Both an inaugural event in the foundation of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and as an early marker of its experimental ethos, the MCA’s first formal gallery exhibition, Pictures to be Read/Poetry to be Seen, brought together artists who probed the permeable spaces between pictorial images, linguistic representation, artistic practice and lived experience. As a guiding, yet loose, theme for the exhibition, founding director Jan van der Marck chose work by artists which attempted to break down the medium-specificity of traditional artistic categories. In many instances, this was achieved through a conflation of various codes and signifiers from different modes of linguistic and visual production (like poetics, graphic design and performance) and the modes of perception they supposedly required (such as reading, seeing and participation). This interdisciplinary blending of various forms of artistic production and modalities of perception, reception and participation were best exemplified by Alison Knowles’ (American, 1933) installation The Big Book (1964-7), Allan Kaprow’s (American, 1927-2006) multimedia environment Words (1967), and 10 assemblage works from George Brecht’s (1926-2008) mixed media “novel” The Book of the Tumbler on Fire (1966). Through their multifaceted permutations of visual imagery, utilitarian objects, written language and interactive spaces, each of these pieces realized pictorial and written language as forms of signification, asking audiences to question and dismantle the supposedly fixed relationship between the spatial aspects of seeing and the temporal aspects of reading.
Working as what Kaprow himself dubbed an “Environment,” or more specifically, “the name given to an art that one enters, submits to and is—in turn—influenced by,” his piece Words blurred the standardized roles of the performer, creator and spectator, creating a non-linear series of fragmentary events to be performed by participants. The installation consisted of a large room, lined with blinking red and white lights and a smaller, more intimate room, illuminated by a single light bulb. Plastered with large, haphazardly painted signs which encouraged viewer participation, the large room contained five continuous rolls of cloth with words stenciled on them, numerous phonograph records that Kaprow himself recorded Victrola record players and a wall of words on paper strips which were structured to form “poetry.” Inspired by John Cage’s (American, 1912-1922) utilization of chance based-procedures and indeterminacy to structure the content of a work, the rolls of cloth could be manipulated by viewers to form either coherent or garbled phrases, the wall of poetry was appropriated at random from mass media sources like comics, love stories and newspapers and the records each played recordings of arbitrarily selected “talk, lectures, shouts, advertisements, ramblings of nonsense, etc.” The smaller room continued this play between modes of perception and performance by featuring long strips of cloth, which museum-goers could clip their own hand-written notes to, chalk on strings which could be used to write on the walls of the room and a record player that continuously played the sound of people whispering.
Though conceptually similar and nearly coterminous, the more “Happening” inspired work by Kaprow seems far more expressionistic and emotive than the highly subdued and anti-expressionistic work of Alison Knowles. Holding many parallels to her previous pieces like Make a Salad (1962) which existed as descriptions and performances of everyday tasks like eating lunch, her piece The Big Book intended to elevate the rituals of everyday life to the place of artistic production, while breaking down set binaries between perceptual categories like seeing, reading and hearing. Described by Van der Marck as a piece which “comes closer than any work in this exhibition to a radical dissolution of the barriers that separate art from life,” The Big Book, consisted of eight moveable 4’8’’ glass, plastic and wood “pages” affixed to a large metal pillar. Each depicted silkscreened images of goat’s heads, Eadweard Muybridge photographs of a nude man in motion and various arrangements of the titular phrase “The Big Book” on both opaque and transparent surfaces.
In a similar way to Kaprow’s usage of Cageian indeterminacy, participants were able to traverse between each “page” using constructed passageways (one them functioning as a tunnel with artificial grass in it), which drastically altered the number of ways the piece could be experienced. Each interstitial space between pages was furnished with guest books for viewers to write in, furniture to sit on, and countless domestic items that signified a 1960’s loft, like electric lights, kitchen utensils, functional telephones and a toilet. In a self-referential gesture reminiscent of Robert Morris’ conceptual piece Card File (1962), a wall mounted card file which contained extensive notes on its own construction and happenstance encounters during its creation, Knowles included in The Big Book was a looping two-channel recording of the piece’s construction process. This recording included various conversations between Knowles, her husband the conceptual poet Dick Higgins (American 1938-1998) and the artist Masami Kodama (Japanese, 1933). It elaborated on Morris’s critique of modernist self-reflexivity and aesthetic autonomy, pushing it a step further into the realm of the everyday life and performativity with her usage of then contemporary household commodity objects and participant interactivity. The Big Book was in many ways an attempt to create a work that would be wholly contingent upon itself, the chance-based procedures of viewer interaction and the signifiers of every day life—which themselves seem to reference burgeoning prominence of consumer capitalism in the 1960s.
While these pieces have much to with the shift from media specificity to interdisciplinary, performative, theatrical and auditory registers, many works at the show used more traditionally acceptable mediums like assemblage and painting to question the standardized considerations of language and perception. While the title of this show seems to imply a simple shift in viewer’s perceptions, Jan Van der Marck states in the show’s catalogue essay, “The title ‘Pictures to be Read/Poetry to be Seen’ attempts to paraphrase but by no means defines the subject of this exhibition. The inversion of Read and Seen is a mere allusion to the breakdown of traditional categories in all the arts”. The usage of imagery and language in much of this graphic work, such as George Brecht’s multimedia collages of seemingly random found objects and printed ephemera in glass vitrines, or the diagrammatic paintings of Shusaku Arakawa (Japanese, 1936-2010) and Giafranco Baruchello (Italian, 1924) pose questions about the coding, legibility and opacity of different forms of literary and artistic production, rather than in answering them, or providing a single fixed method of interpretation.
Pictures to be Read/Poetry to be Seen featured 71 works created between 1961-1967 by artists from multiple countries, including Shusaku Arakawa, Giafranco Baruchello, Mary Bauermeister, George Brechtm Oyvind Fahlström, Ray Johnson, Allan Kaprow, R.B. Kitaj, Alison Knowles, Jim Nutt, Gianni-Emilio Simonetti and Wolf Vostell.