Typings as Letters: Christopher Knowles at ICA Philadelphia

Chris Crawford

February 16, 2016
[Knowles’ work presents a figure of the human trapped in a machine (or that human machine, the brain) striving for expression through it, and always falling just short.]

Most art-copy devoted to Christopher Knowles peddles the image of a post-minimalist Wunderkind savant, a late twentieth-century Rimbaud of performance art and poésie concrète. His most iconic works are called “typings”: arrangements of words organized around a theme or pictogram, often composed via repetitions of a single letter (mostly the letter ‘c,’ an aesthetic signature indexed to the subjectivity underlying the world of his art), gridding rice paper with patterns of blue, black, and red ink. These works fall into two sets: lists organized under a theme chosen by the artist, such as “couples,” and meticulously organized figurations composed of letters. The latter, sprawled on large sheets, present a kind of “literal” pointillism that, in their basic imagery — a house, a family, etc —  gesture as much towards computer technology as the rural idiocy of blanket weaving. The serial strategies deployed across all of the works abjure, at least formally, any claim of spontaneity against construction planned and executed.

There are a handful of reasons why what, at first glance, looks like the derivative work of a young and inexperienced artist was championed in the late 70’s: the use of a standardized technological form to produce individual expression; the Steinian repetition of simple, naive elements: “My sister likes the TV”; the proposition that language is a raw material to be filtered through, in Robert Wilson’s words, a “mathematical” system. Most importantly, such features combine in Knowles’ work to soothe the age-old avant-garde aspiration of touching the materiality of language itself, complicating the relationship between linguistic sense and visual form. These strategies, while not new, dovetail with tendencies emerging in poetics at that time: a continued dabbling with conceptualism, an increasing centrality of experimental formatting over content, and an accelerated pace toward the boundary with the visual arts.

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This art-historical perspective initially strips Knowles’ work of any extraordinary merit. For example, Carl Andre made nearly identical typed works of reconstructed poetry in red and black typewriter ink long before Knowles was discovered by his friend and collaborator Robert Wilson. However, Andre’s work bypasses an interest in the act of typing as a medium of expression on the way to more overtly conceptual and traditionally aesthetic concerns, such as the exploration of the negative space between words, the visualization of language through the rearrangement of syntax, the disruption of the eye’s habituated movement along the page, the utilization of the grid, the staging of poetic form as a question of spacing on the page — all pointing again to the experimentation of minimalist visual form with the conditions of linguistic sense. These interests are peripheral in Knowles’ typings.   

The minimalist categorization is intuitively ill-suited to most of his work. Qualities like seriality, the absence of spontaneity, simplicity of materials, that would draft his work into the category feel incommensurate with the spirit of the works and the experience they provoke. This can be felt particularly in the rift that separates Knowles from the hardness and objectivity which made minimalist art radical, and which in turn radicalized aesthetic experience in its time. The personal coloration of the work does not let one forget that, in most significant details, one has stepped into a subjective world. The pictograms, for instance, are motivated only superficially by the minimalist compositional principle of the rigorous application of a total plan. They are more interested in being pictures. Where the adjective “rigor” would stick for the same strategies in Andre, “meticulous” seems more appropriate to the charmingly obsessive work of Knowles: It is hard to imagine a minimalist making a picture of an electronic wrist-watch out of hundreds of ‘c’s’. The rigid format of his letter-figurations results from the technological limitations of the typewriter as a painterly form rather than an an aesthetic or conceptual choice, and Knowles consistently abandons formalist rigor for the sake of personalistic expression. Defaults on the formalist credit advanced to the cursory glance come to puncture, for a lingering eye, even those parts of the work which borrow most heavily from text-based artists of previous generations. Knowles uses language primarily as a visual material in the construction of a personal world.

This might account for the ICA’s decision to orient the viewer by shelving Knowles’ work under the vacuous and belabored concept of “identity.” The indeterminacy indexed to this concept when imported to the aesthetic contributes next to nothing to understanding art works and their forms. In this case, “identity” and personalist expression are confused. The typings are marked by their relation to a determinate, individual mind striving — and failing — one senses, to communicate its world. While an artist like Andre sets himself in relation to previous poetry, art and writing, Knowles writes letters to his family and friends, an approbation of a critic who disparaged Wilson, or a list of names tied together by an arbitrary theme (42 “couples”). In each case, the work coheres through the contingency of subjective selection. Robert Wilson has remarked that the aesthetic shock that chained him to Knowles work was a poem in which Knowles described, in a fantastically sequenced and semi-pathological circular pattern, his sister’s love for television. The lists seem to be a result of Knowles’ mental make-up, his peculiar way of ordering and categorizing the world of things along the lines of a common element—verbs ending in ‘e’ or people with the first name “Paul”. The result testifies to a mysteriously ordered human brain tracing elective affinities between linguistic constructions, visual patterns, and technological supports. The linguistic system and the peculiar form it takes for Knowles is a visual system.

This might explain why the reception of Knowles’ work is dominated by the reference to the artist as an individual. Catalogues and essays mention, without fail, that he suffers from unnamed, congenital “neurological damage” and that he might be autistic. This opens the door to the cynical conclusion that Knowles’ art is a result of second order automatism; his regrettable condition has somehow contributed to the quality and significance of his work. The works figure forth a dynamic between aesthetic choice and the relentless logical motion deep in the artist’s brain — an alliance of the damaged self and the machine. Such a dynamic might account for some of the major strengths of the work.  It would motivate the unique combination of formalist rigor and personalistic naïveté.  But the edge cuts two ways, and the same situation could also be said to contribute to weaker or problematic aspects of the work. For instance, some of the lists border on the compulsive registration of popular culture and celebrity. One work is composed of “42 Couples” including the artist and his girlfriend, followed at the bottom of the page by a non-sequitur—a list of “best number one songs now,” a list which is itself logically inconsistent (How can there be multiple number one songs now?). The effect is uncannily similar to the damaged patient whose ears fill with the same pop song on endless loop, a demonic voice singing like sirens trapped in first nature. The products of the culture industry are not passively experienced. They lodge deep in the unconscious of individuals who cannot escape them. The irony which usually attends this kind of content in pop art is missing in Knowles, but this may be a virtue. One of the values of his work is the effortless exchange of irony for the immediacy of play, color, and expression.

While the works do not stack up well from the perspective of experimental poetics (lists of hit songs and celebrity couples do not necessarily make for interesting poetry, even of an experimental sort which is uninterested in content), they likewise often fall short in comparison to the work of other visual artists who handle language more deftly, like Andre, Lawrence Weiner, or Glenn Ligon. Their strength is their alienness to the détourned advertisement-like quality seen in much of the work of other language and visual-text artists. The works are more unpolished; they bear their outsiderish, DIY, and slightly crazed quality as a proud stamp, obvious in the “absurd” project of crafting time intensive but simple formal device to produce simple pictures of everyday objects. In one work a complex landscape of c’s runs down a long thin page like a scroll. Knowles’ constructive method does not always work out. One of the most unfortunate works in the show is a giant, artless reconstruction of the American flag in Legos. But if we accept Benjamin’s definition of surrealism as the discovery of the “revolutionary energies that appear in the outmoded…the objects that have begun to go extinct..the poverty of enslaved and enslaving objects that can suddenly be transformed into revolutionary nihilism,” there might be something like this at work in the typings, particularly as they appear today — as a relic of the outmoded. 

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The show’s best works are those whose punctum mark the things closest to the artist—postcards to his family members, works that address loved ones and friends, even a humorous response to a negative reviewer of Robert Wilson (“John Simon Pollute Your Anger”). Art is often a result of a blocked gesture; the best quality of the works is that they express something of the condition of human nature as it is dragged along by a society advancing on its own irrational terms, demanding the continuously damaging task of mediating the former in the service of the latter. Knowles’ work presents a figure of the human trapped in a machine (or that human machine, the brain) striving for expression through it, and always falling just short. His condition might have made him especially equipped to make work which combines the subjective and objective in this way.