PART 1: KENNY
In a group show at a mid-town
gallery in 1992, I discovered a few works of art by an artist I'd not
yet heard of. The works were a hybrid form of sculpture (six feet tall,
three feet wide, in shallow box frames, leaning against the wall), and
text (white fields with top-to-bottom thin columns of machine-printed
words, or fragments of words). I began to read them--to sound them--trying
to figure out what their organizing principles were.* * *
PART II: IN THE NAME OF ART
Some time later, I saw two graphite drawings by the same artist in a
Soho Gallery. Like the sculpture, they used words, or symbols from language,
as well as repetition, but unlike the sculptural works, they were carefully
executed by hand.
I wrote his name down on a piece of paper.
Not long thereafter, as if out of the blue, I called NY Information
to get the telephone numbers of all Kenneth Goldsmiths. Of the few I
jotted down, the first one turned up Kenny, then living in Soho, on
Cheryl passed the phone to him and I complimented his work, told him
I had a small gallery in Great Barrington, MA, and invited him to show
some work in one of my summer shows. Later he confessed that he thought,
upon my request, that his career had descended into pastoral insignificance
if the most excitement he could generate from his work were the enthusiastic
words of a backwater hick.
But he said, sure, why not, and we arranged to show a few things later
in the summer.
Turns out he knew Great Barrington and the Berkshires quite well, had
skied here as a boy since his parents had a second home on a dirt road
in nearby sleepy Sandisfield.
I remember the day we met in the flesh: Kenny, Cheryl, and their brindle
boxer Babette came bounding into the tiny third floor gallery with great
energy, long hair, and miles of curiosity. Kenny had been rethinking
his relationship to sculpture, to object making in general, had been
moving toward the production of texts, was a devotee already of the
computer, and so he was keen on hearing more about the poetry world
which claimed a large chunk of my identity and of my press, The Figures,
which had published many of the poets whose friendship he would later
Later that summer he called to tell me he was going to bring one of
his collectors into the gallery. When Kenny and Mr. A.G. Rosen
did come in, and A.G. bought a small beautiful Richmond Burton painting
called "Electricity," it began an ongoing many-year relationship
with Rosen, whose art collection grows apace, with no signs of slowing
That fall Kenny and I would get together in New York from time to time.
He invited me to visit his Akido class, where I watched his sensitive,
attentive work reducing other class members to lumps of incapacitated
meat on the mat, then he'd change and we'd go to NOHO STAR and eat big
fat hamburgers, drink beer, and talk art and poetry. Hungry to study,
take in, and assimilate the radical pop culture of the sixties, he was
immersed in Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, John Cage's Silence,
Joyce's novels, & Don Quixote. Not having been a student
of literature, his self-education continued apace. At one point I remember
him lamenting that his generation, the art students who graduated in
the mid-80s and came to New York, had no generational identity-producing
rallying cry, no war to resist, no draft to outsmart, no drugs to pioneer,
no English (pop) invasion to embrace. There were tectonic movements
going on in the art world where money was creating superstars out of
smart young painters, but Kenny wanted something else. He wanted social
unrest the equal of his own anxious transformation from object-producing
artist in studio in a system of galleries and collectors, to a text-producing
writer with laptop in a world where money didn't play any role at all.
Kenny was still an artist with a gallery during the 90s, so there were
opportunities to attend his openings, follow his art production as it
incorporated collage elements (I recall funky graphic homages to four
Jewish heroes--Ginsberg, Dylan, Kafka, Einstein), installation bravado
(he papered a gallery floor to ceiling with large sheets of gridded
text), and one beautiful show of framed "poems" on paper,
in large printed letters, shadowed by letters half erased, where, at
the opening, Kenny sported a brand new t-shirt with the letters FUCKING
NYC on the front. His hair was long, his enthusiasm contagious, and
his love of the art game palpable. But the direction his work was going
was less and less commercial, more and more about the book, so that
it became something of a crisis in his relationship with dealers. Kenny
expected them to stay with him, knowing him to be a serious, committed
artist, but they had to deal with the bottom line. By the time it went
down, he had nothing for them to sell.
The first substantial body of work that showed me Goldsmith's ambition
and inclination toward collaboration was 73 poems. In 1995, the
Drawing Center in Soho showed all 73 framed sheets of paper, hung three
high and stretching across one long wall, which gave the viewer the
opportunity to see how these "pages" functioned as linked
poems, filling up graphite space, then emptying it out, then filling
it again, all the while moving its verbal content along with deft alphabetical
and counting procedures. And to make matters even better, Kenny
had invited Joan La Barbara to sing a selection of these brief, but
lively texts. On the night of the performance, she stood before a large seated audience,
the poems at her back, and, with pre-recorded taped accompaniment, sang
a sequence of them, producing an art music of poise and intelligence.
It was a ravishing, pitch-perfect evening.
In 1995, Stuart Downs, the curator of painting and sculpture at the
Art Gallery at James Madison College in Harrisonburg, VA, organized
a survey of Kenny's sculpture and works on paper, many drawn from the
collection of AG Rosen. We all went down for the opening to see the
free standing works whose shapes for the most part were derived from
books, including one on the floor made of solid lead, called "Steal
This," after the Abbie Hoffman book of the same title (the irony
being that no one could lift the insanely heavy object). I was invited
to do a poetry reading on the occasion of the show, and Kenny did a
talk, perhaps his first. It was this talk that really convinced me that
Kenny was capable of dazzling structural sophistication. Influenced
at the time by John Cage, Kenny delivered the information of his talk
in incomplete bits that slowly, over time, as they accumulated and developed,
became complete statements. As he repeated and expanded, and qualified
his material, its meaning filled to the brink, like water overflowing
At one point, for a spell, Kenny was listening to John Coltrane's
A Love Supreme on his daily walk from apartment to studio, and I
recall how surprised he was to hear that I'd heard Coltrane play several
times at the It Club in LA in 1965 & 66. That's when I realized
I was sixteen years his senior (how could anyone have been around back
then?) and that music, like cultures, come and go.
Little self-made chapbooks that documented his writing activities led
to the monumental breakthrough book, No 111, much of which was
composed (found) obsessively while Cheryl was teaching for a semester
at a college in Tennessee. Kenny holed up in his studio, all of his
reading and internet surfing at the service of accumulating the fragments
of sentences that went into the composition of No 111. Finally
it was done, and Cheryl was back, the last chapter being the wildest,
most unreadable graphic gobbledegook ever presented as "poetry," when Kenny asked me one day if it wouldn't be hipper to end the book
with a short story, and did I know any good ones he might include? The
story in question would have to end with the end-rhyme "r,"
and it would have to be longer in length than the chapter before it,
so I recommended a few stories, but really championed D.H. Lawrence's
"The Rocking Horse Winner." So, without reading it, Kenny
found it on the internet, and with a lengthy cut & paste swipe,
appropriated it for the book. No 111, published in 1997 by The
Figures, was a brilliantly constructed and often captivating reading
experience of 600 pages, a text which plays our own culture's fragments
back at us in unpredictably goofy ways, as if the bits and pieces that
make up the book migrated to their nesting places, propelled by the
randomness of procedural design.
"Let us honor if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one"
"When you learn what to do
I'll be done with it"
Something had gone wrong, we were talking about it. I was part of the
resistance. Maybe I was on the attack. Who can remember. John Bennett a
Painter and Kenny Goldsmith an Object Maker and I a Scribbler were in a bar
in the Village. This was early. Pre-publication of No. 111
, well before
, pre-FMU dj, pre-children. Kenny was showing graphite drawings at
John Post Lee, and beginning to make limited edition chapbooks of text
works. The conversation was about art and the internet, about art and
language, about poetry and freedom. Musta been 1995. Late winter. It was
And the next day Kenny wasn't happy with his memory of the conversation, so
wrote a passionate single-spaced letter going over the issues, and I
remember his concluding this letter with the statement that everything he
does he does for Art, because that's all he's ever wanted to do. Art.
Whether it's the art of sculpture, the art of writing, the art of lecturing,
the art of living, the art of performance, the art of thinking as an artist,
the art of being a friend, in the studio or on the streets, the art of
championing other artists, the art of knowing that art was the adventure,
even the art of acknowledging that art was a mystery. That's what it was.
What he was. Back in the 90s.
I'd read you the actual letter, but I sold it with the press archives to the
University of Michigan. It may be Kenny's longest, most personal letter,
every word not just typed up but actually thought up and styled by its
author. I lost some brain cells trying to retrieve a copy of this letter
from Special Collections, in Ann Arbor. I learned, never sell your archive.
But, happily, I can report that two days ago they tracked it down, and
sent me a copy of it..
Art. People gathering here today must remember that it's not poetry, not
performance, not theory, not domestic life, not the computer as a creative
tool--and not even this issue of Open Letter, as full of serious work as it
is--that has brought us here. It's Art. Kenny's life, lived in the name of
Art. When Kenny was in a playful, obnoxious mood, he provoked with gestures
in the name of art. When he came over for lunch and stepped up on his
dining room chair and pulled the flaking paint from the ceiling, causing
flakes to fall into the thin gruel I was serving, it was done in the name of
art. When he greeted you with a warm hug it was done in the name of art.
When he wanted you to tell him personal things of a sexuel nature it was
asked in the name of art. When he gossipped, every scandalous thing he told
you about the sex life of some friend of his you could be sure was told in
the name of art.
Kenny's enthusiasm for the work of other artists changed my life. It was
Kenny who told me in 1993 to take the collector AG Rosen to the studio of
Brother James Siena. Who was this Brother James, I wondered, and was his
first name really Brother? It was Kenny who said give Fred Tomaselli a
call, among many other younger artists just getting going. In the name of
art we made these calls, went to these studios, bought work or didn't,
became friends. In the name of art Kenny gave what he had away, and was
happy if we could use it.
We would sit on the front porch talking, then have a few tokes of weed on
our walk into town to see a movie. A third of the way into the movie we
would look at each other, groan because we were not being entertained, get
up and leave the Mahaiwe theatre, and come back to my house and look through
the vinyl for records he didn't have, Henry Kaiser guitar noise, ROVA
saxophone quartet dates with Clark Coolidge liner notes, obscure Derek
Bailey sides, little known Arhoolie blues things or, bonanza! a spoken word
record featuring the work of Richard Brautigan that he might like to borrow,
or better yet, keep as gifts.
All in the name of Art. In the name of Art Kenny would pour amber shots of
exotic whiskies into a glass and sip, ever so slowly, savoring the smoky
taste. In the name of Art Kenny would say, apropos of my son Ayler, who was
then 14, Geoff, don't worry about him, by the time they‚re fourteen years
old, the essential job of parenting is over. That was said by then
childless Kenny in the name of art. And, though I thought Kenny was being a
mite glib, later I concluded that he was pretty close to right.
When he went to Poland as a visiting artist--Allen Ginsberg was there as the
visiting poet--he wrote a long text in Polish, and showed it, much enlarged,
at the end of his residency, unscrolled from the ceiling, and flowing out
onto the floor, a huge, unreadable text filled with strange accent marks and
unpronounceable words, all in the name of . . . . . certainly not in the
name of literacy, because Kenny didn't understand a word of what he'd
"written." When he went to India alone, he came back so excited by the
plenitude of gabbling languages there, by the crowds, the colors, the
poverty, the unreadable beauty of newspapers written in Hindi and Bengali,
that he made sure to take Cheryl back with him the next time, to witness
this modern incarnation of Babel.
To be an artist, to be that scratchy stuff on the side of a matchbox, to
aspire only to art, whatever art is, to live one's timeline gracefully from
one serious aesthetic goof to the next, laying all your marbles on the line,
taking chances, courting change, embracing change, suffering change,
investigating the past in order to move into the uncertain, uncharted wild
waters of the real/unreal present: that's some of what Kenny does, sitting
alone in a room, in the name of art.
* * *
And in the name of letter writing, let me conclude by stringing together a
few choice sentences from Kenny's letter of 1995, which may or may not be
true for him anymore, but remain useful guides to us now, as we celebrate
March 30, 1995
Over the past year, as you might or might not know, I have been undergoing a
transformation or rather an experimental phase in my work. I have been
reluctant to discuss it. It involves many of the ideas that we have talked
about--the problem of the word being seen vs. being read in the gallery
space, the attention span of the viewer, the freedoms/limitations of the
gallery format vs the book format, the problem of collectability
(possession) and the problem (in my life at least) of objects.
Each artist must travel his own road, whatever that road may be; I must
follow this path--I really have no choice. It has nothing to do with
career, money, or power--it goes much deeper than that. There isn't a day
in which I don't question what I am doing; yet there isn't a day in which I
don't feel compelled to continue with my work.
I am taking the only step that an artist can take with his work--that is to
ask the tough questions and act in accordance with them. It's really the
old Yves Klein leap into the void--I am jumping and somehow believe that I
will be supported.
I love art. I absolutely live for it. My thinking has led me down some
unconventional paths and yet in the end, I am filled with love and awe for
the capacity of what we call "art" to endlessly absorb whatever is thrown at
it. It is the only space in the world that can function this openly, and
for that alone, it is remarkable. Like any object of our love, we must
remain critical of it--we care for it too much to reach otherwise.
John Bennett touched me last night when he said, "Kenny, don't try to name
it. The fact that you are willing to make this move proves that you are an
artist." I replied, "Yeah, it's funny. These days, the less art I make,
the more I feel like an artist."
April 8, 2006
Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
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