Where does the writing begin?
Where does the painting begin?
Where does the writer end and the artist begin? From Arabic calligraphy to the avant-garde, the Tang dynasty to Twombly, there has long been a graphic intimacy between our arts—in form as much as practice.
Developing in parallel, visual art birthed our most beautiful writing systems. The Korean alphabet, Hangul, imitates the positions of the mouth when pronouncing each letter’s sound, while the Chinese character for rain falls. As the technology of writing was further abstracted for the sake of expediency, so too was it abstracted for enlightenment. The “drunk” and “crazy” monks of 800 BC China were among the earliest to create illegible calligraphy, a practice further refined in the Japanese Hitsuzendo—a search for Zen through brush. Centuries later, under Dada and the post-structuralists, asemic writing enjoyed a revival, reaching its apex in the late 1980s with artists like Xu Bing and Luigi Serafini. Not surprisingly, this was just as handwriting and cursive began its decline, and a decade after painting had been pronounced dead.
Born between these extinctions, I could never quite accept this mass turn from the tactile and, as we’re forced further into screen virtuality during this pandemic, I want to linger on that most graphic connection between artist-writer, that hyphenated gap: its function as both barrier and bond, fissure and filling, a way of showing and telling some way forward or, more accurately, between.
Make a loop: you produce a sign; but shift it forward, your hand still resting there on the receptive surface, you generate a writing.
In an essay on the French artist Bernard Réquichot, Roland Barthes tells the story of an archaeologist’s translation of “graphisms” arranged along the rim of an ancient Mycenaean jar. These inscriptions were later discovered to not be Greek, but greeking: a decorative arrangement of loops. As writers, we can sympathize with his eager archaeologist—we read a painting, liberally excising meaning from the art, no matter how “illegible.” As artists, we make marks that become those signifiers to be read, whether we intend them to be or not. The artist that writes traverses between this categorization and production of signifiers; as Barthes argued, they are of the selfsame “tissue.”
Though Barthes was a central champion of asemic writing in the 20th century, the first critical study of the field was released only last year. In Asemic: The Art of Writing (2019), Peter Schwenger offers a history of the practice, linking modern era pioneers like Barthes, Henri Michaux, and Cy Twombly to lesser-known contemporary practitioners Michael Jacobson, Rosaire Appel, and Christopher Skinner. Pulling examples of asemic writing from a diversity of fields—across contemporary art, comics, notation, and even nature—he demonstrates poet Michael Jacobson’s fitting definition of his field: “Without words, asemic writing is able to relate to all words, colors, and even music, irrespective of the author or the reader’s original language.”
Barthes and Schwenger both present Cy Twombly as the modern godfather of asemic art. A cryptologist trained in the art of code breaking, asemicism was an answer to the artist’s overwrought relationship with semantics. Like a blind piano player, Twombly honed his senses by drawing in the dark, learning to depend on feel, even sound, rather than sight. Like the earliest examples of asemic writing, his paintings formed from a Hitsuzendo state of “no-mind”—a search for pure gesture over conscious intent. The humming tension of Twombly’s lines against surface, gash against gush of color, created some of his century’s most ecstatic examples of lyrical space, that illumination of interval, ma.
Though un-representational, Twombly’s work is nevertheless narrative: his titles are often “leaving” or “returning” from, looping in their Homeric voyage from interval to island, ma to Ithaca, across barren expanse. They are just as frequently Untitled (only to be followed by a title), to reveal a central concern of Twombly—the space between image and word. Take for instance another island, 1970’s Untitled (New York City), wherein he arranges lassoed loops in six pearlescent bands of crayon on gray ground. A massive blackboard painting, this is Twombly’s most iconic asemic piece—his vigorous scrawling creates a palimpsest both rudimentary and revelatory, evoking the ephemerality of childhood and eternity at once. In (un)title and gesture alike,Untitled (New York City) reveals the limits of visual and semantic language, as well as their symbiotic relationship.
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean, and frightening that it does not quite…What we feel most has no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.
–Jack Gilbert, “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart”
The contemporary asemic artist, Rosaire Appel, pushes this tension further, causing it to quiver. In A Collection of See Songs (2012), inspired by John Cage’s 1969 Notations, Appel’s staff lines are landscapes, recalling the “flying-white” cursive of Zhao Mengfu, the tire prints of Rauschenberg and, at their most violent, seismic activity. In their trembling you hear, and even feel her drawings as you read them. Indeed, musicians have spontaneously been able to interpret and perform Appel’s illegible scores, proving an earlier observation by Barthes that painting and drawing’s original gesture was neither figurative nor semantic, but rhythmic.
Like Twombly and Cage before her, Appel is an artist of the interval—the in-between of hearing and listening, reading and seeing, writing and mark making. Her recent Corona Panic scores (2020) could not illustrate this interstice more precisely, or more in time. In a feverish torrent of scribbling across empty music paper, the drawings capture our precarious spring of 2020 in sforzando; arranged in aggressive repetition, sweeping slur, her marks waver between boredom and desperation—across, between, and around the staff lines that (after so many days in quarantine) resemble blinds. Unlike the breathing room Twombly affords, Appel’s notation forces us to read left to right, killing time. Reading it now, I hear both the emptied streets of New York and the frenzied corridors of Mt. Sinai, the punctuation of sirens and the sparrows on my parapet. What adjective or images can one use for our new century? What color, note, or tense is it? I can only turn to such post-literate language. At a loss for words, it creates them.