At a recent talk, I was asked whether I thought that we can experience art without language, whether we need language and words. My answer was that it is pretty well established that language is precessionary to perception: children learn the syntax of their mother tongue in their mother’s womb; it is not just their mother’s voice that they seem familiar with, but, as newborns, they respond to the language of their mother more than to other human tongues. So I can’t imagine a non-linguistic world but at the same time, I can’t imagine a world in which the visual and tactile are not equally precessionary to intellectual understanding. In fact, part of what I learned from my mother was her visual intelligence as an artist: as a refugee expressing herself in her fourth language, though she knew modernism down to the ground, deploying art theory wasn’t her forte. Creating interesting and intelligent form was.
Despite the linguistic apparatus of art history and theory that I carry with me into every art encounter, I find that my first responses to artworks are often inchoate and visceral; only afterwards do I apply a superstructure of language. Yet I know that this seemingly wordless response is inextricably reliant on linguistically-based knowledge.
And yet I experience a tropism toward certain colors, forms, and surfaces that have their roots in my earliest experience of things. For example, I worked for years with dry pigment—primarily ochre, burnt sienna, and black—only to one day realize that these were the three colors of the underlayers of sand of the Provincetown Harbor beach I spent my childhood playing on. An art historian might apply layers of analysis to my color and material choices, but first came the retinal and tactile pleasure of digging through layers of wet, darkly pigmented sand hidden under the bland “sand colored” top layer. Each scoop under the surface was an embodied thrill.
My own practice, in Rosenberg’s terms, is Centauric. I’m a painter and a writer. My paintings often represent language but I retain a haptic relation to their making and even though I often represent language with political valence in my painting, there is a certain kind of content that I find necessitates writing expository text. Different audiences, different methods of address, different sides of a political or theoretical purpose. Still, I’ve always felt in my paintings that represent language as image that if it wasn’t interesting to look at and experience whether or not you could “read” it, then it wasn’t going to be very effective as an artwork, indeed even as an artwork with a specific political goal.
We may live in an image world but there seems to be a lack of trust in the ability of traditional aesthetic methods to carry meaning, in the idea that form is itself a potent language. Many artists feel that they cannot engage with “form”—those elements that would seem to be perceptual and sensory rather than linguistic—unless there is a rational, and written, explanation beforehand. Many artworks rely on language not only for their theoretical framework but as the central material, with artworks as informational vehicles for sociological or theoretical data. And think of all the work that’s reliant on title and press release to inform the viewer of meaning and intent that are not otherwise apparent. In that sense language is now entirely dominant, especially to the art practice validated by academic institutions that have influence in other major art institutions, and as the proliferation of P.h.D programs in visual art and art research indicate. Finally there’s some mockery of the language that has dominated the high end of art discourse, notably in Alix Rule and David Levine’s scrupulously statistical, and thereby satiric, analysis of “International Art English,” but it is ingrained into teachers who will have influence for a generation, and more populist or commercial approaches aren’t great alternatives.
In a 1963 diary entry, Jack Tworkov responded to reading an essay in an academic journal with the following thought:
Painting that says nothing that can be said in words. Completely, utterly, non-verbal art. Abstract art without any key to verbal interpretation. I’ve never quite been able to shake off figurative elements, but I must. What I mean by a pure painting is not only a painting that has no verbal equivalents, but if possible cannot even be talked about.
The idea of a painting that not only “has no verbal equivalents, but if possible cannot even be talked about” is a fascinating impossibility and a profound challenge.
Can you get away from language? No. But there is a borderline. I choose to live on that borderline.