Kenneth Goldsmith's EPC Author Page
Kenneth Goldsmith's PennSound Page
Kenneth Goldsmith in UbuWeb Contemporary


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.

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 Thompson Street.

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 share.

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 down.

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 a bath.

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"
--Snoop Dogg

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 Fidget, 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 cold out.

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 theyĆ¢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 his work.
March 30, 1995
Dear Geoff,

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."

--Geoffrey Young
April 8, 2006

Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics
UbuWeb Papers | UbuWeb