Anne Tardos: My work with Jackson Mac Low, from 'Lines–Letters–Words,' at The Drawing Center

[In celebration of an unprecedented exhibit of visual & performance work by Jackson Mac Low, January 19 to March 20 at the Drawing Center in New York, I’m posting Anne Tardos’s introduction to the richly illustrated catalogue along with the Center’s official announcement of the show. Tardos, along with her own impressive workings as an artist & poet, was for many years Mac Low’s companion & principal collaborator, so that her testament in the present instance is of more than passing interest. Mac Low was of course the foremost experimental poet of his time. (J.R.)] 


As an artist, as a poet, I have always appreciated Jackson’s devotion to the art of performance. Many, or most, of the drawings in this show were regarded as performance scores. Every Gatha (phrases or mantras on grid paper) is a score for any number of performers. The Vocabularies and Name Poems, where a page is filled with words from a “lexicon,” created by using the letters of the dedicatee’s name, or the occasion of a celebration, were viewed as performance scores as well as artworks.


Perhaps his later works, the thirteen Vermont Drawings, where he wrote words such as “clouds” or “dogs” or “stone,” over and over on the page, were not considered performance scores, but simply drawings. These might have been an exception. In the mid-1990s, while visiting our mutual friend Simone Forti in Vermont, we often walked across the field down to the brook that, as Steve Paxton remarked, felt more like a temple. Jackson describes the scene in meticulous detail in his poem “Forties 77.” We would spend hours sitting on the rocks in complete tranquility and feel inspired to create. Jackson used a very hard pencil for these drawings. For an artist who used bold strokes and drew with India ink for much of his life, to choose such a delicate and faint instrument to make his mark was interesting to me. He was in his early seventies at the time, and felt himself aging. There is a gentleness to these drawings, perhaps the tenderness of old age, but the boldness of the concept, repeating words to form a visual pattern, had not faded.


Atypical drawings such as the Skew Lines, diagonally drawn straight lines using color markers, made in the late 1970s, inevitably turned into performance scores. He performed them solo a few times, interpreting the lines as a musical score, vocalizing according to the lines’ directions. Still, I had the impression that the absence of words in these scores left him somewhat wanting. Jackson was a man of words and language.


When we first met in 1975, I was making film and video art. I made a series of tapes with Jackson improvising for my camera, using whatever object in my loft was available at the time. A piece of wood, a ladder, a rope. The work was utterly graceful, poetic, and sometimes hilarious. Later, after I began writing multilingual poetry, I also agreed to join him in his performances. We were sometimes accompanied by musicians, and we traveled the world as a duo. We wrote a number of performance works collaboratively, and performed them together. We were collaborators. There are canvases with words and images on them, bearing both our signatures. Like me, Jackson was a poet, visual artist, and composer.


Our performances were so-called guided improvisations, where we worked with the score, listened to each other intently, and only contributed to the whole when we felt we had something worthwhile to add. Jackson’s universal instruction to performers was to “listen and relate” with “no ego tripping.” It was clear that this direction was a political one, pointing to his vision of a utopian society in a pacifist anarchist world.


Jackson had worked with many other performers in his life, often groups, and in the 1960s he involved entire audiences by handing out copies of his scores. When I once asked him why he was mainly performing with me rather than larger groups as he used to, he said, “This is what interests me now.”


Many of the works in this exhibition were discovered after his death. One might say they could only be discovered then. He had kept his drawings and collages safely, but he completely lost track of them, sometimes painfully suspecting the works as having been stolen. I had to go through the enormous accumulation of this artist’s life’s work, and in doing this, I discovered many long-lost items, in particular the original, hand-drawn Light Poems Chart. In the decade following his death, I edited three large, posthumous volumes of his works: Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works (University of California Press, 2008); 154 Forties (Counterpath, 2012); and The Complete Light Poems 1–60, with Michael O’Driscoll (Chax Press, 2015).


Jackson Mac Low’s work has been widely recognized as influential, and has been acknowledged by poets, artists, dancers, and musicians as pivotal and groundbreaking. He is regarded as a major avant-gardist visionary. This exhibition is a fitting tribute to Mac Low’s visual and conceptual work.


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[The following is the official announcement for the Jackson Mac Low Exhibition]:

In Jackson Mac Low: Lines–Letters–Words, The Drawing Center will present the first solo museum exhibition of visual works by Jackson Mac Low (1922–2004) that spans the multidisciplinary artist’s practice from the 1940s to the 2000s. Mac Low, who is known for composing poetry through chance procedures and automatism, first experimented with these creative processes in his drawings. The earliest drawings in the exhibition, created in the late 1940s and early 1950s, resemble pre-linguistic marks made with gestural ink brushstrokes. Later works created during the 1960s through the 1990s include series of drawings — Drawing-Asymmetries, Vocabularies, and Gathas — that emphasize the visual and aural qualities of written languages, acting as both graphic representations and performance scores. The exhibition closes with a series of thirteen drawings made in 1995; echoing the unsettled system of marks in Mac Low’s early works, these drawings were composed by repeatedly handwriting terms that describe natural scenery, creating a ghostly impression with layered graphite marks. Through Jackson Mac Low: Lines–Letters–Words, The Drawing Center identifies the foundational character of drawing, a medium that significantly informed Mac Low and influenced his multidisciplinary practice for more than sixty years.

Curated by Brett Littman, Executive Director.

Jackson Mac Low: Lines–Letters–Words is made possible by the support of Glenn Horowitz, Steve Clay and Julie Harrison, Susan Bee and Charles Bernstein, and several anonymous donors.

Special thanks to Anne Tardos, Executor of the Estate of Jackson Mac Low, and to composer Michael Byron.

The Drawing Center is located at 35 Wooster Street in Manhattan.