Andy Warhol and language

October 30, 2014

“Words troubled and failed Andy Warhol,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum on the first page of his biography of the artist (Penguin Books, 2001), even though Warhol wrote many books, “with ghostly assistance”, and had a distinctive speaking style.

Wayne Koestenbaum - Andy Warhol - Penguin Lives biography book coverKoestenbaum returns several times to Warhol’s relationship with language and with time, noting how Warhol’s love of repetition manifested in verbal expression, and remarking on how he “distrusted language” and didn’t understand “how grammar unfolded episodically in linear time, rather than in one violent atemporal explosion”.

I want to quote one passage in particular, from later in the book (which is more psychological portrait than straight biography). Warhol’s magazine Interview, first titled inter/VIEW and then Andy Warhol’s Interview, featured stars interviewing other stars with the results transcribed generously and precisely, without the editing that conventionally turns spontaneous speech into readable prose:

Interview magazine was Andy’s most sustained attempt, after a [a novel], to cross the border between tape-recorded speech and the written word: his experiments in bridging this divide involve a serious philosophical quest to figure out where and how verbal meaning breaks down, and to track the imprecise, shiftless way the words occupy the time it takes to utter and understand them. Andy’s intensest experiences were visual, not verbal, yet he remained fascinated by his own difficult, hampered process of verbalization. Interview, an ideal vehicle, allowed him to indulge his interest in dialogue, as well as his desire to bodysnatch reality and to seal it in falsely labeled canisters. Via the technological mediation of tape recorder, Andy hoodwinked time and talk, and canned it as a product bearing his own name.

I don’t know how serious a philosophical quest it was, but I can relate to the interest in unedited dialogue. Anyone who has transcribed recorded speech will have noticed how halting and erratic is its syntax, compared to the deliberate (if not always elegant) order of writing.

Speech, particularly in conversation, is characterised by false starts, broken phrasing, and disorganised ideas; full, coherent sentences are the exception. Little wonder our memory of syntax and vocabulary is so poor.

Warhol’s unashamedly commercial attitude can belie the fact that he was a deeply sensual artist, and for all his awkwardness with language I think he must have savoured this slippery, intimate side of it – especially when it manifested in so messy and profligate a fashion.

St. George? Total legend.

May 31, 2013

Marcus Lodwick’s The Gallery Companion: Understanding Western Art describes Saint George as “a totally legendary saint whose existence has been in doubt since the fifth century”.

The flavours of both totally and legendary have – for me at least – shifted markedly through informal usage, interfering with the intended tone. Reading the line, I was (totally) distracted by the phrase totally legendary, even though the relative clause (“whose existence has been in doubt…”) and general context left no doubt as to its meaning.

Raphael - Saint George Fighting the Dragon

painting by Raphael

In common currency totally is like absolutely: often more a general intensifier or expression of hearty agreement than anything necessarily to do with totality or absoluteness. An example from the GloWbE corpus: “Seems totally harsh for them teachers huh?”

Legendary has been weakened by loose usage to the point where almost any degree of renown or achievement may be granted the description; similar trends with legend and its spin-off ledge(bag) – peculiarly Irish, I think – complete the inflationary effect.

The following (mildly parodic) fictional dialogue may serve to illustrate:

This bus driver is always on time – such a ledge!


Remember the time she gave us chocolate?

Yeah, that was totally legendary.

Completely. Hey, is that Saint George you’re reading about?

It is.

Didn’t he, like, slay the dragon?


What a legend!


I mean like existentially.


Bauer’s Family Tree of Printing Types

February 14, 2012

In 1937, a hundred years after its founding, the Bauer Type Foundry issued Bauer’s Family Tree of Printing Types:

I know little about typeface design, still less its history, so I can’t comment on the accuracy. But I like the idea of a family tree of types, and it’s a fine presentation: the fonts are like colourful garden birds preening peaceably in the sun, each showing off its unique qualities.

For detail and supplementary text, see Steven Heller’s post at Print magazine, which brought the tree to my attention.

All ways from the artist’s chair

March 30, 2010

While browsing an online gallery of works by visual poets from Australia, this image caught my eye and held my gaze. I don’t know its title — I’m guessing “always” — but I do know it’s by Alex Selenitsch, an architect, poet, and sculptor.

It reminded me of several things at once, but something about the angles and relative lengths of the lines (or letter-strings) gave the lasting impression of a chair. Maybe it’s no coincidence that when I searched for more information about the artist, I found a piece he wrote for Haiku Review called “The artist’s chair”. The chair, writes Selenitsch,

has the pivotal place in an artist’s studio. It’s where the artist sits and gazes at what’s just been done, or maybe what was done yesterday, maybe what was done some time ago. . . . Hours were spent confronting the canvas, working out what to do next, momentarily doing it, then more time confronting the results, presumably over and over until some-one took the painting away. The chair is at the centre of this meditative use of the imagination.

Granted, some artists rarely if ever use a chair as a base for their activity. When I make collages, I tend to inhabit the floor, and when I write poems, I’m more likely to be outdoors or sprawled on the bed than squinting at a screen. But a lot of creative work in various media, be it painting, writing, composing or designing, is done from a chair, and I like to see this humble item get credit for helping to prop up the arts (I leave the obvious pun to your imagination), and I wonder if its structure was deliberately evoked in “always”, or whether this similarity emerged by chance.

What do you see in Selenitsch’s visual poem? And do you have a creative relationship with your chair?

Concrete poetry: Wave/rock

May 4, 2009


If I was asked, “Why do you like concrete poetry?”
I could truthfully answer “Because it is beautiful.”







Original format: Printed sheet, 19 x 9½ inches, folded in half.

Concrete poetry is a kind of visual poetry, though the terminology is somewhat mixed. The example and quote above are by Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006), a Scottish artist, poet, and gardener.

Wave/rock was published in issue 7 of Aspen, now hosted on UbuWeb.

See also:

Ian Hamilton Finley profile in The Guardian
Mary Ellen Solt’s book about concrete poetry
Pattern poems from ancient Greece