Richard Kostelanetz

Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes

New additions (2011) selected for Soanyway by Derek Horton

Richard Kostelanetz’s, A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes, was first published by A Cappella in 1993. The second edition, published by Schirmer in 2000, expanded the first by perhaps 100%. Having thought about a third edition, but with a hardback seeming unlikely. Richard has offered additional entries to periodical editors whom he has invited to select as many (or few) as they wish, perhaps distributing their selections over more than one issue, or even into otherwise empty spaces. Soanyway is honoured to have been included in this project, and our selection of twenty-six of the new additions is published in full here in Soanyway Issue 13, Before or Since.


Kostelanetz is the author of very many books including: The End of Intelligent Writing (Sheed & Ward, 1974); The Old Fictions and the New (MacFarland, 1987); Conversing with Cage (Limelight, 1988; second revised edition, Routledge, 2002); On Innovative Music(ian)s (Limelight, 1989); Unfinished Business: An Intellectual Nonhistory (Archae Editions, 1990); SoHo: The Rise and Fall of an Artists’ Colony (Routledge, 2003); and Fict-ions/This Sentence (Blue & Yellow Dog, 2010).

Kostelanetz also compiled, edited and introduced many influential anthologies, including: The Young American Writers (Funk & Wagnalls, l967); Beyond Left & Right: Radical Thought for Our Times (Morrow, l968); Imaged Words & Worded Images (Outerbridge & Dienstfrey, l970); Breakthrough Fictioneers (Something Else, l973); Essaying Essays (Out of London Press, l975); The Avant-Garde Tradition in Literature (Prometheus, l982); The Literature of SoHo (Shantih, 1992). Writings about John Cage (Univ. of Michigan, 1993); Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music (with Joseph Darby, Schirmer, 1996); A B. B. King Companion (Schirmer, 1997); Writings on Glass (Univ. of California, 1999); A Frank Zappa Companion (Schirmer, 1997); and Aaron Copland: A Reader, Selected Writings (Routledge, 2003).

Much more detailed information on all of Richard’s varied accomplishments during a lifetime commitment to avant-garde art, literature, performance and music can be found on his website, http://www.richardkostelanetz.com




ASPEN (1965-71). Incidentally the name of a renowned Colorado ski resort, this five-letter word had more presence in the 1960s as the name of the most distinguished polyart periodical. Its publisher was Phyllis Johnson, a former editor at Advertising Age and Women’s Wear Daily so heroically self-effacing that she is not remembered as well as her contributors. The customary epithet “magazine” would be insufficient, as late issues were collections with looseleaf sheets, while another came in a box, usually undated. For instance, issue # 8, guest edited by Dan Graham and guest designed by George Maciunas, had a characteristic cover by Jo Baer, a one-page score by Philip Glass, texts by Robert Morris, David Antin, Yvonne Rainer, La Monte Young, Jackson Mac Low, Edward Ruscha, creating an avant-garde museum in progress.
Issue “5+6,” likewise undated, was both edited and designed by Brian O’Doherty and dedicated to Stephane Mallarmé. Among the contents of the box were cardboards with which one could build a sculpture by Tony Smith, a booklet with poems by Michel Butor and Dan Graham, another booklet by texts by Sol LeWitt, Tony Smith, Morton Feldman, and O’Doherty, and five plastic 7” records. One disc contains a Samuel Beckett text read by the actor Jack MacGowran and William Burroughs and Alain Robbe-Grillet texts read by their authors. A second disc had the percussionist Max Neuhaus’s realizations of scores by John Cage and Feldman. A third contained manifestoes by Merce Cunningham and Naum Gabo read by their authors. A fourth had creative texts by Marcel Duchamp and Richard Huelsenbeck read by their authors. The fifth record was an interview with Merce Cunningham. Were that not enough, the box also included a reel of 8 mm. films by Hans Richter, L. Moholy-Nagy, Stan VanDerBeek, and Robert Rauschenberg. If anyone is publishing anything polyartisticly comparable today, I don’t know about it. Needless to say perhaps, none of the publishers of periodical reprints for libraries have ever duplicated Aspen, which is available instead on the Ubu website.

Sources: http://www.ubu.com/aspen/; Allen, Gwen: Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011.

BALANCHINE, George (22 January 1904 - 30 April 1983). Though customarily regarded as the American master of classical ballet, he did more eccentric work earlier in his illustrious American career. In 1942, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus commissioned him and Igor Stravinsky (no joke) to do The Ballet of the Elephants (1942) for fifty pachyderms and fifty dancing girls. In her classic reconstruction, “Elephant in Tutus” (2007), the dance historian Sally Banes reminds us that Balanchine’s “avant-gardism . . . consisted of his negotiating a pact between those two apparently antithetical systems, high and low cultures. He appropriated in his serious ballets popular culture, both old and new, American and European—jazz tap dancing and square dancing, Western movies, and the bodily habitus [sic] of fashion models and Rockettes.” Thus here the elephants were outfitted with the short pink ballet skirts called tutus and jeweled headbands for their foreheads. Banes quotes an anonymous New York Times reviewer: “They came into the ring in artificial, blue-lighted dusk, first the little pink dancers, then the great beasts. The little dancers pirouetted into the three rings and the elephant heads gravely swayed and nodded rhythmically. The arc of sway widened and the stomping picked up with the music. In the central ring, Modoc the Elephant danced with amazing grace, and in time to the tune, closing in perfect cadenced with the crashing [Stravinsky] finale.” Only a few years after Walt Disney’s Fantasia, The Ballet of the Elephants likewise discovered grace in animals, but the difference was that Balanchine used real animals. At once spectacle and parody, the Stravinsky score concludes with a distorted quote from Franz Schubert’s Marche Militaire. Though no pictures or footage of this are known to exist, it is vividly recalled in two memoirs by participating dancers - Connie Clausen’s I Love You, Honey, But the Season’s Over Now (1961) and Vera Zorina’s Zorina (1986).

Bibliography: Banes, Sally. Before, Between, and Beyond. Madison, WI: Univ. of Wisconsin, 2007; Clausen, Connie: I Love You, Honey, But the Season’s Over Now. New York: Holt, 1961; Zorina, Vera: Zorina. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1986.


BARSAMIAN, Gregory (18 April 1953). A student of nineteenth-century European philosophy and later a devotee of the dream analysis popularized by Carl Jung, Barsamian is also skilled with machines. Discovering the nineteenth-century zoetrope, which was a wide rotating cylinder whose insides had a succession of images verging on film animation, he decided to produce a similar effect with contemporary technology. In Putti (1991), cherubs suspended overhead become helicopters. In Leafing on a Leach (1991), hands turning the pages of a book are complimented by a two-dimensional animation of a text questioning self-knowledge and a figure of a man beating his head against a wall, all in an endless cycle. Not unlike other technological sculptors, he spends most of his time making works for places never seen by his colleagues and critics. Since no catalogue of his work exists, he wisely produced successively a videotape and then a website that are far more effective at representing kineticism.

Website: http://www.gregorybarsamian.com
Bibliography: Brown, David J. Innuendo Non Troppo: The Work of Gregory Barsamian. Cincinnati, OH: Contemporary Arts Center, 1998.

(20 October 1953). Whereas Elaine Sturtevant produced unique clean and clear replicas of select master paintings, Bidlo in the 1980s made glibly executed productions of many modern masterpieces, usually at original scale, but deficient in visual quality. Especially in his one-person exhibitions, which were stronger than any individual works, Bidlo realized irony and humor through an abundance of crummy replicas. Picasso, Brancusi, Man Ray, Morandi, Kandinsky, Leger, and even his near-contemporary Julian Schnabel were all redone. Verbally witty as well, Bidlo retitled his replica of Picasso’s Desmoiselles d'Avignon as “She Works Hard for the Money,” which is the title of an American pop song from the early eighties. Sometimes Bidlo gives him imitations generic names such as “not-Leger” or “not-XYZ.” In a 1982 installation at PS 1 Gallery, Bidlo redid Jackson Pollock’s monumentally obnoxious move of pissing into Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. No less committed to his subject to high modern art a decade later, Bidlo in 1993 filled a SoHo gallery with 5000 drawings, most of them decidedly amateur in draftsmanship, of Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, or at least a pissoir that through his title, The Fountain Drawings, alluded to Duchamp. Defeated apparently by his own prolific productivity, Bidlo ran out of viable subjects by the 21st century.


BRANDT, Henry (15 September 1913 - 26 April 2008). Born in Montreal to American parents, Brandt went south with his family in 1929 and studied privately, as few did, with George Antheil. Radical from his compositional beginnings, he produced Angels and Devils (1933), still regarded as remarkable, because, true to its subtitle (“for a Merry Murmuration of Innumerable Flutes”), it sets a solo flute against an infinite number of background flutes. Another early piece, 5 &10 Cent Store Music (1932), is explicitly scored for “Violin, Piano, and Kitchen Utensils,” just as his later Machinations (1970) requires “flageolet, double ocarina, ceramic flute, sell harp, and what have you.” In addition to discovering unusual timbres through massing a single instrument or including unconventional sound sources, Brandt, beginning with Rural Antiphonies (1953), also distributed musicians, often generous in number, over wide spaces both inside large halls and outdoors. Nonetheless, literature about him is surprisingly scarce.


BROWN, Robert Delford (25 October 1930 - 22 March 2009)). Trained initially in visual art, imaginative beyond measure, he worked in several media, including performance and photography, prints and book art, sculptures and tapestries. Tall, slim and handsome, he hooked up with a wealthy divorcee who supported his work generously, building for themselves from 1968 to 1970 a palatial studio within a former New York City public library. They rechristened this space on W.13th Street, near 8th Avenue, probably their single greatest work of art, “The Great Building Crack-Up,” the birthplace of The First National Church of the Exquisite Panic, Inc., aka “Funkapaganism”, which stood as a kind of conceptual art based upon the marvelous Yiddish epithet Farblundjet (here Frenchified as “Pharblongence”), which means confused, really confused. Not only was the façade alone sure to attract attention from passersby, but the expansive interior set an early example for ambitious downtown Manhattan artists wanting not only immense interior space but a private gallery with its own entrance to the street. In the mid-1960s, Delford Brown staged prophetic performances inconceivable to anyone else at the time, including one in 1964 in a refrigerator locked with loads of meat in the meat-packing district west of Greenwich Village. Thanks to a press agent, the performance attracted not only publicity-responsive people but newspaper reviewers, one of whom wrote: “You could tell it was an [art-world] opening by the stylish clothes the wives of the meat market men were wearing. There was also that restrained, slightly formal tone that one associates with such events.” The reviewer Mary Perot Nichols continued in The Village Voice: “They put on white butcher coats provided by the management, paid their 75 cents contribution, and went inside, through several layers of striped and polka dotted material. The air was scented, according to the program, with one gallon of ‘Strange Moods’ perfume. Inside, the scene—or ‘environment’, as it was known in art circles—was an eerie red on white. An extra 20 gallons of blood had been thrown in for good measure since, apparently, the arrangements of cows’ heads, kidneys, livers, and other parts did not drip to the artist’s satisfaction. Translucent white lingerie fabric—660 yards of it—was draped so as to form little chambers within the cooler. The people in white coats stood in small groups around the various arrangements of bloody meat hung on meat hooks.”
Were that not audacious enough, he published in 1967 Hanging, an illustrated chapbook about the effects of hanging on a body; he made “Liver Prints” with actual blood of liver. He had a nurse draw his blood and a Chinese cook fry it before he ate it. He produced “Vulva Prints” made from his wife’s menstrual blood. He published a late modernist Ulysses in which his name replaces that of James Joyce in an anthology of reviews of the classic modernist Ulysses. And so on. “In the sixties,” he once told an interviewer, “I had the idea of having a chain of shops called ‘Fake Girl,” which would cater to transvestites and sell hair remover, extreme make-up, high heels and dresses in large sizes, falsies, and wigs—a one-stop shop. I tried to trademark the name, but the U.S. Copyright Office turned me down.” The extravagance with which he worked and imagined made him the American analogue of the wealthy Frenchman Raymond Roussel. While his work was influential, initially upon the performance artists associated with Vienna Actionism in the late 1960s, and then upon later artists predisposed to “cutting edge” subject matter, Delford Brown fell between the cracks of art fashions, largely disappearing from art view, especially after his wife died. Much of his later work involved children, fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous, and others not normally classified as artists.

Bibliography: Bloch, Mark; Robert Delford Brown: Meat, Maps, & Militant Metaphysics. Wilmington, NC: Cameron Art Museum, 2008. Website: www.funkup.com.


CARILLO, Julián (b. J. C.-Trujillo, 28 January 1875 - 9 September 1965). The greatest avant-garde Mexican composer, a near contemporary of Charles Ives, he discovered as early as 1885 that on the fourth string of his violin, the instrument he mastered, the existence of a tone between the traditional notes of G and A. This “13TH sound,” as he called it, opened the possibility of microtonality to him, as he subsequently worked with as many as 96 tones to an octave. Carillo rethought such compositional staples as rhythm, notation, and textures. Respected in his home country, perhaps because of musical education in Europe, he became, while young, a professor of composition in the National Conservatory and then a kind of Inspector-General for Music in Mexico City. After a year as director of the National Conservatory, he emigrated in 1914 to New York City, where he organized an American Symphony Orchestra to compete with the New York Philharmonic. Invited by return to Mexico in 1918, he soon became head of the National Conservatory until his early retirement in 1924 to concentrate fulltime on his own work. His principal patron was the American conductor Leopold Stokowski, initially with the Philadelphia Orchestra, prompting him to compose with both tones and semitones for a full orchestra. In 1930, he organized an Orquestra Sonido 13 that toured throughout Mexico, sometimes conducted by Stokowski. Carillo also patented a scheme for fifteen pianos variously tuned. Eventually built, these were exhibited at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Such radical compositional principles notwithstanding, some of this microtonal music sounds mellifluous to tonally biased ears. Unlike other avant-garde artists who die too young, sometimes because of professional neglect, Carillo lived long enough to collect deserved honors, including a 1962 commission from Stokowski, who premiered his Concertino for 1/2-tone piano with orchestra in Houston.


CARLSON, Chester (8 February 1906 - 19 September 1968). As a teenager he worked for a printer and even acquired a printing press. Taking a degree in physics from Cal Tech, he joined the Bell Telephone laboratories, which was for decades a hothouse for significant modern inventions incidentally useful in art (computer music, transistors, information theory, etc.). Taking a law degree, Carlson later ran the patent department of another, smaller electronics firm. In his spare time, in the late 1930s, he developed a dry method of direct image production that moved technically beyond wet processes of photography. By 1944 Carlson consigned the development of this invention to the Battelle Memorial Institute, which in turn sold the invention to the Haloid Company, which later called itself Xerox.
Artists in the 1960s exploited Xerox copying for its imperfections, typically making copies of copies until marks indigenous to the copying process obliterated an original image. The introduction of color copying increased the possibilities. By the 1990s, copies in both black & white and color were so clear and clean they were superficially indistinguishable from the originals. This technical advance meant that Xerography could replace offset technology in the production of books and other “printed” materials.
For a while the Xerox company insisted in that word be spelled with a capital letter, even when used as a verb; but once competitors developed equally accurate technology, the preferred epithet became photocopy. From the historical point of view, Carlson’s principal error was not naming the process after himself. Had he enough foresight to do so, Carlson would now be a verb, much as Google is.

Interpretation: Owen, David. Copies in Seconds. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.


CASTLE, James (24 September 1899 - 24 October 1977). Born deaf in southwestern Idaho, he resisted education for the disabled, preferring instead to draw on miscellaneous paper. As his family was urged to forbid him art supplies until he could speak or at least use sign language, young Castle retreated daily into the forest or the second story of a family ice house. He made ink from stove soot and saliva and pens from sharpened twigs, in addition to thread and yarn for binding his images into unique books. Though his family later offered him professional art supplies, he preferred his improvised materials, creating hundreds of objects we would now identify as epitomizing “the codex form.” Since he never used titles, they are currently known by images on their covers, epitomizing Outsider Art at its most innocent and yet intelligent. Some of Castle’s sequential pictures tell stories as visual narratives or in sophisticated associational ways. He uses words and numbers in eccentric ways, even redoing calendars so that months may have only two weeks, a week ten days, and a year almost 400 days. He occasionally incorporated images and papers found in the family trash, reinventing modernist collage in his isolation. Tom Trusky, a University of Idaho professor, writes that Castle “relentlessly explores and exploits possibilities of the codex format, frequently altering and expanding the definition of what a book is in profound and witty ways.” Aside from trips to visit relatives in eastern Oregon perhaps 75 miles away, he lived in Idaho and never learned to speak. After his death, his relatives found caches of work that he had hidden away on family property. Twenty-five years later, institutions outside Idaho sponsored exhibitions of his work.

Bibliography: Trusky, Tom. “Gumby & the Rotarian,” Idaho Review, XI (1999).

FROGTHINK (1970s onwards) This has been my coinage for purportedly critical writing that is more concerned with spouting a high-falutin’ rhetoric and self-consistent thinking than defining the world. It is scarcely new. In his classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852), the Scottish author Charles Mackay (1814-1889) speaks in passing of a French philosopher who “had constructed a very satisfactory theory on some subject or other, and was not a little proud of it.” “But the facts, my dear fellow,” said his friend, “the facts do not agree with your theory.” Don’t they?” replied the philosopher, shrugging his shoulders, “then, tant pis pour le faits;” - so much the worse for the facts. It would be mistake to think that only the French practice frogthink. Germans have done it for decades, but Americans only recently. If only because frogthinkers think their style avant-garde, they often choose genuinely avant-garde art to be the subjects, or victims, of their discourse. The epitome of academic writing, frogthink is meant to impress immediate superiors without aspiring, pretenses to the contrary, to any lasting value.

Bibliography: Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1852). Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1995.

GOLDSMITH, Kenneth (4 June 1961) Like few other poets he took his initial degree in sculpture at an arts college (RISD) and that he has since mounted one-person exhibitions of its art in SoHo galleries. His writing reflects a key esthetic difference between the art world and the literary world, especially of graduate writing students, in its extreme audacity, as distinct from the slight deviance from currently acceptable styles more typical of literary MFAs. The premise of one Goldsmith book, Fidget (2000) was, as he explained in its preface, “to record every move by body made on June 16, 1997 (Bloomsday).” Hazards encountered in writing this long prose poem are incorporated into the work itself, as Goldsmith speaks of getting out of bed and interacting with objects in his space. He notes that he “began to go crazy,” in contrast to the tradition of poets who write about an insanity that existed before they set pen to paper. Given Goldsmith’s background, it is indicative that Fidget was first published - made public - as an exhibition at Printed Matter, a SoHo store devoted to “artist’s books.” Later it was incorporated into a performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris (16 June 1998) in which the singer Theo Bleckman “stood high on a balcony in the museum and dropped sheets of paper printed with each word as he sang them.” Goldsmith produced an electronic version acknowledged later in this entry. Only in 2000 did Fidget become a book. Marjorie Perloff has written correctly that, “Goldsmith works on the borders between ‘poetry’ and ‘prose’ and, more courageously, between poetry and ‘not poetry,’ not to mention the borders between ‘literature’ and ‘art.’” Once he became a professor (at the University of Pennsylvania), he taught “Uncreative Writing” that reportedly advocates “appropriation, theft, stealing, plundering, and sampling”. [And not the least of his achievements, he is the founder of UbuWeb, after fifteen years, still going strong and ever-expanding. – DH]

Bibliography: Goldsmith, Kenneth. Fidget. Toronto: Coach House, 2001.Perloff, Marjorie: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago, 2010. http://www.ubu.com/


HAMMID, Alexander (b. A. Hackenschmied, 17 December 1907 - 26 July 2004). Born in Austria, he grew up in Prague, making his first silent experimental film, Bezucelna Prochazka/Aimless Walk in 1930. Working as a cinematographer for the leftist American documentarian Herbert Kline, he fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 to the US where he met and married Eleonora Derenkowskaya who took the name, perhaps with his advice, of Maya Deren, much as he too took a new name. With her he collaborated on the classic avant-garde film Meshes in the Afternoon (1943) that established her reputation that survived their divorce. In the 1960s, Hammid began collaborating with the sometime painter Francis Thompson on multi-screen films: To Be Alive (1964) and We Are Young (1967), which knocked me out at the Montreal World’s Fair, both of which remain in my mind as masterpieces of the under-developed cinema genre. Later Hammid and Thompson, among the great collaborations in modern film, produced To Fly! (1976), which remains the pioneering classic in the IMAX technology.
Films: Bezucela Prochazka/Aimless Walk (1930); Na Prazsken Hrade/Prague Castle (1932); Meshes of the Afternoon, with Maya Deren (1943); The Private Life of a Cat (1945-46); To Be Alive, with Francis Thompson (1964); To Fly, with Francis Thompson (1976)
Bibliography: Tribute to Sasha. Vienna, Austria: SYNEMA, 2002.

HEJINIAN, Lyn (17 May 1941). Her most famous work is My Life (1980, 1987), an alternative autobiography whose initial edition, composed for her 37th birthday, has thirty-seven groups each thirty-seven sentences in length. For the second edition, she composed forty-five groups, each of which is, to be sure, forty-five sentences long, the latter recycling old materials while adding new stuff. Rigorously concerned with stretching definitions, Hejinian also published Oxota: A Short Russian Novel (1991) that is a sequence of 270 poems fourteen lines in length - sonnets, by traditional definition - that are called “chapters.” She has been involved in translating from the Russian, co-publishing the Poetics Journal (1981), and printing letterpress chapbooks.

Bibliography: Hejinian, Lyn: My Life. Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 1980. Expanded edition. Los Angeles, CA: Sun & Moon, 1987; Hejinian, Lyn: Oxota: A Short Russian Novel. Great Barrington, MA: The Figures, 1991; Hejinian, Lyn: The Cold of Poetry [collecting several earlier books]. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1994.

HOTEL PRO FORMA (1990s) is a Danish theater company centered around Kirsten Dehlholm (5 April 1945). Late in 1999 I saw at the Brooklyn Academy of Music its production of Operaton: Orfeo, a kind of contemporary opera, as its orthography suggests, that ranks among the most austere productions ever seen. More precisely perhaps a theatrical oratorio, it opens with the proscenium filled from top to bottom with a black square surrounded by a white frame. Once the voices of singers are heard, you begin to notice the outlines of human figures layered up the blackness. This continues for several minutes. Once the stage is better illuminated, you can see that they were seated on benches running like stairs up the entire square. Though the singers move up and down the stairs, the scene remains unchanged for 80 minutes or so. They were singing music arranged by the Danish composer Bo Holten from ancient European tunes written by Hans Leo Hassler in the early seventeenth century; G. W. Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice; and John Cage, including his Hymns and Variations (1979), which in turn is based upon two psalms of William Billings. The program note said Operaton: Orfeo had been commissioned several years before for a Danish festival and had survived in the group’s repertory, as well it should.
The program notes also describe several earlier productions I’d like to see: Why Does Night Come, Mother (1989) is meant to be seen from above. The music is composed for a soprano lying down. “The vertical angle and the precise displacement of the performers create optical illusions in the relation between the apparent and the seen.” Monkey Business Class (1996) is described as “a musical that celebrates money bills before they disappear from our world.” The performers in Fact-arte-fact (1991) were five pairs of identical twins ranging in age from seven to sixty-seven (reminiscent of the Michael Kirby performance that depends upon the sudden appearance of his identical twin brother). “During the performance, the audience was divided into two groups, walking in either direction in parallel rooms, able to see only half of the performance but able to hear it all.” House of the Double Axe/XX (1998) “is a visual composition for song and recital. The labyrinth and the Medieval horizontal world scheme are the guiding principles for action and movement. Seven actions track the Medieval views on planets, heavens, and hells, the secrets of the numbers, the days of the week, geometry, and madness.” (Where can I purchase tickets?) The truth here is the cultural administrations in smaller countries are more likely to those in the U.S. to support the best avant-garde work for the simple reason that it enhances the country’s cultural reputation in the larger world. Here, by contrast, the NEA and NEH work overtime to make America look second-rate, all at taxpayers’ expense.


HUTCHINS, Robert Maynard (17 January 1899 - 17 May 1977). A legendary academic superstar, he became successively the dean of Yale Law School while still in his twenties and then at thirty president of the University of Chicago, which he ran for more than two decades. As an academic chief, he abolished compulsory courses and conventional grading long before anyone else in a comparable position did. His undergraduate college one-upped other first-rank institutions by admitting bright kids who hadn’t completed high school, including Philip Glass and Susan Sontag. In his spare time, apparently, Hutchins wrote a brilliant illustrated book, scarcely known, called Zukerkandl! (1968). Resembling a children’s book with a large format, a large typeface, and few pages, the book incorporates sophisticated parodies of academic writing: Zuckerkandlism demands that communication be reduced to a minimum, and this effort is immensely facilitated by the selection of a medium of communication through which communication is made almost impossible. The accompanying drawings by the film animators John and Faith Hubley (1914-1977, 1924-2001) either undermine the prose or contribute to the parody by giving the book a frivolous appearance. A remarkable performance, a classic of its kind, Zukerkandl! isn’t mentioned in any history of literature or book art known to me (or in a recent Wikipedia entry on RMH), even though its author’s name has not been forgotten. The bio note says the author “now lives near Hollywood studying Zuckerkandlism and its oriental counterpart, Sen-Sen Buddhism, The Creed That Sweetens Your Breath As It Empties Your Mind.” Hutchins’ wife Maude Hutchins (1899-1991) also authored moderately experimental fiction.

Bibliography: Hutchins, Robert Maynard. Zukerkandl! New York: Grove, 1968; Hutchins, Maude: Victorine (1959). New York: NYRB Classics, 2008.

KEAY, David (13 June 1957). Given the continuing obstacles against the publication of distinguished writing, it is scarcely surprising that David Keay’s Fake Book (1999) was self-published. As continuous prose for over 200 pages, with no breaks for paragraphs, it is first of all a tour de force in the best sense. Whether it can be read from beginning to end, as one would a detective novel, I cannot tell; but strong writing abounds. Striking as a whole, it is filled from beginning with end with stunning prose, opening:
Hello? Who am I? What am I doing? Who are you? Where were we? I’ve been dreaming. You were the King, as always, Sire! Conqueror of the. . . of no known kingdom! And I? Sano, the Obscure Brand of Mapleton or Cascade, newly lured to mind the door! This is the Castle of Course? And you are seated, as always, on your own throne, currently caught contemplating copious liner notes as opposed to minding the monarchy!
And closing with these ironic sentences:
Why find out? Who it is? The true mystery of life is not us, but the existence of the mosquito, says this King figure with his seeing-eye dogs motif. And at the moment I turn, to take some other direction, I’m bitten in the back. But the bite was described as playful.
Given the limitations of not only commercial publishing but “alternative publishing,” don’t be surprised if most truly original fiction in the coming decades will be likewise self-published not just in print, as Fake Book was, but in other media. Nothing is gained by leaving them unavailable; the only truth proved is the deleterious censoring power of publishing.

Bibliography: Keay, David. Fake Book. New York: Pretend-a-Press (244 Fifth Ave, 10001-7604), 1999.

KIRK, Rahsaan Roland
(7 August 1935 - 5 December 1977): Blinded early in life, he developed incomparable virtuosity in playing several instruments strapped to his body simultaneously or in quick succession—several grades of clarinets, saxophones, flutes, whistles, and/or even sirens, playing one melody with one hand while blowing another with his other hand, sometimes singing or speaking as well. He also mastered the technique of “circular breathing” that allowed him to produce superhuman continuous sound. A one-man combo, so to speak, who incorporated references to earlier jazz into his improvisations, Kirk produced kinds of “Black Classical Music,” as he called it, that was simply unavailable even to groups of several people. One memorable testimonial comes from his widow Dorthanne: “His head should've just blown off his body with all the stuff he held up there.” While audio discs of his playing remain viable decades after his passing, footage of him playing live must be seen to be believed. Suffering a stroke in 1975, he taught himself to play only with his left hand until dying young after another stroke. To his birth name, he added Rahsaan (pronounced Rah-San with equal stress) around 1970. His discography includes not only solo albums but performances with such jazz legends as Quincy Jones, Jaki Bayard, and Charles Mingus. A tribute band calling itself the Vibration Society survived his death, producing an album of Kirk’s music as late as 1986.

LaFRANCE, Noemie (22 November 1973). Emerging from French Canada, which also spawned Cirque de Soleil, she quickly became an avatar of dance/performance that she called “site-specific”. Descent (2003) was performed in the open stairwell of a lower Manhattan office building, with the spectators lined along the banisters for several floors while the dancers poked their heads over banisters above and below, their movements limited by the constraints of their “stage.” Noir (2004), less memorable, took place in a parking garage with the spectators seated in stationary automobiles while the dancers moved around them. The setting for Agora (2005) was a huge abandoned swimming pool in Queens, NY, with a horde of performers doing various kinds of moves on a floor similar in scale to a three-ring circus. (Home [2009], by contrast, was performed in the dining room of her own apartment with spectators seated around a large table. Fearlessly intimate, it featured LaFrance pregnant and naked. Much like Robert Wilson, she commands attention for working on larger stages, with more people, than other performance artists.

MOORE, Peter (28 April 1932 - 28 September 1993). One of the hidden figures in the history of modern avant-gardes is the photographer who makes a mission of recording every major event. Simply from experience, these enthusiastic documentarians know in advance what might be important and make it their habit to be present, fully equipped, even if spectators were few. None took as many pictures for as long as Moore, especially of New York City artists in performance in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. In Gloria McDarrah’s testimony, “his images of a naked, cello-playing Charlotte Moonman interacting with video artist Nam June Paik and Robert Rauschenberg roller skating with a parachute on his back are icons.” Other New York photographers snapped pictures of the artists, customarily looking directly into the camera; but Moore at his best made his pictures historic by capturing their work.

Interpretation: McDarrah, Gloria, et al. The Photography Encyclopedia. N.Y.: Schirmer, 1999.

PASTIOR, Oscar (20 October 1927 - 4 October 2006). One of the great German experimental poets, he was born in German-speaking Romania (aka Transylvania) and thus, along with others similarly located, spent five years after WWII in a Soviet labor camp. After working for Bucharest radio, he came to Berlin in 1969, where he became a prominent independent writer. Much like the Austrian experimental poet Ernst Jandl, his near contemporary, Pastior has sampled an impressive variety of experimental forms—in Rosmarie Waldrop’s succinct summary: “puns, lists, strings, heaps, fields, dictionaries, alphabets, collage, montage, potpourris—all in orgiastic expansion.” Unfortunately, much of his work cannot be translated into other languages, though it can inspire playful poets to write similar texts acknowledging him, such as this sestina on six loaded words by the American poet John Yau (1953):
Sex thought really all there was / Was sex thought really all there / Really all these was sex thought / There was sex though really all / All thought was there sex really / Thought really all these was sex
Whereas string poems by Richard Kostelanetz contain two or more overlapping letters, Pastior uses syllables in his continuous poetic form: Dominotaurusbekistandrogynecologistigmamastodonauberginereidentaluminum….
Other Pastior texts resembling prose depend upon far-reaching connections more typical of surrealist poetry:
Clemnitz and memphis laminate pneumatically—a sailor’s tick, gymnasium cause misgivings to one one. Nimbus diminishes enigma. Nimbus diminishes enigma. Amnesty clear mines. Anomaly is elementary. (Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop)
Another gem, titled “Crimean-Gothic Marching Song,” begins:
Marimal milliman / Assymetrix / Minimal marimum, which works as well in English as German.
He also belongs to the distinguished group of modern German writers who were not born or raised in Germany or Austria—among them, Paul Celan and Franz Kafka.
Recalling that Pastior has prospered by living in Berlin, where he arrived a decade before me as a guest of the same DAAD program hosting me, I sometimes think the principal mistake of my poetic life was returning home to the US.

Pastior, Oskar. Many Glove Compartments: Selected Poems. Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2001.
His most recent books are Knopfnuß Januskopf (1990), Vokalisen&Gimpelstifte (1992), Eine kleine Kunst-maschine: 34 Sestinen (1994), and Das Hören des Genitiv (1998).


POETISM (1924). This is a nifty epithet coined in Czechoslovakia by the poet Vitezslav Nezval (1900-1958) and Karel Teige (*) to define their conviction that art and life are not separate but indistinguishable. From this position followed a predisposition to find esthetic value in the everyday activities of average people. Thus, collaborators in this movement produced poetry incorporating design and photographs, in addition to producing films and mixed-means artistic performances into the 1930s (until the Nazi invasion of their homeland). They explored not only the new media of photography, film, and radio but produced popular cabaret. In the mid-1920s, Tiege wrote: A work of art that fails to make us happy and to entertain is dead, even if its author was Homer himself. Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Burian, a director of fireworks, a champion boxer, an inventive and skillful cook, a record-breaking mountain climber—are they not even greater poets? Nezval had published as early as 1922 Abeceda whose subject is the letters of the alphabet. Each of them is depicted in a short stanza. By 1926, he staged a performance with the same title in which a dancer performs the letters. (This was reconstructed for a 1999 traveling exhibition that began in Florida. A tape of the dance was included at later venues.) Along with a dancer and a photographer Teige and Nezval conceived of a Poetist project that incorporated literature, dance, theater, graphic design, typography, and photography within a single rubric.

Bibliography: Dluhosch, Eric, and Rostival Svacha, eds. Karel Teige/1900-1951:L’Enfant Terrible of the Czech Modernist Avant-Garde. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999.

(16 January 1901 - 2 September 1991, b. L. Reichenthal, later L. R. Gottschalk). Marrying young to her history teacher at Cornell, Louis Gottschalk, she moved with him first to Urbana, Il, and then to Louisville, KY. Offering her poetry in 1923 to The Fugitive, a magazine in nnNashville eager to identify literary genius residing in the American South (even though she was Jewish, and its editors were not), she is awarded the magazine’s Nashville Prize in 1924. An ungrateful acolyte apparently, she departed the following year, divorced, initially for New York City, her birthplace, and then for England with the writer Robert Graves (1895-1985), six years her senior and already established as an incipient major writer. With him she moved in 1929 to Mallorca, an island off Mediterranean the coast of Spain, where she both inspired Graves and collaborated with him, in addition to founding the Seizen Press, one of the century’s most important small literary publishers, and producing twenty books of her own poetry, fiction, and criticism in an extraordinary productive expatriate career.
Returning alone to her native country in 1939, she renounced literary activity and, instead, collaborated with her new husband, Schuyler B. Jackson, formerly a Time magazine writer, on Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words, a magnum opus which didn’t appear in 1997, several years after her death (and nearly three decades after his, in 1968). For the rest of her life, her pen name of choice was Laura (Riding) Jackson. Her renunciation of literature earned less resonance than Marcel Duchamp’s comparable renunciation of art, perhaps because the literary world differs from the art world, especially in America; but such silence perhaps provided the precondition for the survival of her reputation after her death. Writers so original are not forgotten.
From 1970 onwards, books of her poetry, fiction, and criticism have appeared sporadically. In my own opinion, the last are the most distinguished, if only for their self-confident eccentricity.

Bibliography: Riding, Laura: Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words [with Schuyler B. Jackson] Ed. by William Harmon. Charlottesville, VA: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1997; Riding, Laura: The Poems of Laura Riding. Newly Revised Edition. Ed. by Mark Jacobs. New York: Persea, 2001. Biography: Friedmann, Elizabeth. A Mannered Grace: the Life of Laura (Riding) Jackson. New York: Persea Book, 2005.

SCHWANKOVSKY, Frederick (1885 - 1974). By trade a high school teacher, he incidentally taught Jackson Pollock, a student at Manual Arts in Los Angeles in the late 1920s, that paint could be poured and dripped, as well as applied with a brush. According to William Moritz:, Schwankovsky was also a color music enthusiast. He published a booklet for his students on color theory, which contained a color wheel: each color was assigned an equivalent musical tone, astrological sign and emotion. Schwankovsky ofen gave public performances with his wife, Nelly, playing on the piano the correct notes to match the colors he painted on a canvas.
In his pioneering biography of Pollock, B. H. Friedman (1926) writes: “Schwankovsky, known as “Sschwanie” at school, believed in complete openness to all kinds of experience - religious, esthetic, political. Besides the camp meetings, he took his students to a Theosophy church. He lectured to them on the ethics of vegetarianism. He performed experiments in extrasensory perception, especially as this related to a Universal Consciousness. One of those hidden inspirations behind the visible avant-garde, Schwankovsky stands as a model of his profession.

Interpretation: Moritz, William, “Abstract Film and Color Music.” In Maurice Tuchman, The Spiritual in Art. N.Y.: Abbeville, 1986.


SERAFINI, Luigi (4 August 1949). An inventive Italian designer, he composed in Codex Seraphinianus (1981) an elaborate imaginary encyclopedia in a language alien to all and pictures containing a wealth of materials that don’t quite integrate with one another, in sum suggesting a diffuse alternative world that has led some to classify the book as a sophisticated kind of sci-fi, which perhaps it is. The quantity of inventions becomes a measure of its quality. The Argentinian-Canadian writer Alberto Manguel, himself a sophisticated reader, remembers its arrival in an Italian publishing house where he was working in 1978: “instead of a manuscript, a large collection of illustrated pages depicting a number of strange objects and detailed but bizarre operations, each captioned in a script none of the editors recognized. The accompanying letters explained that the author. Luigi Serafini, had created an encyclopedia of an imaginary world along the lines of a medieval scientific compendium: each page precisely depicted a specific entry, and the annotations, in a nonsensical alphabet which Sarafini had also invented during two long years in a small apartment in Rome, were meant to explain the illustrations’ intricacies.” Originally published in two silkbound volumes in Serafini’s native Italy (introduced by Italo Calvino) in an edition that has become rare, the Codex was reprinted in a single volume in America in 1983 and then in France a decade later. Something of a cult classic, it has inspired not only commentaries but a website devoted to deciphering what can be only scarcely understood, and then only in small parts. I think of the Codex as the kind of book that Jorge Luis Borges might have written if he could draw.

Bibliography: Manguel, Alberto. A History of Reading. New York: Penguin, 1997.
Serafini, Luigi. Codex Seraphinianus. 2 vols. Milan: Franco Maria Ricci, 1981 New York: Abbeville, 1983.

TAVEL, Ronald (17 May 1936 - 23 March 2009). The superficial record of his career is that he was a principal contributor to the Theatre of the Ridiculous, a 1960s development that was regarded as a successor to the Theatre of the Absurd. The credits for several Andy Warhol films, including The Chelsea Girls (1967) and Vinyl (1965), identify Tavel as the scenarist.
The hidden history is that around that time he also published an extraordinary novel probably more distinguished than his plays. Street of Stairs (1968) takes place in Tangiers, in which a large number of narrators, perhaps forty, tell of life in a circuitous, mysterious city. Some of the more striking passages reproduce a lingo unique to the place: “Soden we shewit dirty fotografias, askin 3,000 francos por todo el colección. No needit! gettim in Neuva York! Him says end looksit for mad.--D’acuerdo, you want for see dirty bad cine.” Actually an abridgment of a manuscript at least twice as long, this edition was meant to prompt sufficient interest to persuade a publisher to do the longer version. That never happened. Disillusioned with America, Tavel resided mostly in Bangkok before his death.

Bibliography: Tavel, Ronald. Street of Stairs. N.Y.: Olympia, 1968.


YI SANG (20 August 1910 - 17 April 1937, b. Kim Hae-Kyoung). An architect, graphic designer, and typographer, he was also in his short life a poet whose most prophetic work, according to professor Min-Soo Kim, “consists of persistent time-space conceptions as shown in the domain of modern visual arts.” As Kim has it, Sang’s work reflected Western advances in modern design as developed in the 1930s, particularly by Moholy-Nagy. While working as an architect for the Japanese occupiers of Korea, he published poems initially dismissed as incomprehensible. Some involve numerals that are reversed left to right (as though seen in a mirror}. Another poem, “A Memorandum on Line No. 1,” is ostensibly a grid of dots, arrayed ten across and ten down, with numbers in sequence along the top from left to right, and along the left margin from top to bottom. Accompanying this simple image is a series of ten numbered statements. These can be read into the grid both horizontally and vertically. One is “The cosmos is of power by power.” Three reads: “Quietly make me a proton of an electron.” Seven reads: “The smell of taste and the taste of smell.” In an inspired interpretation, professor Kim regards this poem as reflecting “quantum physics, which represented new ideas about existence in modern physics, replacing Newtonian-classical physics” and thus that line seven illustrates, “according to the theory of relativity, two events which are seen as occurring simultaneously by one observer may occur in different temporal sequences for other observers [as] all measures involving time and space lose their absolute significance.” Admittedly, Kim’s pioneering readings represent an intelligence developed sixty years after the “incomprehensible” poems were written - indeed, sixty years after the poet died; but if Kim is persuasive, then Yi Sang ranks among the great avant-garde poets.

Bibliography: Three Poets of Modern Korea: Yi Sang, Hahm Dong-seon, and Choi Young-mi. Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2002; Kim, Min-Soon. “Yi Sang’s Experimental Poetry in the 1930s and Its Meaning to Contemporary Design,” Visible Language, XXXIII/3 (1999).