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Concrete Poetry and Conceptual Art: A Spectre at the Feast?
Neil Powell

The fascination that language held (and still holds) for many artists associated with concrete poetry and conceptual art and to question the intentions of both movements towards language. Rather than trying to assert a visual correlation between Concrete Poetry and Conceptual Art, (which may only be symptomatic or coincidental anyway), it seems more important to try to discover any causal links that may exist to connect them.  

Whilst written language is without doubt the largest common denominator connecting Concrete Poetry and Conceptual Art, the 'Spectre' at this particular feast is not a direct reference to the ghastly omnipresence of text as the unifying trait of two genres but to a suspicion that there may be other, less visible factors that intersect both movements. 

Concrete poetry first emerged as a coherent movement during the 1950's and 1960's and its precepts were exemplified by a number of central figures who incorporated text as a visual element within geometric, symmetrical and occasionally pictorial arrangements. 1 The work of the early concrete poets manifested itself in a number of forms, as visual art, as written manifestos and to a lesser extent as performance and sound works. 2 One of the most influential of the first generation of visual poets was the Swiss artist Eugen Gomringer, who, in seminal compositions such as "Silencio"(1954) made bold use of blank page space in order to highlight its potential as a metaphor for the reader's contemplative silence. 3 The whiteness of the page in Gomringer's ""Silencio" is interrupted by a regimented raft of text, the image/poem gives the impression of disrupted calm. The pattern of disturbance finds further verification in the printed insistence of the word "Silencio"and we are forced to speculate that "Silencio" might be construed as a remorseless and monotonous instruction to the reader. The text-image and page space in "Silencio" are intended to be mutually definitive, but as with many other concrete poems, the effect of text as image effectively seems to disconnect the act of reading from the narrative possibilities of language. 4 ""Silencio"paid direct homage to Mallarmé's typographically complex book work "Un Coup de Dés / jamais n' abolira le Hasard" ("The Dice Throw / Will Never abrogate Chance" 1914).5< The typographical exaggeration of "Un Coup de Dés...." was a calculated attempt to force the viewer to encounter blank page space as a compositional element within an illusionistic picture plane. "Un Coup de Dés...."effectively reduced the legibility of the written word to that of a typographic pattern, text is marginalised to such an extent that the viewer is forced both literally and metaphorically to read between the lines. The layout and graphic overprinting of "Un Coup de Dés..." deliberately renders text illegible as naturalistic or figural narrative and this is confirmed by Mallarmé's description of the work as a constellation or shipwreck.  

The obscured word patterns of "Un Coup...." resemble a series of histograms that correspond to the visual characteristics of language but wholly disrupts any possibility of reading as a means of accumulating information.. "Un Coup de Dés..."was probably one of the first modern poetic works to utilise blank page space as a visual metaphor for interpretive silence. Mallarmé described this spatial counterpoint as "espacement de la lecture", or a contemplative space for the reader. "Un Coup de Dés..." also effaced the distinction between pictorial representation and representations made in words. Linguistic conventions became transformed into aesthetic determinants and, more crucially, the symbolic status of language became subverted as its letter forms became pressed into service as decorative typographic motifs. Mallarmé's belief that text could be manipulated as a visual special effect ran contra to many sanctioned uses of language, either as an agent for the preservation of knowledge or as a tool for enlightenment. As if to reinforce the near-heretical nature of his claims against legibility, Mallarmé is alleged to have declared: "strictly speaking I envisage reading as a hopeless exercise." 6  

The development of European visual poetry at this time was not unique, and the mid 1950's also witnessed the emergence of the Brazilian 'Noigandres' group of concrete poets. 7 The 'Noigandres' were distinct both conceptually and geographically from Gomringer's loosely affiliated 'Darmstadt Circle' 8 , and from 1955 onwards, the São Paolo based group published experimental works (dubbed Poesia Concreta by Haraldo de Campos) through the auspices of their own publication 'Invenao'. The work of the 'Noigandres' group followed a tendency of imitative naturalism derived from an earlier tradition of iconic figurative verse. This tradition is perhaps best exemplified in the "Calligrammes" of Guillaume Apollinaire. 9 The Calligrammes took the form of poems whose compositions visually echoed the meaning of the words within them, in examples such as "Il Pleut"(1916), words appear to cascade down the page like raindrops on a window pane. The lyrical richness and graphic flair of Apollinaire's work persuaded the founder members of the 'Noigandres', the de Campos brothers and Decio Pignatari, to consider the possibility of allowing the reader to encounter language in much the same way as one might experience natural phenomenon. 10

The Brazilian concrete poets were further distinguished from their European counterparts by a cohesive group identity and and by their work which concerned itself explicitly with social and political comment. Issues such as hunger and poverty were openly discussed in Haraldo de Campos' "Proem" and "Poem" from ""Servidão de Passagem" (Transient Servitude) of 1961. Here, de Campos questions the necessity for poetry in circumstances of deprivation or hardship. Similarly in Pignatari's striking "Hombre, Hambre, Hembra" (Man, Hunger, Woman") of 1957 we are left in no doubt about the evident realism of the title's triangular equation, or of its far reaching implications. However, it would be inaccurate to portray the work of the Noigandres purely as social comment, and as they stated in their 'pilot plan for Concrete Poetry',11 the "ideogrammatic"picture-poem was intended as an appeal to/for non-verbal communication... and to primarily deal with communication about form, not messages".The concrete poets produced various manifestoes and protocols that were intended to characterise the production and attributes of concrete poetry, and in 1958, the group produced 'a pilot plan for Concrete Poetry', which embodied concrete poetry as: "the tension of things-words in space-time".13 An example of this can be seen in works such ""Aboio, (the Cry of the Brazilian Cowboy)" by Pedro Xisto. Here Xisto investigated the ideogram as a spatial object that could utilise graphic communication whilst retaining a suggestion of paronomasia or multiple meaning in the written word. Other concrete texts of this time such as the celebrated 'City Poem' by Augusto de Campos(1957) and Decio Pignatari's 'LIFE' (1968) continued the concrete poets self-conscious drive to combine typographical and geometric appropriateness.

The work of the Darmstadt Circle, the Noigandres and others was essentially driven by shared concerns about the capacity of written language to act as an authentic proxy for ephemeral and transparent depiction. With the advent of the concrete poem, linguistic structure was merged with typographical conceit to such an extent that conventional readings were rendered not only inappropriate but nonsensical. In concrete poetry, graphic layout and phonic wordplay combined to expose the aesthetic side-effects and translucency of textual representations. Whilst accepted literary protocols such as the stanza and sonnet had traditionally been used to discipline the form of poetic language (and to test the technical adeptness of the poet), there seems little doubt that the concrete poets' persistent use of text as patterns, snares and obstacles was tantamount to a considered rejection of the conventions associated with a poetry of expression.14 Even so, at the heart of concrete poetry there seemed to exist a semantic loop that endlessly reiterated the (unanswerable) question to the viewer: 'If a picture paints a thousand words, then what does a picture constituted from words paint?' The quandary for the audience becomes clearer as he/she is forced to consider text not just as text, but as the image of text. Consequently, within concrete poetry, text frequently ceased to have any possibility of an indexical relationship to the real world as words are converted back into pictures again.15

Many of the chief exponents of concrete poetry gained notable international success and recognition, major public showings such as "Concrete Art" at the Museum of Modern Art, São Paolo (1956) first introduced concrete poetry to a wider audience, whilst a substantial exhibition at the Brighton Festival (1967) was an indicator that concrete poetry had reached the zenith of its formal and conceptual development. By incorporating text into the realm of the pictorial, the concrete poets could credibly claim to have redefined the limits of written language as being at the threshold of visuality.  

Even at the height of its popularity, the potential of concrete poetry seemed to be constrained by stylistic rigidity and a tendency to produce visually formulaic works. Whereas Mallarmé had managed to construct a visual parody of communication that was determined by the structures of language, within concrete poetry, syntax was readily disfigured to accommodate an austere design sensibility as with Ernst Jandl's "Lustig" (Merry). The swift decline of Concrete poetry in the mid 1960's was further accelerated by a wider perception that the form of the visual poem was compromised in the eyes of both literary criticism and and art theory. Sadly, despite the well-defined and authentic internationalism of Concrete poetry, its 'onomatopoetic'17 utterances of the 1950's and 60's were destined to become muffled by critical lethargy and disowned by interdisciplinarity. 

Whilst the phenomenon of concrete poetry might claim to have attended a minor revolution in graphic and literary communication, the advent of conceptual art was symptomatic of a far more fundamental reexamination of political, social and cultural values. Whilst conceptual art itself effected a crisis in a particular version of Modernism, it also became a litmus for the global economic, social and moral reevaluation that seemed in evidence around much of the industrialised world.18  

Conceptual art's abandonment of the modernist conventions of the frame/pedestal, meant that the form of conceptual art was politicised or at least problematized well before its contents became discernible. 'Dematerialized'19 works such as the Air Show by Art & Language offered the prospect of an elusive cycle of artistic production and audience reception that was commercially and critically unwelcome.20 Within the broader context, conceptual art manifested itself variously as 'information art', 'anti-form', 'site specific art', and 'land art' in a series of self-conscious attempts to confound the acquisitive tendencies of connoisseurs, collectors and cultural institutions. Kosuth and Art & Language mobilised the definition of art as a precondition of artistic production, and for the first time manifesto, proposal and artwork became interdependent components.

In addition, the rigour, articulacy and density of theoretical texts generated by artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Art & Language were clear attempts to counter the necessity for artist and audience to negotiate meaning/value via the interpretive parenthesis of Modernist art criticism.21 Conceptual art's ascetic assault on materiality and visuality was clearly intended as a rebuke to modernism's preoccupation with aesthetic sensibility as the primary measure of artistic achievement. Not surprisingly, this critique prompted an unequivocal rear guard action from prominent modernist critics such as Michael Fried, who, in his 1967 article "Art and Objecthood'22levelled serial accusations of 'theatricality' and 'literality' at conceptual art. 

The numbers of artists who sought to present knowledge as reified information is well represented in Lucy Lippard's annotated journal of the conceptual art movement 'Six years:..', but seminal conceptual artworks such as 'Six Negatives' (1968-69) by Art & Language bore direct testimony to the corrosive effects of linguistically derived systems of classification brokered by many social and cultural institutions. In 'Six Negatives' Art & Language selectively deleted positive characteristics from excerpts of Roget's Thesaurus in an attempt to expose the potential for linguistic arbitration to be both volatile and prejudicial. In relation to this work, Ian Burn commented, "....The only attitude for viewing seems to be through recognition - recognition of the Thesaurus and what it represents....One must recognise the systems for dealing with language before one can "see" the work....."23 . Subsequent works by Art & Language, such as 'Comparative Models' (1972) and 'Flags for Organisations' (1978), demonstrate their enduring commitment to the use of textual and emblematic components which mimic the institutional use of information as a means of social control and cultural approval. For artists such as Hans Haacke the availability of a diversified range of media such as photography, montage, text offered not only the possibility of a more flexible approach to production but also the opportunity to reintegrate art into a wider cultural discourse from which Greenbergian ideas removed it /abstracted it. Works such as "Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings: A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1 1971" by Hans Haacke controversially revealed the typically invisible control surfaces of institutionalised language that had been used to define a whole range of relationships between the individual and the social.24  

Questions of linguistic representation in relation to conceptual art however, extend far beyond the internalised workings and externalised production of its exponents and toward the realm of historicity itself. The term 'conceptual art' became a convenient repository for any work that exceeded the recognised parameters of other identifiable genre. Any fixety of 'conceptual art' as a term is probably attributable to an accretion of written history rather than viewer experience of symptomatic works in museums.25 Despite this, conceptual art was able to coherently differentiate itself from preceding avant garde movements by virtue of its self reflexivity and its ability to draw upon a far greater range of intellectual resources. Many of these such as philosophy, semiology and social anthropology were previously seen as being outside the of remit of artistic concern. Significant within these spheres of influence was the work of linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921-22) did much to fuel the debate around the functions and definition of art.26

The importance of the Tractatus cannot be overestimated when looking at the structuralist turn in art and philosophy during the late 1960's. Wittgenstein's statement: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world", is indicative of his view of language as a philosophical instrument that could be used to interrogate and define the limits of both experience and understanding. The idea of language as the ultimate means of definition found particular endorsement in works of Joseph Kosuth. Works such as Kosuth's 'Titled' (Art as Idea as Idea)[meaning]' (1967) proved to be highly influential in conceptual art's reworking of aesthetics and materiality.28 'Titled' (Art as Idea as Idea)' consists of a white on black photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of 'meaning' that is synonymous with art's own crisis of identity. 'Titled' presents object and language as a seamless entity that renders both signifier and signified inseparable from each other and highlights an interpretive predicament of meaning predicated upon language. The text in 'Titled' is important because it signifies the semantic capacity of language and not just because of what it says per se. The supposed impartiality of language is exposed in a way that makes us acutely aware of the difference between the act of reading and the act of interpretation.  

In his cogent essay 'Notes on Conceptual Art and Models', Kosuth declared:"...all I make are models. The actual works of art are ideas. Rather than 'ideals' the models are a visual approximation of a particular art object I have in mind...". (This resembles Wittgenstein's Tractatus statement: "A proposition is a model of reality as we imagine it."29 From this premise, Kosuth was able to formulate a very particular perspective on the objects of art. Kosuth proclaimed art as ideas mediated ("approximated") in the form of objects, (although little aesthetic or material value was attached to these objects except for their importance as as surrogates). Kosuth was also eager to point out here that these 'models' are not ideals, Kosuth was certainly aware of the differential that frequently exists between the idealised trajectories of linguistic models and the rigours of real-time art production. The case for the precedence of ideas over form is also clearly stated in Sol LeWitt's essay 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art' (and later, in 'Sentences on Conceptual Art'), where conceptualism is seen to represent a relaxation of the 'economy-of-means' sensibility exemplified by Minimalism.30

Unprecedented in the modernist era, conceptual art assumed that audiences had the ability to absorb neutralised text much faster than poetic/imagist language (even if the the meaning of the work was only retrieved by the viewer much later). Lucy Lippard confirmed that she admired "the immediacy of transmission of information with Conceptual Art" (as opposed to the "continuing word relationships formed within poetry).31 However, Lippard's characterisation of conceptual art and poetry as vehicles for linguistic representation raises questions about the viability of written and spoken language to function as an object in its own right. The semantic and aesthetic tensions implied by Lippard's commentary were later directly refuted by Dan Graham in his statement that: "......it is not a word-object dichotomy".32 

The work of artists such as Lawrence Weiner is also central to the debate concerning the potential for tension between language and object (signifier and signified). From 1968 onwards Weiner's sited statements, books, posters and records were augmented by a written 'schema' that was intended to characterise alternative options for the production and distribution of art. This 'schema' has accompanied all of the work he has made since this period.  

Weiner's Schema:

1. The artist may construct the piece
2.The piece may be fabricated
3. The piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the the occasion of the receivership.

Weiner's schema bears more than a passing resemblance the the ideas outlined in Kosuth's 'Notes on Conceptual Art and Models'. 

The status and tenor of Weiner's statements is left open to conjecture, texts such as 'Terminal Boundary'(1969) can be read as hypothetical description, imaginary performance or apocryphal anecdote. Perhaps surprisingly, concrete poets such as Gomringer also seemed to share Weiner's fascination with the aesthetic astringency of the litany and its potential for representation as narrative; Gomringer's 1961 work, "Snow is English", is mechanically descriptive in such a way as to defeat any sentimentalised (modernist literary) interpretation of pastoral landscape. The list of over one hundred implausible adjectives used to describe snow transcends any experience or expectation that we may have about pastoral verse, but confirms what we know about the potential for language to combine as visual 'free radical' elements to dramatic poetic effect. The meticulous attention to typographical detail that individuates concrete poets such as Gomringer also serves to promote simultaneous and conflicting readings of the text that leaves the spectator as speculator. Typically, Weiner's texts are floated speculatively as a territorial or linguistic markers that indicate not only an absence of the materials of art (apart from text) but also stand as approximate representations of ideas rather than as objects in their own right. Weiner's works are symptomatic of the idea that the consciousness of the viewer should be seen as a direct corollary of 'place', and potentially in opposition to the idea of the exteriorised pastoral 'landscape'. Support for this view might be drawn from an unexpected source in the form of Ian Hamilton Finlay, who in his 'Detached Sentences' states : "An inscription need not actually exist in the landscape; if it is in the consciousness of the viewer it is in the landscape."33  

At the WBAI-FM Symposium in New York (1970), Carl Andre did not hesitate to describe Lawrence Weiner as a poet and it is perhaps in the works of Weiner and Ian Hamilton Finlay that conceptual art and concrete poetry aesthetically and momentarily intersect in their challenge to linguistic codes of representation. Ian Hamilton Finlay (b.1925) is one of concrete poetry's most enduring exponents, he is renowned for the acuteness of his critique of culture and landscape. Like Weiner, Finlay's sited texts and concrete poems have manifested themselves across a range of materials and forms as part of an ongoing commentary that is intended to expose the ambivalence of contemporary culture. Whilst appearing to have strong visual affiliations to Conceptual art, Finlay's stance as a poet is diametrically opposed to the tautological self-legitimation and anaestheticised approach to production represented by Kosuth and Weiner. Typical of his strident but good humoured critique on what he sees as the shallowness of the information aesthetic, Finlay observed: "to try to separate the idea of art from the idea of beauty seems to me quite grotesque. It's like separating the idea of football from the idea of goals."34

This aside, one cannot take the text aesthetic at face value in the works of either Weiner or Finlay, especially given the potential of context to condition speculation about the significance of information and/or intentions of the artist. As social readers we are accustomed to the use of sited texts and signs across a whole range of public and private contexts, as an agent of state/governmental control or as an indicator of social cohesion. Signage also acts as a metaphor for commercial activity, as information or advice or is presented for moral or educative purposes. We are rarely prepared to encounter written language as a catalyst for speculative interpretation or aesthetic appreciation unless it is in the form of protest or memorial. In particular, the 'sited' texts of both Weiner and Finlay present a challenge to conventional readings in the light of localised and frequently shifting conditions.35 Text based work also allowed conceptual art and concrete poetry to exploit the visuality and processes associated with language/signage in a way that did not require a regression into a sentimentalised or expressionistic mode of representation. In looking at Weiner and Finlay there is strong evidence to support the view offered by Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden that the filter of language facilitates a world view rendered inaccessible via primary sensory apparatus.36

Within the context of conceptual art the sited text works of Lawrence Weiner, Douglas Heubler and others were intended to mobilise the potential of place and to sensitive the audience to the conditions of production for the artist at work in 'real-time'. In this 'situationist' setting, the frequently austere production values more generally associated with conceptual art demonstrated a potential to elicit a dynamic critical reception that transcended the means of production. In addition to this, in works such as Weiner's Lambert text (1970) 37 the written word allowed the kind of reader access that could be neatly adapted to accommodate emerging aspirations to democratise cultural property rights whilst expediting the idea of communication about communication. For artists such as Kosuth, Art & Language, Hanne Darboven, et al., the susceptibility of written language to become art, whether as information or textual analogue, helped form a direct challenge to the hierarchy of linguistic and cultural power that had previously been the preserve of institutions and critical commentators.  

In terms of a differentiation or comparison of concrete poetry and conceptual art, one might usefully begin with Lucy Lippard's comment that: "there is a distinction between concrete poetry, where the words are made to look like something, an image, and so-called conceptual art, where the words are used only to avoid looking like something, where it doesn't make any difference how the words look on the page or anything."38

The visual differences identified by Lippard are symptomatic of far more deep rooted characteristics that serve to distinguish the two forms. Certainly, concrete poetry and conceptual art both posed severe challenges to reading, representation and interpretation by exposing language to a radical shift of context. Concrete poets such as Mathias Goeritz disrupted the conventional expectations of expressive poetry by subjecting text to the extremes of graphic composition. For the concrete poets, the sequential characteristics of reading and literary representation were superseded by the desire to create visual special effects that might transcend or augment the symbolic function of language.  

As we have already established, so-called conceptual artists such as Art & Language, Joseph Kosuth were primarily interested in using language as an analytical and philosophical instrument that could stand for art's ideas, rather than the concrete poets obsession with verbovisual pyrotechnics. Through the writings and curatorial ventures of critics such as Lippard, conceptual art rapidly became synonymous with a challenge to the visibility of art, and this was embodied in various attempts to find a dematerialised equivalent or proxy for ideas. The limits of visuality were tested by conceptualism and were found to exist at the threshold of written and spoken language, either as description or quite simply as information.  

However, similarities between concrete poetry and conceptual art could be said to exist, they were certainly amongst the first visual arts movements to deploy text simultaneously as both object and narrative, as signifier and signified. This synergy of communicative means as communicated meaning ('the medium is the message') had already been broached by Marshall McLuhan in the context of the early articulations of his thesis describing an electronic 'global village'.39 If one accepts a characterisation of both conceptual art and concrete poetry as 'communication about communication', this might well be seen as a common undercurrent.  

Whilst the cultural significance of concrete poetry as a movement per se may still be the subject of some inquiry, its importance to the development of other artistic forms and its precedence in wresting a share of language from the grip of the literary cognoscenti and integrating it into visual art practice seems significant. Although one cannot claim that concrete poetry was a major influence in its own right, it was certainly part of a wider mobilisation that sought to incorporate written and spoken language into the realm of the visual arts. Of the 20 th century visual art movements that embraced text, including Vorticism, de Stijl, International Spatialism, Lettrism and Fluxus, it is probably true to say that concrete poetry and conceptual art were probably the most viable and the most radical. 40

The majority of text in art was characterised by written commentaries within books or museums or as explanatory accompaniment in the form of title or material description. As we have already seen from earlier examples of concrete poetry and conceptual art, the title or caption often assumed a central importance in the work, both visually and conceptually. Within concretism and conceptualism, text became routinely deployed as the primary object of the work, whether as phonetic mantra as in the works of Mathias Goeritz and Gerald Ferguson or as disclosure as in the works of Emmett Williams and Hans Haacke. As the form of Concrete poetry had previously addressed itself to the effect of aesthetics on language, so conceptual art compounded the relationship between subject and its representation in language.  

The evidence would seem to indicate that both movements were essentially self-conscious in their use of written language as an object of art, and although conceptual artists did not fetishize typography as the concrete poets had done previously, the earnest desire of conceptual art to exceed the existing predilections of art criticism became an obsession in its own right. For many of the main protagonists of both movements, language had offered the promise of cultural embourgeoisemént for an aesthetically liberated readership as well as an escape from the preoccupations of Clement Greenberg and Hugh MacDiarmid with approved aesthetic sensibility. Ironically, the various attempts of conceptual art to close down modernism's fixation with aesthetics soon emerged as a type of aesthetic in itself. For some critics the idea that written or printed language could be used as the earthly representative of a pure form of art idea began to resemble claims to legitimacy supported by the Modernist material hierarchies of visual art forms such as painting, printmaking and sculpture.  

Michael Claura's essay 'Outline of a Detour', described art as an unavoidable consequence of visual language and that the immateriality and literality of picture-poems and theoretical manifestoes as being too arid to be sustainable as long term cultural strategies.41 Claura concludes this line of argument by inferring that the conventions of written language inevitably fall into conflict with and become overtaken by the artists aesthetic obligations and an innate audience predisposition towards sensuous materialism. This was by no means an exceptional view and conceptual art and concrete poetry are frequently represented by history as evidence of irretrievable artistic folly, having failed to deliver on what now seems to be a hugely ambitious and optimistic agenda. For many critics, including Lippard, the loftiness of these ambitions was to become an indicator of the self-regarding naiveté of both movements and accusations of pretentiousness and elitism rapidly solidified into a critical force at the heels of conceptual art and concrete poetry.  

The decline of concrete poetry was almost certainly precipitated by its irreversible tendency to decoration and over-elaboration. What started out as a daring mass trespass across literary conventions and alphabetic signs deteriorated into a demonstration of the elasticity of language as it became deformed by both geometric contrivance and numbing repetition. Having established itself on the borders of both the visual and literary arts, concrete poetry abandoned both discursive speech and syntactic structure in its attempt to reconcile the historical separation between pictorial representation and representations in words. By contrast, conceptual art is distinguished not only by its profound impact on postmodern thinking, but by the articulacy and scholarship of many of those directly involved with it. Conceptual art offered a revised view of the relationship between text based communication as content and the arbitrary organisation of linguistic systems as context. Conceptual artists were able for the first time to show how secularised language/information within abstract social systems often generated friction when in the face of the 'lived experience of language'. Conceptual art is also characterised by its relentless rejection of the importance of form and material to the point where this becomes a subscription to an antiform/pro-text aesthetic. So-called conceptualists crossed the divide between aesthetics and linguistics in the belief that text might allow them to transgress not only the visual, but also the semantic and the aesthetic. 

Concrete poetry and conceptual art offered a challenge to the unassailability of linguistic signs by generating semiotic and aesthetic conflict to deliberate effect and perhaps one could assert that the two share a resentment of the ulterior qualities of language. Ultimately though, concrete poetry and conceptual art seem to be connected by little more than the spectre of perversity - a counter cultural sensibility that motivated poets to make pictures (and extend language beyond its limits); and visual artists to use text (as a surrogate for ideas that were essentially optimised by language).


1  The earliest antecedents of visual poetry can be clearly identified in the guise of the English pattern poet George Herbert (1593-1633)1 and the figured verses of Lewis Carroll in the 'Mouse's Tale'.  

2 Theo van Doesburg, 'Numero d'Introduction du Groupe et de la Revue Art Concret ', (1930) 

It is within the writings of Theo Van Doesburg (1883-1931) (a.k.a. I. K. Bonset) that we discover the first manifesto for 'Art Concret'. Van Doesburg was the founder of Netherlands Dada who distributed a series of manifestoes and typographical experiments through the magazines 'Art Concret' and 'Mecano'. In 1917 Van  Doesburg founded the magazine 'de Stijl' in collaboration with Piet Mondrian, which served as a forum for the writings and poems of artists such as Kurt Schwitters, Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp. Van Doesburg's manifesto announced ""A search for a universal formal language which has no relation to nature , emotional life or sensory data, and the pursuit of works which are completely devoid of lyrical symbolism or dramatic _expression."2

This runs somewhat counter to the style of visual poetry envisaged by Apollinaire and represents a radical shift away from making imitative imagist drawings with words and characters and towards a more abstract rendering of visual language. 

Se also Teddy Hultberg Ed., 'Manifesto for Concrete Poetry '(1953) reprinted in 'Literally Speaking: Sound Poetry and Text-Sound Composition', (1993 ed.) Swedish artist …yvind Fahlström published his 'Manifest for Konkret  Poesi', but its circulation was confined to Sweden. In this document, Fahlström coined the term for the movement and enumerated many of the linguistic features that were to characterize first generation Concrete poetry. Fahlström subsequently moved to New York in the early 1960's where he became a significant intermediary between the New York avant-garde and contemporary Swedish artists. In 1963 his seminal work, 'Birds in Sweden' was broadcast by Swedish Radio and received widespread critical acclaim as a watershed in the development of text/sound composition.  see also the Noigandres, 'A Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry' (Sao Paolo, 1958) 

3 The Bolivian born Gomringer, who had previously been employed as secretary to the concrete painter Max Bill,  perceived his work to be directly descended from an established tradition of visual poetry that originated with Stephane Mallarmé and Guillaume Apollinaire. 

4 Earlier, in 1951, Gomringer had also produced a collection of one-word poems, which he named 'Konstellationen' , ('Constellations', Spiral Press 1953), or 'thought-objects'. These encrypted texts were visually arranged within the space of the page to compliment the poem's narrative. Again influenced heavily by Mallarmé, Arp and Max Bill, Gomringer described the role of the reader in this equation as one of "collaborator" whose task it was to decipher and ""complete" the word associations of the work.  

5  Stephane Mallarmé, 'Un Coup de Dés / jamais n' abolira le Hasard', (Paris: Gallimard, 1914), published posthumously.It is widely thought that Mallarmé completed this work in 1896/97. 

6  Antje Quast, 'What Does Poetry have to do with the World?'. Wilfried Dickhoff Ed., Marcel Broodthaers', 'le poids d'une oeuvre d'art', (Cologne: TINAIA, 1994) 

7 see 'Noigandres, Noigandres' Ezra Pound, 'Canto XX', (New York: Exile.1927) 

8 for an expanded definition and membership see Stephen Bann Ed., Introduction to 'Concrete Poetry: An International Anthology', (London: London Magazine Editions 13, 1967)  

9 Guillaume Apollinaire, 'Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War', (1913-1916), translated by Anne Hyde Greet, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.) 

10  Mallarmé's model of experimental typography was not the sole inspiration in this respect. The succeeding decades saw the emergence of a number of independently conceived, stylistically distinctive visual poetic forms from authors as diverse as Guillaume Apollinaire, Ezra Pound and Constructivist artist El Lissitzky. 

In 1914, in England, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis founded the Vorticist movement. through The journal 'BLAST' gave artists the opportunity to publish experimental typographic works and imagist poems. These proved to be influential among poets and artists in the immediate period post-1945.     

11 Noigandres, 'A Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry' (Sao Paolo, 1958) 

12 James Joyce, 'Finnegans Wake', (London: Faber & Faber, 1939) 

13 The group, led by the De Campos brothers. embraced a model of Concrete poetry which intended to take advantage of the simultaneity of visual and written imagery without diminishing the three dimensional 'verbivocovisuality' of the communication. Although it seems that neither the Noigandres or Gomringer had any  awareness of Fahlström's 1953 manifesto, in 1956 Noigandres and Gomringer came together in Sao Paolo, Brazil and formally agreed to promote visual/verbal practice under the collective banner of Concrete poetry. 

14 Although earlier graphic movements such as Lettrisme, Vorticism and concrete art had laid claim to a constructivist legacy of poster art, nowhere had such a concerted and cohesive movement addressed itself to the contradictions of pictorial and textual communications. 

15 This puzzle of language was obviously key for both Gomringer and de Campos not only in terms of their poetic works, but also in moulding their respective manifestoes which went to great lengths in laying out the defining formal characteristics of concrete poetry.  

16 Whilst it is fair to say that the earliest manifestations of concrete poetry's verbal acrobatics were constricted by visual stylization and rigid typographical conceit, second generation visual poets such as Jackson MacLow, Pierre and Ilse Garnier, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Dick Higgins, Hiro Kamimura and others had no such stylistic inhibitions. It is also worth comparing this membership to Ken Friedman's list of the "founding circle of concept art" , which includes: Henry Flynt, George Macunias, Dick Higgins, Jackson MacLow, Emmett Williams, Ben Vautier and others. From this we can conclude that concrete poetry and Fluxus as the beginnings of conceptual art had at one time or another shared a number of common personnel. Fluxus itself attracted artists from a broad range of origins and backgrounds and its membership included such notables as Joseph Beuys, George Brecht and Alison Knowles. It is difficult to distinguish the contribution to conceptual art of those members of Fluxus who were second generation concretists, but Fluxus undoubtedly represented an important developmental move away  from the formality of concretism towards the more expansive contextual concerns of conceptual art. Fluxist  petitioning for a fusion of art and life found _expression using a whole range of 'alternative', everyday means such as mail art, happenings, demonstrations, artists books etc., Works such as 'Fluxus I' (1964), a book compilation of different artists works in envelopes with accompanying printed texts were indicative of an informality that Fluxus ultimately emphasized through interactivity and sensory experience. 

17  Johanna Drucker, 'Figuring the Word', (New York: Granary Books, 1998) 

18 The events surrounding the emergence and origins of conceptual art are delineated in 'Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin', (New York, 1999). Although the evidence in support of an emerging pandemic of conceptual art seems inconclusive. 

19 Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972...'Escape Attempts', (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) 

20 Air Show/Air Conditioning Show, Coventry, England. See also Art- Language: 'Hot Warm Cool Cold', (Coventry: Art-Language Press 1967) 

21 See for example: Joseph Kosuth, 'Art After Philosophy', Studio International vol.178 (London Oct/Nov/Dec 1969). 'The Role of Language', by Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden: 'On Art', (Cologne 1974). Terry Atkinson: 'Editorial introduction to Art-Language', (Coventry, May 1969) 

Sol LeWitt, 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art', Artforum Vol.5, no. 10, Summer 1967, pp. 79-83. LeWitt came to the acerbic conclusion that the vernacular of Modernist art criticism was " part of a secret language that art critics use when communicating with each other through the medium of art magazines....". 

22 Michael Fried, 'Art and Objecthood', (Artforum, Summer, 1967) 

23 Ian Burn 'Read Premiss', reprinted in 'Art & L anguage in Practice', Vol 1. (Barcelona: Fundaci— Antoni Tˆpies, 1999) pp. 23-25 

24 Jack Burnham, 'Hans Haacke's Cancelled Show at the Guggenheim', Artforum (June 1971)  

25 Arguably the greatest license for critical palimpsest was granted unintentionally by Lippard's annotated journal of Conceptual art, "Six years:...". In her attempts to disclaim the idea of a dominant narrative for the development of Conceptual art, Lippard's cross referential "Six years:..." now reads as a work that lies somewhere between historical reference and narrative fiction. The very bricolage ofthe book seems to exacerbate the the problem of representing a form of art that cannot be extricated from its critical past. Lippard's sensitivities to the limits of art criticism anticipate an erosion of the meaningfulness of art for artists that seems enshrined in the legislature of Post modernism. 

26 Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus'(New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.,1921-22) 

27 see Michel Foucault 'What is an author?' 1969, and other essays, reprinted in 'Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post Structuralist Criticism Josue.V. Harari, Ed. & Translator. (Ithaca 1979 ed.). See also commentary of Fluxist/Concretist Brion Gysin who had contributed to the discourse about semantic and linguistic authenticity/ownership somewhat more discursively.in his 'Statement on the Cutup Method and Permutated Poems",' Fluxus I, ed.: (NewYork 1965) 

28 The title of the work also refers directly into Ad Reinhardt's influential essay 'Art as Art of 1962 which proposed a similarly tautologous view of art production that was both self-validating and subjectively emptied. see Ad Reinhardt, ""Art as Art,"., Art International VI, no. 10, (Lugano 1962) 

29 The limitations of philosophical supposition in relation to lived experience was recognized in the revised phenomenology of thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Pont who perceived the pragmatic imperatives of visual art production as an antidote to the generality and abstraction of conceptual projection. For a fuller account, see  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, 'Eye and Mind', 'The Primacy of Perception', James M. Edie (Ed) Trans. by Carleton Dallery, (Evanston 1964 ed.) 

30 Sol LeWitt, 'Art-Language', Vol.1, no. 1 , The Journal of Conceptual Art', (Coventry, May 1969) and Paragraphs on Conceptual Art', Artforum Vol.5, no. 10, Summer 1967, pp. 79-83. Whilst LeWitt was in accord with Kosuth over art's self-legitimizing 'uselessness' as an aesthetic trait, LeWitt himself was never quite drawn into the inquiry concerning the definition of art. 

31 & 32 Lucy R. Lippard in conversation with Dan Graham, Douglas Heubler, Carl Andre and Jan Dibbets at the WBAI-FM symposium, New York, March 8, 1970. 

33 see: Ian Hamilton Finlay, 'Detached Sentences', Robin Gillanders, 'Little Sparta', (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 1998)  

34 From an Interview with Robin Gillanders, 'Little Sparta', (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 1998)  

35 Compare for example: Ian Hamilton Finlay's 'Blue and Brown Poems', (1968) with Lawrence Weiner's: '10 pieces in English and German', exhibited: Aachen Zentrum fur Aktuelle Kunst (May 1970) 

36 Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden, 'The Role of Language' Uber Kunst/On Art, (Cologne, 1974). 

37 Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972...', pp161 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) 

38 Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972...', (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997) 

39 Charles Harrison and Paul Wood Ed., 'Art in Theory: An Anthology of Changing Ideas', (Oxford, UK, Blackwell, 1992), pp. 798-799. 

40 Lettrism was initiated in Paris after the Second World War by the Rumanian artist Isadore Isou. The aims of Lettrism were political and social: a reorganization of culture in terms of a radically reformed linguistic model.Text was only one component in the arsenal of the Lettrists who used books, film, fashion and performance to mount an aesthetic campaign against the prosaic use of language in favor of a more innovative, pictorial and cognitive approach to communication generally. 

41 Michael Claura, "Outline of a Detour," Production, David Lamelas Editor (London: Nigel Greenwood Books, 1970)

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