In 1969 Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Wolf Vostell put together a book in Germany, giving it the somewhat odd title Pop Architektur Concept Art. Thirty-six artists each got a number of pages for a project centring on utopian architecture. A year later the book appeared in the United States, entitled Fantastic Architecture. There is no other book from the period that encompasses so evidently concrete poetry, Fluxus and conceptual art, even though the three genres have their own proper history. And one can rightly wonder why the terms ‘pop’ and ‘concept art’ were scrapped from the title of the (identical) American publication hardly one year after the original version was published.
Without meaning to fashion a definition – there were many splinter movements, anyway – I will say that concrete poetry had its ‘classic’ period in the fifties and sixties. In 1972 the founder of the genre, Eugen Gomringer, writes that the movement has had its best time. It is indeed true that towards the end of the sixties the genre is increasingly gobbled up by the visual arts. In 1961 Fluxus was founded by George Maciunas in the United States. A decade later, the original points of departure become increasingly vague, due to institutionalisation. In 1973 Maciunas calls the period 1963-1968 the Flux Golden Age. Stating when conceptual art really became distinct is less clear-cut. As early as 1961 Henry Flynt wrote the essay Concept Art, published in An Anthology by La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low (1963). At the time, various artists were all separately engaged in a discourse about language and image. However, some of them soon distanced themselves from the original points of departure. These were so rigorous that artists had very little freedom of scope, which led, unavoidably, to repetition. In 1969 Daniel Buren, in his text Mise en garde, warns that it is right to take some distance. Lawrence Weiner, in 1972, remarks that conceptual art is a “blind alley”. Even though the classic period of conceptual art may not have lasted longer than five years, it would have enormous influence in the decades that followed.
The genres of concrete poetry, Fluxus and conceptual art share their interest in language. This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. Already in the early twenties language had crept into the visual arts, with the cubist collages belonging to the first examples. Before that, Mallarmé had lent language a large share of autonomy via his poetry, including Un coup de dés. Following the cubists, Duchamp and the Dadaists made ample use of language in order to scorn traditional Art. Since then, it has always been part of art history – even Jackson Pollock underwent psychoanalysis in order to achieve his ‘action paintings’. In spite of the fascination it inspired in all three movements, language was given a different role in each of the genres of concrete poetry, Fluxus and conceptual art. Concrete poetry saw language in the light of typographic research, which could also – at best – affect or strengthen the meaning of the words. For Fluxus language was rather a strategic tool, which was used in the shape of pamphlets, verbal humour, newspapers, poetry and the like. It was an instruments artists used in their urge to change life. They poured ‘Events’ into scripts; actions often had a political angle. Conceptual art took an analytical look at language and art and brought language within the field of the visual arts back to its essence. Thus, they investigated the limits of representing matter through language – via statements – or how language represented itself in tautologies.
The exhibition centres on the exchange between these genres; it explores how artists from these three art movements dealt with the book. Interactions, influences, sympathies and frictions – and these did exist – are on show. It is quite remarkable how art and artist’s books from the sixties and seventies use a lot of monochrome white for their covers – and sometimes, even extremely so, for the interior. Manzoni could be singled out as a pioneer: with his Achromes he was the first to establish the legitimacy of using pure white. From the end of the fifties, books are being published with white covers and sparse typography. The square, white book appears as a subgenre. Many artists from the period seem to regard the directionless shape of the square, in combination with the use of white, as a promise of renewal. Later on, it was the ultimate neutral, ‘dematerialised’ book shape for minimalists and conceptualists. One can find many examples in the field of concrete poetry, minimalism and conceptualism. Yet, Fluxus publications do not at all show this abundant use of white. Fluxus used a different tack to illustrate renewal. In stark contrast to the sober, strict, white publications of the avant-gardists, Fluxus used lots of colourful material in its publications, anthologies and magazines. For Fluxus, white was an intellectual symbol which was too far removed from daily life.
The Henry Flynt essay, written in 1961 and published in 1963 in a colourful Fluxus anthology by La Monte Young, is the very first article giving a definition of conceptual art. Fluxus artists used language and referred to objects or performances, such as the Events by George Brecht. In the post-John Cage model of the early sixties, language was based on perception and referrals. In the second half of the sixties, the conceptualists used language in an analytical, self-reflective and representative manner. It is immediately evident that the conceptualists and Fluxus used different paradigms. The Henry Flynt text clearly illustrates how Fluxus paved the way for the rigorous use of language by conceptual artists.
The search for this exhibition was geared to finding ‘sympathies’ and ‘frictions’ between the print work of the different art genres. The results are remarkable. Artists with different points of departure still ended up with almost identical results. These findings could lead to suspicions of plagiarism and epigonism. Yet, there is not a single case of hard evidence for these suspicions. Concrete poetry, Fluxus and conceptual art all focused on language and images. Apparently, it was the right time frame for this interest: various independent artists were doing similar things. This does not mean that we should underestimate their influence on each other.
A second remarkable conclusion is that this period coincides with the peak in the development of the artist’s book. It is our hypothesis that the language and image discourse dominating the artistic world at the time was, in fact, the basis for the appearance of the artist’s book. Thus, Dieter Roth, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ed Ruscha and Marcel Broodthaers, the four ‘godfathers’ of the artist’s book, took literature, especially poetry, as their frame of reference. Ed Ruscha is somewhat of an exception, but the relationship between the word and the image in his work prevails from the start. In their oeuvres, the book has an evident place. The specific space of the book, with its own rhythmic sequence, clearly functions as a carrier of artworks in book form.
In this text and in the annotated list, the term ‘artist’s book’ is used as defined by Anne Moeglin-Delcroix in her book Esthétique du livre d’artiste. This means that only industrially produced – offset – books qualify. Books which are approached from a sculptural angle and are manipulated as objects belong to a different domain. This exhibition does not exceed the boundaries, with the exception of some Fluxus examples.
With the assistance of a number of important private libraries (including those of Paul De Vree, Irmeline Lebeer and Anton Herbert) more than 100 books, periodicals and other relevant print work have been brought together. These include books from the publisher’s list of German publisher and typographer Hansjörg Mayer (Herman de Vries, Dieter Roth, Gerhard Rühm, and others) and the American Something Else Press (Dick Higgins, Robert Filliou, Wolf Vostell, and others). Naturally, the artist’s book will be on show, in all its different manifestations. The exhibition is complemented by a publication in the shape of an illustrated and annotated list, with some of the annotations being short essays in themselves. Most annotations refer directly to other lemmas in the list, revealing the network of influences, sympathies and frictions.