoffberg showed Rosenberg some of her own collection and introduced her to Bob Speigelman whose massive archives gave her a sense of how extensive the mail art network was and how much variety and invention traveled through it. Back in Peekskill, New York, Rosenberg began to go to NYC to attend mail art and performance events at Carlo Pittori's apartment and at Katz's Delicatessen. At this time, David Cole invited her to contribute to MC, a magazine he edited with Paul Zelavansky. Rosenberg thus found her way quickly into the network, guided by major figures in it. This lead in several directions. One that she sees as particularly important comes from thematically oriented projects and shows that stimulated her to try things she otherwise might have missed. These generated ideas during periods when she seemed about to slow down. Inclusion of her work in catalogues for mail art shows encouraged her to continue at times when she felt isolated, and, through the network she discovered that she was not alone in producing book art. Moving outside the network, correspondents and colleagues in the network arranged for her work to appear in conventional art shows.
Throughout Rosenberg's opus, working materials and final products hold a curious, sometimes whimsical, sometimes searching, sometimes unsettling, sometimes jovial, always engaging set of confluences through the stages of creation and display, and, at the same time, through a wide spectrum of genres. This amplifies and deepens her ability to create works with multiple layers of technique and significance. Motifs such as scissors and thread not only appear in the finished work, they also present the tools and materials used in its production. Thread tends to foreground itself in many works, not simply remaining an unobtrusive binding device, but boldly contributing to the look and feel of finished books. The scissors used in making books and visual poems may not be the same as those represented or fastened to the pages, but Rosenberg keeps them "in the picture" after they have done their job. Scissors lead to recurring motifs, such as keys, whose direct contribution to the work seem less obvious. Simple connections include the car keys that transport the materials and finished pieces, as well as those used to get in and out of her studio and her home. They can suggest opening things as ordinary as a house door, or access to strange and wonderful mysteries. However much symbolism a viewer might want to read into these motifs, they never lose their basic functions as tools. Even the books and poems can become tools in odd and unexpected ways: in many pieces Rosenberg recycles scraps from previous works. Symbolic interpretations may come to dead ends: in Rosenberg's art, the work always leads to something new. The process of transition from one work to the next may suggest some of the possibilities of interaction and extension in mail art. The continuity of Rosenberg's work through genres reveals both seriousness and insouciance, and perhaps a certain rebellion or resistance along the way. Active as a book artist long before the genre became fashionable, Rosenberg's opus includes not only highly polished books, but also inexpensively produced works reminiscent of underground publications.
Much of Rosenberg's book art works as assemblages in containers. As often as not, these include screenfold formats and other devices to extend and multiply pages. In a number of pieces, she binds the kind of drawn and painted books that sometimes run under the name of "artists' books" into larger structures. My favorites in her opus work out extensions of book possibilities. SHADOWLAND is a screenfold book, in which the folds extend themselves vertically instead of horizontally. Rosenberg designed this book to be hung from a ceiling. Thus suspended, the book is approximately 9' 5" long, consisting of 52 pages, each made from a scrap of paper left from other projects. Rosenberg calls the individual leaves "RUMBLE- STRIPS," each representing a bump in the road through her work. She sees the two orientations of the work as a roadway: when read as a book, the reader's eye charts a path leading earthward; when read as a mobile, the viewer's eyes go from the street to the sky. Rosenberg carefully chose the pieces of scrap from works that dealt with roads and landscapes to create the sense of automobile travel, with its long views toward the horizon, checks of road conditions, and the flickers of peripheral vision. Rosenberg describes the conditions of driving thus: "Wet weather fights with windshield wipers, sprinklers, taps, other water devices and visual poetry. Sometimes angry, often confusing, car/life continues on the road, with signs and cautions flashing by." The worn- out metaphor of life as a road becomes renewed in this piece. As often in Rosenberg's work, readers can see unintended relations in the work with felicity. For me, one of these resonances comes from the indigenous calendars of Meso-America. These were painted in screenfolds often meant to be read in descending panels, and emphasizing the 52 year cycles of time - a lifetime for an individual, an age for a community.
Like Shadowland, Rosenberg's Stories from the Everyday World: It Happened That Way, opens down, and was designed to be read fully opened. Closed, it presents an interesting set of angles and curves protruding from the standard rectangular bookform. Bound by a string, pages of the opened book change relation to each other as they are moved by such forces as drafts and movement of people in the room in which it hangs. Handling cut out and torn sheets from other pieces gave Rosenberg a starting point for this book. She developed both the succeeding page shapes and the texts from these left-over papers. The progression of pages can come across as soothingly rhythmic or aggressively angular depending on changes in their relative positions, and with the nearness or distance of the reader. Rosenberg used black papers for the book, and limned the text in low-contrast chalk and pencil. The brief texts begin with "QUIET SCREAM." Other texts, in both large and small letters, include "I DIDN'T SEE IT." "I DID SEE IT," "JUST YESTERDAY?" "IT COULDN'T DID," "SEE THAT THERE IT," "YOU CAN BE SURE," and other phrases that might be written or spoken during the course of virtually any day. Some might reinforce the idea of a quiet scream, but others seem to work in just the opposite direction, neutralizing anxiety and working it into the variety of quotidian experiences. The angles and curves, the torn edges and those cut neatly reinforce the sense of the varied texture of life, as does the fractured or ambiguous phrasing, and the way things appear, disappear, and recombine according to their movement and the reader's attitude and position.
In Remember Babi Yar (The Ravine of Women), Rosenberg's intentions and point of view leave no ambiguities. This bookwork begins with a basic screenfold, but the screens have auxiliary wings so that it refuses to fold out flat. At what we could consider the book's center, the numbers of massacred dominate a sequence of folds. Life-size drawings of skeletal hands, excerpts from published German records in tight, small script, and stenciled words such as "suffering" and "pyres," weave in and out of each other in layers behind the dominant number. Auxiliary objects, including photos of victims and facsimiles of the yellow paper Stars of David that Jews were forced to wear as identification during the Holocaust surround the main structure when shown, or insist themselves on the reader's hands when holding the book. Rosenberg confronts the problem of what to say in the face of the unspeakable without wandering into sophistry or the problems that a lesser artist might encounter when stating the obvious. Her particular abilities in extending and exploring the most basic images and responses make this a completely integrated and fitting memorial.
In bookworks such as Local Library, Rosenberg's sense of humor and optimism have plenty of room to move freely through familiar icons and images. The seemingly endless folds of auxiliary books in this piece suggest how much you can find in a small library as well as its potential extensions, convolutions, involutions, pre-, post-, sub-, supra-, epistemo-, and ontolo- volutions. The tiny scale of the miniature books in this library contributes to its humor as well as the kind of busy activity of the people who come together in such places. In this work, the paper speaks as loudly as anything else. The piece also includes tiny found objects such as scissors and ceramic fish which relate this to other entries in Rosenberg's opus.
We could see a sort of classicism in the work of K.S. Ernst: however complex the ideas she works with may become, she orients herself toward clarity of conception and of overall design. Marilyn R. Rosenberg's work tends to proceed in layers, some working against each other in what I like to call polyrhythms. In this respect, we can see her dealing with the mystery and magic of daily life from multiple perspectives.
Click here to go to Marilyn R. Rosenberg Survey
David Cole: Solo
Most of David Cole's friends and associates remark on his restlessness and expansiveness, and the ephemerality of his art. The three go together. He viewed his pluralistic, all-encompassing art as a constant process of transition and transformation. A peripatetic philosopher in the most literal sense, he walked to think out ideas and as a form of meditation. When not walking, he drew and wrote while doing just about anything that left a hand free. He considered walking and all forms of drawing and painting as types of writing, dancing, and, at times, praying. His conversations seldom stayed on-subject, but wove whatever you and he were saying into new and surprising or illuminating patterns. An indication that his verbal meandering didn't lack relevance comes from the fact that the members of the synagogue he and his wife attended during their years in Brooklyn referred to him as "Rebbe," a term of respect conferred on wise people. This reference was all the more meaningful since Cole was a devoted practicer of three major religions, Christianity, Buddhism, and Judiasm and performed "mitzvoth" (good works that are also a form of prayer) by working with the homeless in Brooklyn. During one phase of his life, his beard extended to the middle of his chest, and he dressed in flowing white robes, pulling together numerous traditions as a form of affirming them all.
One of the bases of Cole's art came from a delightfully unorthodox interpretation of William Empson, the subject of his doctoral dissertation. Cole wrote that Empson's "The Structure of Complex Words enabled me to understand that meanings inhere in transactional ways - words are always in process, both as they are being written and as they are being read. This has been at the root of my entire knowledge of and interest in art and language as exchanges, both in the practical sense of being given away and in the more complex epistemological way of artwork being completed in dialogue and present in receipt." I doubt that Empson would have seen this operating in correspondence art, and for me at least, there's some fun in seeing how far Cole's broad and eccentric artistic exchanges and transactions could move away from the cloisters of academe.
As a literary ancestor, Cole saw Walt Whitman not simply as a revered source but as a daily companion. Beginning at least as early as the early 1970s, he identified himself as "The Paumonock Traveler" in his correspondences and began including that traveler in performance art, drawings, and poems. Near the end of his life he wrote, "My work is gathered under the rubric of The Life and Love Songs of the Paumonock Traveler, as if it were my daily reports as a leaf of grass blown in Walt Whitman's scene of the struggle for identity and democracy. He had sung his song just 100 years before me in Brooklyn Heights where I began my visual poetry work. I am singing back to him from a singular point of view." You can find plenty of poets who can quote Whitman, and write long-lined poems in something like his style, but few have taken his ideas and example as far as Cole. For him, all arts lead into and out of each other, and he gathered everything he could find into the process. This included the participation of everyone with whom he shared ideas.
This inclusiveness didn't mean drawing his associates into a predetermined mold, but finding their individual characteristics and working with them in a spirit of cooperation and encouragement. In the late 1960s and early 70s, he devoted much of this spirit to his students, toward anti-war activities, to the formation of an artist- run gallery, and to performance art. He practiced a type of automatic writing that included as many images as words, and his letters to friends often followed suit. The importance of integrating alphabets with other forms of writing was an important subject of conversation between David and me, both of us seeing the alphabet as a great form of writing, but one that needed extension. By the mid 70s, Cole found his ideal environment in mail and correspondence art. Nothing could suit his sense of democracy and expansion of potentials as well as a mail art network that could foster transactions with thousands of people. Not content simply to take part in the network, he set up shows in venues ranging from Franklin Furnace to his synagogue. Most important of these shows was "The Scroll Unrolls," apparently the first mail art show mounted in Israel. As much as the global reach of mail art appealed to him, he also needed the intimacy of correspondence art. A measure of his commitment to "the struggle for identity and democracy" comes from the way that he worked differently with each of his co- workers, adjusting his own contribution to their particular skills, abilities, and aesthetics. Cole was also collecting knowledge and skills in each area. An able writer from the beginning, he broadened his abilities as a graphic artist through collaboration. Cole and his correspondents acted as mentors for each other.
Collaborators included people outside the mail art network. In New Jersey a dance group was excited by huge pieces that Cole created by covering himself with paint and rolling on the canvas. In others he danced barefoot on a newly-painted canvas. The group choreographed a dance based on the paintings, and music for it was created on the basis of what the composer saw in the paintings.
As part of his classes, Cole had his students scour second-hand stores, dumpsters, and every other collecting point for things used and abandoned as sources for poetry and for art. Prizes found in such places suggested the fullness of the world and the sense of discovery in humble objects. As Cole moved more deeply into mail art, he became interested in envelopes as more than containers which are usually discarded after they've carried their contents. Each envelope's flat surface presented a ground on which to work. Cole's expertise in painting them expanded with practice. Sometimes photocopying the painted envelopes formed the base for further recycling. Occasionally he composed groups of them into grids, thereby creating new artworks, some the size of broadsides and some larger. Reducing the images, he made stamps out of them which he pasted onto envelopes. These broadsides and stamps became part of the Paumonok Traveler's journeys around the world and back. The grid nature of stamp blocks fascinated him early on, at a time when he worked primarily with ink on paper. He could produce hundreds of sheets exploring the interrelation of postal icons and stamp grids. As time went on, this process lead to grids produced with early computer graphic programs. As computer technology advanced, he stuck with older programs in part because he liked the chunkiness of the images they produced, reminiscent of the used items he found in dumpsters and second hand shops. Some of these computer images he gathered into books in which the images wandered in and out of grids other than those created by rows of stamps.
The nature of containers fascinated Cole, and, true to form, he extended this dimension of envelopes. He drew all sorts of metaphors out of envelopes and the way they get opened: people, houses, cities, land masses, space ships could all be seen as envelopes. From his observation that clothing made up a type of envelope, he began painting on white paper lab coats and extended this further to suits and other garments. Toward the end of his life, shrouds became yet another type of envelope. Most of his shroud pieces attained enormous size, some over 20 feet long. His notes on them include: "Shroud #2 'Crossing Over' narrates the journey, by boat, of the return of the spirit from the form. Shroud #3 'Recollections of the Unknown' engages the chaos ensuing upon the loss of personal identity; it is shroud as aeropost." His final large-scale works, "Floor Poems," "were envisioned as views down through the ground into space beyond the earth." In one of his last shows, mounted in the huge space available at the Ice House in St. Paul, Cole arranged the shrouds, floor poems, suits, assemblages, and other works in such a manner as to keep the paintings away from the walls, the suits suspended over the floor poems, etc. in such a way as to cast shifting shadows around the room.
I'm now looking at one of his Paumanok Traveler broadsides based on painted envelopes placed in grids. This 8 1/2 x 14 sheet contains images of twelve number 10 envelopes reproduced in two columns of six each. Cole takes some characteristic of each addressee into consideration in each of the painted envelopes. One addressed to me has my address on a long wall drawn in such perspective as would be seen from the window of a moving car, reminiscent of my Milestones poems. The reduced copy shows the original clearly, with no modifications. One addressed to Ruth and Marvin Sackner includes elements suggesting a collection of work by visual poets. K.S. Ernst's includes two large, neatly drawn squares. Inside them, stencil letters interact with each other in the same way they do in Ernst's work of the time. A large square that frames the postage stamp reiterates Ernst's "press me close" publishing logo, and implies that he has followed her "Place Stamp Here" instructions. Cole frames these streams in plates of glyphs suggesting those Kempton featured in his Kaldron magazine. None of the references to the works of addressees is overstated, but in each there is an acknowledgment by Cole of what his correspondents do. This makes the address expressed in letters and numerals more personal, and extends it across the whole of the envelope.
Cole was fascinated with sticks of various sorts. It's easy to see how they formed the most rudimentary of implements, used to aid in walking or in reaching beyond the hand's grasp. Some of these relate to his interest in containers. Poles used to store or transport cloth of all sorts, from unfinished material to rugs, acted as something like inverted envelopes - containing objects by being contained by them. He began using wands early in his performance pieces. Sticks used to stir paint run through various permutations. He set up projects for exchanging them, evolving into a paint stirrer MAP. The paint stirrer project included the distribution of 2,000 hand-painted and signed wooden paint stirrers to artists around the world over the period from November 9, 1996 through January 2000. The recipients of the paint stirrers were asked to lend their stirrers to a temporary In-Gathering Exhibition. The idea behind this MAP, as conceived by Cole, was the simultaneous stirring of different members of the community in an event of sharing through diversity and uniqueness. David Cole died on April 19, 2000, before the show came together, but he would have been pleased to see how many stirrers returned for the exhibition.
For Cole, the transactional and collaborative nature of art kept it constantly changing, reaching stages of rest at times, but not firm conclusions. He found himself completely at home in the mail art network where, according to some, process took precedence over resulting artifact. Still, Cole was not satisfied with any given stage unless he found it aesthetically pleasing and appropriate. This was remarkable in that he often learned how to make it so as he went along. Acquiring the skills to achieve his aesthetic goal for a given stage came primarily through the mail art process. Given the wide range and diversity of his contacts, his work often reflected the abilities and challenges of the network itself. K.S. Ernst seems a model of classical clarity.
Marilyn R. Rosenberg suggests the wealth of possibilities in congruent and conflicting layers. David Cole thrived on what he learned from both, synthesizing it with other modes operating in the network and with everything else he could find, ranging from the theoretical inquiries of William Empson to the poetry of Walt Whitman to action painting to performance art to junk found in a dumpster to paper to dance. Each of the three artists discussed has a distinct personality and a singular orientation to the art they have produced. Using musical analogies for these orientations, and stepping back a bit from the contemporary scene for clarity's sake, Ernst's work may find a parallel in W.A. Mozart, Rosenberg in Gustav Mahler, Cole in Charles Ives. The differences in their orientations contributed considerably to their abilities to collaborate and make the most of their individuality in the undogmatic and noncompetitive mail art environment.
Click here to go to David Cole Survey
Ernst, Rosenberg, and Cole made contact with each other through the mail art network at aproximately the same time. Perhaps it's instructive that neither Ernst nor Rosenberg remembers the precise time or circumstance or MAP. All three lived in different cities but the same part of the country. Hence projects they worked on together involved significant use of the postal system, but also permited in-person meeting without long distance travel. Of projects on which they collaborated, those described here sketch some of the range and nature of mail art projects.
K.S. Ernst lent me a number of works she did in collaboration with David Cole in the early 1990s. None of these were done with publication or exhibition as a goal - or as something to avoid. Following one of the strongest tendencies in mail art, they wanted to explore their abilities, to have some fun, to see where the collaboration would lead, and, as important as anything else, to hold a dialogue through their work, to make their projects a form of conversation.
Seeing what they could do with computer software was a base for the conversation in the work. At the time, few people in the mail art network used computers, and some viewed work done by such means as heretical. Cole tended to work on originals sent to him by Ernst or to start new pages. Ernst generally made several immaculate photocopies of pages received and developed a number of pages out of each. The computer output portions seem easy to identify, since Cole favored the stair-step nature of graphics done on a dot matrix printer while Ernst used a laser. Both followed the add-to-and-return approach, but did not work in a linear sequence. Instead, they exchanged pages in groups and developed several simultaneously.
The group includes running puns on the words "nova," "ruse," and "use," and words related to messages and signs. On one page, I can see from the nature of the print that Cole had repeated the word "signal" in one column and "sentinels" in another. Ernst produced standard dingbat icons in similar columns. Although there's no way of telling who did which first, each signal and sentinel becomes associated with an icon. Arrows by Ernst between the columns and their icons connect signals to sentinels, identifying the connections as "myth," "clash," and "it happens." Thus a compass pointing north is tied to a star icon and identified as "myth," while the line between a deer and a factory is pointed out as a "clash." The first step in creating the image presented an austere set of columns, to which another set was added. The angular lines animate the center of the page, and lend their dynamic to the columns. Collaborators often enough take on the ideas of their partners, and in the icons and diagrammatic lines, Ernst seems to be picking up on some of Cole's conceptions of linguistics. It's possible, however, that Cole worked from Ernst's arrows, supplying structural constants for her diagrams. The top of the page bears the words "AN OVERUSE," as a title and several simultaneous sets of instructions or comments on what goes on in and between the columns.
On the next page, which may have been done simultaneously or as a response to this one, the headline is "AN OVA-RUSE," stated in a clear Roman face, repeated in three different forms of redrawing and mechanical distortion. Below this there are four columns. The one at the far left, in clear Roman, bears such words as "eye Aye/oh please/ha." In the next column on the left, these words find mirrors in "bales hey/ahsneeze/budhaha" in fractured letters. Though the Roman face is definitely Ernst's and the second column is Cole's, Ernst does not remember which came first. Moving left to the two other columns, these words appear in two different forms of distortion. You could read the page from left to right as a move into clarity, or from right to left as a progression into abstraction. These pages do not represent a finished product, and were not made with any specific goal other than a scintillating type of conversation. A good deal of the work that passed through the mail art network holds this kind of dialogue.
In late February, 1986, Marilyn R. Rosenberg and David Cole began a MAP based on travel by train. When they began they simply had a few basic ideas they wanted to explore, but no limitations or projections on how large or complex the work should become. What began as a private exchange moved into public form meant for exhibition. By December 31, when they formally concluded the project, it had grown very large, including hundreds of individual pages, post cards, books, posters, and ancillary pieces.
For decades, mail has travelled along train tracks. Train travel moves in a strictly linear manner, seeminlgy more so than travel by foot, car, or plane. Mail going between two people requires a frequently repeated route - it may be linear, but the line runs in two directions, and has a cyclic character. At the same time, a railroad can include any number of sidings, spurs, intersections and other alternate routing systems. Rosenberg had revitalized the metaphore of the road of life in other works, and in this one she and Cole extended it in as many ways as the year of collaboration could hold. At times, the two artists worked with stories and bits of speech overheard on trains.
It seems appropriate that the book's central painting, titled "Carousel," should be based on a locomotive roundhouse, which acts simultaneously as a music box and a mandala. This included a train key Rosenberg purchased from a railroad comany, which fit in a lock in the Carousel. A roundhouse serves not only as a place where locomotives get repaired, it also becomes a meeting place from which rail lines grow and to which they return. All lines lead to and come from this circle.
One of the basic lines of development in the project came from the letters "op," the reverse of the initials for post office, and a key component in the words "optical," "option," and "opportunity." This became an exhaustive analysis of words with this pair of letters and a means of generating new side trips into words and idea- complexes ranging from "opossum" to "MetrOPolitan," which supplied a key motif, "opolit." Other words and fragments, including "re" and "fragment," followed similar lines of development. Phonemes suggesting train noises and motion played an important role, at once suggesting an audio score, serving as a generator for new terms, and acting as a tool for dissecting words that had entered the work. Addition and amplification played a similar role, and the work includes lengthy personal letters, stories, records, and poems in multiple genres. Contrasts between standard geometric shapes and organic forms generated texts and images. Cole made extensive explorations of folded paper; Rosenberg avidly researched books on trains for collage material. As the project became more complex, they drew up charts and time tables, following those used by railroad companies, to keep track of their tracks with all their stops and side trips. Some of the side trips included most other forms of travel, ranging from inward journeys to exploration of outer space. Cole's Paumonock Traveler naturally made an appearance early, but given the complexities of the journey, morphed into several other characters, just as Rosenberg created several alter-egos, most prominently Mary Rose. The MAP encompasses not only visual poetry, book art, and sculpture, but also an epistolary novel.
For some people at the turn of the milenium, trains include nostalgic or sentimental conotations. Rosenberg and Cole didn't avoid this but made the most of it. A formal aspect that they deliberately worked with was the way trains suggest perspective - if you look at a train from nearly any vantage point, it will grow smaller or larger along geometric lines. This opens up possibilities for exploration of a concern in traditional art. At the same time it allows for exploration of perspective as an individual's point of view and the way that the perspectives of two people can inter-relate. One of Einstein's classic explanations of relativity relies on train metaphores, and that description suits this work very well. On a more personal level, all sorts of people can relate to the daily monotony of comuter trains, the magic and mystery of night time train rides, trains as a means of escape, and trains as symbols of expectation. You could see this work as an assemblage, but uniting the concept of book and luggage seems much more appropriate. Hence a suitcase became the "binding" for this book.
Of the work and their sense of its significance to its readers, Rosenberg and Cole wrote: "It is as if the viewer were the third person in a train compartment travelling somewhere, perhaps back and forth, as the compartment fills up with the bits and pieces of the present and the past. This could almost be a commuter train, but [the artists] do not seem to be going from home to work; they seem to be at work observing themselves travelling. They muse; they share perspectives; they call one another's attention to things that they just noticed off to the side of the moving train. They wonder what a train is and why it is on track. They clip their sentences to each other, hurrying the other to fill in the spaces with common meaning and get on with seeing what they're doing. They encourage one another's attention, bolster spirits, suggest new ways to hold perceptions in form." Cole added the following note as a definition that formulated itself as the work progressed: "Visual poetry is about the relationship between the aesthetic movement of the eye in conjunction with the literary movement of the mind." This seems a good summation of the book, the working principles of the artists, and of the way mail art works for those who practice it and those who see it.
By 1991, Ernst, Rosenberg, and Cole had been collaborating on MAPs for more than a dozen years. That summer, the three decided to work together in person. Ernst had a studio separate from her summer house which seemed an ideal place for a project. Rosenberg and Cole joined her there for a weekend session. Neither Ernst nor Rosenberg remembers who proposed the theme for the MAP, which suggests that the collaboration held more importance than anything else. It seems likely that the project originated more or less spontaneously during their initial discussions. The result was a book which they titled Spider Talk. The book has very little in it that immediately suggests spiders or the lines and connections of a spider's web. The spinners of this were the three artists constructing a new web after they had made other invisible webs by their exchanges of mail.
Rosenberg says that she was impressed by the bright and airy nature of the studio and its surroundings, an environment significantly different from the small spaces, largely lit by artificial light, of her studio and of Cole's workroom. This may have contributed to the delicate, serene, and open quality of the work. Rosenberg brought a blank book in screen fold format, with twenty four 4 3/8" x 6 1/8" pages on each side. The three moved around a large table in the studio, each working on several pages of the screenfold until they felt it time to move themselves or the long strip of paper and add to what the others had done previously. They did not procede sequentially along the strip, but worked on multiple page spreads simultaeously. Though they had plenty of experience working over each other's pieces through the mail, they felt a bit hesitant to do so in person during the first few hours of their efforts. Most of their conversation during composition stayed focused on the project, not straying much into other subjects. This conversation creates a real-time web across the book's pages, changing the scale of the webs created through the mail. Rosenberg recalls that Cole tended to be relatively quiet, taking, as he often did, cues from his partners rather than trying to direct the project. Cole tended to be completely caught up in the process of composition rather than the final product. Rosenberg placed a bit more emphasis on reaching a goal, and examining the implications and significance of the finished work. Ernst tended to zero in on specific details of the piece, bringing her usual spontaneity and decisivness into the picture. Ernst sees a certain amount of division of methods in the process, though she notes that the three moved into each other's procedures more as they progressed. Rosenberg placed most emphasis on painting broad designs in gouache. Cole tended to work over these in pen. Ernst pasted paper onto the pages, on some of which Rosenberg painted and Cole drew.
As with much book art of the last decade, most people who see this piece are likely to see it in a glass case. This is, as always with book art, unfortunate. Holding the book, you can view two to eight page openings easily, while still getting a sense of the delicacy and intimacy of its details. You can also spread it out for panoramic views. Right now I have the obverse opened complete on shelves across one side of my workroom, seeing it in much the same way that a viewer would see it in a gallery. The general impression I get of the work seen in this way is of modulated washes of color. The color suggests the airy quality I mentioned earlier. Nothing appears growded or congested or tense. Rather, its gentle rhythms flow pleasantly back and forth through its pages. Although the color areas tend toward browns and grays, areas of brighter color, judiciously placed lines in primaries, and ample space left unpainted don't leave the darker areas brooding. The washes of color feather out amorphously in some places, and in others come to hard edges, defining parts of geometric forms in negative space. This can suggest some of the play between organic and geometric forms found in Track and other works by the three artists. It also has some of the character of Chinese and Japanese painted screens, which make the most celebrated use of negative space.
The book becomes much stroger when held in hand. The screenfold format allows for juxtaposition of varying page sequences, forming and reforming different collages as I fold groups of pages up, bringing, say, page 3 together with page 16. Held in hand, it's easy enough to go from the obverse to the reverse. One of the things I particularly like about this book comes from another kind of collage - created by pasting paper onto the master sheet. All the papers used are relatively thin, but range in character from hard surfaced stock to rice paper with pronounced fiber strands to a brown mulberry paper whose varied strands have been calendered smooth on one side and left rough on the other. Thus the washes naturally give rise to a bas relief, subtly playing textures against each other, as though the washes seek fuller expression in layers of paper. Ernst printed the cover sheets using a computer printer, and the artists signed the book's first page. There is otherwise no text. The book, however, does contain a fair amount of pen work. In some places this comes in the form of what could be read as spider armies or as imitations of Kanji characters written in grass script. Small line figures act as something like grace notes. More often spare lines bring together sets of pages and areas of color. However line manifests itself, it gives definition to broader forms by contrast. Providing this kind of reference keeps the looser forms in focus.
The book unfolds as a rhapsodic exploration of the possibilities of the materials available and of the ideas the participants bring to them. The book should be seen and read as an expanded form of literacy. If that happens only on a tiny scale, the book, like other works produced through the Mail Art network, served the basic functions of interaction, encouragement, challenge, and a means of bringing happiness to the artists as they worked and as they have looked back on the project. Whatever happens in Mail Art in the future, and however work produced in the network may find new audiences, the book has served its most basic function. Throughout the 20th Century, all sorts of people extolled the virtues of making art for themselves in an exultation of their individuality. This acts as a tonic for art made under various forms of coercion, including those that have been internalized. Making art for yourself my be a fine thing to do. But there are also virtues in making art for someone else. Art thus becomes a gift. In collaborative situations, an important part of the gift comes from the process of cooperative production.
Click here to go to Track, a collaboration between David Cole and Marilyn R. Rosenberg.
Long Range View from a Short Range View Finder, a collaboration between David Cole and Marilyn R. Rosenberg.
Click here to return to Some Volumes of Poetry