Witness Jackson Mac Low and Gerhard Richter

Generating the haphazard

Last week I began with the installed environment, moved on to surfaces (painted or printed), and emerged into “ambiance.” This week I will consider how chance is deployed to install some essential attribute of the outside, inside of a work. Since visual prosody is the theme of these commentaries, “a work” refers equally to a poem or an image. The environment tailored to resemble itself there is given a voice by an artist who avoids using their own. Essential attributes of the artist’s material should reveal its relation to an outside, and a politics of visual or verbal relation beheld there. My examples are the Asymmetries and Forties by poet Jackson Mac Low and two iterations of the Colors series by painter Gerhard Richter. Mac Low and Richter are equally motivated to exhaust the forces named by “chance” and its cognates so as to question received critical values and to essentialize aesthetic values of their media.

In 1960-1, Mac Low composed 501 “numbered Asymmetries.” An asymmetry is a form based on the aleatoric, random, or “chance” allotment of alphabetic units, usually phrases, along a grid from left to right, top to bottom, to produce poems with (blank) spatial cues for performance. That is, the blank space of the page cues a more or less lengthened silence. By performance is meant a whole range of treatments of any given poem, from individual oral recitation to group performance involving movement, instruments, and other media. These poems partially reinvent prosodic conventions, especially meter, where the “emphasis” or “stress” falls.

As Mac Low describes it in his book Asymmetries 1-260, amplitude is the baseline value of emphasis. “The effect should be that of ‘turning up the volume’—a relatively ‘objective’ kind of loudness” on a scale from slight to very loud, without affect. This scale is notated by initially capitalized words (slightly loud), italics (loud), and solid caps or boldface (very loud). Type cases are replaced in the book by straight or wavy underlines. The former (for italics) are typed, the latter (for caps or bold) hand drawn. The correlative is silence, which rhythm requires. When blank space appears, readers are called to fall silent for a duration equal to the time it would take to read aloud the words above or below that space. The eye wavers vertically as it crosses the grid horizontally—the straight and wavy lines, which at first seem superfluous, now match the sightlines. Rather than an idiosyncratic or accidental typographic substitution, they become clinical traces, a register, of a barely intuitive responsibility for the prosodic effect. Temperament has nothing to do with the layout of the page, nor with its enactment. Punctuation and imagined or real context cue more or less normative shifts in volume, pitch, speed, and timbre. The visual field is framed by initial and final letters at cardinal points of the square—where initial and final letters fall.

From 1955 through 1963, Mac Low referred to the way “words” and “silences” meshed as an “event metric” for his work. Visual effects are, he insists, byproducts of the dictates of the score; “I hardly ever think of writing for the printed page primarily.” Still, “if you don’t see it [as poetry], you’re just not hearing the poem,” he adds; the “asymmetry method” might result in a work whose paramount feature is “sound [or] visual image.” Eventually the poem will be performed. And that will be decisive.

As for the name, we have to be mindful of the ramifications of form and method. Mac Low reinvents prosody by calibrated coincidence with compositional method. To my mind, this makes him the poet most responsible to his prosody in his milieu, alongside Hannah Weiner. In the 20th century, I am hard pressed to think of anyone else responsible to their prosody to such an extent, after Kurt Schwitters (another fan of columns and grids). Symmetry refers to regular stanzaic verse, which had been the result of his previous experiments in “chance-acrostic” composition, such as the Stanzas for Iris Lezak. Regularity as such hinges to the seed texts and index strings supplying the alphabetic key. An index is a string of letters that form a word or phrase. These letters become the initials that would be filled in like connect the dots puzzles, by a reading-through method. “Mindful experiments the hinges or dots.” This sentence takes the word “method” as an index string and this very paragraph as a seed text. Say I had selected the index and seed through a game of chance—rolled dice or thrown cards—instead of using it to elucidate a point about “method.” I would then have a self-generated poem that is asymmetrical (i.e., irregular). It exhibits no repeating pattern because it ends when its first word, method, is spelled out. Asymmetries are numbered and untitled so the first line is also the index. By contrast, stanzaic acrostics repeat their linguistic titles once per stanza; stanzas exhibit an appreciable symmetry between index and seed. But there is no stanza in an asymmetry, just space, filled in or left blank. Line breaks occur when the poet begins again at the subsequent letter of the index. Reassemble the following example and you’ll see the solution at work.

Click to enlarge. Images from Asymmetries 1-260 used courtesy of Anne Tardos, executor of the estate of Jackson Mac Low

With “Asymmetry 193,” Mac Low provides an exegetical guide with blanks/silences filled in below the real deal. In reality, the eye must dart about to scoop into the span of utterance during unspoken moments.   

If deterministic procedures localize authorial effort, authors’ attentions can be reciprocally shifted to their very locale. Of 501 total poems composed this way, there are fifteen that do not draw material from existing texts, but rather from something “noticed in the environment in which I was writing or in myself.” These “Environmental Asymmetries” recirculate the poet’s attention to observation  and analysis back to the field in question; the environment reads-through itself like the molecular feedback of a Geiger counter aggregating random features in space-time.

Randomizing is part of the terminological difficulty here, since acrostics are constraints, determinants, and “chance” is only operative with respect to probability. For decades, one of Mac Low’s favorite tools for relinquishing decisions to “chance operations” was the RAND Corporation’s book A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates. It consists entirely of columns of random digits commissioned in the mid-1940s for use in the development of the United States Military’s nuclear arsenal. My (Gieger counter) simile comes from the fact that the numbers were generated by pointing a measuring device at a piece of uranium, an opportune substance because it decays steadily but discharges particles at random intervals that could be translated into a tabular form: the book.

Coterminous findings in Information Theory bolster the notion that randomization rasies the level of communicable uncertainty—the negative capability poetry strives for, displacing that effort from the state of mind of the author to the (prosodic) performance of the text. Authors are habitually credited with delicacy and depth. An environmental Asymmetry or randomly assembled color chart, though, demonstrates an author’s receptivity and accuracy. The same principle plays out today as digital, thus perfectly non-random, encryption seeks its limit case in "the random seed" David Reinfurt describes as entropically unhackable. Cracking a code seeded with a purely random number he says is "a bit like trying to un-mix two colors of paint in a can." I like Reinfurt's simile. Our reaction to color is as to discreet phenomena if all symbolic inheritence can be evacuated from its value, and that value remain semantic nonetheless.

The question of semantic (or in Richter's case, chromatic) value has to be coaxed out of the question of chance operations, or "randomized" compositional procedures, systematic process, whatever we wish to call the dialectical other to freely intuitive aesthetic license. And doing so can be oddly unhelpful if all we get from it is some version of "What does it (all) mean?" I hate that question because I love meaning. I may love meaning, but I don't trust its presumed status as an index of authorial intention. It is also a poor motive for making art. Art making seems like the least effective way to mean what you say. Projects that generate from hazard happen to generate the haphazard. Chance is what happens; chance is to intentionality what freedom is to our motivations. Prosody is a measure of an author’s desire to let readers expend some effort in determining the meaning of a work. Chance-determined composition localizes and disperses authorial effort.

This is why Richter is an important point of comparison for my thinking about prosody. The effort so dispersed, that which an audience commits to a given work, is not an effort to interpret the work. The meaning is in the textual politics of the work. Semantic and chromatic values are not equivalents across easily comparable media, writing and painting, respectively. When we think of the minimal conditions for their practices, in Richter’s case we face the difficulty illustrated so well in his 2001 interview with Robert Storr, and reproduced in MOMA’s catalog for the massive Forty Years of Painting retrospective. Richter rejects the prevalent notion that his work is about light, that light is even a distinctive feature in his oeuvre. (The conversation is so focused on the figurative subset of that oeuvre, it is little wonder.) Richter claims,

I was never interested in light. Light is there and you turn it on or you turn it off, with sun or without sun. I don’t know what the “problematic of light” is. I take it as a metaphor for a different quality, which is similarly difficult to describe. Good[ness]. …Of course, we have light, here. Without light we couldn’t see each other. There is something lacking in me … Appearance, that to me is a phenomenon.

It is quickly evident to Storr that this definition of light as appearance marks a pivot: from the painter’s perception of a model depicted to an audience perceiving a picture. Richter corroborates: it is about what is “good for viewers.”

For his part, Mac Low always insisted that when words are brought into a work, they carry with them their meanings. But then Joan Retallack surmises that “it is simpler (and rings truer) to think of all his work as intentional and to distinguish only between those poems which are explicitly procedural and those that aren’t…[N]othing exists in any indeterminate text that the mind of the writer has not let in." Ellen Zweig offers an eloquent defense of his work while allowing “choice,” as against “chance,” to equal “the human element,” even though his supposed “failure” to evacuate poetry of intentionality by procedural means produced “a successful human poetry…with a vision of a better world." When I interviewed Mac Low in 2001, I wanted to test the notion that intentionality is at the center of his work, and devised my first question to do so, asking,

There exists an often confusing range of terms associated with your work: chance, indeterminacy, procedure, operation, system, method, etc.—In which cases are the terms changing and in which cases, if any, are they proliferating?

JML: Chance is the worst because people don’t understand that chance in itself was not important—making use of it’s one way to get out of the way. The point was to write from the no-mind or to let language speak for itself. Indeterminacy is another way. It overlaps…because one could say that the results of using any of them may be said to be “indeterminate as to meaning.”…The point of that especially when composers were beginning to use it, it was inspired by a certain view of Buddhism. The point is to get out of the way, let the sound be the sound, and not be carrying a message or feeling or anything from the composer. It doesn’t have to be a vehicle to be itself. In the same way, I became interested in literature and in letting language be itself; let the words be themselves rather than telling a story or someone’s opinion and so on. That’s what I mean by getting out of the way….Indeterminacy is when a piece, or at least indeterminacy as to a performance, is when a piece is of such a nature that it’s determined either by choices of the performers’ or by other circumstances in such a way that it would always be different to some extent. I think it was Joan Retallack that pointed out that in the case of non-performance works they can be said to be indeterminate as to meaning.

I was pleasantly surprised that the question of meaning vis-à-vis “indeterminacy” doesn’t go without saying; almost fifty years from his first foray into “chance operations,” it comes as something of a revelation to him; it had to be pointed out. Retallack was hardly the first to do so. Robert Vas Dias' contribution to Vort 8 (1975, "Vort Twenty-First Century Pre-Views" series), entitled "Taking Chances with Meaning," wisely asks, "what if there is a 'meaning' that occurs...with respect to regularity of incident?"

The most regular incident in the Asymmetries and Colors series is simply its production—everything else about it is more or less capricious. Richter wanted to make paintings that he wouldn't have to author. And as Mac Low put it in “Poetry and Pleasure,” published as an introduction to his posthumous Thing of Beauty: New and Selected Works, “The primary reason for making an artwork is to bring it into being. All others—even pleasure—are subsidiary to that." Meaningfulness is near to pleasure. And existence itself seems to need to be excused, a (golden) mean evoked on its behalf. But the reason for committing to a task is not all that performing it entails. Beyond the motive is intention. In Richter's deployment of chance, also, it would be enough to instigate something between as active an audience as possible and the work, the piece. Once the audience imparts meaning, the impact of pattern is inescapably social.

The few “environmental” poems—embedded in a much larger project exploring the intersections of process and procedure—foreshadow an interest Mac Low would commit to the page thirty years later in The Twenties and The Forties. In the 60s and 70s, he famously relegated the bulk of the “interpenetrating” spaces of aesthetic (and political) commitment to “indeterminate” performances, for which he wrote meticulous instructions. Generally speaking, the ’80s and ’90s were decades devoted to a more traditional problem of verse language: the pragmatic invariants of speech acts. In a brilliant essay on Mac Low’s series of Light Poems, Michael O’Driscoll offers an etymological analysis of Mac Low’s term “algorithm” to reveal how the “nomological and numerological” presuppose one another, like a “secret grapheme” or “digraph.” The move from sound source to semantic capacity across the decades of Mac Low's career is a logical one. Liminal subjective states on the part of the poet mirror the rapport between subjects that prosody exists to regulate, inasmuch as it instantiates what is written from the angle of how it shall be spoken.

This interest would be most fully realized in his series The Forties, written between 1994–7, by a method he describes by replacing the verb noticing with “gathering.” Responding to questions about The Forties posed by Kristen Prevallet in a 2001 issue of Open Letter, Mac Low admits, “I mistakenly thought deterministic methods were kinds of chance operations” whose results, to earn the name chance, would be “necessarily always different.” Gathering is, he says, “neither” deterministic nor aleatory. It is, to use Louis Cabri’s term, “quasi-intentional.” Or in Mac Low’s own terms, “partly limimal”—because noticing is a “very fluid” way of making “decisions” about what, exactly, is written. Decisions “not fully conscious” about content are applied to the “fuzzy verse form” as to a template he’d previous devised, as the material was gathered and accumulated on the notebook page. This simultaneity of form and content also mirrors his sense that the Asymmetries were “simultaneities,” a term he preferred to “happenings,” the going currency in the heyday of chance operations. In a process note published in the one-off journal Itsyncast, Mac Low calls the parameters of The Forties “quasi-metrical”: “eight stanzas, each comprising three rather long lines followed by a very long line (usually more than one typographical line) and then a short one.” He added diacritical marks later, also changing lexical and orthographic “decisions,” to hone the prosody in the tradition of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm.” When the series was published in full by Counterpath Press, someone had the inspired idea to commission videos of contemporary poets reading one of each of the 154 poems. Each makes a potential case study of prosodic invariants.

When I say that the forces of chance are deployable, I mean something like what Birgit Pelzer says regarding Gehard Richter’s Colors series, a series of paintings exploring color taken up by various means and with various results between 1966-2007. Pelzer reminds us that “chance orientates doubt,” and that “as a visual phenomenon, it is different every time”; the point, which is equally pertinent to the environmental Asymmetries and Forties of Mac Low, is to “find a form allowing for this dissemblance.” Chance is anything “putting powerlessness in a position to act,” so that the artist can “fight the indeterminate on its own grounds, using its own weapons.” But Mac Low would minimize his use of the term chance as the years went by. All he’d ever tell me about it was rather dismissive: “people think they know what it means.”  

Pelzer concludes that Richter’s “point” is not to affirm chance itself but to “affirm seriality.” However, it has not gone unnoticed that a grid alone might accomplish this. Benjamin Bucloh's memorable claim was that the administrative, "industrial" aesthetic of certain 20th Century avant-gardists resulted in nothing more than a "positivist project of diagrammatic abstraction"; Richter at least "inserting a fundamental contradiction." Herbutis Butin even questions whether the term “composition” is appropriate, especially with reference to the earlier of Richter’s color chart paintings, such as 1974’s 1260 Colors, because, by including the blank (white) space framing commercial paint chip/samples, the work exhibits no “unequal and unbalanced elements filled with tension.” Yet it is, as Pelzer points out, “a closed entity…a whole,” while by 2007 the project is decidedly modular. Being digitally randomized aluminum paint samples in symmetrical square units gathered to form planar wall hangings (or cathedral windows), the form is “fixed yet unlimited,” which has the effect of disassociating “the idea of all from the whole.” The question of a whole freed from totality is paramount to the substitution of an “unstable, combinatorial logic” for what Pelzer calls “that which always comes back to the same place, to reality.” The same place is the numerological attraction at play with the real, the environment, a term we give to what which is a system subject to “change.”

The 2007 painting 4900 Colors (Version II, first plate above) begins by transposing a scale of 25 colors to the “magic square” of 5 by 5 squares numerated with the following pattern.

Pelzer calls this a formalization of “chromatic range” to a deliberately reductive and liberating "syntax." When I think of Richter’s Colors series as a form of visual prosody it is not only by conflating dissemblance with asymmetry, nor even the modular processes of generating and viewing Richter's series (from the magic square, recombinatory schemes flesh out the piece). What matters to me is mostly the way that syntax and metrics share the same environment, the same place or space, as it were.

Everyone “versed” in scansion—say, Hopkins’ famed example “God’s Grandeur”—marvels at the syntactic tension created when sentences are retrofitted to metrical requirements.

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

                And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil

                Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Hopkins devised “sprung rhythm” to reverse the priorities, or at least loosen the numerical texture of pentameter. This poem is habitually taught as a counter-example of strict verse convention, the exception that proves the rule: scansion works because verse is never free. But who would ever say such a thing, “foot feel, being shod”? Yet it sounds good. Is it "good for viewers"? What does goodness have to do with it? The question for Richter might be, what is the environment proper to color, such that being processed algorithmically, any selection belongs to the entire range? Mac Low’s materials are different, but the problem is the same.

In Gilles Deleuze’s book on Francis Bacon, the philosopher very briefly imagines himself before a blank canvas, a painter confronting the obvious paradox that though a clean slate, or set of equally probable “places,” the canvas’ shape and dimensions imply privileged places: center, periphery, inside, outside, sides at all. The blank canvas is also populated by visual clichés that must be avoided. As the artist’s intention (a “prepictorial” idea to paint this or that) becomes certain, work gets underway. However, it is somewhat probable that the intention is there for all to see, i.e. a cliché crops up anyway. Only “manual marks” rather than visual ones will save an artist from reiterating what everyone says, from being led to mean some folksy axiom. Say, the artist thinks, I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Marks made by chance rather than dictated by criteria, a hand can counteract the given. Throw paint. But the hand stands as good a chance as the mind’s eye. So chance “no longer designates probabilities, but…a type of choice or action without probability.” Deleuze is drawing here from Puis Servien’s mid-century argument that probability was on the side of “science” and chance on the side of “lyrical language,” two sides that in Deleuze’s treatment collude without constituting a whole. Restraint and exuberance, or rather reason and folly meet only temporarily, and not on the behalf of one another. Deleuze is talking about what intervenes when it disconnects, what he elsewhere calls an “aparallel evolution”—and in the figure of the “war machine” is comparable to the euphemism “asymmetrical warfare.” The painting begun by disrupting figuration is not about overcoming it, but does so from the outset. The point is to “extract” a vital force, or at least a true problem, from the cliché. Zweig's point, minus the humanism. And Richter's technique, minus the discerning eye: "always planned," said Richter, "but also always surprising."

When the first 260 Asymmetries were collected and published by Printed Editions in 1980, the decision was taken to reproduce some of the poems in primary colors, superimposed, on unnumbered pages of the book. In none of the plentiful explanatory material bookending the poems are these pages mentioned. So in spring of 2002, I wrote to him and asked if they might be color-coded scores for simultaneous performance. His reply:

The superimpositions were done by Patricia Nedds, who was working at [George] Quasha's press at the time. (Dick Higgins's Printed Editions {my name for the co-op}  published them but Quasha and his staff realized the book as it is, including the cover by Gary Hill.) I guess they were her idea. She's nowhere credited in the book. I think they are quite beautiful but have no specific idea of how they might be used as scores. But why not? I'm sure that someone cd so use them that way if they put their mind to it.

So they were an intervention. Mac Low always distinguished his use of deterministic procedures from Surrealist “objective hazard.” But here is a veritible Nadja.

The one criterion that both Richter and Mac Low deploy chance to circumvent is that of symbolism, the received notion that certain chromatic or lexical values symbolize preordained things, or even, as Wittgenstein would say, “states of affairs.” Linguistic symbols for colors, especially their combinations, remained, even in his later work, a point of slippage from the doctrine of meaning as use back into his repudiated, logical positivist stance based on “logical notation.” I am not ready to intervene by way of a close reading of Nedds’ superimpositions on Mac Low’s terms. But it should be possible. Prosody overrides usage as a syntactical determinant by determining how the materials should be used. Richter’s Colors are flagrantly useless, but they read in at least two directions: back into the logic of their emplacement and forward to the environment they inhabit and, at the same time, describe. Asymmetries arose in an attempt to make poems that were self-generating. Colors are self-referential. At the same time.