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Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. - ICA

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION entitled Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. will be on display at the Institute of Contemporary Arts from June 17 to August 23, 2009.

It’s an exhibition that takes an imaginative and expansive look at text-based art practices from the 1960s to the present day. In particular, it is inspired by the example of Concrete Poetry, a movement that flowered in the 60s but which is now largely forgotten.

Concrete Poetry explored the graphic potential of language alongside its poetic and literary possibilities, and so too do the works in this exhibition, which includes works by figures who emerged in the 60s alongside those of younger, contemporary artists.

Concrete Poetry is poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem. The movement has its roots in the 1950s, and in separate initiatives by Swiss and Brazilian writers, but it came to wider attention in the 6os, gaining adherents in many countries and extending into the art world as well as the literary sphere.

The Scottish artist and writer Ian Hamilton Finlay is the most important figure associated with Concrete Poetry in Britain, and the exhibition takes its title from a periodical that he ran from 1962 to 1968, and which featured graphic and literary experiments by Finlay alongside those of other artists and poets. The exhibition includes a number of short texts by Finlay, reproduced as wall paintings – just one of the ways in which the artist chose to inscribe his work into the world.

One of the most intriguing figures associated with Concrete Poetry in Britain is Dom Sylvester Houédard, a Benedictine monk based at an abbey in Gloucestershire, who in the 60s developed a highly distinctive style of typewritten visual poetry. Houédard’s work has parallels to other mystic and psychedelic images of the era, and he was also one of the chief theorists and advocates of Concrete Poetry in the UK.

Another key figure is Henri Chopin, who edited the influential magazine OU (1964-74), and is perhaps best known as a ‘sound poet’, but who is represented by a group of typewriter poems.

The work of Liliane Lijn, an artist who moved to London in the 60s, also has affinities with Concrete Poetry as well as to Kinetic Art. At the ICA Lijn is represented by a set of her ‘Poem Machines’ from the 60s, spinning cones inscribed with letters or short phrases and designed to explore the notion of language as energy.

Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.

Ferdinand Kriwet was also associated with Concrete Poetry, although his work with text was to branch out in different directions in the later 60s. Here he is represented by two giant ‘Text Dias’ on transparent PVC, mandalas of words which explore the role of language within signage – and within the public inscription of power.

We now associate the ‘linguistic turn’ of 60s art with the exploration of notation within Conceptual practice, or of advertising language within Pop, but a significant number of artists also allied themselves with poetic, literary or expressive language. Robert Smithson and Carl Andre are today best known for their contributions to Minimalism, but in the early 60s both of them explored the expressive possibilities of language: Smithson making drawings in which image and text combine to create phantasmagorical emblems; and Andre creating a large body of typewritten visual poems.

Similarly, Vito Acconci is famous as one of the founders of performance art, but his background was as a poet, and the exhibition includes a number of his typewritten poems – or performance scores – from the late 60s. The typewriter was an important part of language-based art in this era, and was also the primary tool of Christopher Knowles, whose ‘typings’ were developed in the 70s as a private pastime, but were subsequently embraced by the art world as a form of intuitive Minimalism.

The pictorial or illustrative possibilities of art were often denigrated by the mid-century avant-garde, but the exhibition includes artists who flew in the face of such opinion. Philip Guston was a leading figure within Abstract Expressionism, but in the late 60s he abandoned abstraction to concentrate on the figurative, cartoon-like works for which he is now most celebrated. In the 70s Guston made several series of ‘poem pictures’, and he is represented at the ICA by a group of works on paper which were made in collaboration with the poet Clark Coolidge, and which include quotations from the latter’s work.

Another figure who has explored literary illustration is the artist and author Alasdair Gray, who is represented by a group of works that he began to make in the 60s, and which take the form of illuminated versions of poems. The taboo on illustration was never a problem for David Hockney, who is represented by a selection from The Cavafy Etchings (1967), a group of works produced to accompany texts by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy.

The exhibition also contains the work of a number of younger contemporary artists. One such is Sue Tompkins, whose practice is based on the collection and collation of words and phrases, and whose work includes typewritten pieces executed on sheets of blank newsprint. Another artist who has made work purely with text is Janice Kerbel, who is represented by a series of posters entitled Remarkable (2007), which employ the language and look of a Victorian fairground announcement, and which tell extraordinary narratives that could exist only in linguistic form.

Anna Barham is showing a projected work in which letters, word and sentences are made before the viewer’s eyes, while the artist and poet Karl Holmqvist is represented by a wall of Xeroxed posters, based on his ONELOVEWORLD book. Both Matthew Brannon and Frances Stark, meanwhile, are known for works which combine text with image.

Brannon’s works employ a distinctive novelistic language, and a deliberately dated graphic register, to explore the world of consumerism, taste and anxiety; while Stark is represented by a group of recent collages which, like all of her work, extend the artist’s ongoing exploration of herself and the world around her, through a language of masquerade and doubt.

Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. has been curated by Mark Sladen (Director of Exhibitions, ICA). The exhibition is accompanied by issue two of Roland (the magazine of the ICA’s visual art programme), which includes a range of commissioned and reprinted texts.

Admission: Free.

Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH